Let Me Tell You About “Herding Dogs”

Without a strong master, they are worthless. Destructive. Bored. Good for nothing but trouble. These descriptions, for those who have owned (or do own) herding dogs, would be the end of this post. Their experience with dogs like these would make the truth of these statements self-evident. Frank knows herding dogs.

For those of you who have not owned dogs bred to herd animals, you may need a little more convincing. And where has Frank gotten his bonafides on cattle and sheep herding dogs? Experience. Since 1993, I’ve owned three dogs: two of them were Australian Cattle Dogs, and now I own a Border Collie. None of them are “black sheep dogs” with malevolent stares, though they all have had black coloring in their coats. Yes, this is a post that is tangentially about the Corapi kerfuffle. Because you need to know.

Put down your pitch-forks and torches for a second and come meet my dogs. Besides, that kind of stuff (scary Hollywood style mobs, milling about earnestly looking to lynch someone) doesn’t scare Joe Six-Pack, USMC. Nor does it scare my dogs.

St. Davy at age 12

First up is Davy, also known in my household as “St. Davy of Queensland.” Why, pray tell? Because Davy, my first Australian Cattle Dog, could do no wrong. He simply was Our.Best.Dog.Ever. Davy was my and my wife’s first born, see. We bought him the same week we bought our first home, back in the Fall of 1993. He was six weeks old when I brought him home to surprise my wife less than a week after moving in.

At the local pet store, the sign in his cage said he was a “Queensland Heeler.” I had no idea what that was, but he looked a bit like a Corgy as a little pup and I wasn’t enthused about that favorite of the Royals. I headed to the local library (yes, this was before the days of Google) and did a quick bit of research on this breed. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the dog that Mel Gibson had at his side in Road Warrior. Cool!

Here’s what I learned about the breed from the Readers Digest Illustrated Book of Dogs,

The Australian Cattle Dog was developed to be a strong biting dog, one able to drive cattle over long distances. Its speckled coat camouflages it when nipping at bovines’ legs. Its punishing jaws are essential to a cattle dog in mustering and moving wild livestock. Protecting its master’s family and home is a responsibility the Australian Cattle Dog takes as seriously as driving cattle.

When Australian stockmen required a herding dog to help control half-wild cattle and sheep, they set out to breed one. The process began in the 1830′s when a stockmen named Timmons crossed a Smithfield, a tough but noisy working breed, with a Dingo. The resulting “Timmons Biter” had the Dingo’s silent ways but proved difficult to manage.

A further cross with Border Collies enhanced tractibility, but barking became a problem once more. Again, the Dingo was used. Later, to improve temperament, Dalmatian stock was introduced. To further develop working ability, the Australian Kelpie was interbred. This final cross produced just the versatile canine the stockmen were searching for. Their creation, possessed stamina, reliability, and uncanny intelligence.

So consulting my checklist, Smart? Check! Medium sized? Check! Not too yappy? Check! Cool looking? Check! I headed back to the store and bought him immediately.

When fully grown, Davy weighed 45 lbs, so he was indeed medium sized. If there is a MENSA equivalent for dogs, Australian Cattle Dogs would be one of the most numerous members of that society. Davy was simply the smartest dog I have ever had (and my family had several dogs while I was growing up). He was house broken in one week, and for the rest of his life (and he spent all 13 years of his life with us) he never had an accident indoors. He’d let you know when he needed to go out. And be advised, he was an outdoors dog. We lived in Southern California for most of his life and he lived and played in our fenced-in backyard, sleeping in a wooden kennel outdoors.

Within his first six months, he could pee and poop on command. My wife and I went to the Universal Studios tour and among the attractions, we saw the animal talent show there. I took the tricks I saw performed there back home to Davy and in a matter of weeks, he could sit, shake, roll-over, and speak (bark) with hand signals alone. Dogs like these make their masters look like professional animal trainers (think “Cesar Milan“). Life was very good.

Davy died about a year after we moved back to my hometown. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it because he was such a loved member of our family. He was great with our kids when they arrived. He would herd me along when I came out with the laundry heading to our washer and dryer out in the garage. He loved catching frisbees and loved going on walks on the two mile circuit my wife and I staked out around our neighborhood. He loved the water. Quiet? He only barked when something was out of the ordinary.

True story time: Once, when he was about a year old, he saved our neighbors car from being stolen. One morning, about 1:00 o’clock, Davy awoke and sounded the alarm by stationing himself at the gate to our backyard, barking his head off. When Davy barked, you knew something was up. It turned out someone had smashed the window of our next door neighbors car in a bid to steal it. Davy saved the day.

Bull Mastiffs love me too.

Here’s another one from when Davy was 5 years old. I had just rejoined the Marines as a Reservist and was getting ready to head to Colorado for annual training with my artillery battery. The Friday evening right before I left, Davy started barking. Herding dogs are smart, and vary the pitches of their barks in a way that is difficult to explain, but you know it when you’ve experienced it. He had this higher pitched barking sound whenever a possum wandered into our yard along the top of the fence, for example.

So I went out back to investigate. He had boxed something into the far right-hand corner of our back yard, somewhere between the block wall that fronted the back of an apartment building, and the oleander bush in the corner, next to our cypress trees. As such, he was sweeping in an arc around that back corner and barking with his “I’ve caught a possum” bark. He wouldn’t stop, so I went back in the house to get the flashlight and a broom (to knock it off the fence, and the flashlight because it was about 10 PM). When I came back out, Davy still had it cornered. When I flashed the light toward the oleander, a man’s voice cried out with “Man, can you call your dog off?!”

My hackles immediately went full tilt and I said “Hell no, I’m calling the Police!” and I scampered back inside to do just that. I knew this dude would never get past Davy. He evidently climbed back over the back wall and ran away, because Davy quieted down and the cops found nothing when they arrived shortly thereafter. My wife was less than pleased that I was leaving her alone with my 2 1/2 year old son for two weeks the next morning, but we were confident that Davy would guard my family’s safety. That is how life is with a well-trained Cattle Dog.

After Davy passed on, I didn’t want to get another dog for a while. But I missed having one around. So I went looking for another Australian Cattle Dog and found one at a Cattle Dog rescue place about an hour from our home. This is where Riley came into our life, a few short weeks after St. Davy left.

Riley, loyal to Frank (only).

It turns out that one of the reasons Davy was so saintly is because a) he was six weeks old when I bought him, and b) I spent a lot of time with him. I trained him, and he was very obedient to me and my wife. We both worked outside the home at that time, and Davy was fine when left to himself in the back yard, foraging avocados, and figs, and the occasional squirrel. When we came home, he was with us the whole time, you know, fetching frisbees, learning new tricks, and hanging out until bed time. Riley’s story is completely different.

First off, he was about 1 1/2 to 2 years old when we got him. You see, he had run away from his owner in Kentucky and the owner had never come looking for him at the pound. So the Cattle Dog Rescue place swooped in and saved him and we adopted him. As a result, training Riley was a bit tougher than training Davy, but the characteristics of the breed still won out. Though he was crate-trained (something I had never had to do with Davy), house breaking him was a chore.

He had trouble obeying my wife, but since I was around, I ignored this warning sign. Because in short order, Riley was catching frisbees with the best of them. He was so athletic, and jumped so high, our next door neighbor would invite folks over just to watch him go. He too loved the water, and throwing frisbees into the lake nearby, he would happily swim out for them 25-30 yards from shore, swim back and demand that you throw it out there again. He was an Olympian.

Riley was silent for the most part too, much to the dismay of UPS truck drivers and the post office letter carriers who brought us packages. He would not bark until he was right on their heels. So we were added to the “do not deliver to” list promptly. Our neighbors happily received packages for us whenever they came.

As long as I was around, all was well. Then I went back to work outside of the home again about a year after he joined the family. He took this hard. See, when I went back to work, the master who kept things on an even keel with him was gone. Riley tried then to take my place on the Alpha Dog roster, growing ever more disobedient to my wife and children while I was away at work.

When I got home, all would be well. But when I was gone, which was 5 days a week, for close to 10 hours a day, he tried to fill the void. Loyal only to me, he started growling at my family, and when he snapped at my daughter, he went right back to the farm where I had picked him up. Our relationship with Riley lasted 2 years. Then we went without a dog for about 1 1/2 years of decompression. Enter Cody, the Border Collie.

Cody at 6 weeks old.

The long dog-less dry spell ended last June. My youngest son and I picked up this dude when he was six weeks old, just like with Davy. Unlike Davy, and Riley, Cody has grown up with a family of 5 from the get go. House trained pretty rapidly, and only a few mistakes since, he’s a fun addition to the family. Spirited, he barks more than the Cattle Dogs ever did, but look at that face! Look at those eyes! Not a malevolent stare capable in this brown-eyed handsome dog. Don’t let them fool you though, because though a pushover with his family, he’s fearless with outsiders.

And he’s as smart as his Cattle Dog cousins, and has a whole vocabulary of sounds. I’m learning to translate them now. Sam Sheepdog (see the photograph at the top of this post) is really a Bearded Collie. Lots of training and supervision have been needed by Cody, and we have provided it. That and lots of exercise, which he gets mainly by running around the borders of our yard. Want to see the effect of genetics on a breed? Ride a bicycle in the yard and he will herd you around like you are a lost sheep. Your bicycle is alive, as far as he’s concerned, and he will not stop trying to get you to go where he knows you need to go. No matter how fast you pedal, or for how long.

And that brings me full circle to the point about herding dogs that I started this post with. Left to themselves, they aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Bored, they will be destructive, troublesome and worthless for their intended job. They need strong shepherds. Period. Someone to tell them what to do, and where to take the flock.

Which brings me to the part of this post where I’ll share these wise words written by Fr. Joseph Jenkins about the Corapi kerfuffle entitled Black Sheep Dog or Black Wolf? He covers everything that anyone needs to know about this situation.

As you read it, keep in mind what I have shared with you from my own long experience with herding dogs and how important their relationships with their masters are both to their own happiness and to that of their families (the pack). Light your torches and bring your pitchforks if you must, but you won’t make it into my yard. That much I can assure you of.


Cody, the next generation

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  • Anonymous

    I spent some time on farm with a border collie in charge. He was a good, dependable sargent. But he needed a captain, who was the master. You've made a good analogy, here. I hope Corapi reads it.

  • izyperspective

    Frank, my heart leapt with joy when I saw the pictures of your two blue heelers (as known by farmers around here). Your St. Davy is the equivalent of our Duke, who was with us for almost ten years. When he died in 2005 we buried him in tears by the flower garden just a few yards outside our house. Currently we have two blue heelers and they are smart just as you say. Have you ever heard of Skidboot the amazing Australian cattle dog? Cody is gorgeous.I'll have to get that Mel Gibson movie! Thanks for sharing, and Happy Feast of Corpus Christi!

  • Sandy

    Thank you for sharing all three of your family with us. Of course, I draw comparisons with Jake, my faithful and stalwart rat terror. I miss him, but now the Manchesters are with us. And they actually try to herd us too. Freaky thing!Thanks again. Precious all, our pets.

  • http://scottdodge.blogspot.com/ Dcn Scott Dodge

    Good observation, Frank. It always good to ground things in reality, that is, experience. Jesus did that often. Black Sheep Dog, indeed!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    And I didn't even talk about picking up the poop!

  • http://www.fightingirishthomas.com Jeanette O’Toole

    What an outstanding article, Frank. It's too bad things didn't work out better with Riley, but you've got to do what you've got to do. I loved your other stories about St. Davy and Cody. And can you tell me if border collies are trying to "herd" squirrels and rabbits, or are they just trying to eat them? :)Our border collie mix, Addy, is extremely agile. Here's a video and we did not teach her this. We just pointed out the steps to her. She also climbs this tree at the park that is growing at an angle, and she can get at times absurdly high on the trunk. :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbIoaNDSDb8Thanks for linking to Fr. Joe. Very thorough article from a very concerned priest. Tom is sending folks his way as well. (And, by the way, without us, Addy would be a town terror, so we understand your post and what you're getting at very well.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Squirrels and rabbits are food! The Cattle Dogs still have that feral Dingo thing going on, see. Cody tries to catch them too, and probably will one of these days because he's as fast as lightnin'. He's already caught and eaten birds. Very quick he is. ;)

  • http://www.fightingirishthomas.com/2011/06/corapi-corrupted-parable-of-lost.html Jeanette O’Toole

    Okay, thanks; I pretty much thought so, but was hoping otherwise. I'm afraid she's going to succeed, and it's not going to be pretty. We've already had two dead birds INSIDE the house, and I have blamed that on the cats (even though they're the inside variety), but now that I see what Cody's been up to, maybe it's Addy, however, I've never seen her make the catch, and she's always on a leash unless we're at the park. Addy would love running with Cody. She's fast as lightnin' too. And with her front legs closely set to her back ones, she moves to the left and right in a way that drives our labrador crazy. We call her "Sweetness" after Walter Peyton sometimes. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07961183796915363873 M. Jordan Lichens

    I have an old Aussie Cattle Dog/Siberian Husky mix who is the best dog I've ever encountered. We got her when I was in 8th grade and my mum was actually the one who picked her out and the two of us bonded immediately. It's weird, but you described all the things I love about Bonnie, down to being able to sit, jump, lay down, and speak all with hand signals. She also never barked, unless it was an emergency, and thus would growl as a means of communication. The growling scared people who were unfamiliar with her as she tended to pick up her favourite chew toy and growl to a new guest in an attempt to get play time. To say the least, she is knocking at deaths door and I do get a little teary-eyed knowing that she will be gone after nearly two decades of faithful service.However, your analogy is apt. While she is a very good dog I have observed with other members of the family that she will push boundaries to see who is really in charge. While she's never bit me or any other person, she once attacked the neighbours annoying poodle when the territory was threatened. Full disclosure, most of our neighbours would have been relieved to see this poodle gone as its owners let it wander without a leash and it had indeed attacked children, but we all were shocked at this development and had I not been there it would have been a full crisis. She's a good dog, but left to her own devices she'll attack anything that even appears to be a threat and thus she needs a strong master who knows how to use a leash and strong words.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Jordon, Thanks for backing me up with your experience. True story: if I had been single, Riley would have been great. As a one owner dog, he would have just the dog for Mad Max. :)

  • Max Lindenman

    Of everything you wrote here, what touches me most is Riley’s story — such potential! A shame you got him too late to bring out the best in him. Maybe you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

    In the best of all possible worlds, I’d own a gentle giant like an English mastiff, an Irish wolfhound or a St. Bernard. As I understand it, they don’t eat nearly as much as you’d guess by looking at them. They might find my apartment a bit confining, though.

    • Frank Weathers

      I wonder if he ran away, or if his first owner had no time to train him? I do know that he was placed with another owner after us.

  • Korean

    Hi. i’m korean. can i use last image in this post for my profile image on smart phone? this is good image… have a pleasant day

    • Frank Weathers

      You may.