Head Dog Education

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

In a previous story I talked about a dog we had called Kit. She was a bit wacko, to say the least, but a double tough head dog when she was working. Some places call them head dogs, others catch dogs, but they are one and the same, just depends on the region.
My then husband had brought his dogs from California when he moved out to South Dakota. He had both drive dogs, which were Border Collies, and head dogs, which were a mix of various breeds, including pit bull, husky, English Shepherd (hence the saddle markings on some of them) and, in old Toot’s case, half Border Collie. She was from an an accidental litter as the Border Collie took some of the “hold on” out of them in most cases.
Toot’s mother, Bear, was a pure catch dog of the aforementioned breeds and double rank. Too tough for anything smaller than mature cattle and then only used in times of great need. She left a mark, shall we say. This line of dogs were so rank that they were separated from each other when they were about five weeks old so they wouldn’t hurt or kill each other. Not just everyone needed a dog like that, but they were useful in the brushy Sierras of California and when gathering wild cattle. Toot’s sire was an outstanding Border Collie named Pete. He must have been pretty tough or Bear would never have allowed him to breed her. That was the key. Had to be tough enough to do that or it was no go.
Old Bear was too old to make the move to a cold climate, so only Toot was brought along when he moved here. She was a beautiful dog, golden brown with a black saddle back marking and big, intelligent eyes. She liked me okay and I was even allowed to get something out of the back of the pickup when she was in it, so we seemed to be pretty good friends. She was a really well broke dog and she stayed with a horse well until told to get ahold. Boy howdy, that old gal could get ahold! She could also be called off, which was pretty important and not always standard in the catch dogs. She and her half sister, the Border Collie Reba, were quite a team. Toot had never had pups, which was too bad, as she was the end of that line of dogs. Like her mother, a male dog had to be tough enough to whip her to breed her, so that dog hadn’t come along yet. Then, when she was about 13, my Uncle’s great Australian Shepherd male, Tony, came a’courting, and alas, whipped her and got the job done. I’d always known he was tough, but this put another level of tough on his resume’!
When Toot’s time was close, I made her a nice place in the barn, in a big pen in the back, with a good house and fresh bedding. She couldn’t get out of the pen and the theory was that no one could get in it without going through the gate, so she wouldn’t need to eat any visitors over her pups. Into this cozy place, she whelped five pups, four males and one female. I cautiously approached her after she whelped and she let me look at the pups, but, being Toot, I kept my toddler son out of the pen. He looked through
the fence and I showed him the puppies. He was smitten, of course.
Toot would growl if anyone but little son or I approached. I handled the puppies each time I fed her to ensure that they would be user friendly. I’d carry one over and let Colin pet it through the fence, but not for long, because Toot would let me know when I’d had it out of the house long enough. She allowed me to dock each one, as was befitting a catch dog, though she fusssed over them as I did it.
I had forgotten the water bucket one day when the pups were about 10 days old, so, I told Colin to stay put and just watch the puppies from his spot on the safe side of the fence, and I’d run to the front of the barn and get it. I wasn’t gone much over a minute, but when I came back, there was no sign of Colin. Then I heard him talking. Imagine my delight when I looked in the doghouse and there he was, sitting by Toot and holding the puppies in his lap. The little pill had crawled over the tall fence and went in the doghouse pretty fast. As I kneeled in front of the doghouse, I saw Toot lick his hand and give him a sappy look, like she gave her puppies. Apparently, she just thought he was one of them. After that, he was handling them every day, with Toot’s approval, and they got kid broke.


The one female had been chosen as the keeper, as we hoped to keep the line going. That puppy was named Kit and they became fast friends. At weaning time, I carefully selected who could buy one of them, as they had to have a purpose and were going to be tough cow dogs and guard dogs. Each got a tremendous home and Kit stayed with us. She was a short haired, slim made athlete. She weighed a bit over 40 pounds at maturity and was maybe the fastest dog I was ever around. A blue merle, like her sire, she had a faint saddle mark on her back, and just a smudge of white on her chest. She was an amazing jumper and could clear the kennel fence with ease, and was named “Paws With Wings” by a friend who who took care of the place while we were gone one time.

She was friendlier than her mother, but still watched things pretty close. However, the potent blood of her mother’s line came out in spades when it involved our good Border Collie Jessie. She was relentless in her torment of Jessie and I had had rounds with her over it. Jessie was about a year and a half older than her, but that had no bearing for Kit. I think she perceived her as the
weak link as Jessie was absolutely the mellowest dog on earth, though a good cowdog. I was doing chores one night and was out in the corral in front of the horse barn, where the dogs were housed at night until I could get the kennel finished. I heard a commotion and lots of snarling and yelping, so I raced inside and caught Kit with a crushing grip on Jessie’s throat. Jessie was going fast and Kit was so intent on finishing the job that she didn’t see me. I lit in the middle of them and jerked Kit loose from her and then, shall we say, we had a “come to Jesus” meeting.
When I grabbed Kit by the throat and started tuning on her, she let out a squall before her air was shut off and in came Toot from the corral. She built to me over her darling daughter, and I backhanded her across the stall. Apparently that brought her out of her crazy and she realized what she’d done as she bolted from the stall and outside. I was pretty fast back then and mad enough to take on a grizzly, and I caught Toot before she got under the gate. I drug her back in the corral and went to work on her. I am sure she believed that she was going to die. I made it a point to convey that message to her, as I had Kit.
Believe me, both of those dogs knew exactly who the alpha female of the pack was after that evening. Never again did I have to get ahold of either of them. All I’d have to do is posture in a rigid stance and they’d quit. Their hearing was just incredible too. One word spoken quietly could be heard for a great distance. Jessie lived her life out without any more problems with Kit, too. Peace reigned.
Now, before you get your undies in a wad over me “abusing” those two dogs, you have to think about the kind of dogs they were and how dangerous they could be if they ever got the upper hand. I “spoke” to them in dog with the throat hold, and in human with the ear clearing pounding they got. It was that or kill them. I think the “come to Jesus” treatment was a big improvement over dying. Jessie probably thought so for sure, because, if I’d been further from the barn, Jessie would have been dead.
Toot and Kit were both well loved and respected by me, but they never forgot, as they well should not have, and had good lives. They were affectionate and sweet companions until their deaths at an advanced age. And yes, I wept over both of them when their time came.

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

About Jan Swan Wood

Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....

View all posts by Jan Swan Wood