Question: . . . We are having a open winter so far and are still grazing. I have been just turning the cows out every morning on about 600 acres of stubble and grass and having the dogs gather them up and pen them for night. You will soon sense this is a repeat question. That being that I’m having trouble getting the dogs to get around all the cattle. This is a bit more distance than most other times of the year but all the cows are in sight. Sometimes they will run a mile and almost be around them all then cut right in in front of five or ten cows that are right there and do a fine job of bringing the rest or sometimes its halfway or sometimes the first five cows they come to. I’ve been trying different things like just letting them bring what they get and then tell them how good they are then make them go again but in a short time I could see them getting consistent with just hooking the first few. I’ve tried calling them back if I see them start to cut in and send them again but I can tell that I am getting them more confused all the time. Sometimes trying to get after them when they are starting something wrong is very touchy cause soon they are too worried about me to think about their job. It has been great fun to gather the cows every evening even though I’ve been trying to understand what I ‘m doing wrong. The dogs have been a wonderful help, in fact I would half to build a lot of fence or do a lot of walking every night without them. The job is getting done but I can tell the dogs are getting confused just by some of the weird things they are starting to do. You told me once to stop doing whatever I was doing that was making them do this, and I know it would be best for me to figure it out but I guess I’m going to need a few hints. This also had to do with them dropping off cattle and working up through the herd. I know this is something I’m doing as it seems to show up with all my dogs. I need to learn because I’m planning on starting a new pup next summer.
Answer: Working a dog is not gathering animals, getting them all, bringing some of them or all of them. Working a dog is working a dog.
The trouble starts when getting the animals – the way we want – is more important than working the dog. People make lots of mistakes when working animals but they expect a dog to be perfect and will try to make the dog be perfect. When the dog is worked by a person that does make mistakes, then even if the dog is doing what would be right, the person will be trying to get the dog to do different. This will confuse the dog. When dogs gets confused they will do most anything and then they will develop the habit of doing the wrong thing.
At this point your dogs are not working the animals they are just trying to find something to do that will maybe keep you from being unhappy with them.
When starting a young dog it is important to push them to where you want them to work without stopping them from working. Pushing the young dog to where you want them to work will give them a chance to learn what they are suppose to do, and will allow you to push them to animals they leave or don’t see or would leave – without confusing the dog.
You never said anything about pushing the dogs, only about trying different things like calling them off then sending or letting them bring some then going to get the rest. This means that you have not been pushing the dogs, only trying to direct them to do what you want. When you want to direct the dogs and tell them what they should do then be sure that you have dogs that like to be directed to do what you want.
Young dogs that are any good don’t want to leave any animals, they have to be taught to leave animals. When I was working dogs and wanted to leave some animals I had to really keep watching the dogs or they would go get those animals even when I was telling the dogs to leave them.
I’ll tell you what I would do at this point even without seeing the dogs work or what you have been doing. I’d take the dogs with me (this can be done with a horse or walking) and walk out in the pasture until the closest animals to me and the dogs are the animals that the dogs have been leaving. I’d then send the dogs to get those animals. I’d stay between the animals the dogs are getting and the other animals. When the dogs get the animals they are bringing closer to me I’d move out and push the dogs to go get other animals. I’d then move over between these new animals and the other animals. When the dogs are bringing these animals I’d move out and push the dogs to get some other animals. I’d keep doing this until all the animals are in one group then I would move up and let the dogs bring the animals to the pen.
While doing this I’d try to keep as quiet as possible and only push the dogs out of places that I didn’t want them. This will let the dogs learn to bring animals to the group then leave them and go get other animals. The dogs can then relax and start to think like a normal working dog instead of being confused about what they should do. Let the dogs learn to move all the animals into one group then bring all the animals. Do this even if you have to keep pushing the dog around the group of animals several times until the dog learns we get them all or we just keep going around.
Most people just have to make things harder for the dog then try to make the dog work by directing him. Position yourself so the dog can learn what it should do instead of trying to make the dog do what you want.
Very few dogs will work like people want when they are a long ways away. The reason for this is that far away the dog can see what should be done and the people do not see the same things. Trying to direct or control what the dog does from a long distance will usually just confuse the dog and create some bad habits. Help the dog learn what it should do then leave it alone. If you must direct the dog then go out where it can be done with your position instead of commands. It is nice that a dog will go a long distance to get animals but they may take too long or not do it to suit the person. That’s when the problems start as the person doesn’t know exactly what the dog faces and the dog doesn’t understand what the person wants.
While the dogs are going out to get animals that are a long ways away walk out part way then position yourself in such a way it will help the dogs, not just expect them to know what you want at first. When animals are out in the field it is sometime good for the person to be in the middle of the field where it is easy to move out and push the dogs also it is easy to see what the dogs see.
When working larger groups with a dog I will often spend lots of time in the center of the group as it is then easier to see what should be done and easy to move out to push the dogs.