Tiff was an accident between my sister’s purebred Border Collie bitch, and my dad’s 8-month-old Blue Heeler mutt. I’m pretty sure that she was the best dog in the entire world, but then again everyone has that one special dog that will claim the title of “favorite.” Tiff wasn’t exactly into working cows, although she didn’t mind as long as we were doing it together. After a particularly hot day spent moving tired pairs to forest allotment, Tiff started working for me like she was a veteran cow dog, heading instinctively to where I needed help the most. It was almost as if my wishing sent her straight there. I always felt somewhat insecure around other cowboys when I’d ask Tiff to work, because she wasn’t professionally “trained” and since I didn’t know the proper commands I’d just holler helpful things like, “Tiff plug that hole!!!”
When I first started thinking about writing this article, there were two sets of people that I instantly knew I had to talk to: Matt Mori from Winnemucca, NV and Jim and Julie Dunlap from Maxwell, CA. The reason being, these three cowboys are outside every day: they’re frequently alone and short-handed. The country they cover makes it imperative to have at least one good cow dog, preferably more. There are many cowboys that use dogs, but don’t really like them. They’re a tool, much like a saddle or a bit. But for Jim, Julie and Matt, their dogs are partners, someone that not only makes the job easier but is also a friend.
The overwhelming consensus from all three cowboys is that a good dog doesn’t necessarily live to work cattle, but is sharp and has enough of a connection with you personally that they want to work, just to please you.
Despite his repeated insistence that he is not a dog trainer, Matt kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about what makes a good dog, a good dog. He’s had two that have stood out above the rest, but his absolute favorite was a Border Collie pup named Freddy. Freddy was apparently very slow to mature but once he did, it happened all at once. “He wouldn’t work just to work, he just wanted to do what I wanted to do. He’d cowboy with me, and then go trap and hunt mountain lions with me. He had a lot of range, you could send him a long, long ways. He had this habit, if we were moving baby calves he wouldn’t bite very hard, just hard enough. But then if he had to turn a big cow, he was tough enough that he could draw blood. He was smart about how much to give them.”
According to Matt, you can get better and more work out of a dog that likes you rather than one with a whole bunch of natural talent (breeding).
Julie Dunlap agrees, “My favorite dog was a red Border Collie named Joe who just recently died. He was my favorite because he was very smart, I’m pretty sure he could read my mind. He always seemed to know just where I wanted him to be.” Inside I performed a small, triumphant dance as I considered Tiff’s seemingly clairvoyant abilities. So, maybe she hadn’t been that unusual. Julie continued, “Joe was a good tracker, he could find cattle that I couldn’t even see. He was very loyal and refused to let anyone else pet him. For me, a good dog is one that will think for itself. I prefer to give my dogs a little more freedom so they aren’t as dependent on me.”
Jim Dunlap echoes his wife’s sentiments when he starts talking about his favorite dog, a white Border Collie called Rush. “I love dogs and am a big advocate for using good dogs. I got Rush from a guy that was going to knock him in the head because he couldn’t sell white pups. He was smart and tough and I still have pups from him 20 years later. Dad and I were sorting a bunch of steers and heifers that had gotten mixed. We were holding them in a corner out in the field, and I had a couple of dogs so I was holding the big bunch and dad was working off the heifers. The bunch got pretty stirred up and a steer got away from me. I sent Rush to stop him and the steer ran right over him and got in with the heifers. I had to stay with the main bunch, but assumed Rush would hold that group and maybe bring them all back to the main herd. When I got a chance to look back, Rush had the steer cut out and was bringing only him back to me. I don’t know how he did it, be he sure did.”
Well Jim, maybe it was all because of your love of a good dog.
*First published in the Nevada Rancher. Like them on Facebookor call (866) 644-5011 for a free copy.