Stock Dogs and Natural Talent

Both livestock guardian dogs and stock dogs, who are bred for working ability, are comprised of natural talent for their job.  To answer a recent question on the natural ability of stock dogs, here a few of my thoughts (no shortage of those when it comes to dogs). 

To boil it down to basics, stock dogs come with a relatively high degree of prey drive (desire to hunt), coupled with an instinct to make motion happen and to control motion.  Put a well bred stock dog pup in a pen with a few sheep and they will set about chasing sheep around - making motion happen.  Then at some point they’ll make an attempt to control that motion, for example, putting stock against a fence and holding them there.  How willing they are to make motion happen and the moves they use to attempt to control the motion tells a lot about the pup and what you have to work with.  

Many types of dogs (herding and non herding) will start motion, i.e. they will chase.  The instinct to control that motion is what makes stock dogs, stock dogs, and not hounds, terriers, or sporting dogs.  

The more skills a dog possesses for controlling motion the more natural he is.  He might be a tough dog to work with because he’s sure he knows what to do without you, but you won’t have to manually build up as many skills in his repertoire.  

So if they have natural talent, then why do we train them and how much training does it take?

The dogs understand to make livestock move and can do so far more readily than we can, so they have that part of the job done for us.   What the dogs do not know however, is how we want our livestock moved and where to move them to.   Training is teaching the dog when to go and when to stop, and teaching him directions so we can communicate where to, and how slow or fast we need to go.

How much training one puts into a stock dog is a matter of personal preference.  A dog with a stop command and a couple directions on him can be a useful aid around the ranch.  With a dog who is ready and receptive to training this can be had within a couple months of daily training time.    

The more training a dog receives, the more you are able to place a dog where needed in accordance to the livestock, the more useful he’s going to be.  If he only knows to stay behind livestock, the jobs he can help with will be limited.  If he only knows to go to the head and stop livestock the jobs he can help with will be limited.  The more tools you give him, the more you’ll use him because he’s so useful.  That takes time and a good deal of regular training.  

Many ranch dogs get the basic training and then the bulk of the training happens while they work on the ranch.  Provided there is regular work, in due time the dog is a seasoned right hand man.  

Some dogs also train up way easier and this will reflect the time and effort it takes.  Gibson was one of those, he just took to training.  BlackJack, the pup I have here now, will take considerable more effort to get to the same place of finesse and patience. 

The relationship one developes with a particular dog will influence the training time as well.  Many top trainers describe how important it is to like the dog you’re with.  

Sky, a cheeky and naturally talented young dog I had the pleasure of training with in MT


  1. I really like the looks of Sky! My older BC is a tri, but he does not have those great prick ears, which I really like.

  2. This was a great explanation. I know a little about the training of herd dogs, that you need to be at least as smart as the dog, but I was very interested in Kelpies. A year ago I happened upon an article by an Australian man who said that Kelpies were the most intelligent of all working ranch breeds. He said he could tell his dog to fetch a cow, and her new calf, and bring them into the just those words, and the dog would rush off to do it. He loved this dog, and as you said, Arlette, liking the dog is very helpful. Thanks for this post. It was really enjoyable.

    1. I do enjoy the Kelpies and in many instances of ranch work they have fascinated me with their intelligence (and frustrated me with their persistence).

  3. I used to train Labrador Retrievers,direction etc for field trialing,so understand what you are saying,sure, one must really sincerely,deeply, more than like the dog,it is a certain 'feeling' the dog has it for you and you for him..Do you find bitches or dogs are different?

    1. Yes and when that happens it is a sweet, sweet partnership. I find bitches are more serious earlier on in life, dogs can be goofy for longer. Otherwise I don't have a preference for one over the other but find it comes down to the individual dog and finding that connection.


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