Stock dogs live to work

How would you like someone on the farm that is always ready to go, eager to work and never complains? For livestock owners, a good stock dog may be the answer — and more.

Jeanne Weaver, a Williamston farmer who raises cattle and upward of 50 ewes to supply the grass-fed lamb market, has been training and using stock dogs for more than 30 years.

“They’re great at helping load up trailers and shedding off a few if you need to doctor them up,” Weaver says. “They can stop stock, move them in any direction and regroup them. They can bring the stock to your feet or drive them away. They are capable of going miles to gather on one command.”

Stock dogs, typically Border collies and Australian shepherds, instinctively live to work, Weaver says. “They can kill themselves — literally work themselves to death — if you don’t watch it. They are miserable if they don’t have a job. One of the hardest commands is to ‘come off’ the stock. They don’t just love working … it’s an obsession.”

Anybody with livestock, sheep or cattle, and big pastures that need gathering can benefit from a stock dog, she says. “But before you decide to get a dog, know that you must — absolutely must — put the time, energy and money into getting the proper training,” she stresses. “No matter how much instinct these dogs have, they must be trained.”

Start training by putting voice commands to movements, Weaver says, and then introduce a whistle. A shepherd’s whistle with multiple pitches is a good tool. “It allows you to get through to the dog easier, especially when you’re working a dog from a distance. Even at 100 yards, you have to raise your voice, and these dogs are sensitive. They may think you’re yelling at them because they’re doing something wrong.”

Weaver doesn’t start training dogs on stock until they’re between 10 and 12 months old. “It is possible to train a dog wrong,” she says.

“Dogs should never be allowed to work livestock on their own because they’re essentially training themselves. They learn to please themselves, and then they don’t need to please the owner,” she notes.

Critical training

To develop a really good stock dog, owners need to devote several hours and months of repetition, Weaver says. “If you’re not willing to put in the time and money to train a dog right, you might want to buy a trained dog,” she says. “It might be cheaper than a puppy.”

If you decide to train your own dog, Weaver suggests consulting with a trainer and getting some lessons. “There are also a lot of good books and videos available,” she says.

When deciding on what kind of breed to buy, Weaver suggests Border collies. “Other breeds are usable, but considering trainability and depth of ability to learn, Border collies are the best. They see stock 300 to 400 yards away.”

Would a stock dog be good for your operation? Weaver says there’s a lot of benefit, but “bottom line, you have to like working with dogs. You have to have respect for one another. Dogs are social, and they need to have a connection.”

It’s a misconception that working dogs should be just working dogs. “The more time you spend time with the dog, the better partner he becomes. He’s more willing to work.”

Stock dogs generally live 16 or 17 years, and usually retire from working after 12 or 13 years. “Investing in the correct training early on will pay off years down the road,” she says.

Good nutrition also pays. “Just like with cattle, if you want to produce a good animal, you have to buy quality feed. If feed is cheap, it’s for a reason.”

Weaver’s farm is home to five Border collies and two Jack Russells. She has been sharing her knowledge of working dogs and offering lessons for all herding breeds at all levels of training for the past 10 years. She does several stock dog demonstrations a year, including all three days at Ag Expo in July.

When the chores are done and the dogs are not “officially” working, Weaver takes the dogs on the road in competitions. She has qualified at least two dogs for the U.S. National Finals every year since 1996 and her dog Liz is the 2006 Canadian National Champion.

Weaver has trained and produced four champions in the Australian Shepherd Club of America Working Trials, and six winners in the United States Border Collie Handler’s Association Open Trials.

For more information, contact Weaver at 517-468-2246 or

Commands for training dogs

Training stock dogs requires body language, word commands and sounds, such as whistle commands to communicate. All commands can be translated into whistle sounds of your choice. Stock dogs are often trained on traditional English and Scottish commands.

Come-bye, or just bye: go to the left of the stock, or clockwise around them

Away to me, or just away or way: go to the right of the stock, or counterclockwise around them

Stand: stop, although when said gently may also mean just to slow down

Wait, (lie) down or sit: stop

Steady or take time: slow down

Cast: gather the stock into a group (Good working dogs will cast over a large area.)

Find: search for stock (A good dog will hold the stock until the stockman arrives. Some will bark when the stock have been located.)

Hold: keep stock where they are

Bark or speak up: bark at stock (Useful when more force is needed, and usually essential for working cattle and sheep.)

Look back: return for a missed animal

In there: go through a gap

Walk up, walk on or just walk: move in closer to the stock

That’ll do: stop working and return to handler

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.