When you choose to go off the grid, you will find out very quickly that you cannot go at it alone. Most people who decide to pursue this lifestyle realize immediately that they will need the help of animals. Chickens provide eggs and meat, cattle and goats provide milk and meat, and sheep can give you wool to use or sell. Having a dog to help you manage and maybe even guard your animals will make your life easier and will prevent you from losing valuable individuals.
Especially if you plan to keep a sizable herd or flock of cattle, goats, or sheep, you will find that having a herding dog can be immensely helpful. Herding dogs can be very versatile. Most can be taught to move cows, sheep, goats, ducks, geese, and just about any other flocking type of animal you can think of. Different breeds may work in different ways, but they are all capable of completing the same task: keeping your animals where you want them.
Getting the Right Puppy
Having a working herding dog starts with selecting the right puppy. There are a number of dog breeds that are suitable for this work. Any of the dogs in the herding group of the American Kennel Club were bred for working with and herding livestock. Some were bred for very specific roles. For instance, Corgis were bred to herd cattle by nipping at the cows’ heels. Others are more general herding dogs, able to work with a variety of animals. Another consideration is the rarity of a breed. You may research and find that you love the Finnish Lapphund, but it may be difficult and expensive to track down a responsible breeder. Some of the most popular dogs for working with livestock include the Border Collie, Australian Cattle Dog (a.k.a Australian Blue Heeler), German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Collie, and Australian Shepherd. All of these breeds are versatile, intelligent, willing to work, and easy to find.
Once you have selected a breed, you need to choose an individual puppy. When you pick a puppy for herding, there is no guarantee that you will have a winner. In spite of being bred to do this task, not every single herding puppy will be good at it. To increase your odds of finding a good herder, don’t shop for show dogs. Find a breeder who is also a farmer and whose dogs are bred to work. When you find such a breeder, you still need to take care to select the right puppy. The breeder can probably point you towards the puppy with the most potential. You can also look for herding instinct. When the puppies are ten to twelve weeks old, put them in a pen with animals to be herded. Just make sure the animals are the calmest ones you have. Look for a puppy that takes an interest in the animals without being too pushy. Keep in mind, however, that even this test is not an absolutely certain way to pick out a good herder.
Getting Ready to Bring the Puppy Home
It is very important to be prepared for your puppy’s arrival. You need to have all of the necessary equipment on hand, but you also need to have a plan in mind. Raising a puppy for work is very different from keeping a companion dog. There is much more at stake here, and you must be prepared with a plan that everyone in the household is in on. Your new puppy will need consistency from each member of the family. Decide if you will have a professional trainer come in to work with your puppy or if you will be doing the training yourself. Set rules and guidelines and be sure that everyone will follow them.
Setting the Tone
Any dog, whether a companion or a working dog, needs to know where he stands in the household. As soon as your puppy arrives, you need to be consistent in communicating to him his ranking in the family. Make sure that he sleeps and eats in his own area. Be sure to set boundaries for where he is allowed to be and locations that are forbidden. While these limitations are important, there is no need to be extreme here. With the exception of a few breeds, dogs are a part of your pack and they do not want to live outside. You may choose to restrict them to a few rooms within the house, but they should live inside with you and the rest of the pack.
Start Exercising and Training
As soon as your puppy is home with you, it’s time to get to work. There is no point waiting around and letting him get comfortable as a lap or companion dog. It’s best to start him working early. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he will be herding on day one, but there are many things you can do with him to get him on the right path. Start with exercise. Herding dogs have a lot of energy and are very intelligent. If they don’t get enough exercise and get bored, they will become destructive and start to develop bad habits.
Start the training process with the most basic obedience commands: sit, stay, and down. Use positive reinforcement training, which is the best way to teach a dog to do what you want. Positive reinforcement means that you give your puppy something that he likes when he completes a desired behavior. The treat is positive, and it reinforces the good behavior. He is more likely to do it again, knowing that he will get something he wants.
Using positive reinforcement is very simple. For instance, when teaching sit, wait for your puppy to sit on his own, then immediately say sit and give him a treat. For a smart dog like a herding dog, you should have him sitting on command within minutes. As for the treat, you need to find your dog’s motivation. Many dogs respond well to food, but others are motivated by toys or affection. Most herding dogs are very eager to please their owners, so you will not need to use treats forever. Eventually, your dog will obey your commands simply because he wants to.
Introduce the Animals
The sooner your puppy gets to know the animals he will be working with, the better. The age at which you begin actual herding training will depend upon your puppy. Dogs are individuals, and you will need to observe your puppy with the animals to determine when he is ready to start real work. Start this process by putting your puppy in a pen with the animals. If any of them are especially skittish, leave them out until your puppy is more mature.
Watch your puppy’s behavior with the animals. Encourage herding behaviors with positive reinforcement. Herding instinct originates with a prey instinct. If your puppy shows any predatory behaviors, like jumping on a sheep’s back to bite it, for example, discourage it quickly. To discourage the behavior, remove your puppy from the pen as soon after it happens as possible. There is no point in hitting your puppy. Dogs do not respond well to this; simply remove him and then put him back several seconds later.
Raising a puppy to work with livestock is no simple matter. Read up on the subject and be as informed as possible before beginning the process. You may even want to consider bringing in someone with experience raising herding dogs to help you. Ideally a neighbor or friend who has had great success with this can help. If you take the training seriously, you will be rewarded with a companion and worker who will help your farm run smoothly for years to come.
©2012 Off the Grid News