STUB, THE BEST COWDOG IN THE WEST
by Kay Spencer
If you’ve ever watched any Lassie movies or were a fan of the tv series, you might remember a few scenes in which Lassie herded sheep. Maybe you were naive and thought she (he, really) was actually herding, or maybe you knew what herding looked like and realized all he was doing was following the instructions of his off-camera handler: run left, run right, stop. The performance was flawless, but it had nothing to do with herding. That’s because, of course, herding can’t be taught, only shaped.
If you want to see real stockdogs at work in a semi-Hollywood setting, I recommend Stub. And if it is Aussies you’re interested in, then Stub is the only thing going in that department. For Aussie lovers, it is filled with interest nine different ways.
Though it has neither a gripping plot nor stellar acting (at least by the human beings), it is nevertheless a priceless and entertaining record of early Australian Shepherd history that any Aussie lover would enjoy. Long languishing in the Disney archives, it was finally released as a Disney Movie Club Selection last year. If you do not want to join the club (which is much like a book club, with some mandatory purchasing of other films), Stub is now also offered by various other secondary retailers accessible through Amazon and Ebay.
Jay Sisler and his team of trick-performing Aussies traveled the rodeo circuit throughout the 1950’s and ’60’s, and did a great deal to popularize the breed at a time when it was little known outside ranching communities. In the film, Jay and his dogs are featured, along with Slim Pickens, in a kind of documentary of ranch life interspersed with dog tricks and harrowing adventures.
Jay Sisler was not just a promoter of Aussies, but a foundation breeder, and his dogs are in back of the pedigrees of most Aussies today. His cowdogs are obviously gritty, enthusiastic, biddable, and talented workers. They neither look nor work much different than today’s working-type Aussies. They have very little if any tan trim and the merles in the film are very dark.
The film is in two parts. The first part is set in the Santa Ynez Valley (incorrectly spelled Inez in the promotional material), a ranching community inland of Santa Barbara, California. The dogs who star in it, Queenie, Shorty, and Stub, were some of Jay Sisler’s earliest Aussies, being born around 1948, and were the dogs with which he broke into rodeo performing. This segment was apparently originally titled “Cow Dog” and premiered as a featurette on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” TV show in 1956. In it a rancher and his fifteen year old daughter (played by Luann Beach), find a renegade Brahma bull loose with their pedigreed Herefords, and ask their rancher neighbors, including Jay Sisler and Slim Pickens, for help rounding him up. They invite everyone to a “California barbecue” first, which consists pretty much entirely of enormous slabs of steak. Jay’s dogs carry their own plates while walking on their hind legs, and a rodeo producer who happens to be there requests more tricks, leading to a demonstration of jumping rope, leapfrog, and more.
The next day there’s a bit of a show put on by the rancher daughter with her reining and cutting horses, and we see a little cattle work by one of Jay’s dogs as well. It’s real! Then they all ride out and have various adventures trying to catch the bull. The adventures are somewhat stretched but the cowboying is moderately authentic, and there is no faking the courage of the dogs against the bull. In the end, the bull becomes a rodeo star and so does Jay and his Aussies.
The next segment revisits Jay “seventeen years later”. Although it isn’t absolutely clear to me, it appears that the entire two-segment film was shown on the Disney television show in 1974, now titled “Stub, the Best Cowdog in the West”. For this update, Jay is situated in Idaho at his real-life ranch (he never actually ranched in California). In a blithely unexplained way, Slim Pickens is still his neighbor. Jay has three descendants of the dogs in the first segment, including a “Shorty the Second” and a black bi named Stub, who is the star of this half. I believe this is the dog that was NSDR registered as Wood’s Stubbie as well as ASCA registered as Sisler’s Stubby, but I might be mistaken. If so, he was the grandson of the original Shorty through the famous Wood’s Jay, and was a highly influential sire himself, especially through his son, Taylor’s Luke the Drifter.
The storyline is that Stub doesn’t like doing tricks, he only likes “real work”. Slim Pickens invites Jay to help him gather his herd in the hills, and Jay asks Slim to help move his cattle across a river in return. This is the basis of the plot. A third person, a boy who is already a competent cowhand, is introduced as Jay’s friend and helper, as we watch Stub help the two of them put cattle in a chute for vaccinating. The other Aussies (the ones who don’t think tricks are beneath them) also help in the ranch work by opening gates and lifting the plugs of irrigation dams so the cowboys don’t have to climb off their horses (cowboys never like to do that!). But Stub is content to watch, if it isn’t herding.
Slim’s cattle are gathered with the assistance of all three dogs. Some nice footage of cowdog teamwork, and a great little section in which a Basque shepherd is helped out by Stub in getting his sheep off a rocky hill. This is Idaho Basque shepherd country, sure enough, and the exchange between Slim and the shepherd is entirely in Euskara, the Basque language. Also particularly authentic is Jay saying, “Get around, get way out around,” and Stub goes to work without any other commands being needed. Watching Stub gather the sheep off their rocky hillside in that clever, instinctive, pushy Aussie way was a treat. He was no Lassie!
Next they tackle fording the river. The cattle are nearly across, but the boy, trying to rope a calf who’s getting too far downstream, is pulled off his horse and is swept away. The attempts of Slim and Jay to throw him a rope are in vain, and he is only rescued by Stub swimming a rope out to him as he clings to a rock. Stub comes through in the pinch! It’s corny but what the heck. It’s Disney.
In short, anyone who is interested in working Aussies should have a copy of this heritage film. It is a record of where Aussies came from and an advertisement for why their working qualities are still so valuable today.
More about Jay Sisler and his dogs in the Stockdog Library:
•Jay Sisler, the Man Behind the Famous Blue Dogs, by Andrea Scott
•The Early Aussie Breeders, by Jan Haddle Davis
And on a separate website managed by Melanie Snyder-Block of Chevreherd Australian Shepherds: Workn Aussies (discusses Jay Sisler and the closely related dogs of Fletcher Wood)
this article was first published in May 2008