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The Stockdog Corner

by Terry Martin, from Aussie Times, July/August 2002 p. 61 Copyright 2001 Australian Shepherd Club of America, Inc.

I've been part of some discussions lately about Aussie working style and the style of other working breeds. One question that was asked was, "What difference does it make what style the dog exhibits as long as he gets the job done? If we are, for instance, running a trial course and the dog gets the job done smoothly and efficiently, why should we care if an Aussie works like a Border Collie or a Border Collie works like an Australian Cattle Dog?"

What difference does it make? Does it make a difference? Should it? In the interest of a good discussion, we first have to admit that all Aussies don't work with the exact same style nor do all Border Collies (BC) or all of any other breed. However, we do have to recognize that there are certain traits that are commonly identified with each breed and are fairly easily recognized. Most people know that the BC has been bred to work sheep in Europe for several hundred years both in a practical setting and for organized trials. His "trademark" is his wide outrun, strong "eye" and crouching movement around stock. If you are familiar at all with the three most common livestock working breeds in America, you also know that the Australian Cattle Dog (ACD) is an Australian breed, developed to work cattle, and he is commonly called a "Blue Heeler" or "Red Heeler" because of his strong instinct to bite cattle on the heels, plus his driving instinct. He also is known to be most effective working close as in corral and chute situations. We also know that the Aussie was developed in America during the last century (with a registry existing for only 30 years). He was developed on American farms and ranches to work both sheep and cattle and thus has a more varied style than the aforementioned breeds, but he works neither with a strong eye and a crouch position nor is he a straight heeling breed.

There are also variations in temperament involving ease to train, hard-headedness, bonding to one person or family, obsession with stock, protectiveness, attitude toward strangers, and attitude toward other dogs. Some of these traits differ between the breeds and are generally recognized as breed specific traits. Perhaps they are somehow related to the working styles and perhaps not. Do we really know?

So why don't we just combine them all and breed "good effective working dogs"? After all, if he gets the job done, isn't that enough?

What is the job? If you have several hundred ewes grazing over several hundred acres, what kind of help do you need? The sheep must be located and brought to a central location at night for safety but must be allowed to range and spread out during the day to graze. With the help of a wide working dog who can be totally trusted to bring in ewes with tiny lambs out of sight of the shepherd, they can be moved to safety at night. If you have a roping arena with steers kept solely to be roped several nights a week and who must be moved down an alley over and over, what kind of dog will do it for you? The steers are tough and don't want to go back to where they will be roped again. A dog who will heel the steers and heel them hard can save many steps, but he is not dealing with a delicate lamb. At night you may want to close down your public arena and need a dog to guard the valuable tack and equipment. The guy in a sale barn pushing different cattle every few minutes up and down alleys and in and out of pens must have a dog who is comfortable in close quarters with fighting stock and aggressive enough to handle whatever comes along in that day's sale. What if you have range cattle out on hundreds or thousands of acres of rough country? Your dog must be willing to work a long ways away from you on his own and be tough enough to handle cattle whose only contact with dogs recently may have been with predators. What if you have small pastures with dog-broke cattle and you move them every few days? They don't always want to leave that pasture and sometimes anticipate where they think they are going even though it is not where you intend. Maybe you have sheep or goats and just move them from a small pasture to the corral occasionally but need a little help. The rest of the time the dog is just a friend and companion and not a working dog at all. He must be content not to work the majority of the time and to leave the livestock alone.

Can the same dog do it all? Maybe one in a few thousand. Would you automatically run out and buy a BC puppy to work those roping steers
and guard the place at night or to work the tight pens in the sale barn? Would you choose an ACD puppy to go out every day and bring in
those ewes with baby lambs? Would you buy an Aussie for either task?

One point I would like to make is this. When someone invests in a stock dog they would like to know the initial monetary "investment, plus the love and attention, plus the training, plus the year or more in time, will provide the working partner they need for the job they do. How important is predictability? How important is knowing the breed before you make the decision? How important is having an idea of what kind of personality traits the dog will have? In general, do BCs have the same kind of personality as the ACDs? Where does the Aussie fit in? If you want a stock dog/companion with protective instinct or a partner without it, does that make a difference? Do you need one who will be content around stock when there is no work to be done or does it matter if he constantly wants to work? We all know there are bloodlines and individual dogs within every breed who can do a wide variety of tasks with stock. But finding that dog takes a lot of research and even more luck. When a breed is chosen, the buyer has taken the first step in finding the working partner he needs. If the breeds all blend together, what would the first step be? I'd welcome some discussion.


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