In the words of the great Will Rogers, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” So important are dogs to the West.
If Roy Rogers and his on-screen (and real-life) German shepherd, Bullet, are any indication, a cowboy and his dog are as inseparable as a cowboy and his horse — maybe more so.
Long before they were helping out singing cowboys on the screen and hardworking ranchers on the range, dogs played their own part in helping to explore the West. The most famous discoverer dog was Seaman, Capt. Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland. Now commemorated by numerous monuments and statues along the Lewis and Clark expedition route, Seaman accompanied the two on their journey after Lewis reportedly purchased him in 1803. Good thing, too: Lewis wrote in his journal that one night Seaman saved them from a bison that was heading straight for their tent.
In the years since, many a dog has guarded many a master — and their stock — in the West. Famed for their companionship, dogs have also earned quite a reputation as hard workers, helping with the herd. “I think they’re really just an integral part of the whole ranching lifestyle,” says Anna Guthrie, who trains herding dogs at the 500-acre Stockdog Ranch in Pala, California, and serves as a director for the National Cattledog Association. “From a livestock perspective, they’ve been an invaluable tool. But, at the same time, they’re also your partner and your buddy.”
Of course not all dogs make great cow dogs; the breeds that do have what it takes to work cattle include Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds, border collies, Catahoula leopard dogs, and Hangin’ Tree cowdogs. For Guthrie, who competes in sanctioned cattle dog trials, the border collie is the breed “with the whole package.”
Western humorist and former large-animal vet Baxter Black concurs. For him, the border collie is “one of the greatest genetic creations on the face of this earth.”
“Are they truly smarter than a chimpanzee? Cuddlier than a koala? More dedicated than Batman’s valet?” Black writes in his homage “Border Collie Soliloquy.” “Can they change course in mid air? Drag Nell from the tracks and locate the missing microfilm?
“Yes. I believe they can. They are the best of the best, the epitome of ‘above and beyond the call of duty.’ Head Dog. Top Gun.”
The hands down favorite Top Gun breed for rancher and dog trainer Charlie Trayer is the Hangin’ Tree cowdog. But then he’s partial: For years, Trayer managed the Cottonwood Ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where he ran 350 to 400 mama cows and about 1,500 yearlings nearly all himself with the help of his Hangin’ Tree cowdogs and some good horses. After retiring from ranching, Trayer moved to Seymour, Texas, to focus full time on raising, training, and selling the breed.
Developed by Gary Ericsson and son Choc in the 1980s in Idaho to be the Cadillac of cowdogs, the Hangin’ Tree cowdog is a purebred mix that combines the best traits of the border collie, Australian Kelpie, Catahoula leopard, and a certain Australian shepherd named Black Bear.
What makes them such good cowdogs? “They’re bred to handle cattle — good at wending and trailing with a very strong herding instinct,” says Trayer, who serves as executive director of the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog Association. “They’ve got a lot of grit — they’re very tough dogs that will stand up to cattle. Short- and slick-haired, they’re big-boned, deep and wide in the chest — they can stand the abuse that cattle dogs take. They have lots of endurance and work really hard. Probably one of their biggest assets is they’re very intelligent and easy to train.”
With all those positive traits, Trayer says, people still want to know if they make good family pets. “Yes, Hangin’ Tree cowdogs are very affectionate and have a good disposition. At the same time, they’re very loyal to their master.”
And isn’t that what we’re all looking for in a best friend?
From the May/June 2013 issue.
Photography: Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Brighton Ranch in Glades County by Carlton Ward