Ranch Diaries: One dog can be worth three hands

A cowboy and a good canine or two can handle several hundred cattle.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

I’d known Sam for all of a month before I got him a dog in 2006. Belle, now nine years old, is half Border Collie, a female pup out of our friend Thad’s Australian Shepherd. Neither of us had any experience with making a pup into a stock dog. But one thing I did know before my impulsive purchase was the value of an obedient working dog. After several summers on cattle ranches, I’d seen just how handy it was to send dogs into thickets where cattle shaded up. I’d watched them work a cow that didn’t want to stay with the herd until she turned back and joined them. One cowboy with a good dog or two could easily handle several hundred cattle, the same number it might take five people to drive. (Hiring day help could set you back around five hundred bucks). And well-intended but inexperienced cow hands can end up in the wrong place, but a seasoned dog is rarely mistaken about where the cattle need to go.

  • The dogs get ready to turn this wayward cow back to the herd.

  • Belle, Fe and Buster at the author's wedding in 2011.

  • Luna takes a break at Spur Lake Cattle Company in Luna, New Mexico.

  • All the dogs love to cool off after a day of hard work.

  • The author and Belle take a break.

  • Thad and Sam with their dogs, getting a near wreck under control 2007.

  • You never know when you might pass a cow that's out.

  • Fe is 100% dog.

  • Ida, the Kelpie who was adopted by a friend of the author's, now lives the high life in Massachusetts.

  • We used our dogs to manage this herd of over 1,000 goats for natural weed management in Montana in 2009. Here, they graze leafy spurge.

Sam was fortunate to start Belle with her mother, a well-trained and confident stock dog. Now we use Belle to help our new pups learn the ropes. We prefer our dogs to go around the herd and to bring cattle to us using the command  “go by” for left, and “away,” to turn the herd right. This allows for much greater precision when moving a large herd cattle. If we’re shorthanded, we’ll send the dogs to the drag where they trot back and forth behind the cattle to encourage forward movement, like in this video clip at Triangle P.

Through nine years and multiple moves within five states, dogs have come and gone. Some, like Ida, a beautiful Kelpie pup, swapped out ranch life for suburbia; she had no interest in cattle. When a new position in 2009 limited us to two dogs, Sam found a new home for Dally, a merle Border Collie we’d used on goats. Last we heard she was mothering a kitten along with her pups in Bridger, Montana. Buster met a fateful end under the horse trailer a week after our wedding, proving to me how important the command “go home” really is­ — he was the only dog who didn’t listen.

We have four females now, including Belle’s half sister, Fe (Spanish for “faith,”), a deaf Australian Shepherd. Sam trained her with hand signals and she’s moved cattle and lived a very abled life. But this spring, she damaged nerves to her right front leg. We just had it amputated after no signs of improvement. She doesn’t seem to mourn it, but her role here is forever altered. Luna is a quiet Border Collie from Arizona. It’s only after especially long work days that she limps from an old spiral fracture in her hind leg where Hector the donkey stomped her as a pup. I got “Eva” for Sam on Christmas Eve two years ago. She’s tough and small, and works well with both Luna and Belle.

At Triangle P, it’s hard to find day help willing to come all the way out here. So Sam and I consider our dogs our best hands, and while they’re not pampered, they’re loved and well cared for. Yet, liked hired help, we depend on them to be obedient and put in long hours, regardless of weather, so we can get cattle moved, gathered, and under control. If their hours were logged on the Triangle P payroll, we probably couldn’t afford to keep them on.

I’ve handed out organic dog treats, but I’m not sure they like anything better than milk-fed calf shit. Most of them only tolerate the Furminator — a glorified dog comb. In a culture obsessed with humanizing canines, it’s refreshing to see these four being what they were bred to be: herders and workers, pack animals that desire good leadership, clear boundaries, and a good roll in something dead. They love their lives the way they are and they wouldn’t work if they didn’t want to — as Ida proved well.                                                                                                                         

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