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Working Insight: Sara-Jo Gahm

Sara-Jo Gahm has been involved with cattle dogs since 1996, breeding under the On the Lamb prefix. She worked ACDs for many years, putting herding championships on several dogs including generations of her own breeding, before switching to border collies. She was the owner and handler of the ACDCA national herding champion of 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and the breeder, owner, handler of the national herding champions for 2013, 2014. 2015, 2016 and 2017. She put five AKC herding championships on three generations of cattle dogs. She now trains and trials border collies in cattle trials. She also gives lessons and hosts clinics at her farm in Washington state. Her website is

1) Where did you get your first registered working acd/s?

I got my first ACD from Craig Watson of Far Fetched ACDs.

A) What drew you to the breed?

In high school I boarded my horse at a barn where the son of the owner had an ACD. He taught roping to a group of local kids, and used his ACD to move the roping steers. The dog was totally a one person dog, followed his owner everywhere, and wouldn’t even interact with me. I thought he was a cool dog and wanted a dog that was that bonded to me.

B) Who were your mentors?

When I picked up my pup from Craig, he was teaching lessons. I watched and was immediately interested in learning. I took lessons with Craig for many years. My second dog was from Larry Painter, and I worked with him for many years also. Later, when I hit some road blocks that I could not seem to get past, I started working with Kent Herbel. He revolutionized the way I train and work my dogs. I still train with him to this day.

2) What do you feel are the minimum standard working traits that a working acd needs to have naturally (not trained)

I want to see sustained interest in the livestock, and the ability to keep up that interest even when pressure and structure are placed on the dog. Often a dog is interested in chasing, but when you start to structure that, it becomes clear that the dog is only interested in chasing, not controlling, the livestock. I do not want to have to cheerlead a dog that does not naturally have enough keenness to continue.

3) What do you think is the most important trait and why?

After you have a dog with drive, as noted above, the most important thing is the handler’s relationship with the dog. The dog needs to respect the handler. Too often the dog is working for itself, and derives it’s confidence from beating the handler. Or is overpressured and not happy to be working for the handler.

4) Who was the best acd you owned and why?

I would have to say PJ (On The Lamb Ride An Old Paint) was my best ACD. He is keen but also biddable. He wants to work with me and please me, not just work for himself. He bites both ends, covers escapes by going to the head, works naturally wide compared to most ACDs, and rates well.

5) Who was the best acd you didn’t own and what did you like about that dog?

Craig Watson’s Sassy. She kept her stock calm, rated well, and was consistent in her work. That was a lot of years ago that I knew her, and I was much newer to herding, so I might have more to say about her if I saw her today.

6) If you no longer work Acds or have added another breed, what were the factors that lead you to that decision

I no longer work ACDs, and have moved to Border Collies. I initially bought a trained Border Collie to help me learn. I was already working my ACDs at the advanced level in the various venues, but all along I had been learning while trying to teach my dogs at the same time. Just as a green rider on a green horse is not going to advance past a certain level, I wanted to get the feel of working a highly trained dog. I felt it would help me know what to expect from my ACDs. I definitely expected more and got more out of my ACDs once I had a better feel for what is possible.

After I had been working my BC for several years, I was introduced to Border Collie cattle trials. These trials are often time and points trials and are open to any breed, but most of the dogs competing are Border Collies. The level of work I saw at these trials was light years beyond anything I had ever seen before. The grit combined with the precision that these dogs exhibited was amazing, and I wanted to be able to compete at that level. I did compete with PJ, my ACD, at some of those trials, but I did not feel that he, or any ACD I had ever seen, was going to be competitive at that level.

At that point, I had won the ACD National Herding Championship at the ACD National Specialty for 9 out of 11 years. I felt it was time to jump into a bigger, more competitive venue. The stockmanship I saw from the top handlers in the Border Collie cattle venues was beyond anything I had seen before, and I wanted to learn from the people I saw exhibiting it. So I switched.

7) What do you look for when picking a puppy?

I think picking a puppy is a huge crap shoot! I look at how the parents work, and how related dogs work, and I pick based on that. I like a confident, outgoing pup, but beyond that, I feel it is a guessing game. Pups change so much, and so quickly, so I go with a breeding I hope will produce well, and go with that.

8) What is your breeding philosophy?

When I bred ACDs, I tried to pick strong working dogs to breed to. But honestly, there was generally not a lot out there that I really liked. I tried to look for working dogs with decent conformation, to balance the two. One of the things I love about Border Collie breeding is that there is a huge pool of working genetics. Since they are bred for work, not for any particular look, the working traits are front and center, and not diluted. And there is a huge pool of different types of working dogs, since different breeders and trainers like different things in their working dogs.

Looking back on my ACD experience, I think the working aspect of the breed would be better off if folks ignored conformation and bred only for work. I know a lot of folks don’t want to hear that, but I truly believe that selecting for anything other than work erodes the working traits.

A) Linebreeding?

I don’t have strong feelings on line breeding. I understand the pluses and minuses. If you have a trait you want to set into your line, it is helpful. You can inadvertently set other things into the line too. It is a tool, and all aspects need to be considered.

B) How often do you outcross and how do you chose a dog to breed to?

I did not breed enough generations of ACDs to feel I can comment on this.

9) How do you bring up a puppy?

I start from day one teaching a pup to move away from my pressure. I use pressure and release for all aspects of training. This is not any sort of formal training, but all of my interactions with a pup are with pressure and release. When we go to stock, they already understand that concept.

A) At what age do you start them on stock (sheep? Cattle?)

I might start exposing them to sheep very briefly at 8 weeks or so. But it is very infrequent, and just so I can see if there is interest there. The main thing is not to allow any bad experiences at a young age, that might shake their confidence. Formal training starts whenever the pup is ready. I have had some ready to take a ton of pressure at 4 months, and some that are not ready until after a year. I start on sheep. I actually prefer to start on very light sheep, not sheep that will follow me, so the dog can see that he has a job. This is part of where a handler learning on a trained dog is helpful. A beginner handler is not going to be able to work a pushy young dog on light stock.

B) What training do you do before stockwork?

As noted above, I want the dog to understand pressure and release. I want a good recall, though I expect that the recall will go away when the dog sees stock. When it does go away, I have the physical ability to get the dog under control, using pressure and release, so the dog learns it cannot ignore the recall. I start teaching a down very early, but it is more important to me that I can get a down with physical pressure, not necessarily a verbal. I don’t use verbals at all while working a dog until much later in training. Every behavior I want is shaped physically with pressure and release until it looks the way I want it, before I add a verbal to it.

10) What can breeders do to preserve working ability in the breed?

Select for working traits. Whatever the working traits are that are important to you, use those in selecting your breeding. There is a lot of pressure to breed for conformation. Don’t let that determine your choices. I hear a lot of conformation folks who don’t work their dogs, or only dabble in working them, make all sorts of cases for why a certain conformation trait is necessary. I don’t believe any of that. Choose your proven working dogs.

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