WAPELLO – A well trained stock dog is more valuable to a rancher trailing cows than two or three riders on horseback, especially if they’re the Border Collie breed, says Anita Pratt, and she should know.
Not only has the Pratt family been using Border Collies to help move their cattle to summer range in the Blackfoot mountains for at least 30 years, the dogs are bred and trained by Anita, and as far she’s concerned, there’s no dog as smart and willing to work.
“They’re quick, they’re smart — they’re even intuitive — and they love to work,” Anita says, as she prepares to demonstrate their ability with her current trainee, “Rob,” on a small bunch of ewes and lambs.
It’s a cold and windy morning drizzling rain, and Anita is bundled in a padded and hooded coat as she releases the small herd from a pen into a pasture. Her dog Rob’s task on this day is to round the animals up and move them from one spot to another before putting them through the door of a 60x80-foot building resembling a barn that her husband, Gary, had built last year for her to use as a training place when in inclement weather.
As Rob moves the sheep into a bunch, she says one of the first things the dog in training learns is not to encroach on the animals’ space while they’re bunched — an area between it and the sheep she calls the “bubble” — until it’s time to move them. Then he’s allowed inside to get them started, and once they’re on the move her voice tells him which direction to take them, when to change directions, and when to lie down and hold the sheep in place.
She said “come by” means to move the sheep in a clockwise direction. “Away to me” means to move them counter-clockwise. “Walk up” means to move them slowly, “lie” means for the dog to lie flat and hold the sheep in one place.
She observes that Rob is not at his best working with sheep, especially with lambs in the mix. They change the dynamics of the situation, which he may find somewhat disconcerting, because the ewes, instead of obeying, will occasionally challenge him when he gets too close. At any rate, he gets the job done and lies down for a well-earned rest, giving Anita time to explain how training goes.
She says the age at which she starts a pup depends on when it begins to show an interest. “That’s usually nine to 10 months,” she said, “but they have to be mentally ready.”
For many years, she introduced the dogs to training by using ducks before graduating them to bigger lambs, and then full-grown sheep, but had to give up the ducks. “There are so many coyotes around here they kept killing my ducks.”
Anita found she also had a problem with the lambs once they grew up and began producing wool — no shearing crew wanted to come to her place just for a few head, and it was too difficult to haul them to the shearing crew even if she could find one willing to do so few.
She solved that problem when she found in a magazine a breed of sheep called Katahdin, developed for its meat so that it had hair like a cow instead of wool. So she bought some, and when they outgrew their purpose, they became food.
It was her husband who sparked her interest in training stock dogs, Anita says.
Gary was attending a sale at the Blackfoot Livestock Auction when he met up with a truck driver who had a handsome canine traveling partner that was a Border Collie/English Sheep Dog/Airedale cross. He struck up a conversation with the cattle hauler and ended up, partly from desire and partly from pity due to his love of animals, buying the dog named “Butch.”
“He couldn’t bear the thought of a dog cooped up for hours at a time in the cab of a truck.”
Shortly after that, Anita’s uncle gave her a purebred Border Collie female. The inevitable romance that resulted when she was introduced to Butch produced Anita’s first trainee, and she was on her way to becoming a stock dog trainer. But first she had to learn how it was done, Anita said.
To find out, she learned who the top trainers in the area were and began attending every clinic within driving distance that they held. When she and her tutors thought she was ready, she went into business for herself. “I did it partly because of Gary,” she said. “I thought it would be something we could do together.”
And it was, but for different reasons. Gary decided at one time to become a rodeo clown. He appropriated a couple of the dogs, taught them to do tricks, and they appeared at several local rodeos. Anita didn’t much appreciate the part where he taught them to remove newly laundered sheets and such from her clothesline.
Some of the dogs have become so close to the Pratts over time they’re never sold, and after they retire they remain at the ranch until they die.
One confirmation of her success as a trainer and the value of her dogs came several years ago when the Eastern Idaho Grazing Association the Pratts belong to decided someone should be hired to see that the cattle didn’t graze too long in one spot. They engaged a couple from Canada and provided a travel trailer for their summer home. Anita asked if they wanted a couple of her dogs to help, but they declined, their only experience with stock dogs having been trailing cattle.
She brought a couple of dogs up anyway. The couple would move the cattle about the same time each day, usually around 11 a.m. On one occasion they entertained visitors into the early hours and were late in arising. Alarmed at their tardiness, they were relieved to find that her dogs had rounded up and moved the cattle at the appointed time by themselves.
“They didn’t question their usefulness after that,” she said.
Anita has built a respectable clientele over the years and improved the bloodline of her dogs as she’s gone along, always sticking with the Border Collies, which she considers the most intelligent and easily taught of the dog breeds.
“Studies have been done on the intelligence of different breeds,” she said, “and one says Border Collies have the reasoning ability of a 12-year old child. That’s smart for a dog.”
She imported two stud sires from Wales and one each from Ireland and Scotland. She currently has two breeding females, but her dogs are not allowed to breed indiscriminately. They’re kept in separate pens except when taken out for exercise, training or work, and are only bred when she has an order to fill.
“There’s nothing sadder than a litter of puppies with no home to go to,” she observed.
The demand for Border Collies has expanded in the past few years, Anita said. While working livestock was once their sole purpose, people are now purchasing them to compete in stock dog trials and dog sports, where they’re prized for their agility. That means the price for them is climbing. “Two Border Collies at the Red Bluff, Calif., dog show sold for $30,000 each,” Anita said.
Depending on their personalities, some Border Collies do make good family pets, she said, but not for sedentary people. “They’re very active dogs,” she said. “So people who hike and do a lot of outdoor activities do well with them. But those whose brains are set for work need to work. In fact they’re not programmed to quit. You have to make them stop or they would work themselves to death.”
She hopes she doesn’t come across as thinking she knows everything there is to know about training stock dogs, Anita said.
“I don’t think anybody can say that about themselves. As one of the top trainers said, ‘If you ever think you’re an expert at training dogs, change dogs.’”