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Dogs can ease cattle handling

For Jeff Mundorf, man’s best friend is also a cattleman’s best friend. Cattle handling isn’t easy. Good help is hard to come by, but with the right training, cattle dogs can be the best help available, says the National Cattledog Association director and 2013 National Finals Open Finals Champion Handler.

Dogs can ease cattle handling

For Jeff Mundorf, man’s best friend is also a cattleman’s best friend. Cattle handling isn’t easy. Good help is hard to come by, but with the right training, cattle dogs can be the best help available, says the National Cattledog Association director and 2013 National Finals Open Finals Champion Handler.

“It’s generally believed, especially out West where horses are used more often to work cattle, that one good dog can take the place of three horseback riders,” Mundorf says, who has Border collies on his farm in southwest Iowa. “I routinely send dogs to gather an 80-acre pasture. I have a corral, and I don’t have to leave the corral area. The dogs bring the cattle to me. With two dogs I will pen 40 to 50 cow-calf pairs.”

Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska license plates were present at HBar6 Equine Facility near Elliott in southwest Iowa for a cattle dog clinic sponsored by NCA in March, where Mundorf instructed cattle dogs and handlers who had various levels of experience. Although it was the first time some of the dogs had ever worked cattle, they learned fast. Cattle dogs are often bred for bidibility, a heritable obedience trait. For any breed, Mundorf says, it’s important to see how a dog’s parents work in a specific situation.

Key Points

Cattledogs can reduce labor and are accustomed to reading flight zones.

Teach dogs to associate commands with action, and to correct their mistakes.

Experienced dogs can also be trained to gather and drive cattle long distances.

Dogs just starting out may not be ready for cattle yet, although confident dogs may be better suited to starting out on cattle. Sheep are often easier for the handler to get started on as well. They are easier to see over and maneuver through. “If sheep have been exposed to dogs before, sheep tend to flock more easily, so it’s easier for the dog to hold them together,” Mundorf explains. “Sheep are less intimidating to the dog, so the dog tends to start with a little more confidence.”

Build trust and understanding

Becoming adjusted to livestock is important. In order to teach dogs to keep their distance and not bite livestock, dogs need to follow orders. Mundorf prefers to use a firm “no” when dogs don’t obey commands they should understand. A grunt, or a firm “ah-ah” is often used to correct a mistake, like not respecting the flight zone. “The dog needs to obey and lie down when you say, ‘Lie down,’ and they need to trust you that it’s right,” Mundorf says. “If they don’t listen and obey, you need to follow it up with a correction immediately.”

However, an association between a command and an action like lying down or circling cattle in a particular direction must be established first. Once the action is completed successfully, then it’s time to associate it with a traditional command like “lie down” to stop and lie down, or “come bye” and “away to me” to circle cattle clockwise and counter clockwise, respectively. Otherwise, the dogs can’t understand what they are doing right or wrong.

Lying down is useful for getting dogs focused on the livestock; what Mundorf calls teaching them to “control their brain by controlling their body.” He explains, “In the first stages of training there is a lot of adrenaline and excitement. That can be a perpetual thing if you can’t get the dog to slow their body down to slow the livestock down. If they’re always speeding up and the stock is always speeding up, it’s just a downward spiral.”

Advanced training tips

Once dogs are adjusted to working cattle with the handler who is nearby, the next step is working them from a distance in pastures. To reach this level, handlers can build on what a dog already knows, and increase distances in small doses, rather than jumping right to 200 yards away from the handler. When uncomfortable with the distance, dogs simply bring cattle to the handler, rather than driving them. When dogs are comfortable driving stock away from the handler, they are capable of driving stock several hundred yards away.

For Justin Keller, who has used cattle dogs on his farm near Seymour for 15 years, working cattle nearby and at a distance is easier thanks to Bella, his Border collie. “She can fetch cattle from a couple hundred yards or so, she’s used to working at a distance in open pastures,” Keller says, adding she’s also helpful in a feedlot setting. “After we wean calves in a feedlot situation, she can help move calves in a pen. We can use her to bring them into the pen, and she’ll hold them there while we sort them off.

“Dogs can gather cattle from a half-mile or a mile away,” Keller notes. “It takes an experienced dog to do it, but even if they can’t see the cattle, some will keep going until they see them and bring them to you.”

Bella and other cattle dogs have been paramount to minimizing stress when handling Keller’s 125 head of cattle. “With a dog you can keep everything quiet, and it’s just you and your dog,” Keller says. “The dog can take the place of a couple guys out gathering cattle, so it reduces hired labor.” With their predatory instincts, dogs are naturally better accustomed to reading animals’ flight zones. “With real flighty livestock, dogs will naturally work further off to keep the pressure off,” Keller adds. “That characteristic has been bred into them over the years.”

Online commentary helpful

For handlers and anyone interested in how cattle dogs are trained and what they are capable of, the National Cattledog Association will have video available on its website,, and on its YouTube and Roku channels, beginning in late April. This will include highlights and commentary from trials like the NCA national finals at Steamboat Springs, Colo., held in June 2013.

The information available will include training videos and other educational content. “We hope to eventually have everything from how to work with puppies, to how to start your dog on cattle, to tips on using dogs for daily farm and ranch work. The information will cover how to get tasks done and how to set things up to use your dog the best way possible,” NCA Director Jeff Mundorf says.


LONG-DISTANCE HANDLING: One of the ways cattle dogs make life easier for cattle producers is working cattle from a distance. Justin Keller’s Border collie, Bella, seen here at an NCA cattledog clinic in March, is well-seasoned at both short and long distances, and can work cattle from up to 200 yards.

This article published in the April, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

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