Since leaving the home place at seventeen, I’ve only been able to enjoy farm dogs vicariously, so when I saw an article recently in the online AmericanCattlemen, I was happy to see that dogs are still an integral part of the ranch and farm scene. As the article says, “Ask a cattleman who their most entrusted employee is and the response will often be this: my dog.”
The piece goes on to profile an Iowa farmer who seems to be a living example of a Google search for “guy who knows about cattle-herding dogs.” The man’s border collie is like a canine cross between enforcer and “cow whisperer” as it sorts and moves a herd of 300 cattle. While reading about Australian blue heelers and the nineteen other recognized breeds of dogs in the herding category, I’m impressed. But I’m also at ease with the fact that the dogs of my childhood were special and useful in their own ways. And to be honest, I’m not sure what pedigree any of them were.
Every Midwest farm in the 1960s had a dog. Sparky, Bandit, or maybe Tippy. This was before names like Fifi or Pickles hit the scene. Some old codger further out from town may have had a scrawny mutt named Sickem, but traditional--not clever--names were still the mainstay then.
During my youth, we had several dogs, and some people might take issue with our nurturing techniques, but we never mistreated them. They were generally mutts, some strays, some passed on from neighbors, but the basic routine was this: When we were kids, a dog would be in the front yard every morning when we emerged from the house; it would slobber, yip, and tag along with us all day; it would be a member of our football team and a part of any snowball fight although it wasn’t good at throwing things; and if I could talk my younger brothers into it, the dog would take alternate licks from their tootsie roll pops as we sat on the front step in the summer heat.
Smoky was the hands-down favorite. He was part of our lives when all three of us boys were dog-dependent, and the shaggy, black-haired mutt became another playmate for us and our cousins down the road. Like most of us, he had his addictions, and his love of chasing pick-up trucks ended when an ice patch on the lane sent him sliding under the wheels.
One of our dogs made celebrity status when Dad wrote a story about Shep. We were sorting cattle in the feedlot, and a cantankerous steer charged at my younger brother. Shep intervened, Dad wrote it up, and when it came out in Farm Journal or some-such publication, Shep received plenty of kudos, and Dad received a complaint letter from a reader who was angered that we fed our dog table scraps. Fat trimmed from sirloin steak, gravy scraped from the frying pan, and leftover crust bits from Mom’s homemade bread: That dog was eating high on the hog.
Further family lore includes a collie named Stubbie. I wasn’t around then, but apparently, my four-year-old sister went walkabout, and a frantic search first turned up one of her socks floating in the creek that runs under the bridge on our lane. Soon after, the search party saw Stubbie bounding about in the pasture, and, sure enough, my sister was by his side, shoeless but having fun.
Neighbors had more accomplished canines: coon dogs that howled on late night hunts along the South Minerva Creek; dogs trained to help guide huge Belgian horses hitched to classic circus wagons; and farmers with dogs that would guard open gates, help sort cattle, and ride along in the front seat of farm pickups.
Which brings me back to the article in the online magazine. As the cattle farmer says, “No way I could get Tess to be a house dog.” Our dogs slept in the garage or in a barn loft above the livestock for heat in the winter. They ran free, rolled in the dust, collected cockle burrs and skunk smell in their fur, and occasionally did something criminal like chase the neighbor’s sheep. But a farm dog was another member of the family. Whether it’s a high-priced herding dog or a front porch mutt, many ranchers and farmers still think of their dog as Best in Show.
by dan gogerty (photo: dogbreedinfo.com)