The Border Collie is a born and bred herder, and the breed’s working style was documented as long ago as the 16th century. The workaholics of the dog world border collies are prized for their intelligence, keen sense of duty and highly developed instincts. Recognized as members of the herding group, the dogs have traditionally been used to control sheep but are regularly used in the United States to herd cattle. Teaching a border collie to become a proficient cattle herder takes an experienced trainer several months and requires a dog with specific abilities.
Having the Eye
Border collies destined for work as cattle herders must possess certain qualities. Choose a dog with a lively, alert and interested character, and avoid dogs that are shy, aggressive or nervous. The American Kennel Club considers these character traits to be flaws in the border collie, and they can hinder the dog’s training for herding cattle. One of the border collie’s most important herding characteristics is their gaze, which should be intense and unwavering, and control the livestock by conveying the dog’s power and courage without the need to have physical contact. This is known in herding circles as “having the eye,” and border collies with effective eye power are the most successful herding dogs.
Begin training the border collie in basic obedience as early as possible. Most breeds become trainable from around six months old, but border collies can absorb and follow commands from about three months because of their superior intelligence. The dog should master general commands such as "Come," "Down" and "Stay" reliably within a couple of months. Once the dog is manageable with verbal instructions, begin teaching directional commands such as "Left" and "Right," by praising the dog when they turn left or right as you call out the command.
Meeting the Cattle
Gather a few cattle in a small pen. Put the border collie on a long leash or rope to go out to meet the cattle. Keep the atmosphere calm and allow the dog time to get used to the cattle and overcome any initial nervousness. Allow the dog to smell the cattle and their dung, and avoid giving reprimands for eating some of the dung. This is natural predatory behavior, which enables dogs to establish their dominance over the cattle and to manage them with confidence. The cattle will gather in a group in the center of the pen. Lead the dog around the cattle on the leash, reinforcing the commands they have learned.
Teaching Direction Commands
Most border collies have a natural instinct to herd other animals. Work with the dog’s level of instinct, which causes them to position themselves opposite a handler on the other side of a group of cattle, and to move in the opposite direction to the handler. As this is done, verbalize commands that signify the action. For example, if the dog moves right, say “Right” and give praise for complying.
Alternatively, you can click and treat the dog's actions and give the action a name. For example, if your dog goes to the left on their own, say "Left" and click and treat.
These commands are known in the herding world as flanking commands, and mean the dog’s left or right, not the handler’s. Once border collies have mastered these commands, they will be able to move the cattle in the direction in which you want them to go.
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References & Resources
- American Kennel Club: AKC Meet the Breeds® - Border Collie
- Oregon State University Extension Service: A Guide to the Livestock-Working Dog
- Working Aussie Source: Stockdog Library - Question and Answers: How to Start a Cowdog
- Anybody Can Do It: A Herding Dog Training Manual; Pope Robertson