Dogs have long been a part of ranch life – some simply as companions, but many in the role as trained stock dogs that are working partners. When in their element, doing what they have been bred and trained to do, these ranch dogs are amazing to watch as they round up the herd or get a few strays back where they belong.

To learn more about ranch dogs, Wilton, California dog breeder and trainer Bret Venable, shares a few of his tips in finding the right dog for you and your ranch.

Like many people, Venable’s introduction to stock dogs came from growing up around cattle ranching where there is always a need to handle livestock. He recalls, “There always seemed to be dogs of some sort around when we had a job to do. Some were quite a bit of help, but many were just in the way.”

Early on, Venable also noted that some people were handier with their dogs than others, but he says, “For the most part, if a dog worked well for someone it just seemed to be a lucky fit.”

He explains, saying, “What I mean is the way each wanted to handle livestock just happened to complement the style of the other.”

Venable’s intuitive understanding of dogs and their handlers sparked a lifelong interest in working stock dogs. He says, “I always wanted to have a really great working dog.”

When asked what makes a good stock dog, he says, “A good stock dog is one that can accomplish whatever job it is required to do efficiently and effectively.”

As you might guess the possibilities are limitless. Venable adds that one person may need a dog to drive dairy cattle up a lane way. Another may need a dog to gather goats from a pasture and cattle off of a mountain lease. He says, “Different dogs are suitable for different jobs. Some dogs are very limited in their ability to change duties. Others can do almost anything. To try to include everything that goes into making a good stock dog would be hard to fit in a large book much less an article.”

That said, Venable says a good all-around stock dog that is capable of a variety of different types of work will have some combination of each of the following characteristics: confidence, dedication to work, stock sense, ability to take pain or discomfort in stride, ability to be forceful when necessary, and mentally capable of high levels of association in relation to the work it will be required to do (which is a form of intelligence). He concludes, “These characteristics when coupled with the proper guidance and/or training will make a good stock dog.”

Regarding what specific dog breeds he would recommend, Venable also says that depends on several factors. He says, “The breed or type of stock dog I would recommend is dependent on the work it would be required to do and the person who would be working it.”

However, he does suggest that folks who are serious about having a trained stock dog should purchase one bred for specific genetic traits. He says, “It is always better to get a dog that was born with all the basic tools to do the stock work you want him to do. A dog like this will be able to do that job with minimal input from you. It is possible in some cases to train dogs for handling stock a certain way when it is not natural for them to do so. However, this dog will always require more input from the handler while trying to do this work, and he will lack the potential to be as good as the dog that has the natural ability.”

Listening to Instincts
From his experience and observations, Venable says a common mistake he sees people make with their stock dogs is not realizing how big of a role instinct plays in the actions of their dog.

Of this he says, “Consequently, they do not end up with a dog whose natural instincts drive it to respond to things like working livestock in the same way the person wants it done. This causes constant friction between dog and handler as neither is ever able to have things go the way they want.”

Venable concludes, “I feel like one of the most important things that I continue to learn, and that every dog I have been around up to this point has contributed to, is my ability to see things from the dog’s point of view; and then, being able to convey what I need from him in a way that he can understand.”

For more information about stockdogs, visit:
Tony McCallum’s website with information and DVD’s;
Stockmanship.com, where well-known low-stress animal handling advocate Bud Williams shares his comments on training stockdogs;
intermountainstockdog.com, a list of upcoming dog trials in the West.

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