Working Cowdogs – Help or Hindrance


The herding system the western cattle industry evolved from the cowboy culture. The stock handling practices of these mounted herders relied almost completely on horses. Cowdogs were secondary. Until, the early 1970s, most cowboys used dogs primarily to nip the heels of a laggard cow, or to push cattle through chutes. Dogs were generally expected to follow behind the horse unless they were needed to for reinforcement. They didn’t know how to handle a dog that went to the head of the herd.

Why Cowdogs Do What They Do

A well-bred, well-schooled cowdog is one of the most valuable hands on a cattle operation. A good dog can take the place of two or three good cowboys. See How Cowdogs Saved the Day:

What makes a dog want to go to the head of a herd? All of the inborn traits of working dogs are derived from the hunting instincts of their remote ancestor, the wolf. In approaching their prey, the fastest members of the pack come out from behind and run to the lead, cutting off (essentially, heading) their quarry. When the prey would spread or fan out in an attempt to escape, the driving members (heelers), who were generally the slower members of the pack, would move out to the flank to keep their quarry intact and prevent them from escaping. Man was able to take these hunting instincts and eliminate the killing tendencies. Through selective breeding, he cultivated and strengthened the appropriate characteristics for working. 

Communicating With Your Dog

A good cowdog doesn’t have to be taught to herd cows; just as a Beagle doesn’t have to be trained to follow the trail of a rabbit. Nevertheless, all cowdogs need to be schooled so they are controllable. Otherwise, they can become a hindrance and not a help.

To begin with, you’ll need to teach three basic commands so you can be in touch with your dog. The first and most important command that needs to be taught is “Come here.” This is helpful if you need to call your dog for any number of reasons.

The second most important command is teach some kind of stop – either a “Lie down,” or a “Stand.” This is useful when you need to bring your dog to a standstill, perhaps to take pressure off the herd or to reposition him. It’s like having brakes on your vehicle or a “Whoa” on your horse.

Once your dog has learned to stop when asked, it’s useful to be able to instruct him to stay put with “Stay there” to maybe let the herd settle, or for any other reason. When you start to get a good handle on your dog he can become a useful working partner and a valuable asset to your operation.

Copyright © 2011 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor.

All Rights Reserved.

See also Training the Ranch Dog – Early Handling:

And Starting a Dog on Cows – Part I: