On Saturday, bidders will spend thousands of dollars at Pendleton Cattle Barons to obtain dogs that could make ranch work significantly easier or compete in the upper echelons of sheep dog competitions.
But those dogs aren’t born capable of properly herding large herds of livestock, and that’s where Rocky and Robin Brown come in.
The husband-and-wife team from central Idaho run Broken Circle Border Collies, which staged a two-day training session during Cattle Barons to help turn their canine buddies into work partners.
Early Monday morning, a small group of ranchers and their dogs gathered around a sheep pen set up in Happy Canyon Arena for the chance to get critiqued by Robin Brown.
The first team into the pen was Heather Adkins, a manager at Jordan Creek Ranch near La Grande, and Link, her 7-month-old border collie.
As Adkins guided Link around the pen, the sheep ran for cover, cowering behind Adkins as she issued her commands.
Robin urged the students watching Adkins work to watch their dogs’ body language: a still tail meant the dog was engaged and not distracted.
“Watch his ears and his tail and this pup will tell you what it is thinking,” she said.
Adkins had been to Robin’s previous clinics and it showed. By the end of her run, Robin had only some minor constructive criticism interspersed with numerous compliments.
As she watched some other students practice, Adkins said it can be difficult running a ranch in a male-dominated industry. And when a dog is unruly during a cattle run, it can be downright embarrassing.
Adkins said she’s been to numerous dog clinic over the years, but she was initially skeptical at one of Robin’s tips: emitting a low growl to get a dog to comply with a command.
“I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Adkins said.
But when she tried it with her own dogs, it worked, and she’s now a full-blown convert, praising the Browns for always finding a way to get dogs of different skill levels to become more obedient by the end of their lessons.
During a lull in the clinic, Robin said she comes from a ranching family, but her passion for working dogs came a little later in life.
She went with a friend to a sheep dog trial on a whim and unexpectedly became hooked.
She started attending clinics and reading books, and grew her expertise enough that breeding and training dogs for livestock herding became her full-time job.
Robin said it took some time to earn the respect of her male peers, but when she did things like become the first woman to win a National Cattledog Association Championship, it was difficult to argue with the results.
“The proof is in the pudding,” she said.
Robin said the top lesson she imparts on her students is to approach directing their dog with “less stress.” In other words, good dog handling is a balancing act: get too aggressive in discipling a dog and it will become disengaged and quit on the job; let the dog get too aggressive with the livestock, and it could end up hurting the animals.
Adkins agreed that good handling involved stress and release.
“It’s a dance, and it’s a delicate dance,” she said. “You can get through the song without stepping on each other’s toes and still look good doing it.”
As Robin worked the sheep pen, Rocky manned the cattle pens behind the Round-Up Grounds.
While the sheep literally trembled when one of the dogs got close, it was a little harder to intimidate the cows: the dogs needed confidence if they wanted the cattle to move, and some cows weren’t afraid to headbutt a dog that was annoying them.
Although Rocky was a confident and dutiful teacher, he said Robin does most of the traveling while he tends to the 30 dogs they breed, work, and train at their ranch in Indian Hills, Idaho.
It’s hard work that includes cleaning all of their kennels.
“That’s why we have a pressure hose,” he said dryly.
Robin said the demand for sheep and cattle dogs has been exploding as more ranchers realize that one dog can do the herding work of several cowboys.
Rocky said a trained dog with the right lineage can fetch up to $15,000. After the training ends, the Browns will be offering one of their dogs up for auction on Saturday.
Rocky said each dog is different and some take longer than others to train. But he’s always found that it takes longer to train a person than it takes to train a dog.
And regardless of how many hours it takes to train a dog, Rocky said there’s a deep sense of satisfaction that comes when he sees one of Broken Circle’s dogs working a ranch or herding in a competition, the ability to herd livestock on command now hardwired into their instincts.