Saturday, March 18, 2006

Working Dogs

Of course, nearly every ranch here in West Texas has working dogs or cattle dogs as they are called. In the back of virtually every cowboy’s pickup you see one or two of these bundles of energy, savvy and guts. For the most part these are border collies, blue healers or blue ticks, kelpies or some mix of these breeds. They stand or pace in the pickup bed, always observant, always alert. They are good dogs, usually friendly. As you approach a parked pickup they’ll watch closely, look you in the eye, assume a sort of neutrality. Few will ever bark as you pass by. But, if you stop, thinking to pat one of these, you will likely be making a mistake. These are good guard dogs as well and you will be invading their territory.

Lots of folks out here besides the cowpokes have these breeds as well - I’m one, we have a border collie. The dogs are incredibly loyal, friendly, energetic, strong and extremely intelligent. I recently read of a poll among dog trainers who overwhelmingly chose the border collie as the smartest breed they work with.

Unless you live in the country, give the dogs a break and don’t get one as a pet. Our Mija, typical of these breeds, requires hours of action daily. We take long walks through the desert and if she doesn’t find an opportunity to chase a few rabbits or lizards she decides that you need to chase her and she goes into herding mode to try and provoke you.

Rabbits are her favorite. When one shoots out of the brush in front of us Mija yelps and takes off like a rocket, barreling through or over bushes, dodging the cactus spines and hurling across gulches in hot pursuit. She only stops when the rabbit dodges right behind a bush and she’s guessed left, losing the little hopper. She comes back panting in the extreme heat but she’s absolutely ready for more.

With lizards its close in action, feinting and weaving, trying to keep the lizard in the open so it won’t drop down one of the holes that surround nearly every bush and clump of lechuguilla. It’s a fast and furious bob and weave as the lizard, in total panic, tries to get to cover. Mija occasionally catches one of these, holding it gently in her mouth until I tell her to "drop it". The lizard looks stunned but soon scrambles off.

If we see no rabbits or lizards I will suddenly sense "in-coming" as a Mija missile rockets from behind, leaps into the air and very gently nips my elbow (these dogs will nip, harder, cattle on the rear haunch in the same way to direct them). As I yell "hey" she’s already circling behind me and bumping my calves, first one then the other, with her nose ("go that way, straighten out, go this way") - I’m being herded. She knows this bugs me and that I’ll yell and chase her, which is exactly what she wants.

These walks keep both of us in shape but every time we get home she’s ready to go again. To put such a dog in a small yard with no diversion is to kill it’s spirit. Fortunately we have 30 acres she can roam, and of course she can go further if she wishes, but she doesn’t. She stays and guard her human flock, occasionally herding them to let them know who’s boss.


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