Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Fearless Fred, Part Four: Learning to Work Cattle

Young Fred had a tremendous instinct for herding and pushing cattle, from the time she was a small pup. When she was too small to be around the cattle, she practiced by subduing the family cats.

Fred started out trying to herd everything
 and made it her job to subdue the family cats.

Our son Michael says he is still fine-tuning her training, for perfect control and obedience when she’s working cattle. “I don’t know yet if she’ll have as much finesse as our oldest dog, Baxter, who can bring any cow I point out to him to get, but she’s smart enough — and her sire can do that — and maybe eventually she will. If she’s working with Baxter, she follows his lead and does whatever I’m asking him to do.”

Initially, Fred didn’t work with the other dogs at all and was very independent. “Now she understands there’s a purpose in what we’re doing. She has become very reliable about helping form a ‘wall’ with the other dogs when I need them to hold cattle. She knows it’s a team effort. She’s to the point in her training that Olie (our red border collie) was when I lost her, where she was a reliable part of the team. Fred still has a ways to go to be the best dog I ever had, but she has the toolbox to do it. She’s the most aggressive dog I ever had, with more smarts. Right now she just needs more experience,” Michael says.

Michael and his dogs pausing to rest on a 
long range ride, a few years
ago, the summer before he
lost Olie (the young red border collie in
this photo). 
Fred is now becoming Olie's replacement.

“Baxter was probably 4 or 5 years old before he started working completely off my signals. Fred may eventually become better than him, because she’s more aggressive. He was a little slow at first, too, at becoming part of the team for a group job. Then at one point he went beyond that and realized there was more to it than what the rest of the pack was doing.”

Baxter learned that he could look to Michael for signals and could do more than what the other dogs were doing if he paid attention to Michael. “I could send him off to gather cattle on the hill or deep in the brush. I know Fred will do that, too, when she starts looking to me more. Right now she’s to the same point where Baxter was in his early years — when he was all fire and ambition and not really thinking — just wanting to make the cattle go,” Michael explains.

“Last summer we discovered that she’s really good at working cattle in a corral, whether we’re working/sorting them in an alley or bringing cattle up to the chute. She’ll work the whole back end of the herd for me, and I don’t need a person there. She’ll bring cattle to me all day long.”

If there are cattle in the alley, Fred will continually bring a new draft of cattle up to the chute and all the way up to the headcatch as needed. She started doing that at a year of age and learned quickly that when cattle go into the alley they don’t leave it until they come out through the chute, so she just keeps bringing them.

“If she’s outside the chute, she’ll work them from the outside, encouraging them to keep going, and if she’s inside the push pen she’ll bring them right up the chute.”

Fred leads the way as young Heather (my granddaughter) 
and Carolyn head out to ride range and check cattle.

Fred had a lot of experience that year because Michael and Carolyn ran yearlings that summer and put them through the chute several times for vaccinations, and some were sorted out during the summer to treat for foot rot or pinkeye. “It was nice having her helping us last fall, because after the kids went back to college, we were shorthanded. Carolyn and I would get the calves into the crowd pen, and we’d just let Fred bring them through for us.”

She’ll bring them up one at a time from the runway and put them down the chute. She knows exactly where she needs to be. Her sister Tess will do the same thing. “Both pups learned how to do this when we were at Bruce Mulkey’s place helping him work cattle when these pups were about 6 months old. We were working them on leashes at that age, but they were both helping work cattle out of the chute. They figured it out quickly. Whether bringing cattle in, or dealing with one that balks and won’t get out of the chute, the pups would take care of it,” Michael recalls.

A good dog is a lot of help. “We expect more from our dogs than from the average cowboy. If you are paying attention to the dogs and directing them, they are not in the way as often as a person might be, partly because you are putting the dogs in a position where you want them. You assume that the cowboys helping you will know where to be, but often they don’t. They may be busy talking or not tuned in to what needs to be done, whereas your dogs are an extension of yourself. They are very sensitive but probably not as easily offended as a person. Your dogs don’t like to be scolded for being in the wrong place, but they’ll get over it faster than a person.”

The dog doesn’t have an ego and always wants to please you. “Your dogs can be in trouble one minute and do something great the next minute, and you praise them for the job well done and they forget about the fact you yelled at them earlier. By contrast, a person might just get mad and go home!” Michael says.

“Good dogs can bring a herd of cattle into a corral or anywhere you want them — and they can do it exactly right, time after time. When they are on the job, they don’t get sidetracked catching up on the neighborhood gossip. They aren’t yakking or daydreaming when there’s a job to be done. Dogs are always eager and waiting for a job. Even if you send them out of the corral or have them wait in the truck, they are always waiting for the next command and instantly ready if you call them,” he says.

“You and your cowdog have a deep connection as a working team, with a special communication you’ve developed. It’s a thrill when they do something spectacular because they knew what you wanted and were able to accomplish it.”

In spite of her main role as super cow dog, Fred also enjoys being a clown.

[to be continued]

Fearless Fred, Part One: A Very Special Cow Dog
Fearless Fred, Part Two: Puppyhood
Fearless Fred, Part Three: The Pup Grows Up

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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