A Ranch Dog’s Life

© Gwen Shepperson
Our Australian Cattle Dogs have a heck of a job, and they love every minute of it. We are the Shepperson family; we run a commercial herd of 2500 head of Angus cattle on over 150,000 acres of WY rangeland near the Southern Big Horn Mountains. Our family has been ranching for over 100 years, and we have always relied on loyal and hardworking ACDs to help us get the job done. The country here is rough and rugged, with deep draws, steep canyons and rocky sagebrush slopes. Butch Cassidy and his Outlaw Gang escaped from lawmen in their famous Hole-in-the-Wall hideout just a few miles from our headquarters. Here, we do most of our cow work the old-fashioned way, on the back of a good horse with the help of great dogs.


We depend on our dogs for working cattle year round, all seasons, all conditions, over thousands of acres of rangeland. They are our trusted partners and friends. They all have their own personalities and quirks, but their love and devotion to our family and work is their common thread. Here on the KS Ranch, we could not have the sizable herd we do without the help of our dogs. We have both AKC registered and Ranch-bloodline dogs, all wagging their tails each morning, ready to see what work needs to be done that day.
Each season brings about different work: in the Spring, its sorting the first-calf heifers from the mature cow herd and trailing them into the corral to calve, pairing up a lost calf with a mother that misplaced him and later gathering 400 cow/calf pairs at a time for branding, not only for us,but all the neighboring ranches too. Summer brings many long days of trailing herds of 300-500 up to summer mountain pastures, loading the trail-weary, sore-footed bulls into the horse trailer, all in weather that can be sun, heat and dust one hour, thunderstorms and wind the next. Many summer days are sun-up to sundown, checking cattle in every mountain draw and canyon, getting roaming cattle out of the neighbor’s pastures, and vice-versa. Fall work for our dogs means trailing those same cow herds back down the mountain, hopefully before snow flies, then sorting steer and heifer pairs into different pastures, and later gathering each large herd and driving the cattle to the corral, where calves are sorted off the mother cows for weaning.

The weaned calves are turned out after a few days and their pasture is ridden at least twice a day, looking for sick calves, herding them to the best grass so they will be fat for our buyer when shipping day comes. Shipping day we gather over 1200 weaned calves at once and march them into the corral, and thanks to our dogs, usually without any excitement! They help us fill the corrals and push the calves up the alley to be sorted once again by the buyer, weighed and then loaded onto waiting semi-trucks. Winter months are a bit slower, lots of rides on the feed truck and just holding cattle inside the pasture gate while we drive through, but there are always those windy, 30 below zero days when cattle that have ventured to high on the slopes during a storm need to be driven back down towards the feed ground that the dogs continue to earn their keep.
Everyone in our family can tell many stories of how cow work would not have gotten done if it had not been for our faithful, hardworking dogs. I once had to move 450 cow/calf pairs 12 miles with no other help than 4 of our dogs and my kids who were 3 and 5 at the time while my husband and brother were off in the neighbor’s pastures looking for strays. The man who drove by us on his way up the mountain to fish had his mouth dropped open in amazement at the cattle trailing contently along with just one crazy cowgirl and her 2 little kids on horseback! He said “You’ve got a big job there, Miss.” I pointed him towards the dogs; who were getting an unmothered calf back into the herd at the moment. He just nodded, still a bit confused I think, and drove on.
A working ranch dog requires many characteristics: proper temperament, willingness to work (with people, other dogs or autonomously), character, confidence, intelligence, physical soundness, endurance, agility, herding prowess,stock sense and incredible work ethic. Our dogs work in diverse situations, and it is not uncommon for us to leave a couple dogs in charge of a herd of cattle while we take a few other dogs over the hill to gather cattle out of the next draw, meeting up at the bottom with the first herd. We really do not use a lot of commands on our dogs; they know their jobs and have learned from the generation of dogs before them; we work WITH them rather than they work FOR us. They have got to be able to think independently and assess each situation and work accordingly, as well as be able to work well together.
Look into my eyes, sweety
One dog may go to the head of a rogue cow to get her attention, while another moves in swift and low at the heels to get her moving along in the right direction again. Three dogs might trail the main herd down a draw, while four others gather cattle off the side-hills and drive them down to the big trailing herd. The dogs will often space themselves out evenly when we are trailing a large herd, walking along quietly behind until a cow lags behind or heads off in the wrong direction, and then back to work they go! The same dog will gently nose a baby calf along one minute, but has no qualms about grabbing a bull on the fight by the nose with good bite the next. They have to be as smart as they are tough, and realize that not every situation calls for the same reaction. They have that “never say die” attitude we all love about the ACD. It is amazing to watch them do their job, as well as how much they love to work! They make me proud when I see they are all as tired as we are at the end of a long day, yet give 100% until the job is finished. Good thing for us that they love their job, or we’d be living in town.

KS Ranch Heelers ~ Gwen Shepperson ~ Arminto, WY
www.ksranchheelers.com
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