Help Wanted: Four-legged livestock handler

Stock dogs ease the work load for beef producer

Stock dogs are an important part of Ken MacKenzie’s ranching operation. Photo: Courtesy Ken Mackenzie

At times, work on the farm and ranch appears never-ending, so when something comes along to make things easier, it’s usually worth a second look.

Ken MacKenzie of Drayton Valley, Alta., has a solution to this labour dilemma as he has been raising border collies and using them around his ranch for years.

“As a kid, we always had dogs on the cattle ranch and I always liked them,” he says. “When I was in college, I realized how much more they could do for a person in a practical sense.”

He has turned this early foundation into a part of his ranching operation by raising, training and selling stock dogs on a regular basis.

Not all stock dogs are created equal and MacKenzie explains there are numerous qualities they need to succeed.

“They have to have good natural ability. It’s a combination of things. They need enough brains and stamina to do enough of the job. They don’t have to be great at everything, but they have to be ‘good enough’ at everything.”

MacKenzie’s dogs are trained to work both cattle and sheep. When he starts a dog, he uses a combination of verbal commands and whistles to associate sounds and actions, offering reassurance and praise when they do things right. He explains that patience is extremely important.

“Take them at their grade level. If they’re at grade one, don’t expect them to go to grade six today.”

As they progress, he allows them to do more as a reward. “Their drive is to work. A really good border collie is always wanting to work and that’s the kind of dog I want, but you have to spend a lot of time with it.”

MacKenzie explains that working cattle is natural to the dogs. He relates it to their ability to outmanoeuvre predators or chase prey animals.

“They know the angles. They know if they jump over the log, they’ll lose the rabbit because it will get a different angle on them, so they pretend to jump the log and duck under instead to get them. They’re smart.”

He points out their breeding combined with body pressure and speech allows them to quickly understand cattle and sheep behaviour. “The dogs are an extension of my ability to read and work stock.”

While working his cows, he keeps his dogs quiet. “There is no barking going on. They walk up to a cow and it is their job to move them, so they bite at them and (the cows) turn, respect their power and move away.”

He trains the dogs to move animals at a reasonable speed. If they start at a slow pace and end at a gallop, someone could get hurt or there could be a fight.

“Dogs get hurt and cows get upset. That’s a problem.”

MacKenzie uses the collies for a variety of different tasks including gathering and keeping cattle up in the pens or covering a gate when he’s sorting on horseback or on foot. They can be used at the back of a pen to bring animals closer, although he admits that can be tricky with cows being wary if they perceive a threat to their young. He likes to position the dogs on a switch; off for a moment or on pause, where he can call them if needed, ask them to do something and then put them back where he wants them.

“Sometimes they have to sit there and wait, other times they might work hard all day.”

Using a stock dog on a regular basis can save time and energy, but MacKenzie admits there are limitations, especially when the work is in tough conditions.

“I like a dog with a little more leg, because I’ve got snow and mud. In the bush or out in the open field where the grass isn’t too tall, they can be really good. But it’s a rough job. It’s a dangerous occupation.”

MacKenzie explains it is a balancing act when working with the dogs. At times, a handler can have too much control and the dog will be hesitant, with the animals losing respect. At other times, the handler could lack control and cause a wreck. Not all dogs work out and if they don’t have the will or are afraid to engage the animals, MacKenzie may have to discontinue the training.

“If I feel I’m always doing the majority of the job, I’m going to get a different dog. I’m a rancher and farmer and practical that way.”

MacKenzie has had considerable success at many prestigious competitions, winning Reserve Champion at the 2017 Calgary Stampede, Reserve Champion at Agribition, along with two wins at Northland’s sheep dog competitions over the last two years. He plans on continuing to enter competitions in the future.

MacKenzie is passionate about border collies and sees them as a very useful part of working farms if they are trained and handled properly. He sees huge value in clinics and besides hosting his own, he continues to attend those put on by others in the field.

“I really believe in clinics and learning from other people, trying to improve myself. I don’t take credit for all the stuff I know. If I can work my cattle better at a competition, it makes it even easier to move them around at home whether it’s on horseback or with a dog. They’ve taught me so much and they keep teaching me all the time. I definitely have a passion for the dogs.”

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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