Border collies working well for Durham ranchers

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Farming and ranching have provided Pat and Gordon Christiansen with a good life on their farm west of Durham.

But when the couple’s three grown children decided to pursue other interests away from the area, they were left long on work and short on help.

Fortunately, the Christiansens alleviated their labor shortage with helpers that didn’t talk back, worked as many hours as they wanted without question and whose pay amounted to dog food-literally.

And those helpers generated in a decent income on the side.

The Christiansens’ solution was to begin raising McCallum-bred border collies.

“We chose this breed of dog because they’re very tough-minded and tough-headed,” Pat said of the breed that originated from Tony McCallum in Australia. “Border collies are very intelligent and they want to please.”

Although youngest son John has since returned to help drive the machinery, Pat Christiansen’s dogs have maintained their place in the cattle pens over the course of the past five years, when the couple began raising the four-legged workaholics.

“We had a good dog or two (before), but cattle dogs are prone to injury and the ones we had got injured and had to be replaced,” Gordon said.

“We saw some (border collies) working down at Medicine Lodge. We liked them and the people, so we traded a female dog for a horse and now we’re in the business.”

That swap took place with Joe and Laura Steinmates of Macksville. The association continues to this day.

“They’ve been showing dogs all their lives,” Pat said. They breed, train and show dogs-and they’ve been very patient with us,” Pat said with a smile. “I guess you could say we’re under their tutelage.”

For the Christiansens, it initially came down to who was training whom.

“The dog we started with basically trained us,” Gordon said. “We didn’t know what to do ,but if we left her alone, she’d do what needed to be done.”

The border collies name comes from its origination on the border of Scotland and England. The word “collie” incorporates the Gaelic word for “useful” or the German word for “worker.”

And these border collies love to work.

“You have to watch them or they’ll run until they die, so you have to be sure you don’t overwork them,” Gordon said. “These are bigger and rangier dogs that can really get out and cover a lot of country.”

Added Pat: “But they’re still just like us: conditioning does make a difference.”

Although border collies are used in many ways, there is a difference between the dogs the Christiansens use with cattle and the ones trained for working sheep.

“About as much difference as fans of KU and K-State,” Gordon said with a laugh.

The primary difference comes in the area of “eyeing,” Pat said, which is the amount of concentration the dog shows the sheep.

“The dog will crouch down (in a predatory position) in order to intimidate the animal it wants to herd.”

Gordon said that philosophy doesn’t work with cattle.

“Cattle will just go ahead and run right over the dog if they just stand there and look at them,” he said. “But when that dog reaches up and grabs ahold of the nose of the calf, it means something.”

“Most of the straight sheep dogs are trained not to bite,” Pat added. “We want ours to show the cattle who the boss is.”

McCallum-bred border collies are short-haired, which Gordon said isn’t as common in the breed.

“But we like that because they don’t get hot as quickly when they work,” he said.

“And these dogs are bigger than people’s conception of a border collie,” Pat said. “They’re bred larger simply because it’s a little more intimidating and they can hold their own better with cattle.”

Although Christiansens send their dogs to Steinmates for the finishing touches on training, most of the work is done on the farm by Pat and Gordon.

“Joe and Laura made a video showing how to train puppies the day you wean them, so we do that,” Pat said. “We train the basic commands: stay in the pen, stop, come. We work on those until they’re good and solid and we just keep adding commands as the dog matures.”

Working with border collies and cattle takes a different mentality for the rancher.

“These dogs will basically fetch to you,” Gordon said. “You have to learn how to work with the dog because I think it’s human nature to push cattle.

“These dogs work just the opposite and bring the cattle to where you’re at, so you really have to get on the other side of the pen.”

Added Pat: “One of the very last commands a dog is taught is to stay back beside you when you drive cattle,” she said. “It’s done, but it’s very hard for the dog.”

Normally, Pat said, the dogs’ training regimen begins at seven weeks but it’s not until their 10 months or a year old that they begin their training with cattle.

Whether a dog is destined to be an accomplished herd dog can, to a certain extent, be divined by various tests.

“One of the first things we do is test their tolerance for pain,” Gordon said. “If the dog whimpers or cries, there’s a good chance it won’t work out.

“If they can’t stand pain or take a solid kick, they just won’t make good cattle dogs.”

Another test, Gordon said, is to lay the dog on its back.

“Hopefully, it’ll fight you for a little bit and then become submissive,” he said,

“We also sometimes tie a goat up on a rope and introduce the pup to it to see if the puppy wants to naturally work it,” Pat said. “You can kind of tell if they’re interested or not.”

While these tests aren’t necessarily 100 percent accurate, they do provide an indicator.

“Sometimes they just mature later, and one day you’ll see the light go on like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do,'” Pat said.

“Sometimes these bigger puppies take a little bit longer to mature, even mind-wise. So if they’re not ready in a year, we don’t push them,” Gordon added.

“There are just some dogs that don’t take to training as quick as others.”

Dogs that wash out of the program generally end up as 4-H projects.

“They use them in obedience, showmanship and agility competitions,” Pat said.

Just how long a dog is able to earn its keep depends a lot on the amount of injuries it can avoid.

“Cattle dogs are a lot more prone to injury and that limits the time they’re able to work,” Gordon said. “Once they get hurt, they really start to slow down.”

Peak production comes at around 4 years of age, Pat said.

“They’re really savvy and good working dogs. But the older they get, obviously you don’t want to be working them near as hard as you would a younger dog,” she said. “You don’t want them to get hurt because they’re just to valuable.”

Gordon said a well-trained dog is as valuable as a hired hand when it comes to working cattle.

“When we’re running cattle through the hydraulic chute, we’ll have a dog bringing cattle to us,” he said. “We’ll run the gate, and when the dog hears the click that we’ve released the calf, he knows it’s time to fetch another one.

“He won’t keep running in between either. He’ll lay down and rest and wait for his signal.”

The dogs quickly learn how to avoid being kicked by a critter.

“The smart ones learn to bite the foot that the weight is on so they won’t get kicked,” he said.

Although Christiansens aren’t large-scale dealers, their venture can be lucrative, nonetheless.

“When we started, we had one female and raised one litter, so we’re not into a predominant market,” Pat said. “But the litters usually average about seven or eight pups.”

Depending on their stage of training, those pups can fetch a minimum of $500 at 7 weeks old and up to $1,500 for a moderately trained yearling.

“Then you get the really good ones and they’re worth $3,500 and more,” Pat said.

In the past two years, just two pups have gone to local ranchers. Christiansen stock is dispersed in eight states-including Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, California, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma-as well as Mexico.

“There have been too many dogs that are just dogs around the area working cattle, and area ranchers really don’t understand what these dogs can do,” Gordon said.

“We have some people who have a few cattle that use our dogs, but we’ve also sold them to feedyards out west.”

Christiansen dogs are registered with the American Border Collies. The couple belong to the Sundowner Cattle Dog Association in southern Oklahoma.

Although the Christiansens don’t have dogs for sale right now, they encourage interested parties to contact them.

“We had several for sale last year, but a guy came up from Oklahoma and was so impressed he pretty much cleaned us out,” Gordon said. “But we still know a lot of people that have dogs and we’ll get people lined up.”

Once you’ve seen a border collie work cattle, the Christiansens believe you’ll want a dog of your own.

“Very few people have seen a really-well-trained dog work,” Gordon said. “We’ve gone out several times around here with our dogs and those people are just floored because they had no idea these dogs can do what they do.”

“The reason we’re here with border collies is because we’ve tried other breeds and these dogs are just the most intelligent,” Pat said. “They’re very easy to control.

“It’s all in the dog’s mind.”

For more information, Pat and Gordon Christiansen can be reached by phone at 620-732-3320, in person at 2870 Falcon Drive or via e-mail at patch@dtnspeed.net.

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