Getting Started As A Stock Dog Handler

If you are reading this, chances are you are right there at the beginning--wondering what it takes to start training and handling a stock dog.

Great! You’ve come to the right place. Not that we can tell you everything you need to know in this little article; but the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association has the people and the resources to help you along this road.

It is a road that leads to wonderful things, because there are few things as rewarding in life than partnering with an animal that has loyalty, grit, and ability built right into it, ready to come out. But the road can also be a long one with many surprises. One thing is for certain: You will have to come further than your dog, since the right dog will have an instinct for its side of the partnership; and, since much of what you must know you must first learn.

In fact, that is one of the first questions that comes up when people see fine working dogs work a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle: “How much of that is instinct?” The best answer to that question may be, it is 100% instinct, and it is 100% learned. That is, unless your dog starts out with a built-in aptitude for reading livestock, and a desire to work them, you’re going nowhere together. You can’t teach those things.

But the instinct must be harnessed. If you’ve got a dog bred for work, you are like a sculptor with a big block of marble. Now you have to get to work on shaping that marble. Now you have to bring the best out of your dog.

The second question people generally ask is, “How long does it take for the dog to learn to herd stock?” The best answer to that is, “All its life.” That’s true because herding real-life animals is complex and dynamic. The basics might be relatively easy for a dog to pick up; but each animal has its own personality and temperament, and behaves differently depending on the time of day and season of the year, each farm has its own set of routines and layout, etc. So the tasks a dog and handler have to do will vary in complexity, so a good dog will be learning all its life to do ever more complex things. In fact, that is what makes working a dog so exciting. The shepherd who owned Wiston Cap, perhaps the most famous of all Border Collie herding dogs, once said he spent many a night lying in bed just thinking about the next thing he could teach this brilliant animal.

Another reason to give an elastic sort of answer to how long it takes to train a dog is that it all depends, of course, on the ability and the temperament of the dog. Some dogs learn faster than others. Some of the best dogs in the end are slow learners at the beginning. Some trainers push dogs along quicker. Some of the best trainers go slowly. And, because dogs are living things, there are some of them that bend under pressure, and others that break.

And, of course, the most important variable is the ability of the trainer. The upshot of all this is that the best thing you can do if you want to get started with stock dogs is to find yourself an experienced and wise tutor who can advise you every step of the way. Since you need a dog with instinct to get anywhere, you should start out with a well bred dog that comes out of working lines. It might even be a good idea to start out with a dog that already has some training and experience under its belt (Orabove its collar, I should say.); so you should seek out trustworthy advice about buying a good dog or pup.

Then, keep in mind the golden rule of any sort of training: It’s easier to learn than unlearn. That means that if you are green and the dog is green, it is very easy to inadvertently teach the wrong habits to your dog that will be hard to break. So, the more high quality, hands-on coaching you can get at the very start, the better. It will pay off double and triple down the road.

This means too that you can half-way learn a lot of things by reading books and watching videos. But none of the dogs you see will be just like your dog. And no handler you watch will exhibit your set of habits such as tone of voice and body language. So all of that will have to be adjusted. The greatest part of dog training is choreography. You don’t learn to dance from books or videos. It’s the same with your partnership with the dog. So, working a dog under the watchful eye of a good mentor is the only way to go.

As we say, the road leads to great things, but the road can be long. So be patient and careful along the way. Here is a sketch of a sort of workflow for getting started with stock dogs

1. Get a bit of an overview before you launch out on your journey. Talk to one or more stock dog handlers about how they learned their craft. Find them in our club directory, or mingle and chat at a trial or a clinic. Don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. It is hard to find a handler who isn’t willing to share something of their story and best insights.

2. Select a mentor. This should be someone you have discovered relates well to you, doesn’t mind answering questions, and has all the right stuff. The pool of handler/ trainers is something like a pyramid. There are many who are just as lost as you. There are many others who are also lost, but who do a good job of covering up their ignorance and talk a good game. But you are looking for that rare person whose skill and instincts go deep. You will want to establish an open and durable relationship with this person so that, even if they live at a distance, they can help you fix your big problems and answer your big questions. You can learn bits from lots of people, but try to find a worthy mentor who has a comprehensive understanding of starting the raw dog and polishing up the almost finished dog.

3. Buy a dog, and/or be fair and patient with the dog or dogs you already have. Ideally you can wait to buy your stock dog until you have a good mentor. You can also look for an article on buying pups and dogs on this WWSDA web site.Consider the precious hours of work and all the talent that goes into good breeding and training, and don’t be “penny wise” in buying a good pup or dog. But if you already have a dog, keep in mind what I said about green dogs with green handlers. As a rule of thumb you will not do your best training job on your first or even your second dog; so a started or fully trained dog may be right for you when you are starting out or after you know what you don’t know. But keep in mind also that your dog is a precious thing and will always give you it’s all; so always be fair and patient with your canine partner.

4. Keep your emotions out of your training. You will get frustrated. You will be tempted to blame everything on the dog. Don’t. Audit yourself: If you feel yourself getting angry, stop and take a break. If you find yourself doing the same thing over and over with no impact on the dog- -such as yelling or throwing things--switch to other tactics. The most important thing you offer the dog is your calm yet commanding presence and your clear and consistent guidance.

5. Broaden your understanding. Dogs are learning their whole lives. Handlers should surely be as well. Bury your false pride and advertise your love of life-long learning. Besides having a chosen mentor, seek out good advice from other experienced and wise stock dog handlers. Take advantage of the membership of WWSDA in this pursuit. As you attend trials and clinics be a keen observer. Bring along a small notebook and keep track of what you learn. Keep reading and watching instructional materials. There are many good resources out there. None have all the answers, but you can learn something from all of them.

Above all, love your dog and enjoy to the fullest your time together. And feel free to contact any of the officers or members of the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association for friendly advice and help.