A STUDY IN BREEDING WORKING DOGS: LAS ROCOSA AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERDS

by Peggy Potter

Ask ranch dog trainers what the most important thing is in a working dog and 99% of them will tell you a dog with working bloodlines. Breeding better dogs, stockdogs in particular, is not only a science, but also an art. Masters of this science and art are Ernest and Elaine Hartnagle who, along with their family, are the founders of the Las Rocosa line of Australian Shepherds.

Ernie and Elaine were both raised with working dogs. When Elaine was a girl, her father was a rancher in Wyoming. “We always worked ‘bob-tailed’ shepherds. Ernie always had a shepherd or family collie to help him with the cows on his family’s farm. During the ’40’s, Ernie worked up on his uncle’s ranch on the Gore Range, which is now the Vail Ski Resort property. It was rugged, rough country. At that time, he worked Border Collies that came from Emmett Nottingham’s imported English stock. Ernie always said, `They were good and made handling cattle easier in the high country.’ ”

The Hartnagles got into Australian Shepherds because the Aussie suited their purposes better. Starting with Australian Shepherds in 1955, they describe their early dogs as having a big dose of courage and staying power. “We admired these characteristics and bred for them. We practiced line-breeding to establish the qualities of our Badger dog, who displayed courage, natural working ability, longevity and the loyalty that we so desired and wanted to intensify in the bloodlines. Later, we got Hud to take up where Badger left off. Hud had outstanding character. He would do anything you asked of him. He never held a grudge and was an excellent cow dog.

“The next stud that had a major influence on our blood line was Shiloh. Not only did Shiloh have heart, trainability, stock savvy, power and endurance, but he also had a style all his own. He worked like a cat on the hunt. Shiloh would head or heel stock and, without even asking, he would gather stock from anywhere and bring them to us (even from the neighbors). If something tried to break away from the bunch to escape, it did so only once before Shiloh put it back in its place. He had an uncanny ability to read and rate whatever was being handled.”

Elaine comments on how real working situations enter into the selection of dogs: “Our dogs, those we own and many we have bred, trained and sold have been used in many different (working) situations under a variety of conditions. The rigor of actual work, day after day, is a good indicator to evaluate a dog’s willingness to perform. For example, loading a testy bull in deep mud, or moving a band of sheep in a blizzard, or trying to pen cattle finally gathered in a downpour, or trying to gather wild cattle in a heavily wooded area with briars and dense thickets; these all contribute to the acid test. A trial arena cannot accurately evaluate a dog’s staying power or willingness to perform in ten to thirty minutes in a controlled environment. When it is ten o’clock in the morning and there are still eleven more miles to go across rugged country -cacti, jagged rocks, burning sand, bull or goat heads, snow, sleet, wind, rain or sun — these things demand endurance, heart and, above all, a willingness to perform.”

Through line-breeding, the Hartnagles have concentrated their gene pool so when the dog is bred it is possible to expect a certain type and performance from their offspring. One of the main features of the Las Rocosa line is intense working ability. They carry an inherent ability to get out and get the job done. There are many reasons why people select a dog from this breeder, but most do so because it is a sound dog and one that will breed true.

There are cautions in line-breeding and Ernie has been quoted as saying, “You have to know your bloodline. Because of the concentrated gene pool within our own bloodline, we can reasonably expect a certain action and reaction out of our dogs. If you know what you are looking for, you can predict to a satisfactory degree just about what you can expect in your mature dogs.”

From Elaine’s point of view: “It is critical that the ancestors are all good, strong workers, because herding ability can easily be lost if not consistently tested and bred for. Line-breeding (the mating together of animals somewhat related, but less closely related than in inbreeding. [The New Art of Breeding Better Dogs, Kyle Onstott.]) is most valuable in a breeding program. Inbreeding (the mating together of closely related animals. (i.e.., brother X sister, father X daughter, mother X son). [The New Art of Breeding Better Dogs, Kyle Onstott.]) can only bring out the characteristics that are already present in the gene pool. With inbreeding, you must be willing to cull ruthlessly (because it intensifies all the common characteristics, good and bad). We don’t recommend inbreeding to everyone, only if your line has some very outstanding characteristics and qualities that you are trying to perpetuate. Only the soundest, most select individuals must be used when tightening up the gene pool. It is desirable to outcross and select the very best possible individual from this outcross mating to then go back into your breeding program. However, linebreeding and inbreeding are imperative if one is ever to set a specific type and working style in a bloodline.”

“When breeding dogs, you go along a while with a certain plan and then when you reach that goal, there will be a hurdle before you can make the next plateau,” Ernie said. “You have to keep reaching and you can’t keep breeding the very same thing because it will play itself out. You have to go to another plateau and bring in new stock every time you hit a stone wall. If you can’t find a solution, you are done. If you find the solution, you can go on to the next level. We have experienced this through the years and we are now on our fourth plateau. When we go out for a cross, the dog must be genetically compatible with what we have.”

Elaine added, “In choosing a new (outside) prospect for our breeding program, we look at the pedigree to identify the ancestral background. The, pedigree is very important because it lends insight as to what to expect from the dog in question in regards to performance, structure, and so forth. You must be familiar with ancestral lineage to be able to derive any value from the pedigree. Names alone are not enough on which to evaluate a dog unless you know the traits of each individual represented by the name.

“When the individual is finally added to our breeding program, the first few matings are extra carefully monitored and followed up. In all our breeding stock we look for strong healthy individuals that are good producers, easy breeders and whelpers with problem-free litters. Occasionally an individual doesn’t meet our standards for whatever reasons. If we feel the individual has other qualities such as an excellent disposition that make it ideal for another purpose such as a companion, obedience or trick dog, for example, we would either neuter/spay or recommend that the individual be neutered/spayed and not used for breeding purposes. Even though the individual doesn’t meet the specifications for breeding, that doesn’t render it useless for other things.”

Reflecting back, Ernie said, “We feel we have always bred really good dogs, but in my own opinion, today we are breeding the best dogs we have ever had. I have also found that you can’t build up a breeding program in five years. It takes a lifetime to produce successfully. When starting in dogs, I would advise people to get the very best stock they can and set up a goal of what they want to accomplish.”

When asked about traits the Hartnagles look for in an individual dog, Elaine described: “A sound dog with a good mind and natural stock savvy, a well-balanced dog with medium bone. We have always bred for medium-sized dogs as we feel they can handle almost any job effectively.

“Disposition encompasses many temperamental characteristics including trainability and heart. We feel that the disposition is as important as all other traits. Without proper (not show ring, but functionally sound) structure, a working dog will never be able to perform as effectively as he could if he had the type of vehicle to enable him to be in the right place at the right time. Titles are impressive, but do not necessarily reflect the quality of an individual or his/her breeding potential. We never have and never will select an individual based on show ring or working trial accomplishments. We feel that they (titles) are like icing on the cake.

“For breeding purposes, we have the eyes checked by a certified ophthalmologist and the hips x-rayed for all our stock. All outside dogs are considered for breeding on an individual basis. We recommend that they have current eye and hip exams. When an outside female is presented to us for breeding consideration, we try to find out what the owner’s goals are and what plans they have for the potential litter. We discuss the necessity of culling and the importance of proper nutrition, socialization and so forth. We require all the necessary health papers including a negative brucellosis test, current inoculations, and that the female is free from internal and external parasites before she is allowed in the kennel. We recommend that she be maintained on a high quality diet to ensure a healthy litter.

“Certainly if an individual is nor performing up to par, he/she should be thoroughly examined, but as a general rule if a dog is holding up well under adverse conditions in the day-to-day rigors of ranch work year after year, chances are he/she is probably sound. A correct, sound bite lends structural stability and lessens the possibility of injury. Coat length and color can affect dogs in different environments. An individual with a thicker coat and a darker color may be more desirable in cold climates, whereas a lighter coat and color might attract less heat in the sunny, hotter terrains.”
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine June/July 1993