MUTT THE RANCH HAND DOG

by Tony Rohne

I have looked for good ranch hand dogs for about 12 years now.

A good hand in cow country is hard to beat. A good one fixes a water gap while the creek is still up, ties a cow off to a shed pole and dehorns her with a hand saw, and tends a downer cow until she gets up or dies. He may not need to rope or even ride a horse. He may not be best at everything, but he will try about anything. The same thing is true with a ranch hand dog.

This good ranch hand dog (Mutt) helps when “sooking” cattle with feed by bringing up the laggers. Mutt helps steer the old bull back home, heels him hard enough to make him quit a fight, and heads him hard enough to make him turn around rather than going out the gate onto the highway. Mutt babies 150 small stockers in the pen, trains goofy heifers to stay in a bunch, and will hassle a cow until she tips off her hidden baby. This same dog is rough enough to pen 100 pairs of cows with calves. Mutt works on his own well enough to get everything out of the brush and does exactly as told when helping get calves out of the highway ditch. Like the ranch hand, this dog works even if it is too hot, too cold, too dusty or pouring down rain.

Just like the ranch hand may not be good at a rodeo, a good sheep trial dog might make Mutt look like a dunce. Mutt won’t do (and does not need) a textbook perfect outrun, lift and shed. He does not work the free standing pen like the big boys. Mutt’s commands aren’t that perfect either. He has some regular commands but he also understands the set of body directions his master gives to send him through the hole in the fence, to move him up or back in an alley, to jump him on some trouble maker, or to send him down the right trail through the briars. Mutt’s outrun means to get around to stop a stampede or get way up front to turn the bunch in the right direction. Mutt’s shed is watching and helping his master split stock in the pasture. Since most of his work requirements involve putting pressure on stock either to stop or move, Mutt would be pretty pushy for a trial. Since he has fought a lot of cattle, Mutt will not run very wide or show much style.

The ranch hand that is not strong enough to carry a sack of feed or fencing material or to hook up equipment is not worth having around. Why support somebody who is weaker than the wife? For Mutt to take the wife’s place working stock, he has to be strong, too. Mutt’s strength is his bite. Bluff won’t turn that bull or whip the cows. It will not push cattle to the pen or up the chute. Sure, cows spook but sooner or later stock will wad up and dare Mutt to get close. To rank as “best” of the ranch hand dogs, Mutt bites both heads and heels. Cows know Mutt is a strong dog. They run weak mutts off the place no matter how much eye they have. By the way, having a dog that is too strong is as unlikely as having too much money.

I have never had a very strong dog or much money. I have had mutts that would do most of this stuff, but not one would “do it all”. I live in Texas, a state that leads the U.S. in cows with 5.5 million. Most producers are small operators like me. It would look like good ranch hand dogs would be everywhere, but they are next to impossible to find. Sheep dogs are everywhere. Right now, there are probably more dogs east of the Brazos that can work sheep than there are sheep. While I love to watch good sheep trial dogs at work, I want to see dogs working cattle. Unless dogs are actually working cattle, separating good dogs from mutts is hard. Sure, I hear accounts, fairy tales and some Texas tales, like, “Since my mutt is being saved for trialing (or whatever), he does not get his chance to shine as the good cattle hand he really could be.” I hear of a lot of mutts that “should” make a good ranch hand. Like they say in far northeast Texas, “Show me.”

Incidentally, the difference between a Texas tale and a fairy tale is a fairy tale starts out, “Once upon a time…”, and a Texas tale starts out, “You ain’t gonna believe this…”.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1993