When Martin Johnson lets his dogs out of their cages, he doesn’t have to put them on a leash — they head straight for the pasture.
When they get there, before they go toward Johnson’s herd of cattle or sheep, they crouch on the ground like a cat preparing to pounce on a mouse, waiting anxiously for his whistle to signal that it’s time to go after the herd.
“These dogs live for work,” Johnson said.
Johnson trains primarily border collies to herd sheep and cattle. He got his first border collie in 1996 and has trained dogs since 2002 but has always had an interest in herding dogs.
“A friend of mine was a bird-dog trainer, and he told me I needed to be training dogs,” Johnson said. “He dropped some dogs off at my house and said, ‘Here you go.’”
Johnson has been training dogs ever since.
He saw a TV special on the Arkansas Educational Television Network about a man from Mayflower who specializes in training dogs to herd, and that piqued Johnson’s interest.
“I’ve always been amazed by them even before I had them,” he said. “They have a natural instinct to bring [the herd] to you.”
All Johnson needs is 90 days of training with a dog, and he can enhance the skills they’re bred to do, plus some.
Though border collies are herding dogs and have a natural instinct to bring a herd to a person, Johnson also teaches them to drive the herd away.
“My dogs can work either way,” he said. “I tell people, the dogs are like a remote-controlled car, if they’ve got the gas, I put the steering and brakes on it.”
Johnson said he does training in 30-day cycles.
“In 30 days, I can get the dogs to lie down, and they will know how to go around the pasture clockwise and counterclockwise,” he said. “In 60 days, the dogs will be going farther across the pasture and swing out.”
After 90 days, the dog will have the ability to drive the herd away.
He starts the beginner dogs on a herd of sheep because the sheep are smaller, and if a sheep steps on a dog, it’s less likely to get hurt.
All of the skills Johnson teaches the dogs he trains were acquired from commands trainers in Scotland use with their dogs.
“I’ve been able to move 150,000 pounds of beef with three 30-pound dogs,” Johnson said. “I never stop being amazed by them.”
Johnson gets the chance to show off his dogs at the Scottish festival at Lyon College every year and at competitions.
“It’s such a neat sport,” he said. “You can compete against the big-name trainers at these competitions.”
Though he’s been at it for quite a while, he’s still got a lot to learn, Johnson said. By reading and going to clinics, he is always looking for ways to improve his training skills.
“If I live to be 100, I still won’t be as good as the guys in Scotland,” he said.