Ah, The Commands

As many people do when they begin the journey of stock dogging, I learned to train a dog by going to clinics, the majority of which were geared to training dogs for trialing. For what ever reasons, farmers and ranchers who do this day in and day out but don’t have trial accolades behind their name aren’t the ones being asked to teach. Perhaps due to the popularity of trials and in part because there aren’t many of us left who use stock dogs in such a fashion, to make it worth teaching any differently.

So I learned to teach the dogs using the tried and true directional commands for getting around; away-to-me and go-by (the two flank commands). Walk-up is for the dog to approach the sheep directly. Lie down means to stop. Those are the bare bones basics and a lot can get done with just those.

After numerous years of working around a flock and finding myself in all sorts of situations that no one teaches in clinics because it isn’t possible to, the dogs have a few other commands in their repertoire. There is no specific planning to my commands, they are just the words that came out when I found myself in those situations and trying to convey to the dog what I wanted.

Get around - this one means I don’t care what direction you take or how tight you work, get around to the far side and work sheep back to me.

How commands are said conveys further information. Get-around, get-around, said quickly and with urgency conveys just that. That one comes out when I realize I’ve left the wrong gate open and the ewes are headed right for it, and is usually prefaced with oh-shit. -:)

Walk ‘em up - Used when working the large flock, it means we’re just walking them somewhere, stay and work on the same side of the flock as me.

Stand and lie down - I’ve attempted to get a stand and a lie down on the dogs but haven’t succeeded terribly well at that one. More often than not the dogs lie down when asked to stand. And because I’m lazy and inconsistent about how the lie down is obeyed the dogs stop but often stay standing, when asked to lie down. This stopping on the feet is something that dogs earn. When I’m starting a young dog it learns to lie down, but after working with a dog through numerous situations the dog earns the right to stay on his feet and in many ranch situations I prefer the dogs be on their feet rather than off them. It really helps to make the distinction with two separate commands though.

This one - I’m indicating one particular animal I’m after.

Catch ‘em - this one means you’re fine to do what you need to catch that animal.

Get ‘em up, or, push-push - used to convey more force is needed, come forward and make them move. Typically only used when moving the mob down alleyways or into smaller pens they don’t want to go into.

The ever famous that’ll-do. Job is done, return to me or near to me.

Get on the bus - get on the Ranger until told otherwise.

Don’t-you-dare (often just the word don’t will suffice), and, knock-it-off, are two phrases my dogs know well. Probably self explanatory.

Working Sheepdogs by Australian stockman Tully Williams is one of my favourite books because it is geared to breeding and teaching a working ranch dog and he talks about large flock work and plain working dogs. He presents some pros and cons for a simple command system and a complex one. The differences may seem subtle but I think might make all the difference to the dogs. For example, in basic work there is bringing sheep to you, taking sheep away from you, and moving sheep parallel to you. Rather than giving a flank command for every situation and then interrupting the flank command because you want a parallel cross drive and not a gather of sheep to you, he proposes using a cue to let the dog know what task you’re trying to get done. I’m making attempts to incorporate this into the work with the dogs and it is taking some effort to become fluent with it.

While there is loads of finesse in how the dogs work because that is who they are why they’re bred on, there isn’t much finesse in how I handle them. Well, let me restate that, there is and there isn’t. I do not come close to the finesse a top trialing dog and handler team possess. But that is not my gig. The finesse the dogs and I have is something unto its own, because to work in unison with a dog to complete a move with a thousand head of sheep is its own unique thing of beauty.

To move the mob along the trail I told Coyote Mic walk'em up and I went with her and together we did the job. To send her around the mob of sheep I told her ‘aaa-waay’ in a long drawn out voice, meaning a long outrun. Once she is gone around, there is no other command to give her. I have to trust she knows her job. There is no balance point on a mob and lying her down or telling her to walk up when I have no idea where she is, would be useless. There is also no way to help her if she’s in trouble; she is out of sight and sound (a mob of a thousand sheep makes a lot of noise). She is working on her own until I have a sign things are going right or otherwise. The movement of the sheep or the dog showing up back at my feet, will let me know. It’s one of the reasons I adore the Kelpie, they problem solve and work independently quite well. Border Collies do to, although the Kelpies feel different to me in this regard. However, when they get a lot of ranch work that lets them work independently of you, the flip side is it makes it harder to micro manage them and tell them every move to make when we’re working ten sheep. Give and take.  

Once we were at the next gate, I told Mic to lie down, there was no need to put more pressure on the mob as they poured through the gate.  I moved up to control the flow through the gate.  To convince the sheep to move through the dark pass in the trees, I flanked her around the mob again and just let her work (moving back and forth at the back, eyeing sheep and holding pressure to make the sheep want to move away from her) to bring sheep toward me.  Once through the pass the ewes are where I want them so then it's that'll do Mic, that'll do, and we walk away together, job accomplished and hopefully Mic feeling good about herself.


  1. Arlette, this was really great. You explained a lot, even more commands than you helped me with for the novel. I really enjoyed this, and grinned at the "oh shit" command. One of the main reasons I wrote that novel, is because I am so amazed at how these dogs work sheep. How it could not be done without them. I will bug you one last time. How does a young pup who has never worked sheep, learn the command words? Do they learn from the older dogs? Or do they learn by penning them with sheep as pups? Maybe both? Because of their breeding, they must have instincts on what to do. Thanks for the awesome column.

    1. Keep on bugging, I don't mind the questions, they give me ideas for writing. A young pups instinct is a huge factor. The more natural, the easier our job is in getting them onto commands. A pup with instinct will engage in doing something with the livestock on it's own. At the very basic level, our body position and pressure we apply and release will teach a pup (think of moving a horse around by leaning into its space or inviting it into yours). Commands come a bit later, once things are flowing. I'll be sure to share a post with more info.


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