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A rose is a rose, but is a cowdog a cow/calf dog?

Laura Hicks

The elusive cow/calf dog. Those of us who work cattle with dogs understand there can be a difference between a dog that can handle yearlings well and a dog that handles cow/calf pairs.

So, what is it that sets these good cow/calf dogs apart from the rest? Is it in their genes? What role does the environment they are raised in play? Is it the power they possess? Or is it guts? What about confidence? Does it have something to do with brains, or is it more brawn?

I set out to explore these questions and looked to two of the best cattlemen and dog handlers I know to help me find the answers, Leland Paxton and Pete Carmichael. Leland is a Nebraska Sandhills rancher who reads cattle, horses and dogs like the back of his hand. Pete has amazing stock sense and watching him work a dog is truly something to behold! Both of these men have been great about letting me bend their ear whenever I needed to discuss my dogs and cattle and the relationship between them. I am constantly striving to absorb some of their immense knowledge. (Enough flattery yet guys?)

Okay, Iím not any kind of geneticist so I wonít claim to understand how or why genetics works but I am certainly a believer in them. In reality, itís not a fool proof plan to buy a pup from outstanding parents and expect that pup to have inherited only the best of both parents. I believe it is clear to most of us that you have to start with the proper ancestry in order to have a better chance at a good working dog. It gets said many times and I have seen it myself several times now, you canít put something in a dog that isnít already there.

A good analogy that Leland shared with me was that of a human athlete. Some, are born with God given athletic talents. The athlete that runs in the Olympics was born with something special. Somewhere in their genetics is the makeup to become a runner. This holds true with a good cow/calf dog. Somewhere in their genetics is the ability to become that good cow/calf dog.

On to the subject of environment. I am a big believer in raising a pup in the best possible environment you can give them! I donít mean their own condo with furnishings type environment. I mean, I try to provide structure to their lives. Keep them as safe as possible. Bond with them early on and continue to develop that bond as they grow. Basically, the best I have to offer them. Now, back to the analogy of the human athlete. The Olympic runner was given the talent in their genes, but they wonít ever achieve the honor of being in the Olympics without the proper environment in which their talent can grow. They must have opportunities to train toward that goal and the desire to expand their talents. This is also true with cow dogs. You can have a dog that has it "in them" to become a top cow/calf dog, but if never given the opportunities to train toward it, their talents will never be developed.

I, for one, have been down the road of ruining a potentially great dog due to my own ignorance about raising them properly. I believe I have learned from my mistakes and I work hard not to repeat them. Raising a pup right is a big factor in laying the best foundation to obtaining that great cow/calf dog. I donít believe it is a sure fire bet that you will get that cow/calf dog, but it does give you the opportunity to discover each dogs God given talents!

Another area we all ponder is how much power, confidence and guts contribute to the great cow/calf dogs. I have heard people say that a dog doesnít always have to possess power to be a "pair dog", but they must have guts. Iím still undecided about this issue. We have three Border Collies my husband, Mike, and I use almost every day. I use both of the males and Mike uses the female.

My older male, Whit, is a really good cow/calf dog. He hits clean and relieves the pressure when needed. I canít say I thought he was going to be a good pair dog. In the beginning, he didnít start out being fearless and didnít appear to be powerful. The more practical work he got and the more "battles" he won, the more his confidence grew. So I wouldnít say heís a naturally powerful dog, but because he is a very confident dog now, he is in turn a more powerful dog. He believes he can move anything, because Iíve always done my best to make sure he can, even if I have had to help, and the cows read this quickly. It probably doesnít hurt that he will back up his "request" to move with a hard, nose bite when necessary.

My younger male, Zac, is different. I think he came out of the womb knowing heís capable of moving anything. From the time I started him I could tell that the stock respected him. They arenít fearful, but respectful. He is so nice to move cows and calves with because he doesnít incite a riot. The cows seem to trust him to treat them fairly and so they move off of him nice and calmly. So is that natural power? I believe he is a powerful dog, but I also believe he reads cattle well enough, that he is capable of exerting enough mental pressure on them that he doesnít have to be tearing into them all the time. He will bite. Actually he hits the soft part of the nose hard and will heel and hit a front foot also, so I know he can and will bite if necessary, but heís confident enough that he actually does very little biting. He is what I would call an assertive dog. He also seems fearless to me, but heís not stupid either, he will save his life when necessary! I think I have been very fortunate with him because I see in him; power, confidence and guts. Not to mention heís very biddable and thus easy to handle.

Now, the female Mike uses, Gypsy, I started and still use from time to time, but she is essentially my husbandís dog. You can get almost any job done with her, but often it can get messy. She is a superb yearling, dry cow and bull dog. She truly hunts cattle and can clean sweep any size of pasture. However any time we have used her on pairs, we have usually ended up with a pretty good mess and several cussing people! She doesnít give and take enough with the pressure. If you ride her brakes pretty hard you can keep her off them, but you always have to watch her. She seems to live to entice them to fight, but only with cows with calves. Go figure! She is fairly tough to handle and because we lack the control with her (only on pairs) she causes more fights than itís usually worth. She is fearless and will bite either end, but she creates too many messes to use her on cows with baby calves. She is what I would call an aggressive dog.

I guess my point is, after all this, that I believe different kinds of dogs can get the job done, but it takes something special to be good at it! I believe a dog can be naturally powerful, but Iím a bigger believer in confidence. I believe a confident dog is in turn a powerful one. Also, a naturally powerful dog can be made more powerful as their confidence increases. Maybe they are really one and the same?

I think it is our responsibility as dog handlers to nurture a dogs confidence. Set the dog up to win and if theyíre failing, get in there and help them! You surely wouldnít stand by while your human partner was in a pinch.

I also believe a dog must truly understand the give and take relationship of pressure. Itís amazing to watch a dog work that reads the Ďfight or flight zoneí of an animal immediately, knows when to apply more pressure to start movement and when to back off the pressure so the animal feels at ease to move away. It is so frustrating to me to have a dog go in for a hit when the cow is "escaping" the right way.

Merle Hoskins, Kansas rancher, made the best comment I have heard to date that describes what a good cow/calf dog needs, Ďthey must be able to draw a line in the sand and be prepared to hold that lineí. The line is in correlation to each cowís fight or flight zone. Some dogs, by genetics and the nurturing of those natural abilities through proper training, have an amazing talent to read cattle. Some people have a God-given talent to read stock. Just as people hone their own handling abilities through experience, practical work and eagerness to learn, so does a great cow/calf dog. That line in the sand, or the fight or flight zone, is a variable distance that the dog must read immediately with each new mama cow encountered. I have seen it range from 5 feet to 500 feet. The best scenario is a dog that in each new situation can read this immediately and then put mental pressure on the cow without causing a fight. However, that dog must be prepared to draw their line ! in the sand and back up the silent promise made to the cow that she isnít allowed to cross that proverbial line.

I realize you might be thinking that I must be moving some pretty docile cows around if my dogs donít have to grip very often. I can promise you I have seen plenty of rank cattle. You know, the kind that spot you and your horse a half mile away and pick up speed as they line up to hit you and your horse. The many that the only cure was to be roped and tied to a tree and await the trailer I loped home to get. We also gather out of some pretty rough country. This has made me truly appreciate a good, intelligent cow dog, not to mention, the realization that no dog is a super hero and we are a team in this effort!

The best kind of dog for my situation is a dog with a good handle on them and who is training their cattle correctly. When I speak of training cattle, I am aware that the training can go either way, good or bad. There are scads of horse trainers in this world. Some of them are fabulous with horses. The horses are respectful of the trainers, but never fearful. There are also horse trainers out there that only add to a horses fears and instead of gaining respect, they will get mistrust and confusion from the horse. This holds true for the relationship between cows and dogs. A dog that trains his cows with calves at side (or any kind of cattle for that matter) to be respectful of him, but not fearful, is of course the best "cow trainer" and in my opinion is the one I would want to ride into the pasture with to gather pairs!

On to the subject of control, or handle or whatever you want to call it. Iím a believer in "to each his own ideas". For me, however, the better handle I have on my dogs, the better partners we become. We are partners in everything, but I will always be the senior partner. This doesnít mean that I want to control my dogs every move. I have learned that I am not even close to being smart or quick enough to read what a mama cow is thinking in time to give a command therefore I must trust my dog to handle the situation correctly. Because I work towards enough control with my dogs, I can truly trust them in each situation. Also, because I have a good handle on them, I can "help" them out when needed and this will lead to the dog trusting me, as long as I donít ask the dog to do something that would get them hurt or cause them to "lose" their stock.

Donít take this last paragraph to mean that I donít want a dog to think for themselves. I have to trust my dogs to think for themselves when out of sight from me or when itís just him and me out there moving 200 head of cows and calves to a new pasture. He better be able to decide if his action will lead to the desired goal or not without my help. He is free to make his own decisions, but when I have made mine, it overrides his. This doesnít mean I expect him to stay lying down in the gate while 200 head of cows run the full length of him, but it does mean that when I give a flank whistle and then a down halfway out he needs to take it immediately. It also means that when Iím ready to drive cattle, that is what we will be doing. What Iím trying to say is that I believe a cow/calf dog must be under control. This also includes the bite.

I could write a whole article on my feelings about a dog with "heart". Heart being the gene that keeps the dogs that have it coming back no matter what! Dogs with heart remind me of the saying, "takes a licking and keeps on ticking". Some people refer to this as intensity. Whatever you want to call it, it is essential in a cow/calf dog.

To wrap it up, Iíll bet you thought I wasnít ever going to, we all have unique working situations with our cattle. This has to be taken into account when deciding what each of us needs in a dog. Personally, I believe a good cow/calf dog must have the right genetics and be raised in a conducive environment to make the best of their genetics. Iím a huge believer in building on the talents a dog has been given. I must say Iím still mulling over what is more important in a pair dog, power, confidence or guts. Obviously the best is the dog that has all three. Which one, if any, can be left out and still have a dog that can handle cows with calves? I also believe you must have a dog with enough brains to decide when it is time to use the brawn. The glue that holds it all together being "heart"!

Hereís wishing you all many enjoyable and memorable experiences working with your cow dogs!

- Laura, her husband Mike, two boys - Dustin and Brady, raise commercial beef cattle in SW South Dakota. Laura enjoys raising and training Quarter Horses and Border Collies. If you would like to visit with Laura or see her dogs and horses, email her at or stop by the website at: