Double-stocking the cattle grazing pastures has become more prevalent in the business for about the last 30 years. It’s good for the owners, who get more gain on their cattle. It’s good for just about everybody—except for the manager. The manager ends up with twice as many cattle on a certain amount of pasture for half the season, and it’s up to him to herd and pen them to ship, usually in the middle of the summer heat.
Handling those large, difficult herds is still a problem today for a lot of people. It was for us at Cottonwood Ranch in Kansas, where I was manager for 40 years. Up until about 20 years ago, I had never used a stock dog to herd my cattle, but when we began double-stocking I started to look around for the right dogs.
That’s how I got where I am today. I heard about a man named Gary Ericsson and a breed he developed called the Hangin’ Tree cow dog. When I saw a video of these dogs working the cattle, retrieving them from the brush and rounding them up into a group and bringing them straight into the pen, I made up my mind that that’s what we were going to do. I started with three dogs, and it was so successful that I started raising a few Hangin’ Tree dogs myself.
Hangin’ Tree dogs are just one breed; there are many others that work well with cattle, from Border Collies to Kelpies, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, Bouviers, Catahoulas, and cur dogs like the Black Mouth Curs. But not all breeds are alike. The major characteristics I want to see in a cattle dog start with how it handles the livestock. Is he a retrieving-type dog or a heeler? I feel very strongly that to be successful, you’ve got to find a retrieving-type dog. The heelers are good in the stockyards and driving cattle up and down alleys, but if you’re out in the pasture, they’ll just end up chasing the cattle away and making them wild. But retrieving-type dogs, like the Hangin’ Tree dogs, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and others, will gather the cattle and bring them straight back to you, and make the cattle very gentle and easy to work with over time.
A good cattle dog is also courageous, with plenty of grit and endurance, strong big bones, sharp herding and trailing instincts, and intelligence. It’s not a job for just any dog—a sheepdog, for example, couldn’t handle cattle. A cattle dog will get kicked and run over, menaced by the cows with calves on them, or outright ignored, and they have to have enough courage and grit to stand up to the cattle and intimidate them.
Finally, I think it’s ideal for a cattle dog to have a slick, short-haired coat, which helps it to stand the heat and avoid getting caked with mud and burs.
What about barking? Many people think that a dog shouldn’t bark while working the stock. But in fact, there’s a big difference between barks. If you have a dog barking because of a lack of courage or nerves, it’s a hysterical bark. You’ve heard these dogs before; they bark all of the time without any meaning to it. And this is not a bark that you want while working cattle. Not only will the cattle not respect it, but it will get them stirred up and anxious as well. But a good cattle dog has a controlled bark, and you want that. It can be a powerful tool. This type of bark indicates that a good, strong bite is there to back it up if the cattle don’t mind the dog. But a dog that doesn’t bark at all will work itself to death trying to command the respect of a large group of cattle, and, practically speaking, you want the cattle in the front to hear where the dog is behind them and to remember to keep moving. For the handler, it’s also much easier to lose your dogs in a big, brushy pasture if they’re not making a sound.
The dogs have some advantages that a man on horseback or in a truck just can’t compare to. For one, dogs can get through the brush and rocky terrain far more easily and root out the cattle. But most importantly, cattle will respect a dog more than they will a man on horseback. While it’s a big ordeal for most ranchers to go out and pen their cattle, using a good dog makes it downright easy.