When we hear the words “track dogs,” we think of racing Greyhounds. When we hear the words “showing and conditioning,” we think of show dogs.

In Texas however, those words often have totally different meanings. “Track dogs” are dogs who put in an honest day’s work helping to condition show goats and sheep. Yes, there are serious conformation shows for sheep and goats, ranging from 4-H and Future Farmers of America to major fairs and Nationals. The sheep and goats are evaluated for fitness and muscle – something that perhaps more dog show judges ought to look at!

While a show dog can quickly adapt to working out on a treadmill or biking alongside a handler, show sheep and goats aren’t so amenable. So serious livestock competitors had to come up with other ways to get their small ruminants in shape and keep them that way. Enter the track dog.

Herding dogs tend to either be “headers” or “heelers.” Most top sheep trial dogs tend to want to go to the heads of the livestock – or head them – to turn them and then fetch the livestock to the handler. Heelers are more likely to follow behind the livestock – driving them to where the handler wants them moved.

Ida Parmer of Yata Hae ranch in Groesbeck, Texas, points out the problems with a header type dog as a track dog. “Just speaking from experience, using a dog that is a natural fetch-gather dog – sometimes called a head dog – frustrates and confuses the dog. He is genetically inclined to always try to go to the head of the livestock and turn the stock back to the handler. The handler has to constantly correct the dog and bring him back to the rear of the stock, which makes the dog feel he constantly fails. Eventually, a good dog will stop working or will be apprehensive. It’s called “learned helplessness”; no matter what he does, it’s never good enough for the handler, and he eventually gives up. This is why I always choose a dog that prefers to heel or is a natural heeling dog, like the Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Shepherd or German Coolie, although, some Coolies can be fetch-gather dogs like the Border Collie or Kelpie.”

A dog that naturally prefers to heel, like this Kelpie, can make for an ideal track dog. Photos courtesy of Larry King.

A dog that naturally prefers to heel, like this Kelpie, can make for an ideal track dog. Photos courtesy of Larry King.

For exercising show sheep and goats, owners build a working track. This is usually a round or oval track just wide enough for one or two animals to be worked at a time. The dog’s job is to stay behind the livestock, but keep it moving to build up muscle and condition. A dog that prefers to heel is better for track dog duty, as it will naturally want to stay behind and push the animals on.

The Walkers of Hillsboro, Texas, work with Border Collies. They have an oval track about 4 feet wide that measures 25-by-50 feet on the inside. The goal is to work one, or at most two, sheep or goats around the track.

As Jimmy Walker describes it, a track dog’s career is ideal for a dog that may not make a top-notch herding trial dog. “Any dog that is interested in working the stock is a potential track dog,” Jimmy says, “however most of mine are dogs that aren’t showing a lot of natural herding instinct,” but more chasing instinct. Jimmy’s focus is on herding, so he uses dogs that don’t excel at herding as track dogs. “They would rather chase than herd.”

Like good herding dogs, track dogs must be biddable – responsive to their handler. Without control, they are simply chasing and not truly working the livestock.

Jimmy points out, “I start them the same way I would a good herding prospect. I get in a small pen and start the dog circling some gentle dog-broke goats [goats used to being worked by a dog]. I want the dog lying down and calling off [the livestock] on command. When they are, then we go to the track. In the track, there’s a fence between me and the dog. I want complete verbal control before I get in there and have that obstacle between us.” The goal is to keep both the dog and the livestock safe.

The breed Ida uses for livestock exercise dogs is unique. Her Yata Hae German Coolies have natural heeling ability, which makes them excellent track dogs. The breed was developed in Australia, but is thought to have origins in Europe with input from various herding breeds. Coolies tend to be similar to Kelpies in many ways, but have more variation in coat, ear type and color. The breed standard places heavy emphasis on working ability and soundness.

Track dogs should never be allowed to work with stock alone or unsupervised, and are always placed in a position to succeed and never get hurt.

Track dogs should never be allowed to work with stock alone or unsupervised, and are always placed in a position to succeed and never get hurt.

The setup for Ida’s livestock is similar to that of the Walkers. “I have an oval pen and a round pen. Both pens are set up like a race track. The track, or alley way, is wide enough for one animal with good clearance on both sides. The curves on the outside either have solid wood, tarp or orange snow fence along them. This keeps the animals from running into the fence. The track is narrow; this stops or helps the animal from trying to turn around and keeps him running in a predictable pattern. It’s best to work the animal both directions to keep his muscle tone even on both sides. Working an animal uphill and downhill helps build chest and hip-butt muscles.” This sounds very much like an excellent conditioning program for a show dog!

The dogs are working hard too, as they will exercise multiple groups of livestock over a day. Sheep and goats are not designed to run for long periods of time, especially at a fast pace. As Ida emphasizes, “Speed depends on the animal; only enough speed is used to build muscle, increase stamina, and condition the animal. Run time is kept short. Animals are allowed to rest, and then they go again. Ambient temperature is also a factor. I never run a dog when the outside temperature is too hot,” possibly causing harm to the dog or stock.

It is also important to train your future working dog slowly and carefully.

Ida pays special attention to her puppies and young dogs. “I start my track-exercise dogs like I do my herding dogs. They learn basic obedience as puppies with a good foundation with a good recall and stop. They are around the stock, but never allowed to work or play with the stock while growing up. Training is always positive and fun. They are evaluated for their desire to work on baby lambs or kid goats starting at 4 months. They are never allowed to work alone or unsupervised, and are always placed in a position to succeed and never get hurt. They are tested on stock to evaluate their mental maturity at 8 months. Most are not mentally mature until after their secondary fear development stage is over. This occurs anywhere from 6 months to a year old. I want to make sure they are physically and mentally mature to start work and handle the pressure.”

Track dogs are often fitted out with bells on their collars. The bell serves as a conditioner for the livestock that a dog is behind them and will push them to work. Even recalcitrant sheep and goats learn that the sound of a bell means you must move and exercise. Novice sheep and goats may be paired with experienced animals to learn the ropes and make the dog’s job a bit easier.

Next time you hear the words “track dogs,” you will have a new definition to try out!