Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Cowdogs of Eastern Oregon

A little background: when I moved to Eastern Oregon from the west side of the state in 2010, I immediately noticed that there were border collies everywhere. Every flatbed seemed to have one, and when I worked at the mixed-practice vet clinic that served a lot of the ranches, I met even more of them. Border collies and crosses are the most popular stock dog in Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho. And I'm fairly certain that the majority of them are not registered with any pedigree registry.

This is a stark contrast to the image put forth by vocal online border collie groups who think of themselves as WORKING (in all caps) people. Their dogs are registered with some kind of working dog registry like ABCA or ISDS, and, even though these registries are technically "open", often the dogs are as inbred as the "show ring" dogs, and suffer from popular sire effects, among other problems. These people tend to idealize the trial sheep dog, while putting down dogs who work cattle, even though sheep is a dying industry and there are many more actual working cattle ranches in north America. These ranchers are sort of left in their own quiet niche, doing things the way they've been done for many years, including things like outcrossing, crossbreeding, keeping and selling pet dogs, breeding dogs that are "good enough", instead of only "best to the best"... and other "shocking" activities, virtually unacknowledged by the internet or by the registry folks.

I want to hear more from the local ranchers about their dogs. I'm starting by interviewing my friend and former coworker Jess Schiller because she has some neat dogs. Let me show you them:

(All photos copyright Jess Schiller and used with permission)


Me: Can you start by telling people a little about the ranch and your dogs?

Jess: My husband Pat's family homesteaded this area four generations ago. I'm not good on the details, but Antone Vey came over from Portugal and started raising sheep. Since then the ranch has converted to a cattle operation starting with Herefords. Pat took out his first loan for cows when he was 18 and bought 40 pair from the Spray area and now we are up to 140 mama cows mostly red angus cross. Keeping up with the red tradition in his family.

We raise calves for market and potential breeder replacements for our herd. What we are is range managers and we use our cows as the means to do so. The term "graze it don't blaze it" well that's what we try to do. We graze on private ground both on Buttercreek and in Starkey. Pat's grandmother's cows however are on private and jointly managed US Forest Service allotments.

We start calving around end of January/February and we raise the calves and maintain the mamas until we sell the calves around October. We "summer" (move to summer grazing in the mountains) May to October-ish in Starkey. Then we move them "home" to Buttercreek from October to May. The pack is used to help us gather and sort. We have at least 4000 acres here and usually it's just Pat and I so they save our horses a lot of miles here and up in the mountains.

The girls Zee and Tip, who you've met, were the best working pair we've had.

Zee is really good at going a long ways out and bringing cows up top. She was great at pushing until she got hurt. Now Pat is so scared of her getting hurt because she's his baby and bull-headed, so she  doesn't get to work much. Zee has raised five litters of great working pups so she's out of practice with all of it but I have her helping me teach her son Cap who ended up being way too timid for Pat but is great for me.


Then we have Gus. He's a heeler/border collie mix. His job is a brush dog. The cows get into thick stuff, he goes in and they WILL come out.

Zip is Pat's boy and daddy to two litters out of Zee. We got him from my uncle three years ago because he had quit his job and didn't want Zip to waste away in a yard in town. It took Pat less than an hour to bond and after that Zip actually tried biting my uncle's girlfriend. He went through a grumpy strange, but not so much any more. He is such an attention whore it's ridiculous. But he is Pat's A number 1 cow dog. I'll have to send you videos it's so awesome to watch him work. So quiet and picks on the cows but if you throw a stick he's the biggest goober ever.

We have seven dogs right now, and the rest are pets. Rhett was a rescue from my cousin who realized border collies need to work. He's great with [my toddler] but not...so .. smart with cows. He's gonna get hurt with how he barrels in after cows and doesn't pay attention to what's going on. And Peter is my brother's dog. He's just special we can keep it at that.

First question(s): are any of your dogs, or any dogs in your extended family, registered with any breed registry? or have you ever entered any of your dogs in any kind of competition? (have you even heard of ABCA or ISDS?)

Negative to all. I did dog 4H once with my dad's cow dog... needless to say it didn't go well. He was getting pretty pissed with the baths for one and then the fact that I'm pretty sure he thought the show was the dumbest thing ever. Kinda like going for a pleasure ride with one of our ranch horses. They go out expecting to work.

Pat's family use to do sheep dog trials when his grandpa was alive. I'm pretty sure they had some spendy dogs from over seas. But those dogs have been gone for a long time.

Any of those trial dogs have decedents still around?

Not as far as I know. I'll ask Pat the next time I talk to him

After meeting all the different types of stock dogs around here, it seems to me that most ranchers don't care about  how "pure" their dogs' bloodlines are or bother with a working registry.

I think registered dogs in the ranching world are like papered horses. It's nice and really interesting to know their background but papers don't make the animal. And you can go out and spend a lot of money on a dog to find out the mutt you raised is better than that one.

So where did all your dogs come from? Obviously in the last few years you breed your own, but further back than that?

Let's see. Tip is Pat's red dog he got from Ryan Raymond a rancher out of Pilot Rock. We are pretty sure she has a little Carter in her. Which is actually a breed of stock dog that was developed in Long Creek. We sold Pat Carter one of our pups a few years ago.

Zee my lil girl came from a couple in Heppner that we've known for a long time. They have a long line of awesome girls and I think they are looking to start training for other people.

Zip, Pat's male that we got the last two litters out of, came from a rancher out of Arlington at the time him and his ex-wife raised dogs as well.

And Gus came from a neighbor. He is the heeler cross. Cap came out of him and Zee. He's the one I've been trying to spend a lot of time with because he is pretty timid and doesn't handle Pat's aggressive tone very well but he's coming along.

Cap guarding the hole while Jess fixed a gate the bulls knocked down

Would you say that your dogs are pretty typical of other ranchers in the area? You guys aren't an outlier in how you source/use/breed?

Nope pretty typical. It's all personal preference and you know border collies they are smart and you can teach them about anything and they are one-person dogs. Makes it pretty easy to like your dogs better than the neighbors'.

I know some people go out of area to get dogs. My girlfriend Jamie is trying out a new breed called an Idaho shag, I think it's an Airedale cross. She crosses that with a heeler you'll end up with about the dumbest block head. But those cows will move!

But really if someone is looking for a good rounded dog there is no reason to go too far. There isn't a lack of border collies around here that's for sure.

Can you talk a bit more about Tip? Is she the one I met who's red with a natural bob tail? she caught my eye right away because she doesn't have a "classic" border collie look. A lot of "registry snobs" would call her a mongrel. Would you call her a "border collie"?

Lol, they'd probably think our whole pack is mongrels. Tip's a great little dog. For the longest time we argued that she was a red border collie. Kinda like how with black angus every once in awhile they have a red one. But we are starting to think she has a little Carter in her. She was the only red bob tailed in her litter and I'm pretty sure both her parents were black and white but I'd have to confirm that with Pat. She's retired with benefits now since she fell out of a truck and broke her leg and hip. By the way, I dock the tails of all our pups and we prefer dock-tailed dogs. And I know some would argue that we've killed their balance but my dad's old Ed dog (the cow dog I tried showing in 4H) had a docked tail and he kept right up with those "sheep dogs" of West's (they use to run several bands of sheep on Rhea creek). When they loaded them the dogs would run across the sheeps' backs and Ed's lack of tail didn't seem to slow him down.

A rare photo of Tip, who hates cameras

I don't know much about the Carter, can you tell me a bit about that?

The Carter breed kinda died out. It's hard to find them any more. It was never wide-spread. But there were a few around. Pretty much one family started the breed. Short stalky curly breed. A few families around Heppner had some and I can't off the top of my head tell you where they came from. My father-in-law had one and he currently has a very old carter/Airedale cross. He is about one of the last ones I know of around here. Pat Carter had talked about maybe trying again. It'd be cool if he did. I have sold two pups down in the Long Creek area (90 miles south of Pendleton; Dirty rotten rough country. Hard on horses and dogs) and as far as I know they're doing great.

You may not realize this, but many of these "registry" folks I mentioned say it's not OK to crossbreed/outcross, or at least they're very afraid of it. It seems ridiculous to me. They act as if the only "good" working dogs are the ones with an inbred pedigree that goes back 40 generations.

OK my argument to that...it's just like cattle. Your cross bred cattle the calves are gonna come out stronger healthier and gain better than the pure-breds due to being heterogenous. It's been scientifically proven that cross bred animals do better. Now it's not quite the same in dogs since don't eat them in this country. But if you continue to breed the brains out of these animals all your gonna end up with is an animal that can run a course. If I'm not mistaken sheep trial courses are usually pretty similar. So all your asking that animal to do is look amazing for one small task. I'm a sucker for a cleaned up long coated border collie mostly because I know mine will never look like that! They look great and they can successfully do the exact same thing you asked them to do last weekend. Just like barrel horses it's a pattern they've done repeatedly and that's what they are gonna do.

I'm not trashing sheep dogs they are amazing to watch, but when a stock dog puts a hundred pair through a gate without a wreck and you're a half mile away on another ridge...  well that's pretty amazing to watch, too.

Many anti-crossbreeding people say that they "need a dog that will do work" and they can't afford to cross (for example, like a 50/50 Airedale/border collie) because the first generation wouldn't be able to work and they'd have a whole litter of useless puppies. What do you personally do, and what do the other ranchers you know do, with dogs they breed who end up being bad workers?

I guess I've never heard that. It sounds like an old wives tale to me. I think you could end up with a whole batch of purebred that don't work, either. Honestly I have one that doesn't work very well. He is probably one of the "purest" ones I have. And I don't think it really has any thing to do with the dog. At the time I was building fence when I got him so he became more of a pack dog than a stock dog. And his personality to I don't think he has the attention span to pay attention long enough for him to actually asses the situation. Maybe if I had started him on cows first maybe it would be different. He has it. But he gets so excited he barrels in and causes a wreck and then doesn't pay attention and almost get ran over.

I think the ones that don't work it has more to do with the handlers. These people who get these dogs for pets they can't expect them to be a house dog for most of their lives and then go out and chase a cow. Yes they do have natural instinct but they still need to be taught. Pat spent a lot of time on Tip and in turn she taught Zee and now Zee is teaching Cap. Having a mature dog with pups helps soo much.

As far as what everyone else does with bad workers I'm sure you could guess what some do. But I don't think that's usually the case. I think if you spend the time with the animal and be patient you'll get a fine worker. Also border collies are famous for being timid. It took Zee three years to stop running back to the pickup when Pat was hollering at the cows. Now it just makes her go harder.

Cap (left) and his dam, Zee

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sketch from yesterday

The scene would have been impossible to photograph, but I thought it worth a minute's-worth of sketching to remember: two coyotes by the side of the road, one recently killed, one standing at a distance, panting and looking around, seeming to be at a loss.

The outskirts of Pendleton, Oregon