Mar./Apr. 2007 California Country magazine
Farm dogs are hard workers, faithful companions and quite simply a farmer's best friend.
They are tireless in their pursuit of the wayward calf. They eagerly join in on morning rounds. They've even been known to save lives. They're farm dogs—hard workers, faithful companions and quite simply a farmer's best friend.
A rancher's best friend and a bull's worst enemy
"There's an old cowboy saying that you've lived a good life if you've had a good woman, a good horse and a good dog--and boy, have I had all three!" Leroy Goble said with a chuckle and an affectionate wink at his favorite dog, Scooter.
Scooter's is a classic tale of canine heroism that even Lassie couldn't compete with. And it's one that Goble won't forget anytime soon.
It all started five years ago when Goble bought the Australian shepherd-Queensland heeler mix, sight unseen, in Clovis. The Fresno County rancher wanted a dog to help him herd cattle on his 4,000-acre ranch on the outskirts of Coalinga.
"She was the runt of the litter," Goble recalled. "I started out working her slow. I wanted her to get used to her new home and new surroundings before really getting into the hard work, but she'd have none of that. She had so much self-esteem that even when she did something wrong, and I'd scold her, she would still want to work, so by golly, she did."
After a few months together on the ranch, Goble discovered he had a new breed of dog—a "there dog."
"Every time I turned around, she was right there," Goble said.
And luckily for Goble, Scooter was there on a particularly cold and rainy day in January 2000. It started like any other day on the ranch: Goble kissed his wife, Victoria, good-bye, jumped on his favorite horse, Lucky, and set out with his best and only worker, Scooter. He needed to move his 75 Angus bulls, so he began pushing them up an alleyway into another pen. Then, for no apparent reason, one of Goble's 2,400-pound bulls turned aggressive—running erratically, charging other bulls and becoming increasingly hostile toward Goble.
"He never gave me any trouble in the past, so I thought he'd just knock it off and leave me alone. The whole thing was all so surreal."
Instead, the bull spun around and charged at Goble.
"My mind told me to move, to get out of there, but my feet just wouldn't move," he said. "I was stuck in a bad place for sure. My goose was cooked."
Then, out of nowhere came his savior—all 30 pounds of her.
"Like a gray flash, Scooter came leaping in from about 10 feet away. She latched onto the bull's nose and her momentum ripped a big chunk out of it," Goble said. "The bloodied bull looked surprised as heck and ran off with his tail between his legs, so to speak."
And just like that, a relationship was forged that would change both human and canine.
"From that point on, I said Scooter saved my bacon so whatever she needs in life, I promised I would get it for her. I am here to serve her now!" Goble said with a chuckle.
And true to form, if you visit Goble's Echo Canyon Ranch, you'll probably find the rancher with his constant companion and best friend, Scooter, doing what they love to do—working alongside one another.
"There are no words to describe how much this dog means to me," Goble said. "She really has become my best friend and I don't know what I would do without her."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A guardian angel for the flock—and the family
It didn't matter that his bark was not as big as his bite.
When Taz, a Maremma sheepdog, confronted a lion last summer at his owner's sheep ranch in the mountains just north of Vacaville, he was only a 5-month-old puppy and hardly big enough to rumble with the big cat.
Diana Paradis, who shares the Solano County ranch with her husband, Scott, and 14-year-old daughter, Jamie, said that mountain lions are not uncommon in their neck of the woods and her family has lost their share of sheep to these hungry predators over the years.
But in this particular incident, the lion had more than sheep in mind for dinner. From the tracks it left behind, it was clear that the lion had been stalking Jamie.
"If Taz hadn't been on the job, she would have been mauled or killed," said Paradis.
Jamie said it was the biggest mountain lion she had ever seen. And it's not as if she had never seen a lion before. Proudly showing off a framed photograph taken during her last lion hunt, the teenager noted that the dead cat she was posing next to was actually much smaller than the one that came after her.
Jamie was at the horse barn cleaning out the stall, her regular chore on the ranch, when suddenly Taz bristled up and started growling. When the teen turned around, she saw the large lion just a few feet away, staring at her.
"You usually don't see one sitting there looking at you," said Paradis. "You usually see their handiwork."
When Jamie first saw the lion, she said she was "just shocked," adding that she was actually more scared for Taz, who tried to lunge for the lion.
"I had to grab ahold of his collar to pull him back," she said.
Maremma sheepdogs have a natural instinct to guard and protect, and despite being just a puppy, Taz already had a sense of duty that defied his age and size. Taz also has a mean growl that sounds much like a lion's, Paradis said. Spooked by Taz's barking and growling, the lion eventually turned and ran away.
Having once lost 26 head of sheep to lions in one night, Paradis said her family depends on livestock guard dogs to protect their flock. Some livestock owners don't believe these dogs are effective guards, Paradis said, but her family swears by them and would rather use dogs than put out poison or traps.
"A lot of ranches are now using guard dogs," she said. "They really make a big difference. Instead of losing two ewes to lions, you might lose one."
Paradis said her family never considers Taz a pet. He's a work dog with a specific job to do. During the day, he's pretty laid back and independent, often taking dips in the trough to stay cool. But at night, when the sheep are locked in, he digs holes in the dirt to hide from predators and patrols the ranch for not just lions, but bears, coyotes and bobcats. With his thick, white coat, he can lie in the middle of the herd and blend right in.
"He's just an equal member of the ranch," Paradis said.
Unlike Labradors, the more typical farm dog, Maremma sheepdogs think for themselves and will not follow every command submissively—certainly not if they can't see the point in it, Paradis said.
"They know what they're supposed to do, but they think about it before they do it," she said. "They're really loyal. They don't make good pets, but they're great guardians."
They're also expensive and hard to find. In California, these dogs can fetch up to $1,000 or more, she said. But they're worth it, she added. The family paid only $300 for Taz, but they had to go to Washington to find him. They plan to breed him with Selkie, their newest Maremma puppy.
Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Heading, heeling and charming the neighbors
Some call it one of California's best-kept secrets. Others say the black and white descendants of an ancient Scottish canine breed called fox shepherds are an essential part of ranching in the West.
Whatever they say, nobody can mistake a McNab cross for just another hard-working farm dog.
Chino dairy producer Dick Hofstra and his wife, Marcella, will tell you right out that Blue, a 6-year-old McNab-border collie mix, is unlike any dog they've ever owned--and they've owned quite a few in their 70-plus years of farming and ranching.
"What's special about Blue is that she understands everything you're saying," Marcella Hofstra said. "She listens and then tells you things with her eyes. She has something extra, an intelligence we've never had in a dog before."
Blue fetches the newspaper from the Hofstras' driveway and dutifully brings it to her master each morning. Then she gets his shoes, one at a time, dropping them into his outstretched hands. When breakfast is over, Blue usually doesn't wait for her master to finish his second cup of coffee before she presents him with the keys to the truck.
Blue's mornings usually include visits to the livestock on the family's dairy, a run around their sod operation next door, then a trip to the Chino Livestock Market or the hay broker's office. Along the way, Blue harries the cattle into place, carries the check for hay supplies in her mouth to the office manager and tarries over treats from friends in the cashier's office at the livestock sale yard.
When asked about the dog with the uncanny intelligence, the office staff at the sale yard lights up with smiles and says everybody knows Blue. She's smarter than some of the people who come in, they say. They're disappointed when Dick Hofstra shows up without her.
Blue comes from a remarkable breed of dog native to Northern California. McNabs are known for their devotion and loyal companionship, as well as being fast and agile. They're generally a more direct and forceful stockdog than their border collie cousins.
The breed was established by Scottish immigrant Alexander McNab, who took up sheep ranching in Mendocino County in 1868. He brought one fox shepherd with him from Scotland, but it died soon after he arrived.
In 1885, McNab returned to his homeland to get some of the dogs he grew up using for sheep. He brought back Peter and Fred and bred them to select shepherd females used by Basque sheepherders. That cross was called a McNab shepherd.
These dogs were bred for performance, not for color or conformation. And today they aren't a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club, although the McNab is listed with the National Stockdog Registry.
So, why have McNabs been a secret for so long? Originally, these dogs were used only on McNab Ranch near Ukiah. Later, a few were sold to neighboring ranches and now they are selectively bred in a few agricultural areas of California.
The lack of attention given these animals, despite the high regard found at stockyards and on ranches, has helped shield them from public attention and commercialization. They make loving pets and great watchdogs, Dick Hofstra said.
And Blue, clearly a dog diva in Chino, is helping increase local interest in the breed, although she's not likely to appear at any hoity-toity canine exhibitions. Among other things, she had her nose broken by an irate bull that pinned her in the corner of a pen, delivering a blow to the snout that sent Blue to the hospital. For better or worse, Hofstra said McNabs are fearless and won't back down.
It took some time, he said, but before long Blue was right back at work--heading, heeling and charming the neighbors. Until her master retired a couple of years ago from his job as dairy manager at Pitchess Honor Ranch, Blue also regularly went to work with him, where she was beloved by both inmates and staff.
The Hofstras value Blue's unique qualities and are pleased that others do too, but for themselves, they say what matters is the daily pleasure they get from spending time with Blue.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once a hunting dog, always a hunting dog
The Heringers kick off opening weekend of pheasant season each fall with a hunt at the M&T Chico Ranch in Chico. Last November, about 20 family members, friends and co-workers gathered with guns, shotgun shells and bird dogs, anticipating walking through the tall grasses and weeds to scare up pheasants, each man hoping to fill his limit of birds.
Lee Heringer, son of ranch manager Les Heringer, said the family's good-natured black Labrador, Tule, has lived for these hunts her entire life and has retrieved dozens and dozens of birds over the past 10 years.
"Tule is the typical Labrador. They seem to smell duck and pheasant season in the air," Lee Heringer said. "On those brisk early mornings she does not allow you to walk, gun in hand, from the front door of the house to the truck without running around the yard looking for anything to fall. Her ears perk up, waiting for that shot that allows her to do exactly what comes natural to her and what she was trained to do."
At 11 years old, Tule's shiny black coat has turned a salt-and-pepper gray around her face and the family's once-excitable pet is now deaf and suffers from arthritis to the point of partial immobility. Because of this, one of Tule's puppies, Cali, has spent many early morning hours training with Lee Heringer's brother, Scott, to learn the art of retrieving birds.
"It is in a Lab's blood," Lee Heringer said. "You walk out of the house that early in the morning and those dogs are waiting at the doorstep with their tails wagging unbelievably."
That's how last fall's hunt began. All of the dogs were barking with excitement. Tule, because of her arthritis, was hobbling around the hunters' feet waiting for someone to lift her into a truck.
"Tule was not able to join in the hunt. This hunt and the other hunts like it are something that she has lived for her entire life," Lee Heringer said. "Tule could not stand the fact that Cali could now out-hunt her. You could sense the annoyance in Tule every time Cali was around."
The men divided into two groups, searching for pheasants near the Sacramento River a couple of miles from the ranch headquarters.
"Things were going well for the first hour, when we had an unexpected visitor. Tule, who could barely walk on any given day, had run all of the way to where the hunt was 2 miles away," Lee Heringer said. "We were amazed. We could not believe what we were seeing. Instead of running up to one of the guys, this old dog goes to the group of dogs and starts pointing with them. Instantly she started to work."
The Heringers wondered whether Tule heard the shots or simply remembered the way to their favorite hunting spot from more than a decade of hunting. In the following hours, Tule out-jumped and out-fetched every other dog, including the spirited Cali.
Following the hunt, the men stood around the barbecue singing the praises of this miracle hunting dog.
"Meanwhile, Tule is laying on her side, unable to move, getting tri-tip hand-fed to her by everyone who passed by. Tule lived through the next week on aspirin and peanut butter and returned to her usual partially immobile self soon after," Lee Heringer said.
Les Heringer said Tule took great exception to being the older dog and being left behind while all the younger dogs headed out with the hunters.
"Those were her pheasants and she loves to hunt and be a part of the action and she wasn't going to be left behind," he said. "She followed her nose and tracked one of the groups down. She hunted all day and easily kept up with the younger dogs and even made a few good retrieves. She was the talk amongst all the hunters who said she had a big heart."
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.