When Ability Stock Dogs breeder and trainer Linda Holloway brings a puppy into the world on her Ponca City, Oklahoma, farm, she is instantly assessing potential. The first seven weeks of the dog’s life will be a series of significant but subtle aptitude tests to determine the job and lifestyle the puppy needs.
“I want the dogs that are always capable of figuring a way over obstacles and are always looking for something,” Holloway said. “I try to match their mentality to the people they’re working with.”
Beginning by training a few Smooth Collies in the early 1980s to herd her sheep and compete in trials, Holloway has been a stock dog breeder and trainer for over 40 years. Today, Holloway breeds herding intensive Smooth Collies and Border Collies, as well as training and judging competitive stock dogs.
In 2014 Holloway was named the American Kennel Club’s Herding Breeder of the Year, but by far most of the dogs she trains will spend their lives accompanying cowboys and livestock producers.
“Most of my dogs are bought for regular old farm work,” Holloway said. “I do sell some dogs to trial homes and in the Smooth Collies I have some that will go to competitive agility or herding homes, as well.”
Holloway’s skills as a trainer show early on in her attention to detail with her dogs almost from the moment they are born.
“At 5 weeks the puppies will follow you so I begin walking through the pasture and through the woods over deadfall,” Holloway said. “On these walks, you’re trying to put them in situations to figure out who cries, who won’t go and who goes first.”
This early observation period is important because Holloway wants to ensure she has a good idea of each individual dog’s personality — and has a person in mind to match — before the dog reaches 7 weeks of age.
“Seven weeks is the time, I think 49 days exactly, is when they psychologically unbond from puppies and will bond to a person,” Holloway said, “so 7 weeks is the time you want to pick the dog up.”
After 7 weeks the dogs get their own personalities, and while it’s less likely to cause training issues in Border Collies later the way it does for other dogs, Holloway said there’s something unidentifiable that gets lost in translation if the puppy and partner don’t have a chance to bond early.
Other behavioral traits are more hard-wired into the dog’s actual DNA. Useful traits like herding or even behavioral traits are traceable to a dog’s lineage.
“I don’t want nuisance barking or dogs that run back and forth constantly, and all of those things have genetic foundations,” Holloway said. “I’ve bred all of that out to focus on dogs that behave and also don’t fall apart under correction.”
For Holloway, a corrective and cognizant trainer or owner is almost as important to the foundation of a great stock dog as genetics.
“Dogs spend 24/7 watching us, but how many hours a day do we really spend watching a dog?” Holloway said. “Those habits establish early and when you aren’t paying attention.”
The first step in any relationship is choosing a partner that matches the problem. Knowing what you’re looking for out of a dog-owner relationship is key to picking out the right kind of stock dog.
For Holloway, the first and most important trait to consider is genetic herding ability, especially in dog breeds like Smooth Collies, Shelties or Australian Shepherds where the number of working bloodlines have become diluted over time.
“Don’t believe the parents work until you see them work for yourself,” Holloway said. “If one of the parents doesn’t work, then don’t buy them because herding is such a hard trait to maintain.”
Even within herding genetics, Holloway said it’s important to know what kind herding the parents have been doing. While she trains her dogs first on ducks, then goats, sheep and eventually cattle, the cow-bred lines in her Border Collies always lead to a different working environment than her sheep-bred Smooth Collies.
“Cow lines run tighter than the sheep dog lines,” Holloway said. “The cow lines will stay in that pressure zone unlike sheep bred dogs, so the genetics make some difference.”
Holloway said it’s important to let your breeder or trainer know what tasks the dog will be expected to perform while working. Dogs that do well rounding up cattle in the pasture or working alongside horses might not be suited to light working conditions.
Similarly, stock dogs that are used primarily for blocking gates or guarding the truck while feeding might not perform as well at herding.
“Once you teach them to antagonize livestock, they’re going to make mistakes and they aren’t going to listen because you just gave them a green light,” Holloway said. “It takes a lot of mileage to get a dog that can both guard the cake feeder from the bed of the truck and also round up cows effectively.”
Once she’s aware of the owner’s needs, Holloway said she rarely sees a bad dog-owner pairing as long as both temperaments match up well.
“People need to be honest about what they want and need in a dog and then take care of it,” Holloway said.
Keep Your Cool
When training, correcting or working alongside stock dogs and livestock it’s easy for physical and emotional overload to play a role.
“People allow themselves to get rattled and things don’t go well and then they shut down,” Holloway said. “Sometimes you need to take a break, have a cup of coffee, let everything settle and then go back to it.”
Livestock and dogs both feed off of emotions in their environment. While most livestock owners can sense this mood shift instinctively, it might not be intuitive to watch the dog’s behavior shift as well.
“People read livestock really well especially these guys that handle cattle for a living, but sometimes they can really underestimate what the dog is feeling,” Holloway said.
When making corrections, Holloway said it is important to be firm but to also allow the dog to bounce back from the correction. Ensuring the dog knows the reason for the correction and has the opportunity to perform it correctly can help eliminate correcting the same fault over and over again.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Holloway said. “I make mistakes, the dog does, the cows do, and everyone just needs to settle down."
Whether utilizing classic commands like “go by” and “away” or using simplified commands like “stop” and “lay down,” everyone that will be commanding the dog needs to be in sync on the language of the commands.
“The syntax has to be the same,” Holloway said, “so if your syntax is ‘Buffy fetch,’ then everyone needs to use that syntax and you can’t say ‘fetch Buffy.’”
When the dog is being trained around a family or multiple handlers, it can be confusing for the dog to understand individual nuances in voice or tone, Holloway said. After the dog gets used to its work pattern and living situation, it can determine who to obey and when more effectively.
Training, like so many other stock dog behaviors, can be influenced through genetics and years of training practices.
“It used to be that when you did obedience training the dog would work because you said ‘good dog,’” Holloway said. “They have bred that ability to be satisfied with just words is all going away, as is the ability to get corrected and recover because of positive training.”
Develop a Pattern
For herding dogs, a specific and consistent job is required. Dogs that have been bred intensively will look for jobs to fulfill and they will attempt to do the same job, the same way over and over again once they have been instructed.
Holloway said it is important to develop a working pattern for stock dogs and to keep that pattern regular until the dog gets older and can determine pattern shifts easier over time.
“You need to get them conditioned to the task and be able to call them off,” Holloway said. “Herding dogs find patterns really quickly.”
Dogs with problem solving and judgment will eventually tune in to the daily or seasonal shifts in jobs, but judgment comes with age and Holloway said it could be three to five years before a stock dog is quickly adaptable.
“They start and look OK but the judgment isn’t there,” Holloway said. “I think it’s easy to put them over their head because they have a good day.”
Manage and Evaluate Expectations
When an owner purchases a well-trained stock dog, it is easy for high expectations to come with their investment but it’s important to evaluate and manage those expectations for dog-owner relationship longevity.
“If you put them in situations where they aren’t challenged, they either get bored and destroy things or they will lose their edge,” Holloway said. “Herding dogs are smart, they’re visual, and they aren’t going to stay on the porch.”
Similarly, when a dog is performing well it’s important to make sure not to overestimate their skill or maturity and put them in situations where failure is imminent.
“They can read a bad situation based on the temperature of the livestock,” Holloway said. “They may come in with not enough force or not enough confidence because they know their situation is tenuous.”
When those situational failures happen, Holloway said it is important to let the dog know it has backup. Leaving the dog to fend for itself and possibly be injured is a recipe for disaster and doesn’t build trust between dog and owner.
“It’s just a 45-pound dog,” Holloway said. “It’s not a miracle worker.”