As published in the High Plains Journal - 2003

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Herding cattle has gone back to the dogs

By Jeff Caldwell

They're willing to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can sometimes do the work of two men.

No, they're not some new genetically engineered super-human. Instead, they are things that ranchers and cattlemen have depended on for generations to work and control cattle herds And, for Joe and Laura Stimatze, Macksville, KS, the dogs are more than ranch hands. They have become a way of life.

The Stimatzes have raised and trained Australian Border Collie cow dogs together for almost two decades. Since they were married just over 20 years ago, training cow dogs has been a large part of their lives. Laura's father, Bob Buckman, raised and trained Border Collies, while Joe trained blue heelers. This, according to Joe, was a point of friendly competition from the beginning.

"I started off with blue heelers, which are one of the harder-headed dogs to train. I met Laura, and her dad always had Border Collies," Joe says. "It was always a conflict whether he or I had the better dogs."

The toughness of Border Collies eventually sold Joe on the breed, and he has been working with them since.

"Every dog is different, but toughness is an important trait," Joe says. "They have to be willing to really bite. The dog has to basically tell the cattle 'I'm going to stay right here.'"

Since toughness, and the ability to remain aggressive with animals exponentially larger than themselves, are inherent traits for Border Collies, training the dogs is a matter of controlling those natural tendencies, Laura says, relating her pupils to hunting dogs, whose natural instincts are to retrieve game.

"Most everything that's good about them is bred in them, so all you do is control those natural instincts," she says. "To them, circling livestock is just like a bird dog going on point all."

Due to the instinctive nature of the dogs, training, which begins at around seven weeks of age, is ultimately based on one simple command. Once the command of "No" is taught to the dogs, the remaining majority of the training is built logically upon that initial lesson. In this respect, Joe equates training puppies to teaching young children.

"It is really just like raising a kid. If you teach them what Ono' means when they're a puppy, then you can build up," he says. "When you start out, all they are doing, by obeying commands, is mocking you. But, they are smart animals, and if trained correctly, won't forget those things."

Typically, when beginning to train a young Border Collie puppy, the Stimatzes, who insist on never using shock collars, start by acclimating the dogs to their surroundings and exposing them to working with a trainer. This is accomplished primarily by simply walking the puppies. While the early stages of training are simple and accomplished with very little physical reinforcement, Joe says they are the most important, and sometimes, the most difficult.

"We take a seven-week-old pup, and in two weeks, that pup is stopping, coming and going into its pen with no physical force," he says. "We want to build their confidence and grow them up, slow and easy. Getting the dogs grown up is our biggest challenge."

After initial commands, like "No" and "Get in bed" are trained, the dogs are exposed to working conditions and trained vigorously, five days each week. During training, Joe says they emphasize simplicity in commands. Basic commands "stair-step" and build upon one another.

Once reaching eight to nine months of age, the dogs are introduced to cattle. A gradual process, Joe says they start young dogs working with light calves, then to stocker calves and ultimately work them up to mother cows, which are reputed to be the most difficult healthy animals with which the dogs will work. Each level of cattle requires a new type of training.

"Stocker calves are easy because they are smaller and frighten easy. For them, you have to teach the dog to give them plenty of room," Joe says. "When you're working mama cows with dogs, there is a Othreatening zone' that, if the dog gets in that zone, the cow will come to them and fight. So, the dog has to know to stay just outside that zone."

While both Joe and Laura employ nearly identical training styles, each of the dogs they train has its own distinct personality, making the task of matching individual dogs with owners a vital one. Chemistry between a cow dog and its owner determines how effective a tool the dog will be in herding cattle, and Laura says she and Joe make sure they are able to match dogs with owners who have a similar personality.

"When somebody comes to get a pup, we pick it out of the litter for them. We know the dogs' personalities," she says. "If we know you're going to yell and scream and stomp, we'll match you up with a harder-headed dog."

The owners, not the dogs, are sometimes the most difficult pupils, according to Laura. This can be seen throughout the U.S. today, with recent incidents of dog attacks raising question about different dog breeds and their temperament. The real culprit, in cases like the January 2001 dog-mauling case in San Francisco, CA, that left one woman dead, is the dog's owner. "It's people, not the dogs," Laura says. "There's not a single breed of dog that is, in my opinion, a bad breed. Dogs like Rottweilers and pit bulls are the gentlest dogs in the world, until they are taught to bite people."

And, while Stimatzes' Border Collies are inherent biters when it comes to herding cattle, they have never had an incident of a dog attacking a person in the same manner. This can be attributed to, in addition to the inherent "people-friendly" nature of the dogs, the intensive way they train their Border Collies.

"From the time they have left their mothers, they've always been minding someone," Laura says. "They're not allowed to just run around, or play by themselves. They're always with you."

Even though they are the namesake of "puppy dog eyes," dogs that are raised for working cattle are not intended as pets, but rather implements that perform a vital function.

"The cow dog is a tool, and we train them and use them as a tool," he says. "They are smart, and want to work hard, but you have to use them responsibly."

The utilization of cow dogs as integral parts of cattle operations has seen a boost in recent years. As ranch help is becoming more and more scarce, ranch and feedyard operators are finding the benefit to using cow dogs, which, when it comes to herding cattle, equate to two humans. While the number of cattle a cow dog can control varies in each situation, Joe says one dog, on average, can account for 75 head of cattle.

While the cost of securing a fully-trained cow dog may be higher than many cattle operators expect, the benefits can quickly compensate for the initial expense. Many liabilities that accompany hiring human help are eliminated by using cow dogs.

"A lot of feedyards and ranches are finding more interest in cow dogs, because they are less expensive in the long run, and with hired help becoming harder to come by, they're more efficient," Joe says. "The dogs are there seven days a week, 24 hours each day, and they truly want to work."