One of the tools used by a cowboy in his daily work was his dog, or dogs. They were dogs that were used to being around cattle and which in most instances had been trained to control them. However they might also double as guard dogs for the remote dwellings which cowboys often favoured, and would also be companions, running alongside their master’s horse when he went into town or did other jobs on the ranch unaccompanied by cattle.

Certain breeds of dog were particularly adept at helping to corral and direct cattle that were being driven or rounded up. They tended to be breeds that were used for herding in other countries: border collies, bearded collies, Alpine shepherds, Basque shepherds, Belgians, and Australian shepherds (which don’t actually come from Australia).

Scene of cattle and sheep drinking in stream, from original by Heinrich Roos
Scene of cattle and sheep drinking in stream, from original by Heinrich Roos – note the dogs which are being used to direct the animals

In the late twentieth century an Oklahoma cowboy called Gary Ericsson combined several breeds of dog to create the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog, named after his brand, which was labelled ‘the ultimate cowboy’s dog’. It’s interesting to note the characteristics which he claims to have combined, which would have been those which previous generations of cowboy required:

  • ability to retrieve and herd
  • tough and aggressive
  • intelligent
  • not overly sensitive
  • slick or short-haired
  • having bone structure to resist harm from being kicked or trampled
  • with good endurance

Four breeds went into the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog mix, which now has pedigree status:

  • three-eighths Border Collie
  • one eighth Catahoula (a slick-coated Bayou dog)
  • one quarter Kelpie (a short-haired dog)
  • one quarter Australian Shepherd, but the only sire was a particular dog called Black Bear which was distinguished by having enormous courage with cattle

The training of a cattle dog is quite complex even though its instincts are being capitalised upon. Some breeds of dog are able to keep control over their charges by means of a predatory appearance and the use of fierce eye contact, but this is only relevant for cattle in quite limited situations. Leaving that aside, dogs are either headers or heelers – or both.

And within that, incidentally, just to add to the complication, they are either left-handed or right-handed!

Dogs were used both to chivvy cattle and also to direct them to water or corrals

Headers are dogs which prefer to control cattle by approaching their heads. They will very often nip the cow’s nose which has the obvious effect of diverting it from where it was aiming. Yearlings are good candidates for this tactic as they tend to be curious and put their heads in the way of a nip and also are likely to run which makes heeling an unhelpful method.

Heeler dogs direct and generally chivvy cattle by means of running just behind them and nipping their heels, which are their most vulnerable part. This is most likely to work well for cows and calves.

Dogs will incline naturally towards either heading or heeling, and it’s best to utilise their instincts rather than trying to change them although cowboys have their own preferences as to what they find helpful in their work. Nipping is only a very small part of the dog’s job, therefore any excesses in that department need to be trained out of the dog while it is still a puppy. Any tendency to bite cows on their body – flank, shoulder or belly – is usually to be discouraged.

Whether a dog is a head dog or a heel dog, it needs to be able to get into position, circle and hold, and have the strength to stay there both before and after it bites. When it performs in this way, reliably and indefatigably, it can be an invaluable partner in a cowboy’s work.

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