Wednesday, May 21, 2014

For the Love of a Good Dog: How to Train a Cowdog Part 1

Horses, people and dogs all have something in common: no matter how low key it is, they are in the process of being trained. The way you halter your horse, allow people to talk to you or load your dog up in the pickup: you’re training. An uncomfortable thought from my point of view when it comes to dogs. Like I mentioned last month, the most useful thing I could offer my dog Tiff when we were moving cattle, were super helpful commands like “Plug that hole!’ or “Get back dammit!”

So when it came time to write this article, I went running with my proverbial tail between my legs, to the guys who have been using dogs to help them get the job done for years. Jon Griggs of Elko, NV and Ben Hay of Bakersfield, CA kindly offered their advice and experience to those of us who are interested in starting their own cowdog, but lack the knowledge.

When I first met Ben, he was working at the 25 Ranch, outside of Battle Mountain, NV. Today, Ben is cowboying at the Simon-Newman Ranch outside of Gustine, CA and is closely shadowed by a pack of dogs that he trained himself.

One of Ben's pups, getting to go to "work" in the pickup!

“We always had dogs growing up on the ranch, so it was natural for me to start using them,” Ben remembers. “Starting a dog is a lot like starting a horse, you need to work with them every day. When I start my weaner pups, I like them to know that I’m the alpha in the relationship, that they’re a dog. I don’t want him in the house or in bed with me. He’s a dog, not a person.”

Behind me there’s a thud as my dog jumps down from her comfy spot on my bed. Oops.

For Jon Griggs, using dogs was natural as well. “When I was a kid, we always used dogs and I always liked them. Never really got to do much professionally with them until I came to Maggie Creek, and Jeff Hanson had dogs and he kind of got me started. That was 20 years ago. When you’re just getting started, you’d want to know what your goals are with what you’re going to do with your dog. A guy in Florida is going to need to get different things accomplished with his dog than a guy in Nevada. Decide what you want to do with your dog, then pick the right breed. Try and pick a pup from parents that do what you want it to do. For me, that’s a border collie. I strayed away a little bit, but I’m heading back to them as fast as I can.”

Some of Jon's dogs, eager and ready to get started with the day!

Ben prefers Bordie Collies as well. “They just want to be with you more, and I don’t like to have to hold my dog’s hand every step of the way. I’d rather have him want to hang around me. If you don’t get along with a dog, don’t drive yourself and him crazy. Get rid of him and try a different breed. It’s personal preference and what works for one person won’t work for another.”

“‘Come here’ is the first command I teach a pup when I start working with him. “ says Ben. “I spend about 15 minutes at the end of every day, with my pup on a long line and we work on “stop,” or “lay down.” I like to use ‘stop’ because at some point working cattle they’re going to get really excited, so if you can get them to stop and focus, you can help them learn to think under pressure.”

Jon uses the same principle when he starts his pups, but he uses a different command: “I like to use a dog’s name as opposed to a ‘come here’ because at some point you may want to work multiple dogs together. If you use their name you can call one separate from the other.”

The thought of working more than one dog at a time personally makes me want to have a panic attack, but I can see how having that ability would be desirable, especially to someone working by themselves. 

Jon uses three basic commands on his dogs: a recall command, “out” and “down.”
“You can teach them that ‘out’ word with a show stick. You don’t have to wack ‘em with it but just kind of poke them to make them move away from you and then release the pressure. I just keep working on it till if I said that word 5 times, my dogs would be out of sight. The ‘down’ command works like a ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ for me. It’s really handy if you can put a cord on your pup and use it to teach him ‘down.’ You can step over that cord so it’s between your boot heel and the ground, and when you say down, you pull the cord so it helps him lay down. If you use that to teach them down, I think it’s a little bit better than using your hands. I don’t want them to think they’re in trouble.”

Check back to read about starting your pup on livestock, and what bad habits to avoid when working.

*First published in the Nevada Rancher. Like them on Facebook or call 866) 644-5011 for a free copy. 

1 comment:

  1. I never heard of cowdogs before, so I just had to read this! My dad told me all about good cutting horses, but I don't remember him ever talking about cowdogs. Interesting!