January 26, 2010

NZ farm working dogs. A Heading pup's first year

By Dr Clive Dalton

Meg tied up at her kennel but 'on alert' - a good sign.
What would she turn out to be?
Her genetics were right - would her training complete the job?

Around the mid 1980s, Kevin Meredith, a farm manager and keen dog trialist got a new heading bitch pup, and I was keen to document her first year - the formative time in the making of a top working dog.

Kevin called her "Meg" and she had all the right genes from top ancestors, that had not only won trials, but had also come from hard working dogs on commercial farms.

These pictures I took of Meg's first year show the important stages of how Kevin provided the correct environment and training, so the dog's genes get every chance of full expression. It was all about getting the right balance between 'nature' and 'nurture' as the old saying goes.

Hello - what's that? A good sign of pup with a sharp eye.

Housing - cage or kennel?

This is an interesting question - is it better to keep a pup in a cage up off the ground, or tie it up at a kennel on the soil?

Most veterinary advice, for hygienic reasons, would go for the cage with slatted floor and no contact with soil, as in areas where there have been dog kennels for may years, there could be all sorts of infections around.

And of course dogs love to dig holes with a favourite spot being under the kennel. Some of these holes get so big that the kennel eventually falls into the hole, or in heavy rain it floats on the little lake like a boat!

Kevin's argument was simple - he always liked to tie a pup up at free-standing kennels as it gave him the opportunity to handle it more, and especially at the important time when you put dogs away after running loose. It was an opportunity to keep reinforcing the human-animal bond which is vital in successful dog training.

Dogs spend a lot of their time being tied up in their daily lives when out working so the sooner they learn to be comfortable with it the better. All working dogs have a short chain and snap hook on their collars to fasten them to a fence when they are temporarily not needed. Many dog handlers reckon it teaches them patience when they have to sit and watch other dogs working and not being allowed to join in until commanded.

The main thing it that it teaches the dog that going to be tied up is a pleasant positive experience, and not one to be avoided in case they get a reprimand. It's too easy to open a cage door and the dog runs in with no contact with the owner. Kevin's practice always seemed to make a lot of sense from the animal psychology point of view.

Make sure the pup's collar fits well so she doesn't learn to slip it.

Dominance of the 'pack leader'

An important part of this human-animal bond is to sort out right from the start who is the boss - who is going to be the 'top dog' in the hierarchy. Dogs and humans love boundaries, because they know that if they stay within them they'll be safe.

So having the pup on a chain, you can start regular lessons in dominance from an early age.

In the picture below you see Keven holding the pup's head up and holding his gaze into its eyes. It's a simple exercise once the pup has been tied up, petted and reassured with low voice tones. A few minutes each day is all that's needed. You can see from the pup's pose that it's a new experience for her and she's not liking it all that much.

Laying prone
This Kevin showed to be a very simple but very effective way to dominate a pup. He even used to to sort out a mature dog that was playing up.

All you do in this exercise is to lie the pup on it's side and calm it. If it struggles to get free - press down firmly with both your hands and calm it with low voice tones and a gentle massage. It's very effective and there's no physical violence involved anywhere. In the initial stages if the pup struggles, giving a low growl to imitate its mother's reactions can be effective.

Remove its food

Another trick used by Kevin and other dog handlers is to wait till the pup gets really stuck into a bit of meat, which it clearly considered its private property, and take if from it. If it gets nasty - give it the 'prone' treatment again and hold its meat in front of it before handing it over on your terms.

Teach 'Sit'

On the chain at the kennel, Kevin started to teach the first early lesson of 'Sit'. It was also part of the bonding/dominating experience for the pup and was a simple exercise of holding up the pup's head while pressing down it's back end on the command 'sit'.

This was done when the opportunity arose, e.g. when passing the kennels or after the dogs were let off for a run. Older dogs don't enjoy the overenthusiastic youngsters being let off at the same time but it is good for the pups to keep in social contact with the oldies who they could be working with in future.

The result seen in the picture, is a happy little fast-growing confident pup doing what dogs do - digging holes around their dens as they would in the wild. It means moving kennels now and again.

In the 1980s, to combat Hydatids which was also a threat to human health, dogs were dosed regularly by an officer from the local District Council. It was not a nice experience for the dog and they all knew when his van arrived - and what they were going to get.

The oral dose made the dog purge and the faeces were collected and sent to a veterinary laboratory to check what parasites were present.

Thankfully Hydatids has been eliminated and dogs are given pills every six weeks containing an anthelmintic to control the other main internal parasites of dogs.

Meg getting her first 'purge' dose - nobody liked this system

Meg then had to have her injections for distemper and parvo virus - both killers of dogs. This was not as traumatic for her as it was a subcutaneous injection in the loose skin of her scruff. The veterinarian was my former colleague at the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre - the late Tony Day.

Serious interest in work
There's often debate about the order in which you do things with a young dog. Do you put some commands on her before you let her loose with sheep, or do you just let her run free to develop her natural instincts and then teach the commands?

Kevin Meredith believed that the better option was to let the pup run free and then teach the commands. A good pup will quickly learn what the commands are, and almost understand why they're needed.

So here's Meg now about 9 months old with some of her first meetings with sheep in a confined space. The confined space is critical, as you don't want sheep to get the better of the pup. When you move to a larger area such as a small paddock, dog trainers always have an old experience dog handy to prevent any disasters such as sheep escaping and the pup not being able to get head them off. You don't want a pup to become a simple chaser of sheep.

You can clearly see Meg's genetics showing through. These rams are not going anywhere, as she keeps increasing pressure on them by moving in closer, and anticipating their every move.

Meg's further training
Kevin further developed Meg's skills by using her for light work on the farm as part of his team of dogs made up of older heading dogs and huntaways. So things were always under control and the sheep never won the day to shake a young dog's confidence. Top dog men like Kevin make sure a young dog is never over-worked and situations never get out of control.

Picture shows Meg off to work with a Huntaway team member on the right and the picture below shows the end of a working day where Meg has been part of the team.

Once a young dog starts to work it's important to keep them at it without overdoing it. A good stockman like Kevin Meredith knows exactly how to keep this fine balance, of avoiding both overwork and boredom. A heading dog is born to work - not watch others doing it.

Off to work

Time to knock off

Meg's first dog trial
Kevin was pleased with the young Meg and entered her for the 'Short Head and Yard' competition at the Waingaro dog trials near Raglan in New Zealand's North Island. She did well on the cast, the gather and the drive and as you can see on the picture below penned the sheep with no bother with plenty of force.

Kevin told me she was probably in too much of a hurry to get the job done to win, but he was delighted with her first outing. After the sheep were penned - Meg got a wee pat, and she was quite happy with that.

Top dog 'Meg' and top dog trainer and stockman - Kevin Meredith.
It's all about the animal-human bond and a dog trial is where you see this best.

A hard working life
In 2009 it was wonderful to catch up with Kevin again. He told me he had Meg for about 8 years before passing her on for an easier life. He reckoned she lived to about age 12.

What a great contribution she made to farming - one of the many unsung heroes of her kind. Loving her boss, always wanting to get off the chain to work, hating day's off, and happy with a pat or scratch behind the ear after a hard day's work.

Imagine how many man-hours she saved in her 12 years of work, and what financial value you could put on it. Imagine how many kilometers she had run too in that time?

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