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Cattleman’s best friend

Border collie trainer and trial competitor Richard Brandon marvels at the intelligence and tenacious work ethic of this nimble breed
Story and photos by Chris Villines 2/23/2011

 

Richard Brandon watches Beck, one of several border collies he owns and trains, work cattle on his farm near Greeneville. Richard began training border collies 10 years ago and has since branched out to become a regular competitor in regional and national cattledog trials. He hosted the inaugural U.S. Southern Cattledog Championship this past fall.
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As he saunters across the front yard at Brandon Farm near Greeneville with a rubber toy in his mouth, Beck, a 3-year-old border collie, acts the part of a typical, playful family dog.

His owner, Richard Brandon, emerges from a nearby barn with a bag of Co-op cattle feed slung over his shoulder, heads toward a pasture where a dozen newly weaned, hungry Angus calves wait, and commands Beck to come with him.

And just like that, playtime is over. Once Richard and Beck enter the field, the dog’s casual demeanor transforms into intense determination. His immediate job is to prevent a stampede to the bunk feeder until Richard has had a chance to pour in all of the Co-op 12% Pelleted Beef Feed (#94441).

“Anybody who uses bunk feeders will tell you that the livestock can just cover you up while you’re pouring out the feed,” explains Richard, who runs a 105-head commercial Angus cow/calf operation at the 400-acre farm established in 1938 by his grandfather, Earl, and father, Carl. “I’ve trained Beck and my other dogs to keep the cattle off of me when I’m feeding. It takes a pretty good dog to be able to hold them off, but these border collies are up to the task.”

Growing up, Richard says he remembers always having some type of shepherd, collie, or heeler on the farm, which until the early 1980s also functioned as a dairy. But the dogs “were of little or no help moving cattle,” he says.

“I can recall many a Sunday afternoon that my brother and I had to run after the cattle that had gotten out,” Richard adds.

Then around 10 years ago, as he was searching for the right kind of working dog for his operation that had expanded from cattle to include Katahdin sheep, Richard was introduced to the border collie breed. Having trained Labrador retrievers as bird dogs in the past, Richard’s new mission was to raise and train top-tier border collies to work on his farm and create a market to sell them to other producers. Thus, Caney Creek Border Collies was born.

“I usually keep between four and 10 dogs at all times,” says Richard, a longtime member of Greene Farmers Cooperative. “I sell some, and I trade some. I buy pups that I know come from good bloodlines and train them. Some of them I will keep, but if there are others that don’t really suit me but are still good farm dogs, I will sell them.”

When it comes to training border collies, he emphasizes that the dog must immediately have a burning desire to work.

“I learned pretty early on that not all of them are cut out to work cattle,” says Richard, who uses a mixture of voice commands and sounds from a herder’s whistle while training. “You might have a dog who could work sheep, but not cattle.”

To get an early glimpse of the temperament of a young border collie, Richard will take a 3- to 4-month-old puppy, connect it to a lead, and put it in front of a group of cows to see if the dog has the instincts to work. But Richard doesn’t truly begin the training process until the dog is nearly 1 year old.

“Physically, they might be wanting to work stock, but mentally, they are immature and can’t handle the pressure I am going to put on them every day,” he explains. “When I do start training, I spend 15 to 20 minutes with that dog every day — rain, sleet, or snow. I’ve trained dogs that were easy and others that were extremely hard. Some of the harder dogs actually perform better once you get them trained because they have a little more grit.”

Not long after he began training Border collies, Richard witnessed a sport that showcases the unique working relationship between dog and owner — cattledog trials, where various breeds of herding dogs must work livestock through a series of panels and chutes and then to a pen. He was instantly hooked.

“I went to my first trial in 2003 in Lawrenceburg with a friend of mine, Dwight Parker, who had been trialing for a while,” he says. “I didn’t know anything. Dwight helped me a lot, mentored me, and I’ve been trialing ever since. I have a competitive mindset, and to do well at the trials you have to be almost obsessed with it like any other sport.”

It didn’t take long for Richard to make a name for himself as one of the Southeast’s best cattledog trial competitors. For the past five years, his dogs have qualified for the sport’s most prestigious event, the United States Border Collie Handlers’ Association (USBCHA) National Cattledog Finals. In 2006, Richard and his “top dog,” Dan, won the USBCHA Reserve Nursery Championship at the finals in Big Lake, Texas.

“I’m a young guy in this sport,” says Richard, 47. “Some of the guys I compete against have 30 to 40 more years of experience. I’m still learning as I go. What you really want to accomplish is for your dog to be in the same position as you would be if you were moving livestock.”

His involvement in cattledog trialing continues to expand. This past October, Richard’s farm was the host site for the first-ever U.S. Southern Cattledog Championship, an event sanctioned by the USBCHA. The trial featured some of the Southeast’s best handlers and cattledogs competing in three open classes over a two-day period. Dwight Parker and his dog, Mike, earned high-point honors at the event, just ahead of Richard and his dog, Cuz.

“We wanted to offer handlers in this area a chance to compete in a good cattledog trial that is comparable to the national finals,” Richard says. “There are a very limited number of cattledog trials in the Southeastern U.S., compared to numerous trials west of the Mississippi [River].”

While competing with his border collies has become an exciting and rewarding pastime for Richard, he says the practical use of these blue-collar canines on the farm is their real value to cattle producers like himself.

“If you have a good, strong border collie that is trained well, you’ve got the best farmhand that you’ve ever had in your life,” he says as he pets Beck. “I guarantee you.”

For more information about Caney Creek Border Collies, visit www.caneycreekbordercollies.com or call Richard Brandon at 423-823-0764.


 
 
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