Starting the Young Dog

Q & A with Kathy Christian, Claudia Frank & Ann Witte

There are many ways to introduce a young dog into herding. Bloodlines, working style, temperament and age, as well as the accessibility of livestock, facility, and experienced guidance can all factor in as to when the journey begins and which roads are traveled. Regardless of the methods used, talents will be discovered, cultivated and nurtured; and problems will arise and must be solved.

Setting up the initial introduction properly will lay a solid foundation that should be dependable throughout the dog's life. For this article, we have asked three trainers from across the country to share their thoughts and experiences starting a novice dog.

Kathy Christian, Oregon, is an AKC herding events judge, and has been training herding dogs for over 12 years. She is the author of "The Australian Cattle Dog", published in May 2001. She has won over 300 High in Trials with her Australian Kelpies, Border Collies, and Australian Cattle Dogs. Currently, Kathy breeds Kelpies and recently had the first Kelpie to qualify in the Nursery Division of the USBCHA Cattle finals for 2003.

Ann Witte of Nebraska has been a breeder of Bearded Collies since 1979. She began herding in 1986 and is an AKC herding event judge. She has trained Bearded Collies at all of the levels, including one Herding Champion and 7 Advanced dogs.

Claudia Frank calls south central Ohio home. She has been training & competing with dogs for 38 years. Fifteen of the later years have included stockdog training. To that end she and her husband "bought the farm" literally - 135 acre Finelia Farm with rolling pasture land. It is currently the home of several hundred Dorsets, Border Cheviots and hair sheep crosses, goats, ducks, occasionally cattle, 3 cats, 3 Border Collies and 6 Shelties. Claudia has finished several AKC Herding Championships, has run in multiple herding organizations events and is an Open Handler. She and her husband Gary are very active training and showing agility dogs as well as herding.

1. What age do you prefer to start a pup?

Kathy Christian: I believe the pup tells you when they are ready. Some dogs think they are ready at 3 months; others show no interest in stock until over a year. It is not something one can predict. Most pups are not ready for any serious work until over a year.

The biggest mistake I see in handlers is the temptation to push a young dog too hard and too fast; especially a young talented dog. You can "blow" a dog up by pushing them too hard too soon. This often happens in a handler who has just one dog and wants to rush into trialing.

I do believe the majority of Border Collies mature faster mentally then most Kelpies. But my philosophy is "Be slow, be patient. Let the pup mature a little before you ask an adult job of it". Laying the foundation in a young pup is most important. Compare it to building a house. If it is built on a poor foundation it will crumble somewhere down the line. The same applies to a dog. Make sure the basic lessons are well learned before you move on to advanced work.

Ann Witte: We take pups to ducks at 6 to 8 weeks to assess their interest, and then start them on very tame sheep at 3 months.

Claudia Frank: I'll start a youngster as soon as they show a keen desire to work. This means I take them to stock and let them learn to handle stock but not get over their head. I want the correct workman-like attitude and make the correct moves easy and the wrong moves hard. To this end I often use a cord attached to the collar and wrapped around the dog's waist. I don't attempt to include myself in the picture at first, I allow the youngster to learn to work calmly, control the stock, hold stock on the fence and introduce nice square flanks.

I don't start teaching commands until they perform the desired action well. I also introduce the various types of pressure I'll be using in training so it is part of the working & training "picture". Border Collies may start early at 4-5 months and Shelties I'm not concerned about starting until around 12-18 months. I'll start with once or twice a week and increase training as progress is made and the dog matures.

2. How do you introduce the pup to livestock?

Kathy Christian: I believe that the first contact with livestock should be a positive one. My pups are fortunate in that they have visual contact with stock as soon as they are old enough to be in a pen outside. Therefore the smell, sight and sound of livestock is not foreign to them and becomes a way of life.

When the pups are 8-10 weeks they are usually curious about the sheep and will sometimes follow me into the pasture with an adult dog. The contact is never unsupervised. When they show distinct interest in the movement of the stock, I will often sort out lambs and put them in with an adult trained dog that is tolerant of puppies. The adult dog will keep the lambs grouped and move them around on command. That movement often stimulates the pup to participate. If not, I am not worried. Sometimes I will not attempt to put a pup in again for a couple of months. Again the pup tells you when it is ready to work. That clicking on of instinct can not be forced.

Ann Witte: I have 3 to 5 sheep in our 100' X 150' field. The pup is taken off lead to the entrance gate, made to "Wait", taken through the gate and made to "Wait" again. Then I walk towards the sheep, allowing the pup's instinct to kick in. If the pup is not ready, I will just play with it around the sheep for a few minutes and leave.

I will try again with the later starters at about 2 weeks intervals. If the instinct does surface, I first let the pup flank around the sheep and begin teaching a call-off - "That'll Do Come Here".

Claudia Frank: We have a commercial sheep operation with several hundred sheep. I don't give lessons or keep sheep just for training, so my sheep are not well dog broke. For my first introduction to stock for the Border Collies and Shelties, I travel 3 hours to a friends who has a training facility. She has very dog broke starter stock, which give the dog's ample opportunity to get an up-close look without spooking the stock or getting into the habit of getting a kick out of making the sheep run.

After the initial short sessions at my friends I will use calmer Dorset sheep in an approximately 100 by 60 small pen. Because of the way I introduce the dogs & handle them initially, my sheep do not end up running around nor do they move toward me much initially.

3. What type of livestock do you use?

Kathy Christian: I always start pups on sheep. I believe ducks are for dogs with some degree of control and I never put dogs on cattle until they have the basic skills down, for they can get hurt too easily and then will never want to go back to cattle.

I use hair sheep, Katahdin and Katahdin/Dorper cross. I prefer lambs for very young pups and dog-broke sheep for dogs over six months of age. I stay away from black face sheep, or ewes with lambs as they can get pretty cranky. Some sheep can do as much damage to a young dog mentally and physically as cattle.

Ann Witte: I use ducks for the babies, then non-combative but settled sheep, usually yearlings.

Claudia Frank: Sheep - Dorsets to start and then add a variety of hair sheep and goats. After they are fully trained I will use ducks

4. How often do you work a young dog?

Kathy Christian: Again we go back to how much pressure can a young dog take. When I start training, the sessions may not be longer then ten minutes, 3 or 4 times a week. When a pup has the basics down I start to use him for chores. I find they learn more as a chore dog then training strictly for trials.

Those of you that have more then one dog, and have an older advanced dog, need to remember that the youngster needs practical work experience as well. I often find myself guilty of grabbing the reliable dog when chores need to be done because we can get done quicker and there are fewer wrecks. So I try to not fall into that habit as much now.

Ann Witte: Weather permitting, every day for 10 to 15 minutes.

Claudia Frank: It depends on what we are working on as to how often we work. The sessions become more frequent as the dog matures and then probably around 10 months they are daily for the Border Collies and 12-18 months for the Shelties.

If I am teaching something specific I may work the dog including that specific skill several times a day. When the lesson is finally learned well I may give the dog a couple days off and then start including the new skill in our work routine. I try to use the dogs for some form of work as early as possible but make it a point of not being in any kind of a hurry so I can make sure the work is done correctly.

5. What do you prefer to see in a novice dog?

Kathy Christian: Some of the most desirable traits in a young dog are genetically influenced and not trained attributes. If you recognize those from the onset and work with them you can make a potentially good dog a great dog. I believe those are; the willingness to work with you, cover, balance and natural stock sense. Not all dogs have these and some have them in varying degrees.

The dogs that end up being truly great working dogs have all these traits in some degree in raw form at the beginning. Some handlers never recognize the positive as well as the negative aspects of their dogs. That recognition on the handler's part makes for a better dog and a better handler.

Ann Witte: I look for focus and biddability. As the call-off is easily taught to puppies, I look for a pup to wants to gather the sheep when encouraged to do so, yet willingly recall on "command". I like to see a naturally wide flank, an indication that the dog has natural balance, and a pup that will use its bark to exert control. In an older dog, I want to see the potential for biddability and a response to physical directions.

Claudia Frank: I like a calm workman-like attitude. I want to have the dog willing to "bend" in both mind and body and try to allow the dog to "give" to my pressure rather than running away from it. These are fine distinctions but really affect the way the dog trains out in the end. I want a Border Collie that naturally will walk right in on stock and make it move by their presence and back it up with a bite if necessary.

My farm operation just doesn't allow for dogs which cannot handle all situations. Shelties are less inclined to walk straight into reluctant stock so I try to build their confidence and their ability to hold their position allowing the stock to move away. Some will bite if necessary but it is harder to get a clean bite that doesn't blow the balance of the sheep.

Additional comments:

Ann Witte: Bearded Collies, being an upright, loose-eyed breed, will tend to run close and fast. They also retain a strong awareness of their handler's "body language" and the location and direction of the stock. When a talented Beardie is trained by refining their natural style, their progress is amazing.

Claudia Frank: Training both Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs, I have the SAME standards as to what constitutes correct performance. I may have to do more building of correct performance with the Shelties. While not taking unnecessary chances, the Border Collies do all the work which may involve all types of stock including cattle, sheep, goats and ducks. I keep the Shelties restrictions in size and power in mind and do not ask them to do work that may put them in danger or over their heads. When stock are moving correctly on the farm or through a trial course it shouldn't matter which breed of dog is doing the work. The stock should move the same.