A TRADITION OF WORKING DOGS
by Peggy Potter
Three generations ago, the area of California around San Francisco was much different than it is today. Basque shepherds moved their flocks over thousands of acres each year using dogs to herd and guard them from both four-legged and two-legged predators. California cowboys herded tough cattle through the misty oceanside canyons and into the hot, dry inland hills. Colorful characters were easy to find. One woman bought and sold stock by traveling the back roads with a horse and buggy and had as her companions and stock handlers a smooth collie and an Australian shepherd. Moving all types of stock along dirt roads from ranch to ranch, covering a couple hundred miles on each trip proved the true worth of a working dog. This woman was Cee Hambo’s grandmother who ended up with two little blue dogs to assist with herding and doing ranch work.
Cee’s aunt and uncle had ranches which Cee visited every weekend and on vacations when she was growing up. In the 1940’s they had the SH spread in Montana. They used about 10 Border Collies and Aussies, with the Collies for wide gathering and the Aussies for power dogs in the holes, draws, chutes and squeezes.
In the late 40’s and early 50’s they had the L7 in Nevada. They again used Collies and Aussies for gathering, holes and draws, but added Cattle Dogs for chutes and squeezes. The Aussies and Cattle Dogs dog broke any fresh cattle as soon as they arrived on the ranch. Aussies were used for separating the cattle. Doctoring was done on the range with a horse and rope. “The ranch had a cowboy killed one year while doctoring a calf. The mama cow got him. So you didn’t leave without an Aussie with you. My cousin and I were about six to nine years old at the time and no matter where we rode on the ranch we had to take a dog with us. If the dogs were all working, we stayed home. My uncle believed only an Aussie would protect good enough for his kids and I think he was right. They saved me from some bad wrecks. Cowboys started taking a dog with them whenever they went out, too.
“My uncle died in 1953 and they kept the working dogs going until the dogs had all died out. Nobody replaced them. They hired cowboys or day labor to handle the stock. My uncle had bought good dogs partially trained, but very few pups. If he found a good pup, he took it to somebody to get a good start on it. No one did that after he died.”
Growing up around stock and working dogs, it seemed natural for Cee to continue on in the tradition of the West when she married and started a family of her own. “My aunt gave me a good Aussie after I was married that I kept for a number of years and worked on the horses and cattle. She was a dandy. I didn’t keep any of her pups and I sure should have!
Cee’s husband was involved in running hounds. He ran Redbone, Blueticks and Black and Tans. Over the short span of five years in the late 1950’s they watched breeders select for size, disregarding working ability. “We saw them all go to pot. The hounds lost nose, bone, voice and running ability. The dogs, especially the Black and Tans, got so coarse and porous-boned that their legs broke on a hot chase. The larger sized dogs seemed to deteriorate faster because of breeding for size. A few individuals have kept [solid] bone but you have to look for them”. This was a lesson Cee was to remember later in life.
Cee began her own livestock operation with calves and an Aussie. By the 1960’s she obtained a good Australian Shepherd, Doney, and used the dog to work horses and cattle. The versatility of the dog came through when used for a 4H project by her daughters. Doney was High in Trial in obedience at the state of California 4H championships. “My daughter almost missed her final obedience run because I had cattle out and had to use the dog. She was washed in the back of the truck on the way to the trial. Doney walked into the ring a little damp and breathless from a wild ride in the back of the truck, but never made a bauble and won the championship. Oh, yeah, she got the cattle captured, too.”
The national trend away from the family farm and ranch is similar to what Cee has found with her family. Two of her children are not interested in carrying on the ranching tradition. Her son is involved in ranching but not with the dogs. Even though Cee’s family still runs 14,000 acres, there is no one left who is a real hand with a dog. They have five cowboys who work the place, “but could probably do it with four or five dogs instead. When they have cattle to move or ship, they call me and say, Oh, by the way, could you bring along a couple dogs when you come to look over the sale steers or hold-back heifers?”
Some ranchers seem to think there is a secret to having a good working dog and Cee’s goal is to de-mystify the working dog and show ranchers that a His Border Collies weren’t strong enough to help him. They tried, but he got hurt pretty bad. He’s now ordered an Aussie from me to go with his Collies. Another had some good Border Collies, but they didn’t know anything and he didn’t have the time to teach them …so they sit. It’s time for some of these ranchers to come back to dogs. The dogs will do the work of a cowboy and cheaper too, with no workman’s comp or social security to pay — but they do need someone to start the initial training.”
“We x-ray hips on a regular basis and all dogs are well vaccinated and wormed. We check eyes regularly.., no problems in the lines so far. I want a hard bone, not necessarily large bone, and good compact feet. Toes break too easily on splayed-out feet. A strong rib cage is important as is shoulder and pastern angles. I’d like a little more leg than Bull (WTCH the Bull of Twin Oaks, CD, RDX) has, but he has an extremely long stride that’s amazing and he can trot all day long up to twelve and a half miles an hour, about the same as a good, ground-eating horse. All he needs is a little water and a little shade once in a while.
“I want a powerful dog, one that is good at heading stock and that can heel real strongly too. 1’m trying to breed in possessiveness of their own livestock and property. Herd protection is not coming out as often in today’s Aussies as I’d like to see. Bul’ is very protective of his sheep and cattle and has frequently fought off coyotes. He has never started a fight with another dog, but he does with coyotes. He protects stock and lets me know if there are intruders. He goes out through screen doors, screened windows and out car or truck windows after predators who are after his stock. We have sat up all night in a pickup guarding a cow calving. I’d go to sleep and he would wake me when the coyotes got within 100 feet of the cow. I have three pups now that have gotten that protective nature from him and will fight for stock.”
This protective nature is combined with a super easy going disposition toward people. As we sat talking, a toddler fell over Bull, bumping him with a chair. Strange dogs and people took short cuts through the camp site. The only thing Bull was aggressive about was initiating more petting from me. Cee’s next statement reinforced this dual nature she expects in her dogs. “I want a dog that the average person can handle and still get everything they want (in a working dog). I feel that I’m going to some of the strongest dogs around for what I want: a dog that can read stock very well, be flexible and easy to handle. One that lots of people can handle (i.e.. all the cowboys on the ranch).”
A good example of the type of dog Cee is producing cattle from a story she told me about two ten week-old pups that were sold to some people in Canada. The youngsters arrived in Canada after a 12 hour plane trip, spent the night in their brand new home, then went on to successfully compete in a puppy examination test the next day. They were first in every division.
“My dogs need to know how to read stock and react quickly. The Brahman cattle I raise all challenge a dog’s skills. A dog has to learn how to outthink the stock, be quick, fast and powerful, yet gentle, easy and quiet around calves. That takes a real intelligent dog. The Brahmans stay together pretty well. They may cover several miles but they group together, unlike European breeds or crossbreds that wander separately. It takes a distance dog, a power dog to get young bulls home if they decide they don’t want to come home. It takes a dog that can read stock well to convince Brahman cattle.”
Another trait of the old dogs you don’t see too often anymore is tracking stock. “My grandmother used her Aussie to help her find cattle. Bull will trail cattle but I haven’t gotten him to trail sheep. Pepper (WTCH Windsong’s Rip Rap) will trail both sheep and cattle.
“I have seven dogs now, some of which Kathy Warren and Sherry Baker train and trial for me. I would like to start the pups myself and work them from horseback or with a four wheeler, but arthritis limits me. We don’t use cattle to start the dogs. Very dog-broke sheep that will follow the handler around are the best. We go to cattle only after the dog has learned commands so we can control his actions. Generally we do not go out of a small pen until the dog obeys a `back out’ command and a `down’.
We start with circling the sheep in a small pen with the dog learning his `out’ and `down’. Then we go to a larger, and then even larger pen and add commands as the dog progresses.”With some dogs 15 minutes a day is too much training. On others it is not enough. Evaluate the dog’s mental and physical maturity. Let that guide your training schedule. Don’t ignore it if the dog shows some confusion. Go back a step or two if need be. Every dog I’ve seen is different.
A major piece of advice I can offer is: if you’re having trouble, IMMEDIATELY go the best trainer around you and pay for some help. I use Sherry and Kathy because I think they are the best in this country.”
I asked Cee to tell me more about the dogs she has now. `Bull’ WTCH The Bull of Twin Oaks, CD, RDX, was whelped 6/15/86. He is by WTCH The Bear of Twin Oaks, CD and out of Twin Oaks Poky Cody STDcsd. This cross was made only once but four of the pups went to the 1988 Cen Tex futurity and all four ended up in the finals. Bull’s littermate, WTCH Twin Oaks Kit Carson, RDX, (owned by Sherry Baker) placed second in sheep and second overall. Bull placed sixth in cattle and seventh overall. It took him only ten trial days to earn his Working Trial Championship and he was just over two years of age. He has competed in every ASCA national finals since it started in all three areas of stock: ducks, sheep and cattle. He is a consistent competitor and winner including 1989 ASCA Champion Cattle Dog. Bull got his Ranch Dog Excellent title when he was just about two years old, and his CD when he was four.
When you talk about Bull it’s hard not to talk about Kit, too. They compete against each other all the time. “Kit and Bull are so intense that I doubt the average person could trial either one of them easily. Some dogs work for one person, but Bull works for both Sherry and me. Sherry does the pretty, controlled work in the trial ring. I do the work at home and my son has been able to load cattle with Bull when I’ve been gone. Bull has sired six litters to date. Two pups from the first litter have already earned their Working Trial Champion titles. The other pups are working hard on ranches and dairies. His second litter is just starting to trial.”
“Pepper, WTCH Windsong’s Rip Rap, is a different story. She is by WTCH Little Spots Speckled Image out of WTCH Windsong’s City Rhythm. This dog’s flexibility is amazing, particularly in a young dog. She is a great heeling dog that will go to the head. She will work a long ways away from you or very close, will take every command and has all the `try’ in her you could possibly want. Pepper earned her Working Trial Championship title in eleven trial days with Kathy Warren and me handling her — Kathy, of course, did the hard part in training her and trialing her in the open and advanced classes. Pepper is very forgiving if you mess up and give her the wrong command. She isn’t as strong as Bull on the head, but she keeps getting better and better. She makes quite a team when worked with Bull at the ranch. Pretty hard to beat!
“My current breeding program consists of crossing Bull and Pepper. Bull is shorter in the leg but deep bodied with that great stride and a real heading dog that hits heels too. Pepper is a leggy bitch with a good nose and hard hitting on the heels. We will probably get all kinds, then go on to breed up the strong points, the ones we want to predominate, in the next generation. That’s the job of the conscientious breeder. Twin Oaks has done that. Windsong has done that. Las Rocosa has some great lines. Slash V and Woods have contributed a bunch to the working dog. There are people out there breeding working Aussies . . . good ones.”
Cee is petrified about what will happen to the Aussie and working dogs in the future. Her experience with hounds has taught her how easy it is to lose performing ability. She is doing her part to keep the working instinct and cherished versatile traits in the Australian Shepherd. Cee likes to trial her dogs, and some cowboys and ranchers do attend trials to look for good dogs, but proving their worth on a ranch is where it all pays off for her. Let’s hope there are a lot of others out there like Cee…willing to preserve these hard-working dogs for future generations.
Working Aussie Source editor’s notes: A scholarship fund in memory of Cee Hambo has been established by the Australian Shepherd Club of America, to financially assist students who have “demonstrated their accomplishments, awards, and activities associated with Australian Shepherds.”
In addition to her other contributions to the Australian Shepherd, Cee was a highly skilled photographer and her great photos of working Aussies are still widely published.
this article was first published in the February/March 1992 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine