Volume VIII, No. 2, Winter 1980
by Lea Ann Anderson
It would be hard to imagine driving up to a farm and not being greeted by a farm dog. Whether it ambled over wagging its tail or rushed up on you barking and bristling, some meeting with this farm house guardian would certainly be expected. No farmyard scene would be complete without its Shep. No front porch would look protected without Duke, and certainly no farm child would grin so wide if there were no Spot jumping and lapping at his face.
Although you certainly expect to see dog on a farm, the farmer doesn't keep the dog just to feed and look at. Farm dogs have earned their place by helping with the stock. Eager and willing, the farm dog saves the farmer many steps and a lot of work. They also protect his farm. Someone bent on mischief would think twice if confronted with a barking, growling dog. And of course, from the time the first dog stepped out of the wild to stand beside man, there has been a bond of companionship.
It is amazing to watch a stock dog go after the cows and do so easily what the farmer asks. Something that would be hard work for the farmer, the stock dog does easily and quickly. As well as providing protection and companionship, stock dogs can be as valuable as a free hired hand. Farmers who realize this have owned and appreciated stock dogs for years.
The work and the end results are about the same for every stock dog, but the kinds of stock dogs differ greatly. Each farmer swears by his dog's breed, type and temperament. There are many different breeds and each one may work differently in some way. The farmer chooses a dog that best suits his needs. Stanley Grace, a dairy farmer, works his dogs on milk cows. "Oh, nearly all of the shepherd breeds of dogs are good stock dogs. There's a lot of people keep an English shepherd dog, and the Australian shepherd is a lot more vicious type of dog. Of course, there's a wire-haired heeler or airdale. I've seen some airdales work stock real well and they are a little bit vicious. People that raise dogs by breed, they think their breed is the best, I'm sure." There are also border collies, blue heelers and mixed breeds. The mixed breed is usually a mix of different stock dogs that still have the inborn instinct to work animals. These are probably the most common stock dogs because on a farm it is how the dog works that matters and not its pedigree.
As well as different breeds, there are different characteristics that a farmer looks for in a stock dog. Some farmers have a preference on the sex of the dog. Dairy farmer Stanley Ruble said, "I prefer a male. They're not as timid as a female--more solid." "I've carried both males and females, and it doesn't make a difference," said Joe Huffman who raises Australian shepherds to work cattle and horses. "Males are a little more aggressive. The females are good and the males work just as good. I get along with both."
The temperaments of dogs can serve different functions. Joe Huffman feels that his dogs bark more than they should, but Stanley Grace said, "Our dogs bite at the cows' heels. It would be better if they would bark at them, but our dogs don't." A dog that works milk cows should probably not bite or touch the cows, while a stock dog that works range cattle can be more aggressive and can nip at their heels. Stanley Grace said, "You have to be careful with milk cows that you have dogs that are not vicious and don't run them. They've got to be gentle. A lot of good dogs that other people use for stock cattle won't work with milk cattle because they are too vicious."
A characteristic many people use as a standard to tell the best dog is a black mouth. Joe Huffman looked in his dog's mouth. "See in her mouth, the blacker that is, the better the dogs, they say. Now I don't know, I've had some that didn't have much black, and they work just ten times better than any dog I've ever had. But as a rule, if their mouth is black it is better."
A well-trained stock dog is a sight to see. Following the farmer's orders, the dog seems to read his very thoughts. However, there are very few that are really well trained. Stanley Grace said, "Most of them are just convenient because they do help, but there are very few farms that have what are considered good stock dogs. Most of them are like our young dog now. They are beneficial to have, but very few are well trained to do what you tell them. You can depend on them to do the same thing every time. To train a dog you have to have just one person, I'm sure, that does it, and here we have four or five people. Me and the kids and everyone has a different idea of what the dog ought to do, and so they scold it for this and that, and it just makes it almost impossible to train it. If you don't know how, and I don't, you can't train a good dog. I guess you could train a good dog but you can't train a dog good."
Joe Huffman's dogs are well trained. He trains them and works them on horses, cows and hogs. "Everyone asks me, 'How smart will this dog be?' 'Will he work as good as this one?' And I always say that the dog will be as smart as his owner."
Training a dog for stock work is done in two steps-obedience training and working with the animals. Joe said, "First of all, I teach them obedience, to do what I tell them to do, to come and sit, and to stay. I keep him on a leash for a while. I'd say maybe sixty or ninety days. But as long as he stays and as long as he minds me, then I will let him get on the cows or horses or hogs. That part is instinct. The dog naturally goes after the stock, but then if I tell him to stop, quit, he stops and quits. That's why most people get discouraged with these dogs and other breeds. First of all, they get a dog and he kind of halfway wants to go after the stock, but he doesn't know what it means to get off. He just runs them here, runs them down the road and then the people get mad. 'Boy, I've got a dog that won't do nothing. He just runs them all of the time.' Well, that's true because he don't know any better, but you tell him to stop or come and he'll come back to you."
After obedience training the young dog will usually begin to work when about six or seven months old. Joe said, "You never want to start a young dog on a horse. A horse will really get after a dog. In fact, my dog Sis busted her paw open. I started her too young. I started her at about four months. I should have waited until six months. A cow with a calf on her side is really aggressive. You can spoil a dog to where he's afraid that every time you take him out, something is going to try and get him, if you start him while he is too young."
For the young dog, learning the more advanced stock work comes with experience. For example, to teach a dog to keep cows in a pen and let some by, Joe said, "She knows that if the cow gets by and I go tell her 'Good dog,' she will like that. But if the next one gets by, and I told her to keep it in, I go and scold her, and I have to watch her and after a while she'll understand. They'll do anything you want them to like that dog over there. If she's dirty and she gets in the car I'll say, 'You get over on your side and I don't want you sitting by me,' and she will go over and sit on her side. It's just habit, a lot of it."
Training a dog for work on a milk farm is usually easier. The dog brings in the cows in the same manner twice each day, and it becomes routine work. The dog knows where the cows are and where he is to bring them. Working with other stock usually varies each time, so that the dog has to understand from his master's commands what he is to do. Perhaps the stock is to be moved to another pasture, or maybe certain animals are to be cut out of the herd. Each time the job may vary.
On many milk farms bringing in the cows becomes a "family" operation. There is often an old dog, who in his day may have been the best stock dog the farmer ever had. Then there is the younger dog, that probably learned how to work the cows by watching the older dog. This younger dog brings in the cows by himself now while the older dog is content to watch the scene from a comfortable spot. Then there is the puppy. As soon as he can keep up, the puppy is bounding out with the working dog. Merely following a leader at first, he eventually learns and will be ready, when the young dog is not as spry, to do the job himself. Stanley Ruble sent his dogs, the working dog and a puppy, out to bring in the cows. "See, the older dog is doing the right thing, and the pup is just trying. He'll pick it up. The old folks send children to school to learn and that's what the pup is doing." Since the job to be learned is a routine, it is easily taught from one dog to another in this manner.
If there is no older dog to learn from, the farmer has to go out and train the pup himself. Stanley Ruble said, "A lot of people don't want to take the time to train a pup, but you've got eight or ten years of good usage after you get one trained. I think that's better than getting on a cold tractor and riding it." To train the puppy, the farmer walks out with it and brings in the cows himself. Eventually the puppy sees what the farmer is doing and takes over. Depending on the dog, the puppy learns within a month's time of walking.
Dogs get lost even in their own barn lots. Stanley Grace's old stock dog is blind now. "She doesn't travel very much. She just stays in the barn. She'll be down at the water tank to get a drink, but we feed and water her in the barn. She comes out on a sunny day and lays in the sun. One time she got lost. She stayed outside all night in the lot. I'm sure that she was lost because she always stays in the barn, and I couldn't find her. The next morning we found her lying in the lot."
"If they're natural born stock dogs, they'll learn just from observation," Stanley Grace said. "Some dogs are well trained. They go by whistles or hand signals, but we just use our voice on our dogs. We holler at them. Sometimes they mind and sometimes they don't. The dog would be better off if he didn't live around cattle until he was six or eight months old, or maybe a year old. Then it wouldn't have any bad habits about cattle, but this little pup, living here, it will. It's almost now old enough to start going along. We try to make it stay at home, but when it starts going to the field when we go to get the cows, it will watch the old dogs and see what they do and probably pick up the pointers that make it a useable dog but not a real good dog.
"Now the old dog, she was well trained. We didn't know anything about her. We got her at a sale--we didn't have a dog and we went to the sale and they said that they were going to sell a stock dog. She was a real young dog, so we bought her and brought her home. She was real friendly. She laid around, came into the barn and watched while we milked, watched us get the cows, and the next day she went and got the cows. Whenever we started, she went on, and she was just super intelligent and trained both."
What we may call work, the stock dog does eagerly and willingly. Unlike the farmer doing chores, the stock dog anxiously awaits the command to go get the cows. Stanley Ruble's airdales bring in the cows twice each day. As he walks out the door, the dogs emerge from the nearby barn, running to greet him. Each, after receiving his pat on the head, goes on about his doggie business. Sniffing here and there, the dogs act as if nothing was going on until Stanley asks them, "About ready to bring in the cows?" BefOre the last few words are spoken, two of the three dogs tear off through the barn lot for the lower pasture. The older dog goes about as far as the barn lot, lies down with his head on his paws and watches the whole process. The two working dogs become specks in the distance as they race out into the rocky pasture. The cows, lying down, slowly get to their feet as the dogs approach and rush at them from behind. "Easy, easy," Stanley calls from the lot gate. When the cows begin to come in, there are a few stragglers left behind. "Get them others." The dogs double back and send the last few cows on their way to the rest of the herd. Herding them along the river bank, the dogs merely keep the cows moving at a steady walk. When the cows enter the lot, the dogs go up to Stanley to be petted, the meaningful caress being the only reward they ask. After the cows eat some grain and are ready to be milked, Stanley tells his dogs, "Drive them on in." Again the dogs are after the cows, pushing them into the pen that is connected to the milking barn. As Stanley milks, the dogs nap underfoot.
Joe Huffman's dogs are equally eager to work. "Now when I get ready to work, I tell her I'm going to go to work and first of all she'll get in the truck and she'll wait for me. I tell you these days, I carry this blue dog with me all of the time. She helps me move horses--wherever I want to go, whatever I want to do, she's always there to load a horse or to unload a horse. Or if I want to move a horse from one stall to another, she'll do whatever I want her to do. She minds real well."
Stock dogs will work different animals. Most work cows or horses, but some work sheep, pigs and even chickens.
Working cows involves different skills. Dogs trail the cattle, which means to get behind them and slowly bring them in. Joe said, "If there were cattle out in the pasture, you'd tell them to go get the cattle. If you were milking or just changing pasture on herd cattle, they would bring them to the holding pen. They would not know which way to bring them, so they look to their master, and if he tells them to go this way, they would push them up along a fence and work them down."
Joe sent two of his Australian shepherds, Sis, a blue merle, and Copper, a red merle, out to bring in some horses. He pointed the direction and called the horses. Immediately the dogs ran off where Joe pointed. Unable to see the horses, the dogs looked back to Joe for directions. Pointing again, Joe called once more to the horses. The dogs ran farther out into the field, disappearing over a hill. A little while later, the two dogs reappeared driving three quarter horses. Trotting behind the horses, the dogs brought them up to the fence where Joe was waiting. "Watch them," Joe said. The dogs immediately dropped to the ground with their full attention on the horses. When a horse walked off, the dogs immediately jumped up, sending it back to Joe.
To work a cow, the dog must have certain instincts. Stanley Grace said, "They have to have it bred in them to go to the cow's heels. They'll either bite them on the heel, the tail, or they'll run around to the front and bite at their ears. Of course, a dog that bites at their ears is not much good because it can't drive a cow. It's at the wrong end." There are dogs, however, that work the front and the back ends. Joe said, "If you want the dog to turn a cow around, and if you want her to work the cow's heels, she'll work the heels and take the cow out, or you can set her at a gate and tell her 'in' or 'by.' If she is working cattle, you just tell her 'in,' and she knows you don't want the cattle out, or you can tell her 'by,' and she'll let them go by." Stock dogs also help by moving cows from one pen to another, loading animals in trailers, or by moving animals to other locations.
The animals are not afraid of the dogs, but when the dog rushes up on a cow, she would just as soon get out of his way. "Most dogs don't bark at the animals unless they try to bluff their way," said Stanley Grace. "If a cow fights a dog, he will bark at her. When they are working, stock dogs rarely get kicked, but sometimes they learn the hard way. A dog that works cattle by the heels, if they are good at it and are working cattle that are obstinate about going, will bite them, then lay real close to the ground. If the cow kicks at the dog, she will miss it. It's very seldom that a cow can kick a dog even if she wants to."
A stock dog's capacity for work is unlimited unless the dog is working very hard. Joe Huffman works his dogs loading cattle on large ranches. "If you are really pushing them hard and they are loading cattle, I wouldn't want to work them over fifteen to twenty minutes on really hard work. I mean loading trucks and everything. They usually don't quit you, they just want to go get a drink. They can work all day if you are on horseback just pushing cattle."
Stanley Ruble's dogs never tire bringing in thirty-seven cows. They have worked as many as sixty at one time. "They could work about a hundred roughly, the amount doesn't mean much. The cattle learn to work, too."
"The big advantage to having a dog with milk cows is just that the cow knows the dog is there," said Stanley Grace. "If you don't have a dog at all, like if the dog is fastened up, in just a few days the cows will realize that they don't have to do anything unless you get right behind them and make them. When the dog is there, it doesn't really have to be an extra good dog, but the cows know that they have to come and they work lots better."
The stock dog can work for about eight to ten years. Their prime is between four to seven. Joe Huffman said, "Then he's really tough. After that he slows down. He still works. There are different guys I know that's got dogs older than that that work. It just kind of depends on the dog." There are few conditions under which a farm dog cannot work. Joe mentions one. "I don't want to work them when they're pregnant. Anything could happen, a cow could kick them or something. I just don't want to risk it."
The working dog is quite an asset. While it is easy for the dogs to bring in the cows, the farmer, unaided, would have to traipse out and drive the cows in himself. Stanley Ruble appreciates his dogs' help. "The good part is when it is snowing or raining, then I stay in the barn and I say, 'Go get the cows.' If I didn't have dogs, I would go out and start walking, I guess. Some people use pickups or tractors or have children go out and do it. After the cows are up, besides just running them in, the dogs help me. If the cows are contrary about getting into the barn, the dogs will bring them in, or like around the hay bunks, they keep the cows away until I get the bunks full. Plus they're good pets, you get to love them and get attached to them."
The farm dog's work isn't finished when the chores are done. A very important role he plays is that of guard dog. Stanley Grace said, "I would say on the farm that one of the most important things most dogs do--I know our dogs do--is that they'll let you know day or night if anyone is around. They'll bark. They bark when a car drives up, and they bark when someone walks up. I don't believe anyone could come here without the dogs barking at them. I really feel, the way things are with thievery and all now, that that's one of the most important things a dog can do."
Just the presence of a dog will deter some troublemakers or thieves from bothering a farm. Even a little dog can bark to warn the farmer. One tiny little dog rushes and barked so viciously at a bobcat which came up to a farm house, that the cat made a very quick return to the woods. When Clarice Splan, who lived in the house, came to see what the commotion was, she couldn't open the door because the two much larger farm dogs were scared and trying to get in the house. From that day on the small dog was called Big John.
There are many different kinds of farm dogs, and big, small, mongrel, purebred, pet or stock dog, any type can provide companionship. When a farmer gets up to do chores on a chilly morning, it is his dog bounding up to greet him that warms his heart and gives him a boost to start out the day. And what else can be more comforting after a long day than a lick on the hand and a wagging tail that says, "I like you"?
About his dogs, Joe Huffman said, "They like to ride in the truck. That dog will ride on top of the hay. She stays in the truck no matter where I go. I've been in Iowa, Nebraska, back and forth to Oklahoma, on to Texas, with the dog riding right in the back of the truck--she never gets out of there. When I get to a motel that doesn't allow dogs, I have no problem. When I am at a motel I usually let her out when I get there. She wanders around and I go in to register, and the people say, 'Is that your dog?' And I say, 'No.' They say, 'Well, I've never seen that dog around here because we don't allow dogs around here,' and I say, 'Well, I don't blame you.' So I get in my room, and she'll go to every room and smell until she finds out where I am at, and she will either scratch on the door or bark, and I will let her in. She is very protective. If I'm in there at night, she'll lay by the door. I trained her that if anyone comes up, she'll growl. She won't bark."
Stanley Ruble said, "I don't get to go much, but when I go, they go. I wouldn't take ten thousand dollars apiece for one. That's just what I think about them. They're not really worth that much to anybody else. It's just that they are to me."
As long as there are farms, there will be farm dogs. These willing workers enjoy and profit from the partnership as much as the farmer's family does. The dog loves the family, protects its members and their belongings and works willingly, even joyfully, whenever needed. In return, all he asks is a home, his daily food and affection. He is easily fulfilled by a pat on the head and the approving words, "Good dog!"
Photography in this article by Lea Ann Anderson, Mark Engsberg, Mary Schmalstig and Kyle Burke.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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