Dogs on the Frontier

Amazing stories of the part played by the dog in the winning of the West

Excerpts from Chapter 3: Shep and Rover on the Range

It is inevitable that we associate the sheepman, long the feudist of the cattlemen, with dogs, but one seldom things of the cowboy’s home grounds as inhabited by four-footed beasts of such small stature. And yet, the early ranchers had dogs galore, as do their modern counterparts…

As elsewhere on the frontier, the chief service that ranch dogs offered was as guardians of the home place… Thus, as Rose Pender found near Miles City in the Yellowstone Valley, every ranch house had its official canine welcomers for friends, or givers of unvarnished ultimatums to potential foes:

“We reached MacCraig’s Ranch about six o’clock. Our approach was notified by the loud barking of dogs, and some six or eight very peculiar but remarkably good looking sheep dogs came bounding to meet us. They were rather like the bob-tailed colley breed, only with tails and more silky coats, but such lovely heads, all black and white. One old patriarch came up to me very gravely and, having satisfied himself I was a friend, followed me into the house.”

At a Colorado cow camp one wintertime in the ‘seventies (1870s) we can discover another ranch use for dogs:

All present went to a dry field near the barn and there saw eight or ten cowboys on their cow-horses riding around about two hundred head of cattle, which were moving around in a circle, or in “cowboy” parlance, “milling.” There were also five or six shepherd dogs walking around in the same way. If any animal attempted to leave the herd or circle, the cow-horse and dog nearest, without being told, eagerly started to turn it back. About fifty yards away a couple of cowboys had a glowing fire with their branding rods in it and two fine dogs near. After watching the herd “mill” or turn in the circle of riders and dogs a short time, the party went to the branding-fire. Meanwhile, the two shepherd dogs were on guard to turn the newly branded cattle away from the open prairie once they were released.

Photo by Carol Greet ~ Branding, April 2022

Then, just as the party was returning to the ranch house, a black shepherd dog called Billy rushed forward, wagging his tail. One of the ranch’s eastern guests, the perfect impersonation of a tender-foot, looked at the dog and exclaimed, “That fellow must be a dude, to sit here in the house while the others do the work.” With disguised indignation, the ranch owner came to Billy’s defense, explaining:

Billy is one of the hardest worked dogs on the ranch. We have a complete division of labor among the dogs. These two belong at the branding-fires to turn the animals just branded back into or away from the herd, as directed.

Billy watches the house and if any stray stock he chases it away. He goes from a mile to a mile and a half for the milk cows every evening. When the men irrigate the hay or pasture, he goes with them to catch prairie-dogs… The moment the water is turned into a prairie-dog hole Billy finds the escape and crouches down within four or five feet of the hole ’till the water drives the dog out, then he destroys it.

We bale a good deal of hay for convenience in moving it from cow camp to cow camp. The baler is pulled around by a mule. Billy follows and drives that mule around from morning till night, and if he did not do this, one of the men would have to, so you see Billy is not a dude; he will do his work, but he will not do that of the other dogs any more than a carpenter will hire out to saw wood, nor will they do his.”

The rancher explained that not only were his dogs trained to work, but to like it as well…