Moving cattle in a calm, controlled manner is an art… and dogs are the experts

Neil McDonald demonstrating how moving a mob of cattle can be as easy as “follow the leader” if people, cattle and dogs understand each other.

Educate people, then cattle… the dogs know what they’re about

An attentive cohort of about 30 people attended a four-day Advanced Livestock Handling and Working Dog School with renowned dog trainer Neil McDonald in Townsville in October, 2023.

It’s a bit of a misnomer — it is a school for working dogs, but they’re last on the list that need the education necessary to be able to move mobs of cattle in a calm, controlled manner.

Neil targets people first, the toughest assignment.

“Your dog won’t try to understand you until it is confident you understand it,” he tells participants on the first day of the course.

Cattle are next.

Neil said Matt Crowley’s weaners being used as practice or “trainer” herds increased in value every time they were shepherded around the Bartlett Park yards by man and dogs.

He said Matt should be swamped by people wanting to buy a trainer herd.

“You practice for campdraft, polocrosse, even rodeo,” Neil said.

“Why don’t we practice the skills we use with our dogs?”

He said adding five new beasts to a herd of five educated cattle would quickly become 10 educated cattle, then 20 and so on.

When the cattle are educated — an uninformed onlooker might say “co-operative” — it’s a pleasure to shift the mob from paddock to paddock and that gives graziers more control over their pasture management. The knock-on effects are enormous, right down to reducing erosion in over-grazed paddocks and, consequently, the amount of sediment and nutrients being washed into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

Lastly, the dogs. With educated people moving educated cattle, getting dogs up to speed is relatively easy.

Neil said the canine instinct handed down the evolutionary chain from hunting wolves was for a few members of a pack to herd prey back towards the leader and the rest of the pack.

“If you stand on one side of a mob of cattle, the dogs will instinctively herd them towards you (the pack leader),” Neil said.

“Really, all you need to teach them is a ‘stop’ command.”

Of course it’s a little more involved than that but Neil says the principle is simple and only a matter of recognising and applying some skills to reinforce natural instinct.

Keep an eye on NQ Dry Tropics’ monthly grazing newsletter, Prime Cuts for news about upcoming schools.

The school was supported by the Herding Change Through Grassroots Recovery project funded by the partnership between the Australian Government and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Neil McDonald’s Advanced Livestock Handling and Working Dog Schools include a lot of information… and a lot of McDonald parables, disguised as random stories. Listen carefully!

Briannan and Bek Pace with their dogs Eddy and Yoshie.

Dave Hall and Zac.

Paul LeFeuvre (left) and Des Bolton listen closely.

Joe Skuse in action.

Eric LeFeuvre, Worona gets a good connection with the cattle he is working.

Bek Pace controls the herd with expert help from one of Neil’s dogs.

Briannan Pace uses the rake to emphasise body position signals for the dogs.