by Andrea Scott
Anyone who is acquainted with Australian Shepherds knows the name Jay Sisler. Sisler, who passed away in 1995, made the breed famous with his dogs by performing at rodeos and appearing in movies. Although many people are familiar with his dogs, less is known about Sisler.
Jay Sisler first met Joy, his wife, through family in 1978 in Emmett, Idaho. The two had a common interest in livestock and later married.
Sisler quit school on his 16th birthday and helped his dad farm, according to Joy. There used to be an arena in the area and people would sometimes hold play days. Jay was entered in a Pony Express race, got his ankle stepped on and was consequently laid up. That's when his dog career began, in about 1949.
There was a litter of pups around the place and Jay decided he'd teach them a few tricks since he had the time while healing from his injuries. The pups he trained were Stub and Shorty. "He was always thankful he started with two smart dogs, or he wouldn't have gone on training," said Joy.
He taught the dogs many tricks. They included the teeter-totter, spin and dance, feigning a hurt leg, and jumping rope. He wouldn't compromise and always trained until the tricks were perfect. He also had a Greyhound and used her in his act, because she could jump so high. Jay tried to use Border Collies, but always preferred Australian Shepherds.
"He really had the ability to think things through and solve problems," said Joy. He trained the dogs about 10 or 15 minutes, three times a day. And he only taught them one thing at a time and was careful not to confuse the dog. He'd also take them out irrigating and just let them be dogs. He liked a dog that would look him in the eyes. One of the first things he trained his dogs to do was to sit in front of him and focus on him. He tried to lead a dog into doing what he wanted, not push them.
When they knew what he wanted of them, he used kind words as a reward, along with a few hotcakes. Joy made hotcakes every morning, always making extras that Jay would put in his pocket.“There wasn't a pancake wasted around here," Joy said laughing. “Jay never used a leash, or trained dogs on a lead. Occasionally he’d used baling twine, or a big weed, and a pocketful of pancakes.”
Quite often, if a dog didn’t get something he was trying to train them to do, he would lay off a month or two. Sisler found that often, the dog would go right to it after the time off. His training philosophy was always that it was going to get better. Although he said a person had to have patience to train dogs, sometimes he was more determined than the dogs he trained, Joy noted. She said he used his hands to communicate with the dogs and had a very strong presence with his body language.
Sisler’s dogs are in the back of many Australian Shepherd pedigrees, although Jay never owned a registered dog and was kind of proud of it. He is credited with being one of the founders of the breed. He raised some dogs, but never wanted to be a dog breeder. Shorty was Jay’s favorite dog. But Honest John was a solid dog, and the most honest. He would give the dogs away to friends when they got some age to them—12 was the oldest dog he had.
Sisler had very high standards. He didn't want family members to give the dogs a treat if they hadn't done anything to earn it, remembered his daughter Maggie. But his sternness was often tempered by a soft side.
In Jay’s book, a good dog was a good dog. Most of his favorite dogs in his performing act were males. The majority of them came from his litters, and some came from dog pounds. He also trained dogs for a rodeo clown. When Sisler traveled on the road, usually alone, he took the pups with him. He started his circuit in December in Denver and traveled throughout the country through the summer months.
Sisler made $10 for his first performance. Later he made as much as $150 a show, which was a lot of money, back then. He logged more than 750,000 miles with his dogs during the show years and made all of the equipment that he used in the performances. His older brother Gene often took part of the act and went to other rodeos, even going as far away as Cuba.
Sisler was very down to earth. He treasured his friends and neighbors. He also made friends performing in places like the Calgary Stampede, Seattle World’s Fair, Madison Square Garden, or making movies. Run Appaloosa Run and The Best Cow Dog in the West were his best known movies. One of the most famous movie scenes involved one of Jay’s dogs tearing the pants off Slim Pickens as he tried to climb a tree to escape. But The Best Cowdog was his favorite movie and he knew it by heart. He had a lot of good memories, according to Joy.
When he wasn’t performing or making movies he always had a constant project, Joy recounted with a laugh. He worked on his own house when he was home, made his own saddle, and even tried to make his own boots. “Although he was busy, he certainly wasn’t a Border Collie mentality either,” Joy said. “He was a quiet, solid man and the Aussies suited him.”
The Sisler home is a 300-acre ranch up on a rim overlooking the quiet fruit orchard country. Although he traveled all over the country, Emmett was home for Jay. He chose to live in Idaho and his favorite sight was Freezeout Hill, a major landmark in that part of the country, and a sentry to the valley below. Sisler started out with 20 registered shorthorn cows in the 1950s. They eventually would run 100 head of crossbred cattle.
“Jay was an exceptional human being,” Joy remembered. “You couldn’t help but be proud of him.”