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Four-legged assistants ready to work
By KYLE PENDERGRAFT | Central Texas Edition
Mib, a German Coolie at the Heel Nippin’ Ranch in Groesbeck, is seen here being taught to hold sheep in check while they are dewormed and medicated.
--Courtesy photos by Ida Parmer
GROESBECK — For generations, dogs have been an integral part of the herding process, whether men were moving cattle or sheep in the United States,
Australia, or anywhere else in the world.
The working dog, the four-legged assistant, has been doing its job so effectively for so long that it has even become a part of mainstream popular culture,
appearing in movies such as John Wayne’s classic “Hondo” and the “Hank the Cowdog” series of books. And yet, according to Ida Parmer of the Heel
Nippin’ Ranch in Groesbeck many farmers and ranchers today seem to have no idea how to get along with the creatures that have been helping others in
their profession do their jobs for centuries.
Too many people, she says, are almost afraid of dogs because of false impressions and negative gossip.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that a dog is a dog is a dog,” said Parmer, who manages the ranch alongside her husband, Jack. “They
think there is no difference between a working dog versus a pet. They don’t understand that the herding instinct is modified prey behavior and (if they do
have any concept of that), they don’t understand it. They don’t know how to turn it to their advantage and use the dog in a way that benefits both animal
One major aspect of the working dog is that it is bred for stamina. These are dogs that have been geared towards being able to work all day at tracking
livestock or following behind a cowboy on a horse for hours on end. A working dog is so genetically hardwired for stamina, in fact, that they almost can’t
stand still. Many working dogs will poke and prod at people with their noses or even nip to get what they want. While many would perceive this as aggressive
behavior, Parmer says that it’s not.
“Coming from a working dog it’s not aggression,” said Parmer, “it’s the dog’s way of playing or trying to get the action moving.”
One of the keys to understanding the nature of working dogs is to realize that herding behavior is modified predatory behavior. Parmer says that people
often think that the two behavior patterns might, at best, be intertwined, but that they still consider them to be separate things. The reality is that a dog
without a prey drive will not make a good herding dog. Herding instinct— the natural intuition that moves the dog to see a target, chase it, and bring it to the
pack member who takes the target down— is pure wild prey drive.
Through manipulation and selective breeding, Parmer explains, man has modified this type of activity so that the dog will chase the target and bring it back
to the handler (who the dog perceives as pack leader). Because of this, supervision is critical with working dogs. If a dog is left to work without any
management from a handler, herding behavior can quickly turn to predatory behavior.
“Dogs have been domesticated for many years,” said Parmer, “but they can and will still revert back to primal behaviors if they’re put into certain situations.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about working dogs is that there is no difference between training and management. Training, as defined by a breeder
like Parmer, is teaching a dog to perform a task by having the dog memorize every aspect or step of the task by routine. Management is, in fact, more
beneficial since it requires the dog’s owner to let the dog’s natural genetic ability and desire to herd take over while the owner stands back and shows the
dogs the finer points of what is required.
“In management, you’re showing the dog some finesse and keeping him from making mistakes that could get him or you hurt,” said Parmer.
A typical question is whether or not there is a specific window of time when a dog needs to be geared towards being a herder. The answer to that question
lies in the fact that every dog is an individual, says Parmer. There are some dogs that want to start working livestock as soon as they’re up and walking.
Others do not “turn on” until much later. Parmer says that if a dog is showing her that he wants to work livestock, she starts him on gentle stock to build his
confidence; she and her husband doing the actual work but making the dog believe that everything that is happening is being caused purely by it’s actions.
In the larger scheme of things with a working dog, Parmer says, genetics are ultimately more important than formal training. If the dog has the desire, says
Parmer, if it has the herding instinct and the prey drive needed then the dog simply needs to be managed, not really trained.
“If the dog has no herding instinct whatsoever, it is difficult, if not impossible, to teach him to be an effective herding dog,” said Parmer. “It really all comes
down to what’s built into the dog.”
Mib, a German Coolie at the Heel
Nippin’ Ranch in Groesbeck, is seen
here being taught to hold sheep in
check while they are dewormed and
--Courtesy photos by Ida Parmer