In the past couple of months, I've visited with several cattlemen who understand man's best friend can also be cattleman's best friend. One of these cattlemen, National Cattledog Association director and 2013 National Finals Open Finals Champion Handler, Jeff Mundorf, informed me of the common belief that one well-trained cattledog can take the place of three horseback cattle handlers.
It's hard enough to find help working cattle, but even tougher to find someone with experience. Cattledogs are naturally better adapted to reading flight zones, demeanor, and intent of livestock, something that comes in handy for minimizing stress on cattle.
"It comes more naturally to them. They think like a predator with hunting and stalking behaviors that have been accentuated by breeding," Mundorf says. While people tend to work cattle in terms of direct geometry, or from point A to B, dogs see it differently. "Dogs feel the other pressures and know where livestock are going to be pulled to before they even are."
Early days of stock dogs
According to Mundorf, dogs have been used to herd livestock for hundreds of years. Even the Rottweiler breed, he notes, began as cattle-droving dogs. "Livestock haven't been kept in large numbers in single herds until fairly recently in the last couple hundred years," he explains. "All of agriculture started really small, so a lot of dogs didn't have to handle really big herds."
As time went on and herds grew, dogs with certain traits were needed. Most of the modern breeds used today, and the commands used for working stock, like "away-to-me" and "come-by," originate in the British Isles, including Border Collies, the most sought-after breed.
Many traits associated with Border Collies, like their signature creeping and staring, date back to ancestors like 'Old Hemp,' born 1893, and 'Old Kep,' born 1901. Not yet called Border Collies, they originated from lines of farm dogs with the traits desired for herding stock. Although these ancestors were used for working sheep, they set the foundation for the traits Border Collies are known for in working all kinds of livestock.
What cattledogs are capable of
The modern-day progenies of these dogs are capable of working cattle from distances of over one mile, Mundorf says. "I've sent dogs to gather cattle from three quarters of a mile away, and the only way you know the dog is there is you can see the cattle moving," he says. "They will sweep a whole area, put a whole herd together, and bring them to you."
With cattledogs, Mundorf adds, going after stragglers usually isn't necessary. "There is always one or two cows you know will take off for the brush or leave the herd," he says. "That goes away when you have dogs, because they can't outrun the dog."
At NCA National Finals, many dogs and handlers demonstrate the ability to gather, drive, pen, and sort cattle from a distance. To see cattledogs in action at last year's finals in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (where the event will be held again in June 2014), NCA will soon have video and commentary available at its website.