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Cariboo Calling: Cattle dogs remain a part of rodeo history

A good stock dog is more than just man’s best friend, it’s a rancher’s trusted sidekick.

A well-trained dog can help drive 100 head of cows or sheep from one field to another, said longtime rancher Peter Wells. This reliability has made good stock dogs, especially border collies with their natural instinct for herding cattle, more popular than ever.

Wells joked that part of their appeal is that they cost less than a ranch hand and don’t cause as much trouble in their off time.

“They get so well trained (they become) a complete extension of the rancher out there,” Wells said. “Compared to 20 years ago, there’s hundreds, thousands, of more dogs actually working.”

Roland Fowler knows all about the benefits of a good working dog. Over the years, he has owned several stock dogs. His favourite was Nikki, and he still keeps a photo of her by his bedside.

“I have some very fond memories of moving my herds of animals on my own with my horse and my dog, they’re a very invaluable animal to have with you,” Fowler said. “My dogs worked on their own. They knew what I wanted to do and figured it out so I guess I got lucky that way.”

While Fowler’s dogs were purely used on the range, Wells focused on training dogs for the ring.

In the 1980s, Wells bought an exceptional cow dog named Bronco Murphy. Together, the two of them embarked on the training and competitive side of stock dogs. Bronco Murphy never won any big competitions, Wells said, but the “wild show” he put on was a real crowd-pleaser.

Thanks to this notoriety, Wells was invited to organize an annual stock dog competition during the Williams Lake Stampede he dubbed Top Dog.

The event, which ran from 1992 to 2007, saw dogs enter the arena and be challenged to herd three cows into a pen within a set amount of time. The prizes were modest, usually consisting of a few hundred dollars, dog food and a belt buckle, but that wasn’t the point.

Wells said he just wanted to promote the importance and value of working dogs.

One of those competitors was Fowler’s partner Shelley Minato, who bought her border collie Tess shortly after moving to her farm near Gateway in Forest Grove. Tess was Bronco Murphy’s granddaughter. When they tested Tess at five months old she was “all business,” staring intently at nearby sheep with that “border collie eye,” Minato said.

“We went to obedience lessons and she graduated first out of 24 dogs,” Minato said.

In 1998, she and Tess won the B.C. Stock Dog Novice Cow Dog Champion. “That earned us points and respect to compete at the Top Dog event at the Williams Lake Stampede.”

The following year, they earned Top Dog billing, with full points and a time of 3:15. They competed again several times over the years before the Top Dog ended in 2007.

Fowler and Minato agree there are two different training disciplines for the ranch dog versus trial dog.

“A ranch dog thinks on its own. With a trial dog, the dog is waiting for a command,” Fowler said. “Most of the time, with border collies in particular because they’re quite enthusiastic, at trials you have to slow the dog down while at the ranch you just let that dog do its own thing.”

While cattle dog competitions at rodeos aren’t as common as they once were, in recent years that’s started to change. In Barriere, the Dogs with Jobs competition has been running for the last two years giving dog trainers like Minato and Wells a chance to show off their animals’ skills.

At the first Dogs with Jobs competition in 2022 Minato brought her border collies Cinch and Tack down to show off their work ethic and high intelligence. She’s trained the two to pull a kicksled which is entertaining for the crowds and the dogs.

“To keep these dogs happy, they must be active, fit and intellectually stimulated. Using my dogs year-round is great for them and me: the team has a purpose, and it is far better to work with them than to use my wheelbarrow or quad,” Minato said. “The audience interest was keen and the response was very positive.”

Well said he is hoping that more South Cariboo residents with dogs, especially descendants of his beloved Bronco Murphy, get into cattle dog training as Dogs with Jobs grows bigger. Workings dogs are a part of the Cariboo’s heritage that we need to protect.

Patrick Davies

About the Author: Patrick Davies

An avid lover of theatre, media, and the arts in all its forms, I've enjoyed building my professional reputation in 100 Mile House.
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