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What do you want in a cowdog?

Sue R

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Rebecca raised this interesting question in the thread on Bob Tail Border Collies, in the General Section.


I'd personally love to hear from some people who use cow dogs and what they need a dog to do. I know some of the sheep-oriented lines, but I know there's some specialized cow lines out there. How do these dogs compare to breeds that have been bred mostly for "at hand" cow work for generations? How would you talk to someone who was tempted to improve one of THOSE dogs, with some of what the Border Collie offers - or vice versa? Are there lines of Border collies that really can "do it all"? In terms of stock work, of course.


We had a working Border Collie/Aussie cross (looked like a Border Collie and worked like a Border Collie generally, although had a bit of natural driving tendancy) working our cattle for about 10 to 12 years. I have used our working Aussie on the cattle for about 10 to 12 years also. I am now training and working with my two young (about 2 1/2 yrs old) Border Collies. Of course, that means my experience is quite limited.


My observations are that a lot depends on the dog, as well as the breed. Our Aussie has definitely been a driving dog - he's great at that but he sure is no good at any type of flanking and gathering. He's fabulous at driving, flanking as needed to keep the stragglers coming along. He's been strong and assertive, and discreet but not afraid to use his teeth to enforce his will.


He is very good in the barn and moving cattle up the walkway and into the trailer. He knows how to grip the heels and gets right up there to push them. He's barky and, until his old age has slowed him down tremendously, he's been very brave and bold. He also totally dependable around young stock - all calves come under his protection, and he won't work them until they hit that certain teenage calf stage. He cleans them (when he can) and protects them from any passing hazard (even our other dogs and cats - they know to stay away from tiny calves).


Our Border Collies have drawn no such age line - all cattle are workable to them. They work quietly, and their natural gathering instincts are wonderful when that is what I want and need. We are working on the driving as the instinct to gather is so strong.


They are young but are fairly bold, developing confidence, and are learning to be more forceful when needed. Megan is definitely more interested in going to the head, and Celt is picking up on going for both heel and head, depending on what's required.


They work pretty well in the barn on the younger, less intimidating stock. I make sure to do a bit of barn work as well as field work so that they can gain experience and confidence to do this. They will push stock to and up the walkway but don't have the forcefulness and grip needed yet to push uncooperative stock in tighter places. I hope this develops with age and experience.


We started out on the farm only working with cattle. Now I go to a trainer about once a month with both of these young dogs, and we work on sheep, because that's what's available. They are both much gentler and have never shown any indication of roughness with the sheep, although they tend to be a bit pushy. I think that might be because they have to push with the cattle which are heavier, and that's what they are used to doing.


What do I want in a cow dog? A lot of the same things that you like in a sheep dog - intelligence, biddability, stamina, feel for stock, pace, courage, confidence. I think that working cattle does require a brave and bold dog, and one that isn't afraid to get in a cow's face to get her to back down and yield.


Our cows are fairly gentle and cooperative. I am sure someone who has range cows or rougher stock will require a very tough dog, and I know my Border Collies are not what I would call tough dogs. But, they will stand up to our cows, know when they need to back off and "regroup", and will make the stock yield to them. They also seem to work rather naturally together.


I do think that working with cows requires a dog that can take pressure and give pressure in return, and work with stock that don't tend to "flock" as tightly together as many sheep breeds do. I can particularly see with Celt that the pressure causes him some problems, and the "fear" of loss of control that a strung out group of cattle may cause. Sometimes it's a real struggle between his instinct, my commands, and what the cattle are doing.


With younger stockers running at 500# or so, and the mature cows at 1000-1200#, a dog needs courage, confidence, and power in perhaps a greater degree than a dog would need on sheep.


I think that a really good stock dog will read the stock (no matter whether they are cows, goats, sheep, or ducks) and work appropriately. Working in confined areas versus field work will be naturally easier for some dogs and breeds than others but I think a good dog can work either place.

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When looking for a cowboy, it's important to make sure that you are getting a cowboy from proven working, not show, lines. Just like the in the border collie world, many cowboys are now being bred for looks rather than true working ability. Avoid getting suckered into buying a goodlooking cowboy thinking that you can "develop" his working ability - a flashy cowboy is likely to be more trouble than he's worth.

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Originally posted by lrayburn:

When looking for a cowboy, it's important to make sure that you are getting a cowboy from proven working, not show, lines.

This is hilarious! It's like the men that go out and buy a cowboy hat in order to look like a "real" cowboy. Now they make cowboy hats that already have the fake sweat stains on them. My lord, how ridiculous! You can't develop a good work ethic in a man that is willing to purchase the sweat. :rolleyes:
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GET OUT! Christine, wouldn't have believed it til I saw it. I think they're calling the fake sweat "weathered." I'm sure it only adds 20 bucks to the price.


By the way, MY 2 cents about cowboys, they sure are pretty (for the most part) but I'll take a good ole farmer any day, as long as he has right kind of fencing in his pastures.


Couldn't help myself.


And by the way, I can't keep up with you people, how do you have so much time to keep up with these boards! Every time I get the chance to check it out, I'm way behind. : (

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Sorry Steve, no BS - it's for real - http://www.sheplers.com/item.cfm?di=096274


Just like Border Collies, you gotta watch 'em work to know whether you've got the Real Thing.

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Along with my Tour de France problem, I also have a PBR bull riding problem. I don't know if these guys are real cowboys or not, but they sure are easy on the eyes. Like the Tour de France riders, they're a pretty homogeneous lot, it's funny. They're all different versions of the same hot guy -- same height, same weight, same build, same outfit. Bull riding seems to be one of those sports, like professional soccer, where being attractive is a job requirement.


I read a book a while back that I really enjoyed, a collection of stories by Pam Houston, that would be apropos here:


Cowboys are My Weakness


Anyhoo... I don't know if it's too late to get back to the original topic of conversation. This is my question -- not so much what do cowdog people want in a cowdog (note: cowDOG), but what is it that differs between a great sheepdog and a great cowdog? I'd like to think there's no difference but clearly some people who work cows have preferences such that they are selecting for and developing their own lines of dogs, which makes me think the differences must be there.

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*licks lips* You guys are gonna get me fired. Yum, cowboys. :D


Maybe I could have several?? One for eye candy, one to do the fences, and one for miscellaneous duties as designated by the big mama [me]. Is that illegal in the US? *sighs*


Melanie, even better than the bullriders (IMO) is the team ropers. Double yum. They even have to be able to do several things at once. :rolleyes:

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  • 2 weeks later...

When you use the term cowdog there are a lot of varables in what cattle people want and need in a working dog. So far I have found a Border Collie can fell all the slots. May be not one dog but the Border Collie breed.

The dairy farmer wants a dog that is going to be under complete control and only take hold of a cow when told to. Let a dog rip a $10,000 cow's udder and the dog might not see the sun rise in the morning.

The beef farmer in this part of N. C. wants a dog with a little pit of bite but that will still work under control. All the farmers I know hate to build fence, so they want a dog that will back off when it needs too.

The rancher out West needs a dog with a lot of gritt or bite, that don't mind taking on a 2000# bull and not back off unless told so.

All of them want a dog that will head or heal and have a lot of heart, and energy to last all day working.

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