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StockDogs that Love to Work and the Trainers Who Love Them

Stockdogs

By Dianna Troyer

Unflinching in their focus on a black Angus herd, a trio of infinitely enthusiastic Australian shepherds named Jake, Ty, and Ace, eagerly await Betty Williams’s instructions. Depending on her commands, they dash, slink, or race around to move the bovines.

The task of moving the cattle to a different pasture is pure pleasure for the Aussies, Williams’s indispensable partners at the W Lazy J Ranch near Lewistown, Mont. The job is a joy for Williams, too, astride her 4-wheeler with her canine companions nearby and the solace of the scenic Snowy Mountain Range in the distance.

“If it wasn’t for our dogs, we’d need some hired hands. A well trained stockdog is the equivalent of about two or three cowboys when you’re moving cattle,” said Williams, 70, who works with her husband, John, on the ranch where she grew up. “After Dad passed, we started operating it.”

Calmly and methodically, Williams and her Aussies work as one in vast pastures sprawling along the foothills of the Snowy Range. The dogs stare at the stock while listening for her to call their names and give each one a familiar command—come by (move clockwise), away (move counterclockwise), walk up, (move toward the stock), come back, and stand. She communicates not only with words but also with her body position and timing of commands.

Their teamwork is impressive wherever they are—working at the ranch or competing at cattle or sheep trials, events that showcase the partnership of handler and dog as they move stock.

“We cover a lot of ground, so the dogs are vital to our livelihood,” Williams said. “With our kids grown, it was just the two of us running the ranch. While John is busy raising crops, I run the cow operation by myself and rely on our dogs. Our son and his family have joined us on the ranch, and that’s a blessing, so it stays in the family.”

Williams said her fleet, four-legged friends are low-maintenance, needing only room and board and most of all craving a chance to herd livestock. Jake, 12, is her “top dog,” while his son Ace, 5, is “coming along.” Ty, 8, was bred in Germany. Blue, 18 months, “started his training in the round pen in May.”

Since training Penny, her first Aussie, in 1986, Williams has become so fluent in the language of stockdogs that she is sought after for her expertise. A member of the Australian Shepherd Club of America, she is a renowned trainer, competitor, and judge at sheep and cattle trials.

Wanting others to succeed, Williams has accepted invitations to teach clinics and judge trials throughout the United States, Germany, Finland, and Italy. This summer, she will share her insights during clinics she has scheduled at the ranch from August 14-17 and 24 -27. From August 19-22, she and John will host an ASCA sanctioned trial, the Summer Round-Up, at their place.

To promote Australian Shepherds, maintain and improve the breed, Williams and friends founded the nonprofit Australian Shepherd Club of Montana in 1992. They offer sanctioned events in herding, agility, obedience, rally, conformation, and tracking.

Summer trials

The club’s summer season of trials begins with the Frenchtown Fling from June 9-11. The Cow Country Classic in Frenchtown, July 7-9, is recognized as a top event nationwide and attracts competitors from throughout the United States and Canada. This summer, Williams plans to compete with Ace and Blue at trials, a summer pastime for three decades.

She traces her appreciation for stockdogs to Tuffy, a blue heeler she bought and trained in 1975. After Tuffy passed away, she and John heard about an Australian shepherd puppy available from a breeder in nearby Harlowton and bought Penny.

“We came to love the breed,” Williams said. “Aussies are good, reliable working dogs, love to work for their people, and are good with kids.”

To train Penny in 1986, Williams enrolled in clinics and read books.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could and apply it. Stockdogs have a natural herding instinct but need to be trained to be a good working partner. I’d grown up around livestock with my dad teaching me good stockmanship. I’d trained colts, so I understood the similarities between training dogs and horses—applying and releasing pressure, body position.”

Like each horse, each dog is a little different.

“Each has unique qualities and responds differently to a trainer,” she said. “To train successfully and have a willing partner, you provide a foundation and adjust for sensitivity. Find what works best for your dog. I emphasize positive consistent training, learning to communicate, and establishing an understanding. You work together in a thoughtful way.”

Herding Sheep Near Alzada

While Williams works cattle with her Aussies near Lewistown, the exact center of Montana, an Idaho trainer Lerrina Collins relishes time with her border collies 350 miles to the southeast on the rolling grasslands near Alzada.

In late April and early May, Collins and her collies, 3-year-olds Red and Sky, help friends bring in sheep from their winter range for shearing.

“They have about 2,000 sheep run across 25,000 acres plus a similar-sized Bureau of Land Management permit,” Collins said of the ranch’s registered corriedale, a dual-purpose breed known for fleece and meat. “It’s wild country—true dog-using country. It’s one of the best times of the year for the dogs and [me].”

The practical application of their herding skills kept Red and Sky tuned up to compete at the Mountain States Stockdog Association National Finals from June 19-24 in Afton, Wyo. The event attracts competitors from throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

This is the third time Collins has qualified her dogs for nationals.

“Being a partner with the dogs is more than merely words,” said Collins, who is based at King’s View Ranch near Moore in central Idaho. “It’s position, mindset, feel, timing, and pressure, to name a few components.”

She said the dogs love the trials as much as she loves showcasing their skills.

“Both dogs are ideal because they’re biddable, yet won’t back down when facing off with a cow,” said Collins, who has been competing on the MSSA circuit since 2017. “When a cow is being obstinate, they have the calm confidence needed to change the cow’s mind without being overly aggressive.”

Collins said stockdog trials are exploding in popularity in the cattle world as people catch the bug and realize it’s not only fun, but a family-friendly sport.

She not only competes but also relies on her border collies for assistance with handling the grass-fed beef and lamb that she and her husband, Craig, raise and sell.

Several years ago, Collins became intrigued with talented stockdogs while helping a friend move his cattle in eastern Oregon.

“I was riding the legs off my horse while he rode along with a couple of his dogs, excited to be doing all the work and listening eagerly for his commands,” she said.

To learn to train stockdogs, about six years ago Collins enrolled in a clinic offered by successful trainer and competitor Joni Tietjen of Clearmont, Wyo. Joni and her husband rely on dogs to help them at their cattle ranch.

After completing the clinic with her dog Lacy, Collins built herself a round pen at home, a little less than 30 feet across, to start her young dogs.

“The wonderful thing about border collies is they’ve been bred for centuries to bring animals to you. So if I’m standing at 6 o’clock, the dog will naturally tend to go to 12 o’clock, so they can bring the stock to me.”

With that idea as a foundation, she can walk to various positions and teach the verbal commands of come by, away, walk up, come back, and stand.

“When I say ‘Stand,’ I want my dog to remain on its feet,” she said. “Some trainers want their dog to lie down, but some sheep will startle when the dog stands up.”

Collins looks forward to nationals.

“However we place, it’s always good to watch my dogs at work and visit with other handlers and trainers. It’s like old home week with friends.” MSN


To learn more about Montana’s stockdogs, information is posted at ascofmt.org and a public Facebook page, Montana Herding Dogs. In Idaho, information is at mountainstatesstockdog.com. Collins posts videos of her dogs at work on Facebook at King’s View Ranch.

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