Ask Farmer Pete - Farm Dogs
Have you always used dogs on the farm?
Not really. We’ve always had dogs on the farm, but we haven’t always had working dogs. In the past, they were more of a pet instead of someone who could help with the work. I used to have Jack Russell Terriers when I used to get paid to hunt groundhogs. My dad did it too. The dogs would run down into the hole and either push the groundhog out the other side or drag it out the side they came in. But as far as working dogs on the farm now, it’s just something that I recently started messing with. I did some research and a couple field runs and figured it was something that I wanted to try. I thought it might take some of the work off my hands
How many dogs do you have?
I have two dogs right now. They’re both heelers. One is male and one is female. The female is my worker. Her name is Pup. The male’s name is Holdem and he’s just for show now. He’s old and well past his prime as a working dog. He prefers to lay on the porch now. Sometimes he’ll run after us when we take the Razor out into the fields. But he mostly lays on the porch and watches the house. He’s our guard dog. He’s got some allergies that are especially bad right now because of all the pollen. I think he might be going deaf too. But he’s a good watch dog. Pup is my real worker. She’s a Red Heeler. She responds to my voice and whistle commands. She’s always by my side if I’m working with the animals.
Where did you get your dogs?
Pup was given to me by the Amish. They just wanted to get rid of her. I don’t really know where Holdem came from. He was my brother’s dog and I think I took him when my brother couldn’t take care of him anymore. My advice for finding a dog would be to find a good breeder first if you want a good dog. Ask him what the traits are of the dog. If you find a well-known breeder, they’re going to be well-known for a reason. After that it comes down to training and nurturing. You could get a mutt dog and turn it into an outstanding work dog. The bloodline helps, but it’s really about putting enough time and effort in. You have to train them without overdoing it so they don’t get bored.
What do you use them for on the farm?
I use them for anything really. They’re good for putting an animal or a flock or herd where you want it to go, without having to chase them around. Pup can do it in a quarter of the time it would take me to do the same task. If you can teach them to respond to voice and whistle commands, as well as gestures, the dog will do what it’s supposed to do. One thing I use Pup for every morning is to help me move the chicken pens. With the rotational grazing program, we do this at least once a day so they have fresh ground. While I’m pulling the enclosure, she’s at the back, keeping the chickens from getting caught in the back end when it’s moving. Every once in awhile, a chicken will get caught and break it’s leg. They’re pretty much useless after that. They won’t grow and they can’t compete with the other chickens. So Pup is really helpful in that situation because she keeps that from happening. She’ll bark or jump and do whatever she can to keep them in line. Sometimes she does this little mouth snap thing, which is funny to watch. She makes that task a lot easier for me though.
What are some other advantages to having them work with you?
She is able to help me with a lot of my daily work. It saves time, which in turn saves money. When animals get out of their paddocks, she’s on the job. If you whistle and tell her to get over there, she’ll circle the animal and push it back towards you. The cow knows the dog isn’t a real threat, but it still wants to get away anyway. She’s not always 100% and she doesn’t always get it on the first try, but she does what I need her to do most of the time. I love working with her. I like working with livestock in general, so if I can use livestock to help maintain other livestock, it’s a win-win for me. It’s a crazy ability that some of these dogs have.
Are there any disadvantages?
I don’t think so. I guess there’s always the possibility that you could get a dog that’s no good and doesn’t want to learn, or one who’s just irritable. It can be frustrating, the whole learning curve. Sometimes the dog might do something you don’t want it to do and that just causes more work. You have to go out and fix a fence or chase down a cow. But the pros outweigh the cons if you have the time. That’s the important thing - putting the time in. Pup works every day, so I don’t have to set aside the time. I’m out there every day anyway. But if you aren’t out working your dog every day, make sure you set aside enough time to spend with them. Otherwise they aren’t going to turn out like you want them.
How did you train them?
I got Pup when she was already a year old so I didn’t get to start training her as early as I would have liked. When you get a new puppy, it’s important to start training from day one. From the very beginning, you should start teaching them basic commands. I just started with sit and stay. You should train them that when they eat, they have to sit first before they can get any food. They should grasp this concept within two weeks. Then I started training her to walk along next to me. After that, you can start teaching the dog voice commands for the tasks you want them to know. For me, I taught her “out left” or “out right.” She knows that means to circle to either side and push an animal back. Dogs aren’t good at driving with you. It’s in their genetic makeup to circle an animal. Anything you can teach them is going to be better for you. After the voice commands, you can add whistle commands to that. Pup knows three whistles - come, which is a typical standard whistle, slow down or stop, which sounds like a train coming to a stop, and go, sounds more like a dog yip.
Do you have any tips for someone trying to train their dog?
Like I mentioned before, it’s important to start from day one. Start young and reward them often, but train a little bit at a time. You want to start as soon as it’s born but you don’t want to overdo it. Training then becomes monotonous and the dog gets bored. It’s important to establish dominance early on. It shouldn’t be in an aggressive way. Just lay the dog on it’s back and scratch their belly. If an animal is on it’s back, that is their way of submitting to you. If you roll them over on their back and pet them, they’ll understand that you’re in charge. If the animal respects you, that goes a long way. But you have to respect them too. You have to be in tune with the animal, you want to be on the same page. If something’s going on, you don’t want to get too excited. Animals can pick up excitement really easily. If you get too excited or mad or angry, animals will sense that. Then you get even more angry because they aren’t doing what you want them to do. Good communication is key just like any other relationship.
Consistency is also important. Don’t mix up your words. Everyone has a their own vocabulary but you don’t want to use the same word in different commands. If you use “go by” to turn left, you don’t want to use the word “go” in another command. The dog can easily get confused. Use clear commands and clear gestures and remember to reward them when they do well. Then you can get excited - a good excited. They grasp the concept. Don’t overwork or over teach them. Work with smaller reps and don’t use corporal punishment. Actually, avoid too harsh of punishment in general. You want to rule with confidence, not with fear. You are working together with the dog, you aren’t dictating. If you rule with fear, you aren’t going to get as good an animal out of it. Animals look to you for advice, they look to you for what to do. It’s important to have a mutual relationship of respect.
Do you think they enjoy working with you?
I know they do. Pup is ready to go every morning when I walk outside. Every morning she’s just as excited as the day before. It’s like play to her. She’s excited to go out and run the animals. I definitely enjoy it too. It’s a working relationship. We get the job done together and it’s fun. Even though she’s a dog, it’s still fun. We hang out together every day and we’re always accomplishing things together. You have to make a connection with the animal. Pup and I have that connection and we have an understanding of each other. It’s important to be on the same page. That’s what’s so fun and cool about it. Animals understand what’s going on. You’re teaching the dog and working together, but you’re also learning together. I really enjoy it. And I know Pup enjoys our morning and evening routine every day.
Have they ever gotten into any trouble?
Not really. The worst thing that can happen is that they get too excited and run through a fence. That’s about as bad as it gets. Dogs aren’t naturally vicious. They aren’t trying to hurt the beast when they’re working. It’s play to them. We call it working but they’re having fun. You can’t run into too many problems. They could accidentally run an animal off the property. That’s something we obviously try to avoid. It can get frustrating if they aren’t on the same page but you just have to keep your head together and set the tone. Again, the dog shouldn’t be too worked up or excited or afraid. They have very conductive minds, they’re aware of their surroundings. They get a feel for how you’re feeling just by the way you’re talking. But mine have never really gotten into any serious trouble.
What do you feed them?
They get the best food in the world and it’s mostly raw. We do give them dog food when we don’t have any extra parts, but most of the time they’re eating fresh, raw leftovers. We give them chicken hearts, livers, gizzards, feed, heads. They’ll eat all of it and they love it. Basically we give the anything that we have leftover after butchering. It’s the best thing you can give a dog because it mimics what their diet would be in the wild. It makes them happy and it gives them a healthy and clean coat too.
What plans do you have for the future?
I’d like to be able to start training at a younger age. It really is best to start from day one. I’m looking for a better bloodline and that will lead to better discipline. It’s fun for me when I get a new one, but I’m not looking for a new one anytime soon. I’ll work with Pup until she’s much older and can’t do it anymore and then I’ll eventually get another one. But having more doesn’t necessarily make it better at all. It’s better to have one good working dogs than three average dogs. I like relating it to kids. Farmers think that they’ll have a bunch of kids and in turn get a bunch of workers but that’s not always true. Instead, you end up with some below average workers because you didn’t put enough time into them. The same is true with working dogs. One is all you really need. It’s important to focus on that one and make it the best, most disciplined animal it can be. You have to spend a lot of time and energy with it. If we got a larger herd of beef, I may think about getting another one. But not right now. Right now, it’s all manageable with one guy and a dog.