Working Dogs: A New Breed of Ranch Hand
By Tamra Monahan
Herding cattle and sheep has changed from the days of cowboys roaming the prairie on horseback. Nowadays, many ranchers have traded their horses and lassos for ATVs and whistles because they discovered the best ranch hands aren’t cowboys. They’re cow dogs.
For hundreds of years, Border Collies have been used to herd livestock,but American ranchers were reluctant to use them because they didn’t understand the advantages of dogs versus those of cowboys. After all, how can a few dogs move a huge herd of cattle or sheep across a vast wilderness? But with training —mostly for the humans—herding dogs can outperform cowboys at a lower cost and with higher dependability.
Juan Reyes, a cattle rancher in Wheatland, Wyoming, says that using one horse and three dogs to work 600 head of cattle is cheaper and more efficient than using cowboys. One dog can do the work of three cowboys, because a good herding dog moves quicker and is more agile than a rider on a horse.
The same is true for herding sheep. Every summer, Pete Meike of Kaycee, Wyoming moves about 3,000 sheep 50 miles to the Bighorn Mountains. And every autumn, he moves them back to his ranch—each time without using trucks. Pete, along with his trusty Border Collies and a few ranch hands, transports sheep the old-fashioned way: they walk. With one person in front flagging for traffic and another in the back working with the dogs, Pete and his crew move the sheep at a fraction of the cost of using trucks and trailers.
But without a pack of good herding dogs, this would not be possible. According to Pete, two or three dogs do the work of a team of humans, and anyone who tries to walk sheep 50 miles would be in “awful sad shape without a good dog.”
Ace is one of Pete’s best dogs on the trail because this Border Collie knows instinctively how to keep sheep together, moving in the same direction. Without prompting from Pete or anyone else, Ace manages the sheep, watching constantly for strays who wander from the herd. Frequently, a lamb will wiggle through a barbed wire fence to get to greener pastures, but Ace is quick to gently prod the baby back through the fence to rejoin the herd. When Ace is working, Pete’s job is much easier.
The best herding dogs try not to bite or bark when working with cattle and sheep to avoid startling the animals. A powerful presence and imposing body language do more to move the herd than bites and barks. Much of a herding dog’s power comes from his eyes and posture—eyes focused, head down, body crouched in a predatory stance. By resembling a predator lurking around the flanks of the herd, Border Collies send a message to the sheep and cattle: obey or else.
“The idea of a predator is already in livestock, so if the dogs are trained properly and they’re handling the stock quietly, you don’t need all that biting and barking, and you won’t have mishandling of the livestock,” says Lisa Cunningham, who also uses Border Collies to handle sheep and cattle on her Wyoming ranch. “They have a lot of power to intimidate livestock with just a look and their body movements.”
Not all Border Collie puppies are cut out for the life of a ranch hand. Experienced dog handlers like Juan and Pete look for the herding instinct from the moment a dog is born, and only those with a natural predilection for herding make the team.
“If they have an intense herding instinct as a pup, that’s a very important part of what I’m looking for,” Juan says. “If they have that instinct, then we can teach them to do the job we want them to do.”
Training for most herding dogs begins at around eight months. The desire to herd is innate, but the dogs must get accustomed to being in close quarters with larger animals, especially cows and their deadly hooves. At Juan’s ranch, the puppies are introduced to a group of cows to see how they interact. If the pup is too shy or scared, he’ll need more work or he might not make it as a four-legged ranch hand. However, if the pup’s drive to herd and move the cows overpowers his fear, then he’s sure to become part of ranch’s canine crew.
When it comes to herding cattle and sheep, ranchers are smart, but their dogs are smarter. The knowledge of herding by using side-to-side sweeps, circling around, cutting in close, and making eye contact is instinctive in good working Border Collies. All the handler has to do is teach the dogs words or whistle commands for each maneuver. Control of the dogs is achieved with using either voice or, more often, whistle commands. The rancher knows where he wants his livestock to go, but it is nearly impossible for one man to move a herd of sheep or cows. However, one rancher and a set of good dogs can get the job done.
Though herding comes naturally to Border Collies, these dogs have to go beyond instinct and think for themselves when they’re on the job. Grazing cattle and sheep roam across within thousands of acres, so dogs must gather livestock from miles away. Isolated from the rancher, herding dogs must learn to make decisions on their own to collect and move the animals. Then, when the dogs return to the rancher’s view, they once again take commands from him to guide the livestock into place.
The best herding dogs are hardwired to herd sheep and cattle, a career for which they were destined. Nothing makes them happier than to be outside working livestock with their owners. Running through golden prairie grass with the sun on their backs, the wind in their faces, and the smell of cattle and sheep filling their nostrils is heaven on earth for these Border Collies. Ranch life is good.