Sheep, Ducks, Cows, Turkey, Goats, or Buffalo?
© Author Jane Rothert
1st Published in July 2001 Malinois Performer
AKC now has stock specific herding titles. The title you earn is based not only on what course, A, B, or C, but the stock used. You can no longer get a leg on sheep, a second leg on cattle, and a third leg on ducks and have a title. If you get those three legs, you will actually have one leg on each of three different titles.
Although the greatest majority of dogs work sheep, when herding started becoming popular 15+ years ago, ducks were far easier to keep in ones backyard. Now with more sheep becoming available to more people, there are fewer and fewer duck herders. Ducks are, in some ways easier and in some ways harder to work. For many dogs, ducks just are not fun or worth the effort. A lot of dogs won't even consider herding ducks; eating them, yes, but not herding them. Ducks as a rule are just as leery of the human part of the team as of the dog. Unlike sheep, ducks may not cluster at the human's feet. Some will, but the majority will avoid a person as much as they will avoid a dog. This makes fetching very difficult. Following some human's feet is not the duck's idea of safety. The dog has to PUT the ducks there and work at it. The ones that DO want to go to a human will often just sit ON the human's feet and not move, thereby, creating the opposite problem for the dog!
Ducks also require more subtlety than sheep. A flick of the eye, a turn of the head, and that's it. One step is often too much for ducks. To be a good duck dog, the dog must work with finesse and calm steady control. That's hard for a lot of our Malinois who want to run as fast as they can!
Breeds of ducks that are recommended are generally ducks that are not meat ducks. Meat ducks, or eating ducks, are too heavy to work. They tire easily and will just lay down with their heads stretched out saying "go ahead and eat me. I'm going to die anyway!" Mallards, mallard crosses, Khaki Campbells, and Indian Runners are lighter breeds and are more prone to move when approached by a dog. Some flock together better than others, but again, as a general rule, they don't flock as tightly as some types of sheep do. I've worked most of these breeds, but my favorite is the Indian Runners, not because they are the best herding duck, although they are good, but because they look like little people running around the ring!
One thing ducks are VERY good for is teaching humans how to herd. Ducks don't move fast, compared to sheep, so people can work them without a dog. You can learn about how to read stock, how to move stock, how far the dog needs to be off the stock, and how to read trial conditions that might affect stock all by working ducks without a dog. There is a training game using ducks, no dog, and two people. It is a fun game as well as challenging and educational!
Cattle are quite different to work than sheep or ducks. One obvious reason, they are VERY big! So, with that said, I have a confession. I've never tried to work cattle. My main reason for not working cattle is I'm afraid of injuring my dog. Cows kick and kick hard. If you aren't comfortable with the fact that your dog can be seriously injured or killed you should NOT work cattle. That said, good cattle are a dream to watch. A good cattle dog will move the stock slowly and steadily around the course. Cows expend as little energy as possible so are inclined to go where they are told, providing the dog knows how to ask. The wearing our dogs do is VERY good for cattle. When a dog comes up too close to the cow and is right on it's heel, the cow can not see it. This leads to increase fear in the cow and makes them want to kick and fight back. A dog that stays back and wears stays in the cows range of vision. The cow knows where the dog is and is willing to go where the dog says without a fight, sometimes.
Cows, though, can be VERY stubborn. They know they are big and if they've been allowed to bully dogs, will challenge a dog's every move. A dog needs to be willing to grip not only the heels but also the head, or the nose. When cattle are pushed too hard, they will fight back. Push a duck and it quits; push sheep and they move and are very slow to fight back; but, push a cow too hard and the cow will fight the dog with the intent of killing it. A dog must be confident, pushy but not too pushy, steady, and tough.
Most cattle used in trials are young adults. They aren't as flighty as calves, less recalcitrant than older adults, and are fairly easy to work. Often, though, the toughest stock at any given trial is the cattle as they can be hard for the best dog to move through a course, especially after they've been used once.
Another thing about working cattle is you really do NOT want your dog fetching 3-10 head of cows straight at you at a dead run! I was sitting at the top of the arena at my first cattle trial. The dog shoots out to do the outrun and the cows bolt up the field, past the handler, and straight at the fence where I was sitting! I decided that maybe that wasn't the best seat in the house after all! Working cattle takes confidence from the handler and power and control by the dog. Like all stock, cattle depend on their previous training. Get a bad cow in the group, though, and you can end up with a dead dog. That's why most people do not start training their young dogs on cattle, but will teach the basics on sheep first.
Turkeys, geese, and goats are also animals that will flock and work off a dog. Goats are similar to sheep, although smarter and more willing to challenge a dog if they sense a weakness. Turkeys and geese can be more aggressive than ducks and as such aren't seen often at trials, although a good duck dog can probably work turkeys and geese.
Buffalo? Yes, you can work buffalo; horses, people, and other dogs can be worked, too. Any group of animals that will stay grouped together and respond to and move off of a dog can be used for herding.
You will notice I haven't mentioned sheep. Of course sheep can be used to herd. Different breeds of sheep work differently, so I will attempt in my next article to discuss different types of sheep and what you can expect when you work them!