Starting the Young Dog
Q & A with Kathy Christian, Claudia Frank & Ann Witte
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.