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Working Styles, Manners & Methods

by Kyle Trumbull-Clark, from the March-April 2002 Aussie Times Copyright 2001 Australian Shepherd Club of America, Inc.

Over the last several years, the Aussie community has been discussing "working style".  "Style", as will be examined here, will be the manner or method of working livestock with comparisons drawn between the Aussie and Border Collie.  These two breeds are the most frequently compared in our lively discussions.

Working style of stockdogs encompasses several main factors.  These are eye, stance, distance from stock, bark/bite, and power.  Each dog has an innate set of attributes that contributes to the dog"s individual style.  Some individual factors can be adjusted or changed with work and training.  Maturation of the dog may influence them.  Many dogs change factors of their own style depending upon the type of livestock (poultry/sheep/cattle), but this is usually more of a learned behavior.  Some dogs have a certain style that will never be changed and they must be accepted "as is".  Using the above-named factors, we can draw some comparisons between the Australian Shepherd and the Border Collie. 


Eye is most commonly described as a form of concentrated control over livestock.  John Holmes has an interesting definition of "eye" in his book, The Farmer"s Dog:  "It is really far more an attitude of approach than anything connected with the dog"s eyes." 

Border Collies are one of the oldest and most common possessors of "eye".  Breeders have used eye as a qualifier in their breeding programs for almost two centuries.  Commonly used terms to describe the amount of eye a dog has are "strong", "medium", or "loose".  Dogs may also be termed "strong to medium eyed" or "medium to loose eyed" if the dog is not quite one or the other. 

A strong eyed dog often gets "sticky" or "locked up" on stock and either does not hear or refuses to take commands.  It may appear that the dog is having a "stare down" contest with just one or a few head.  Conflicting descriptions are heard that the dog is trying to "mesmerize" the sheep or, conversely, is being "mesmerized" by the sheep.  There are many opinions on just what is happening between the dog and stock because we just don"t know.  The general consensus among Border Collie handlers is a very strong eyed dog is somewhat difficult to handle and often not used in trial situations.  Tim Longton and Edward Hunt make the following comments in The Sheep Dog, Its Work and Training:  "The dog should not stand transfixed, with too much "eye".  This is as big a detriment as too little"Ideally it should be just enough that it will move freely."  Marjorie Quarton mentions in The Working Border Collie, regarding strong eyed dogs, "Also, they do not respond readily to "flanking" commands and are less suited to the light, easily moved sheep so often seen on the trial field."

Most trialing Border Collies have medium to loose eye.  This makes them more handleable in most situations.  Medium eyed dogs are more likely to break eye contact with livestock to quickly check out general surroundings (so as not to run into a fence post) or changes in the herd (some head drifting in another direction).  The medium eyed dog will have strong concentration, consistently looking at the stock but without the tendency to be sticky, thereby allowing for greater freedom of movement.  To relieve pressure in a close up situation, a flick of the eyes or slight movement of the head will be used. 

Aussies are considered to be loose eyed, a minority perhaps verging on the medium to loose eyed.  Loose eyed dogs don"t "stare" continually and have more of a tendency to "look around".  They verify by sight where the handler is and where they are going.  This is not to say that a loose eyed dog does not have eye"it does.  It just does not use it continually or as strongly as a pressure or controlling maneuver on livestock.   Loose eyed dogs are more likely to exert or relieve pressure by body movement.  Raising, lowering, or moving to the side, of the head/neck or whole body is seen. 

There are many good points to using a loose eyed dog.  They have very free movement around stock and don"t get sticky.  A more complete view of a large herd or seeing exactly where they are going in pens and chutes is helpful.  We must be cautious in going too far toward "loose", losing all eye completely.  Some amount of eye does keep a dog focused on the job at hand.  One point made in the ASCA "Trialing Guidelines" under "Examples Of Possible Point Losses For Ability To Control Stock" is "dog keeps looking at handler".  This could signal either a too loose eyed dog or a weak or nervous dog.  (See "Power" below). 


A very "upright" Tervuren An "upright" Aussie An "upright" Border Collie A "low" Border Collie--and this dog is not
as low as others

The stance of a working stockdog is described using the terms "very upright", "upright", "low", and "clappy".  "Very upright" breeds would be Tervuren, Belgian Sheepdogs and even Corgis.  Very upright breeds walk toward and face livestock standing tall, neck and head very high, as their conformation dictates.  There are some very upright working Aussies but they do not seem to be the strongest workers.

Many breeds such as Beardies, Cattledogs and many Border Collies, along with our Aussies, fall into the "upright" category.  upright dogs are well up on their legs but tensed and prepared for sudden movement with a lowering of the center of gravity, heads just above to just below shoulder level when walking toward or preparing to move around livestock.  The slight lowering of the head may be a predatory position and allow for greater freedom of smooth forward or side movement than the very upright posture.

A "low" working dog is quite different from an upright dog.  The dog lowers the complete height level of the body consistently while working.  A low working dog"s belly is very close to the ground while running, walking, and turning.  The front leg joints of shoulder, elbow, and pastern and the rear leg joints of hip, stifle, and hock, have an amazing amount of flexion available.  This allows the elbow and stifle joints to almost reach the level of the spine.  The topline appears level when moving.  This creates a flashy style and can be seen in some Border Collies and some Kelpies.

A "clappy" dog is low working and constantly "claps" (lies down) whenever stopped.  Clapping can be considered a waste of energy and movement for the dog.  Per John Holmes, I.S.D.S. rules state "excessive clapping will be penalized".  Mr. Holmes further points out, "At one time regarded as stylish, trial men, no doubt having realized how impractical it was, now dislike this style of working, and at many trials a special prize is offered for "the best upstanding style"."


All dogs start out as "close running" dogs.  During training, pressure is applied to the dog to achieve distance.  The amount of pressure depends on the individual dog.  Some dogs in every breed are naturally wider running so acceptance of the applied pressure will be a bit easier.  Problems arise when a dog is naturally too wide running and has trouble keeping in contact with its stock.  Many times these dogs are basically weak and are fearful of making contact. 

It is necessary to train a dog to work as wide as required to relieve the pressure on the stock.  Too much pressure from the dog causes stock to continually run.  ASCA"s "Trialing Guidelines" reads under "Sheep": The degree of lightness of the sheep will determine how far off the dog should be working.  The lighter the sheep, the further off the dog should be; the stickier the sheep, the closer the dog will have to work."  Under "Ducks" it states:  "The ideal duck dog works well back off the ducks and moves them slowly and smoothly." Regarding "Cattle":  "The ideal cattle dog works closer to the cattle using wear, correct positioning, power and grip to keep them grouped and moving:.  A dog used solely in tight chutes and small pens will not have the knowledge or effectively put light sheep in a free-standing pen. 

Our Aussies may be naturally closer (and harder to push out) than Border Collies, but can be trained to work in any situation.  Thorough training allows us to have an Aussie that can handle a Post Advanced course (or even an open Border Collie course), then turn around and work in tight holding pens. 


Aussies have more of a natural tendency toward barking than Border Collies.  Some Aussies have very little bite (grip) and will bark instead.  A well timed bark can sometimes do the trick when moving cattle and occasionally sheep.  The dog may have to back up the bark with a bite if the cattle/sheep question the dog"s authority.  Livestock do get irritable or nervous with continual or excessive barking and may even learn to ignore it, therefore, points may be lost in an ASCA trial for excessive barking.  Excessive barking may be a signal of nervousness and may point out a dog who is not accustomed to cattle, or the cattle (or sheep) may be tougher than the particular dog can handle.   

A dog has either a soft bite or a hard bite.  A dog with a soft bite usually does little to no damage.  In many cases this lighter pressure bite (often labeled a "nip") is enough.  In some instances, it is not and the dog will not win that round.  A dog with a hard bite usually makes a very strong impression on stock and may even be too hard for some sheep.  The best dog is one who makes a good judgment call, knowing when to bite softly to make a simple impression but has a hard bite to back it up if necessary. 


The power a dog possesses can only be evaluated while working livestock.  Neither size nor structure indicate strong power.  It is not seen while playing or during normal interaction with people or other dogs.  Mistaking power for biting ability, working too close, hyperactivity or harassment is not uncommon. A truly powerful dog is born, not made.  No amount of training or miles will add power to a dog, but they can instill more confidence and give a weaker dog more "tricks" to use when needed. 

Divining the power of a dog will only come from being able to read the livestock and how they react to the dog.  The first indicator of a dog"s power will come when initial contact is made between dog and stock.  This can be when the dog enters a pen or starts a lift.  A weak dog can raucously enter a pen or rush the lift and still not have the same impact as a calm, slow moving powerful dog.  True power will be seen in how far off a dog must work to keep livestock calmly moving; in a "push" situation such as loading into an unfamiliar trailer; in a "stand-off" between a testing animal and the dog; how often the dog must reassert its control over the stock.  The dog who quietly stands its ground, by sheer will forcing the testing stock to turn around and go on their own, is more powerful than the dog who must run at, bark, or bite the stock.  When trying to read the true power of a dog, watch the stock, not the dog. 

Owning the "perfect" dog is always in the mind of the handler.  Each person is looking for just a little something different in the working style of the dog they choose to work.  Cattle ranchers require traits in their dog that sheep ranchers may not.  People who have ranches plus trial their dogs may look for certain things, whereas a person who only trials is looking for something very specific.  With the great variety of subtleties available in our upright, loose eyed Aussies, knowing what one likes and wants is important to understand.  Taking into account the vagaries of each of the terms for "style" is also important.  When Aussie owners have slightly different needs, likes, or understanding, this is when our "lively discussions" occur! 



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