The bond between the cowboy, his horse and stock dog is strengthened by preparation from the time the dog is a pup.
Nestled between the rolling high-desert hills of northeastern Wyoming, 40 miles down a gravel road and even farther from the nearest grocery store, is the Forks Division of the Padlock Ranch. Jerry Howard, who has been a cowboy at the Forks for four years, leads his horse in from pasture and into an old timber-framed barn. As he saddles up for the work ahead, his most reliable employees scurry around in excitement, eagerly awaiting their orders. They show up to work the same way every day, and don’t quit until the job is done. These hard workers are stock dogs, specifically the Kelpie breed that originated in Australia. Howard and his wife, Marion, raise them under the name JMH Kelpies. Though the dogs are cared for and treated like pets, their main purpose is to work cattle
A Cowboy’s Top Hand
Howard grew up in northeastern Texas, where baying dogs, such as Catahoulas and Black Mouth Curs, are the breeds of choice to gather cattle in dense forest that is carpeted with underbrush and marshes.
“They use their noses to track cattle, and then they bay and circle them up,” Howard explains. “When you got there, the dogs were usually in front of the cattle and you would drive the cattle toward them.” At age 19, Howard went to work for the Russell Ranch in Eureka, Nevada. The cowboys at the time, Darrell Betsinger, used Kelpies to work cattle. They were black and tan, long and tall, and could keep up with the cowboys all day.
“It was nothing for us to trot 20 to 25 miles before daylight each morning,” Howard says. “I’d watch [Darrell] send those dogs out miles ahead of us, and they’d go round up the cattle and bring them back to us while we were riding down the trail with another bunch. It just seemed efficient and made sense to me.”Under the guidance of Roy Cox, an Australian cowboy who trained stock dogs and horses at EE Ranches in Whitesboro, Texas, Howard learned to train and use stock dogs, and met other respected stock-dog men, such as Ben Means.
“The key to being successful at training and working dogs is education,” Howard says. “The average rancher has seen dogs with two commands: ‘get ’em’ and ‘get in the truck, SOB.’ That’s why some ranchers don’t want dogs around the cattle; they’re not under control.” Howard refuses to work on a ranch where he can’t use his dogs and ride his own horses. Though his requirements are often a hard sell to a ranch, Howard proves the value of himself and his dogs by becoming as efficient as several good hands. On remote ranches, where good help is hard to come by and even harder to keep, dogs become part of the crew.
“One [well-trained] dog is as good as two working cowboys,” he says. “With three seasoned dogs, I can turn myself into six people.