by Mari Taggart Morrison
Every once in awhile something will happen that makes you sort of stop and take notice of how remarkable our working stockdogs are. Those of us fortunate enough to own working Australian Shepherds tend to perhaps take the things our dogs do for us every day for granted.
Recently, thanks to El Nino, we had massive flooding on our place–the water was so deep it began to creep under the walls of the barn, flooding the stalls and everything inside. This would have been bad enough, but it was right at the height of lambing and I had a bunch of first-time lambing Rambouillet ewes and new lambs in the barn. Well, neighbors and friends came over to help out and in the commotion nobody noticed that the gate had been left open and the ewes had headed down the drive and then down the road with their lambs trailing along behind!
When I saw this I ran to the house and grabbed my 14 month old Aussie, Jake (Legend’s One Dog Posse, STDs–an aptly named dog for that occasion, I might add) and we started out after them. I’d been using Jake as my lambing dog because he was so level-headed. He sure was going to be put to the test. We caught up to the ewes and they were scared and in no mood to let a dog near their new babies, so Jake patiently moved them–inch by inch–back to our gate and then down the road to
the barn. This was no small feat since the ewes were charging him at every step, two or three times blasting him into the fences that bordered the road but he never gave an inch, and best of all, was firm with them but never lost his cool or left a mark on them, and he never showed a second of fear, even though several ewes were charging him at once.
If the lambs turned to look at him, Jake just touched them with his nose but never nipped them. The cars that went past were kind enough to stop to let this slow-moving spectacle pass by. In fact, I was so focused on getting the sheep home that I didn’t notice that a small crowd had gathered. When I finally shut the gate on the last of the wayward sheep in their very own paddock, the crowd that was standing by broke into applause! I have to tell you that applause felt better than the kind Jake got in his first trial–and it made me think about how common this sort of scene is on ranches all over, yet only among those who love a good stockdog do you hear about the times that a good dog was worth more than his weight in gold.
Randolf Sanchez knows the value of a good Aussie better than many–his little blue female Lady (Sanchez Lady Azul) literally saved one-fifth of Sanchez’s sheep last year.
In April of 1997, northern New Mexico was hit by a freak blizzard that wiped out a large percentage of range sheep, coming, as it did, two weeks after shearing. Mr. Sanchez and his sons run about 500 head of range ewes and had heard about the storm coming so headed out to gather the sheep in close where they could be sheltered and fed. Lady was with them and had worked diligently all day rounding up and driving the ewes, sometimes loading them into stock trailers, but when they went after the last bunch the blizzard hit with sudden and blinding speed, and the men and dog found themselves in a driving snow so dense they couldn’t see a foot in front of themselves.
They reluctantly decided to head back, fearing that they would be lost in the storm themselves and called to Lady, but she was nowhere to be found. For half an hour called and whistled, but the snow was driving so hard they couldn’t see. With sadness they headed back home. Mr. Sanchez says, “We were feeling pretty sorry for ourselves–we thought we’d lost nearly a hundred head of sheep and our dog, too!” It was rough going to get back since the snow was growing deeper by the minute and the men feared getting lost and freezing to death.
Two hours after they returned home they were about to load hay from the barn in a truck to bring to the sheep when they opened the barn door and found Lady, half-frozen and with ice clumped to her body, with the hundred or so ewes standing nearby! She apparently gone off on her own (no doubt working by scent, since there was no visibility in the storm) and had located the missing sheep.
“How she managed to drive them through the snow, breaking trail all the way and keeping them moving is a mystery to me, ” says Sanchez, “We see it as a real miracle that she and the sheep came back alive–and she never left one ewe behind.”
In all the newspaper articles that were written about the rancher’s predicament that Spring, there was no mention of an everyday heroine like Lady, but the Sanchez family is justifiably proud of their dog. “Some of my friends used to tell us we should get a flashier sheepdog,” Ramon Sanchez laughs. “I tell them Lady can think better than most people–why would we want anything else?”
Betty Williams, of central Montana , would probably agree. Her dog Red (WTCH Crown Point Red Baron W Lazy J RTDs) is perhaps best known for his 1997 win at the Australian Shepherd Working Finals in Red Bluff, California . Red was the Champion Cattle Dog of the Finals, a prestigious event that brings together the top-gun working champions of the breed in a grueling days-long event that tests the herding dogs on a variety of courses and stock. In addition to his cowdog win, Red took a third in sheep, fourth in ducks and the High Combined award as he wowed the crowds with his stock savvy and ability to work in such close teamwork with his trainer.
Although these accomplishments would be enough for any dog, not everyone knew that Red had performed a greater accomplishment at home, one year before the Nationals, when saved his mistress from a charging Angus.
The Williams run about 250 head of cattle on six sections of land in the rugged mountains of Montana. Red had always earned his keep gathering cows and pushing them into a squeeze-chute. He is a fearless and determined dog, and, although young, he proved he was a very capable helper with the work that needed doing. One day he was helping work cows with calves in a muddy corral when one of the cows slammed him against a wind break and worked him over. Then the cow turned on Betty herself – but Red, though he was injured, dragged himself in front of Betty and bloodied the cow’s nose, stopping her charge.
The heroic confrontation cost the dog–he suffered a compressed disc in his back and had to be laid up for six months. Betty was unharmed, thanks to the courage of her dog. Betty, too, is sold on the breed. She says, “Aussies are really people-loyal, they’re a good working dog. They want to please–they’re real loyal that way.”
Loyalty and the ability to think on their feet is a way of life for good ranch dogs every day, and once ranchers work with a good dog they recognize the truth that a stockdog dog can replace several men in rounding up animals.
Don Dixon knows this very well, having done livestock gathering with his black Aussie Chief (Double D War Chief) for seven years. He counts on his dog’s speed and quick thinking every day, but proudly tells of the time Chief used his wits and cow-sense to bring in a bull that was too dangerous for any men to handle.
Don’s friend had tried to bring in an expensive Longhorn bull that had grown wild and mean from being out in the hills. When cowboys had tried to catch him, the bull had charged a horse and rider, goring the horse and injuring the cowboy. He was slated to be shot–unless Don and Chief could bring him in.
The men rode out and brought ropes, a trailer and a gun (just in case). Don and Chief located the bull in an arroyo. “You could see that bull was unafraid–and used to winning every fight”, Don recalls. Chief was sent in to draw him out, and the bull put his huge rack of horns with razor-sharp tips down and charged. But everywhere he charged was where the little dog HAD BEEN. Chief was running tighter and tighter circles around the bull with lightning speed. The bull was spinning around, trying to get a bead on him but was growing dizzy from the turns.
Chief was staying out of the way of those horns and the powerful bovine body and finally the bull began to weave a little bit. At that point Chief slipped in from behind and heeled the bull hard, causing him to leap forward. Again the bull charged the dog and this time the dog gave ground. The bull ran after him, no doubt thinking he had the dog on the run, till Chief came to a halt in front of a stand of trees. The bull charged in with all his might, to pin the little Aussie up against the trees, but at the last moment Chief slipped aside and the bull hit the tree head-on, knocking himself reeling from the collision! That was the moment the cowboys rode in and slipped ropes on the bull, loading him carefully into the trailer.
“The whole thing took less than 20 minutes,” Don relates, “And the only thing that got hurt was the bull’s feelings.!” The bull is now alive and living in luxury with a number or cow companions, but his new owner reports that he is still scared of black dogs!
Stockdogs manage to make heroism look easyit’s all in the course of a day’s work to them.
This article first appeared in the August/September 1998 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine.