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Herd Dogs Simplify Work, Amaze People
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- "Walk up," "stand," "lie down" and "that'll do." Simple phrases spoken softly by one person and the working dog herds a group of animals like an expert.
In fact, sometimes the dog is the expert, but often the real brain at work is the experienced handler communicating directions to a canine companion.
Leroy Boyd, professor of animal and dairy science at Mississippi State University, has trained border collies since 1978 and helped trained handlers as well.
"The border collie is one of the most intelligent dog breeds. Their natural instinct is to round up and bring animals back," Boyd said. "The handler is important when you want to move animals in different directions from the expected."
Boyd said the person and the dog have to recognize the right amount of distance between the dog and animals and the speed they are moving. The most common problem is trying to deal with an enthusiastic dog.
"Their genetics make them want to herd, but they just don't know how to do it," Boyd said. "The handler has to help settle the dog and move it into position."
Retired dog trainer Bob Owen of Oxford said the handler's patience is the key.
"If you don't have patience, you can ruin a well-trained dog," Owen said. "The dog and the person must be trained to work together."
Spectators are amazed as they watch the dogs respond to commands to go left or right quicker than many people could react. Owen said just like with children, the key is repetition. While part of the herding ability is instinct, the trainer perfects the technique. Dogs learn best from knowledgeable people, not from working with other experienced dogs.
"The main thing a young dog will learn from an older dog is bad habits," Owen said.
Leslie Scruggs of Starkville trains border collies that can be used to herd cattle, sheep, poultry or even small children on occasion. Border collies also are used frequently in shows and trial activities.
"More people use them for working than for shows or trials," Scruggs said. "They are ideal for dairy cattle that have to be brought to a barn twice a day for milking. A farmer can just send the dog, and it will know exactly what to do without supervision."
Border collies earned their reputations as sheep dogs by bringing lambs into protected areas at night where predators such as coyotes and wild dogs could not encroach.
"Just because a dog is a border collie does not mean it will necessarily be a good herd dog. You should look at the dog's bloodline, especially its mother, to see if it could be a good herder," Scruggs said. "Some are better for show or just as pets than for working."
As dog trials gain in popularity, Scruggs is helping organize an event this fall at MSU's AgriCenter. The second annual Golden Triangle Regional Fair Sept. 7 through 10 will include stock dog trials along with other special events.
"People are becoming more aware of stock dogs and appreciative of the skills involved, both by the animal and the handler," Scruggs said.