Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — A Very Special Cow Dog, Part One

This is a story about Fred, the super cow dog.

Fred came from a litter of pups bred to be super cow dogs. Her sire, Ike, is three-quarters red border collie and one-quarter bull terrier, bred by a rancher from Australia who moved to Montana. The border collie was originally bred to work sheep and is very intelligent but generally not as aggressive as some of the other working breeds. Ike’s breeder added bull terrier to his border collies, to get a little more aggression — to create the smartest sheepdog that could be aggressive enough to work the toughest cattle. Most stockmen who use dogs for working cattle feel that the border collie is smarter than the Blue Heeler, but also more timid. This particular rancher felt that adding some bull terrier made an excellent mix for a good cow dog.

A good cow dog has to be aggressive enough
to bring a wayward belligerent cow back to the herd.

He passed away a few years ago, however, with no place for his dogs to go. Dan Mulkey (a young rancher near Lima, Montana) took a newly weaned litter, kept a male that he named Ike, and adopted out the rest of the pups. Dan spent a lot of time with Ike as a pup, progressing through ducks and sheep in his training, and Ike became a top cow dog. Ike’s pups are only one-eighth bull terrier, but most of them are more aggressive than border collies and have the tenacity to handle rough cattle.

In early February 2010 Ike was bred to a “fuzzy” cow dog owned by one of Dan’s rancher friends near Dillon, Montana. These are a unique type of border collie mix bred by some of the ranchers in eastern Idaho and are locally known as Pahsimeroi Fuzzies. These dogs are longer-haired than a typical border collie and without the white markings.

Our son Michael and his wife Carolyn, who live here on our creek (near Salmon, Idaho), are good friends with one of our neighbors — Dan’s father, Bruce Mulkey — and often help Bruce gather and work cattle. They had seen Ike work cattle on several occasions when Dan came to visit his dad.

Michael and Carolyn and their family use dogs to
help with cattle work. Here they are in the middle

a long, hot cattle move, pausing at a water troughon the range to let their horses and dogs drink.

Michael's dogs helping move a large group of cattle

That winter (February 2010) they lost one of their best young cow dogs, Olie, a red border collie. She died in a tractor accident. Every morning when Michael fed cows by himself, taking big round bales out to the field with the tractor, his dogs kept the cows away from the gate so he could drive into the field. One morning he was late feeding, and the cows were crowding around the gate. The dogs were trying hard to keep the cows away from the tractor as he drove through. Olie had a full tail (rather than bobbed) and when she took a step backward because of the encroaching mob of cows, the tractor wheel caught her tail. By the time Michael realized what happened, it was too late to keep from running over the dog.

Michael and his dogs: Olie (a young dog in training)
and Tuffy and Tiny — the summer before they lost Olie

So Michael asked Dan if he knew anyone who might have a litter of red border collie pups that spring. Dan told them about the litter his dog Ike had sired. Bruce Mulkey wanted a female from that litter, since Bruce had also lost a good cow dog and needed a replacement. Michael and Carolyn asked for the runt female from this litter.

The pups were born in April 2010. Their mother weaned the whole litter early, at 4 weeks of age. Dan had to take the two female pups early and kept them for 2 weeks at his place in Lima, with Ike. After Michael and Carolyn’s daughter Heather (our oldest granddaughter) got home from her first year at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, they all drove over to Dillon on June 10 to pick up the 6-week-old pups — the one for Bruce, named Tess, and the female runt. Heather started calling the pup Fred as a joke (to get back at her dad for nicknaming her young foal Tornado, also born that year), and the name stuck.

My granddaughter Heather with the new pup,
a few days after they got young Fred

From the time they got her, Fred has been part of the family and lives in the house. “We took her everywhere we could, to build a bond and start basic discipline,” says Michael. “We took her irrigating with us, because she was too little to go with the horses when we rode. We kept her in the house because she was so bold and fearless, and we didn’t want her to get out on the road or go to the neighbor’s place,” he says.

“She’s never been afraid of anything,” says Heather. “She’s totally fearless around vehicles, rushing water, horses, and cattle. When we first got her and she was still a tiny pup, Mom would pack her around on the four-wheeler when we went irrigating, then carry her up and down the ditch. She’d jump in the ditch and get all wet, so Mom had to wrap Fred in her coat so she wouldn’t get cold.”

Carolyn recalls that the tiny pup would walk across the dam poles and jump into the ditches no matter how deep they were, and as soon as you set a dam, she thought it was a game, and she’d try to pull it out. From the beginning she invented dozens of games.

[to be continued]

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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