Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rural Delivery: Harnessing an Instinct

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

As Patrick Shannahan's stock dogs work a herd of sheep they are quiet and serious. No movement is wasted. No turn escapes their attention.

Shannahan's voice is soft but authoritative as he calls out commands to his trio of border collies. Meg and Spud and Hannah respond immediately, and sometimes earlier, running wide arcs around the sheep, driving them forward in a straight line and shedding them in orderly fashion.

"With gathering breeds like the border collie it's their instinct to herd animals and bring them to you. What I teach is how to develop that instinct," Shannahan explained.

A sheep rancher in Caldwell, Idaho, Shannahan started breeding and training stock dogs in the 1980s. His first border collie, a cross-bred dog, was acquired to help him with his herd of 250 ewes. When she died he replaced her with two purebred dogs and started seriously working at breeding and training. That led to requests for training classes and seminars.

"When I got started training stock dogs seven years ago there were only a handful of people doing this," Shannahan pointed out.

Today stock dogs are increasingly popular not only on farms and ranches, but also among pet owners and people who enter their dogs in stock dog trials -- an event during which dogs gather, drive and pen sheep on command.

Shannahan is one of the leading stock dog trainers in the Northwest, regularly conducting classes and seminars at his home ranch and elsewhere. He writes a column called "Patrick's Place" for the American Border Collie News and is regularly called upon for advice and instruction.

The majority of his students are newcomers to stock dogs. Ranchers and dairy operators training a work dog are outnumbered by hobbyists preparing their dogs for trials and pet owners taking the class for recreation.

Training begins in an arena and the dog is taught to position itself on the opposite side of the stock from its master. Good stock dogs will instinctively gather the herd and bring it toward their master, wherever he or she goes or stands.

Part of the training is focused on getting the animals to fetch stock in a straight line and to perform "out runs" properly, which means running a wide arc around a corner of the herd to keep the stock together.

Further training includes teaching the dogs to gather stock from an open field and to drive stock away as well as bring it into a pen. They can also be taught to split stock into groups and to drive them through gates. These are skills the dogs are graded on in stock dog trials.

It can take 18 months to two years to fully train a stock dog, according to Shannahan, but most dogs get far less.

"There are a lot of good working dogs that aren't trained," he admitted.

Most livestock owners only use their dogs to drive, Shannhan pointed out. With some training, they could be sent into a pasture to round up and pen a herd. A single well-educated dog could handle a small dairy herd.

"Without some training you probably aren't utilizing all the potential that the dog has," Shannahan pointed out.

Traits to look for in a stock dog include an eagerness to please and a naturally wide arc in their out runs.

"Some are certainly more talented than others," Shannahan said.

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