I strongly suggest that if you ever stumble upon the opportunity to stand in the middle of a field while three Hangin’ Tree Cowdogs herd an ample population of cattle towards you, enveloping you into their horde, you take it.
We recently spent a morning at the cattle ranch belonging to Carol and Guy Maberry of Hilger, Montana. Replacing the traditional ranch hand is the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog, one of which can often accomplish the work of two people. Hangin’ Tree dogs are bred specifically to trail, find, and move herds of cattle. During our time with the Maberrys, we met their three primary working dogs (Rio, Pink, and Lucy), and had the good fortune of watching them in action.
Hangin’ Tree Cowdogs were founded and developed in Oklahoma in the 1980s by Gary Ericsson and his son, Choc. To yield the ultimate cowdog, the Ericssons utilized four breeds of dogs:
- 1/4th Kelpie, giving them endurance, toughness, short hair, and strong herding instinct
- 3/8th Border Collie, providing a dog that is a quick learner, an intense herder, and works the livestock by way of authoritative eye contact
- 1/8th Catahoula Leopard, bringing the ability to trail, find, and hold up cattle with their highly sensitive noses
- 1/4th Australian Shepherd, contributing agility and an innate ability to handle cattle (Only one Australian Shepherd was used in the line – “Black Bear” who won Idaho and Montana Stockdog Championships and ultimately sold for $20,000)
Hangin’ Tree Cowdogs are bred for endurance, intelligence, courageousness, loyalty, and their willingness and ability to perform grueling work under harsh conditions. Their coat is short and slick, an effective defense against bothersome stickers and burs while working in the field. They are able to work in both heat and cold; the development of a thick undercoat during the winter months serves to protect them from bitter temperatures. Their tails are docked to help avoid injury – some naturally, some surgically. Unlike other dog registration requirements, the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog Association bases registry on performance. Dogs must show a willingness to nip at both the heads and heels of cattle in order to be certified.
For me, the most notable trait that these dogs possess is the ability to control their impulses. Their genetics compel them to work the herd, moving them as directed by whistles or verbal commands provided by their handler or by their ingrained instincts. The concentration they maintain on the livestock is impassioned, unwavering, and palpable. Although many of their movements are self-directed based on experience, the handler will interject a command when needed. At times, it is necessary to get the dogs to cease driving the herd at all. From across the field, Guy can override their innate drive to push the herd with a simple “down,” and they will drop to the ground, quivering in anticipation of his next directive.
Back to the scene in which the dogs are driving the entire herd straight towards and around me. I’m a California girl, having become a resident of Montana only recently. Although I have experience working directly with animals for more years than I care to count, I found myself slightly nervous to have 30+ head of cattle moving directly towards us as Carol and I stood in the middle of the field. As Guy was directing the dogs, I glanced inconspicuously at Carol to pick up on any hints that we should start running for our lives, but there were none. As they passed, I could hear the beat of their hooves against the dry earth, strong enough to feel its pulse in my chest. I listened to the chorus of their grunts and puffs of protest. Shimmering strings of saliva fell from their muzzles to the dusty earth below. I could smell their musty, earthy, leathery scent.
After they passed and I caught my breath, I couldn’t wait for the dogs to bring them back my way again.