While many people purchase a stockdog to help with the livestock on their farm or ranch, a growing number of dog owners are getting bit by the “herding bug” when they bring a herding dog into their home and become involved with herding. There is a common saying that “they bought the sheep for the dog,” especially with Border Collie and Australian Shepherd owners. This frequently happens by accident as they look for ways to use their dog’s energy and intelligence and try herding as a fun solution.
As a large percentage of these new herding dog trainers are unfamiliar with livestock, Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor, in her books All About Aussies: Australian Shepherds from A to Z and her collaboration with her husband Ty Taylor, Stockdog Savvy, encourages them to consider their situation and the temperament of their dog to decide what types of animals would be best for them to work with.
The bloodlines, history and temperament of the dog will help the owner evaluate what type of stock the dog will do best on. Some lines of herding dogs are bred specifically for cattle, and have a tougher, more aggressive temperament. Others may enjoy working with sheep or goats. Some may not look at a duck, while others may prefer them. It is best for the owner to know and have some basic understanding of their dog’s work habits and abilities. This can be accomplished by talking with experienced and knowledgeable trainers as well as introducing them to different type of stock. If they bought their dog from a breeder, then the breeder can also be an excellent source of information on their dog.
The type of stock will depend on the facilities and personal budget the owner has available. Zoning laws may prevent large animals, but may allow ducks or geese. Goats and sheep do better on small acreages, but require stronger, dog-proof fencing. Cattle may do well on small acreages, and can be placed in a field with electric fencing as long as there is water and graze available. But they will eat more than goats or sheep, so the numbers may have to stay lower than a smaller animal. If there is no graze, then feed in the form of hay and grains will have to be supplied. Housing will be needed for all but the cattle.
Location and weather should be considered. The owner needs to look at the different animals that will do well in the environment they will live in. If it is hot, then consider breeds that do well in a more tropical temperature. If it gets cold in the winter, choose breeds that have been developed to do well in the cold and will thrive. If it is mostly weeds and brush, goats will do well. If it is open grass pasture, then sheep or cattle will do well.
The animal chosen for use as training animals should have stamina and be athletic. Docile animals are much easier to handle than those that are easily spooked. Also, those that are tame and use to humans will be easier to manage. It is important to use calm and docile animals, especially at first, to avoid creating bad habits or injury to the dog or owner.
Once the type of animal is decided upon, the owner should look at the different aspects of the breeds or crosses available. While general rules apply for each type of animal, there are variances within those types that one needs to be aware of. Some breeds are more docile and easily managed, while others tend to be more apt to spook. Some will stay in a flock or herd nicely and listen to the dog, while others more readily split apart and turn to challenge the dog.
For example, hair sheep such as the Barbados, Katahdin and Dorper breeds tend to flock well together, are docile and easily handled and are not flighty. Dual-purpose breeds like the Corriedale, Columbia and Targhee are good candidates for a small flock. The various wool breeds have different temperaments, some more docile and easy to work with, others more apt to panic in stressful situations or to challenge the dog. The primitive breeds, such as the Icelandic, Scottish Blackface and Shetland breeds, seem to be more combative and do not have a strong flocking instinct.
While goats are usually more calm and less quick to respond than flighty breeds of sheep, they are more independent and don’t flock as well. They will follow a lead nanny or ram to the next pasture, so will respond well to being trained to follow the trainer. Goats by nature are curious and inquisitive. They are also escape artists, so goat proof fencing is required to keep them contained. When handled regularly, goats are sociable and friendly, but can easily revert to the wild if left alone.
As with goats and sheep, the different breeds of cattle vary as to their temperament and ability to be worked with dogs. Herefords are normally docile and remarkably easy to handle, making them a good choice for those who would like a beef breed. Angus are also good, but can be more excitable and may more readily challenge a dog. Dual purpose breeds for draft and meat are usually more calm and easy to handle due to their historical use as a draft animal. Holsteins or other dairy breeds may not have as strong a herd instinct, especially if they are raised as bottle babies.
For those choosing poultry, the Indian Runner duck is an upright breed and moves well off of the dog, frequently moving like a school of fish. The Pilgrim goose is known to be friendly with a strong flocking instinct. Other breeds can be used for training, although the meat type birds may be too heavy and tire quickly, making them unsuitable for a high energy herding dog. Chickens and turkeys are not usually good candidates for training.
It is possible to purchase “dog broke” animals from others who may be upgrading their herds, but be aware that some of these animals can be almost more difficult to train a new dog on because they have a tendency to stay close to, (on top of!), the handler. This makes it a challenge for the handler to move and be where they need to be to handle the dog. Talk to knowledgeable and experienced trainers before buying “dog broke” stock.
With careful planning, appropriate livestock can be purchased for the dog. And the owner’s enjoyment and use. It is with a great sense of pride that the herding dog owner can see his dog’s instincts come alive and be used, and to be a part of it.