Cow dogs or ranch dogs are herding dogs or, sometimes referred to as working dogs. Herding dogs share characteristics and physical traits. These dogs have a keen intellect, agility, and speed. Cow Dogs are loyal by nature as well as energetic and athletic. They are friendly, attentive, and easy to train. Their descendants were predatory animals that through selective breeding and inclusion of other selective breed traits have minimized their natural inclinations to prey while maintaining their hunting and herding skills.
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Herding dogs have been used to herd animals for over 10,000 years. Most herding dog breeds are not domestic in North America. Herding dogs were brought to this country by European settlers on ships to the Americas. The North American domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is a descendant of the Eurasian grey wolf (Canis lupus lupus) ancestors and was commonly used as a hunting dog by Native Americans dating back 8000 to 14000 years ago.
The wolf’s ancestors came from Eurasia dating all the way back to the ice age. Unlike domesticated animals, wolves are predators and over time they were killed off by humans to the verge of extinction. The United States had one of the most aggressive nationwide policies to reduce the wolf population. This policy led to the gray wolf protection Endangered Species Act (ESA) being implemented in 1974.
After the arrival of the European colonists, the domestic American dog almost disappeared from lineage leaving only a trace of genetic legacy in modern dog populations. Their closest remaining relatives are the American Arctic dogs such as the Alaskan malamute, husky, and Greenland dogs.
Breeds of Cow Dogs
Herding Dogs and Working Dogs
Many dog breeds worldwide have a long history of hard work and were developed for farm chores, herding, protecting livestock, and even pulling carts. Most farm and ranch dogs are athletic, energetic, even-tempered, confident, and obedient. Many cow dogs in our modern age are quite frankly out of work in the typical sense. However, these dogs make excellent family pets, watchdogs, and companions. They do need space and energetic owners to provide them with plenty of play, activities, and exercise. Most cow dogs are not suited to ‘apartment living’ and if you are a city dweller a large yard is a must for the active cow dog.
The Blue Lacy is the official State Dog of Texas. Lacy’s carry a rare blue gene but can also be red and multicolored. The Blue Lacy is the only dog to originate as a breed in the state of Texas. Blue Lacys make great family dogs but would not do well for apartment dwellers as they need room to run and work. They are affectionate and easy to groom but probably fare better with experienced dog owners. Blue Lacys’ are territorial and should be socialized at a young age. You can read more about this hardy, high-energy working dog as well as more about the official animals of Texas here.
Collies were recognized as a distinct breed in the 18th century. Their origins remain unclear possibly dating back to the Roman Era. Collies lived in the highlands of Scotland where they were bred for herding sheep in the 18th century. They were a popular breed during the 19th century in both Scotland and England. American settlers began bringing Collies to America in the late 19th century. Collies are great family pets and respond well to obedience training.
One of the most famous scotch collies, a Rough Collie, was ‘Lassie’. The English American author Eric Knight’s short story ‘Lassie Come Home’ appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938 and was followed by a full-length novel in 1940. It was later made into a TV series that aired from 1954 – 1974. Although the fictional character Lassie was a female the actual Lassies who portrayed the fictional character on TV were male.
Herding Collie breeds are:
- Border Collie
- Rough Collie
- Bearded Collie
This breed descended from collie/shepherd breeds that arrived in this country with settlers from the Basque regions of Spain and France. The Basque were sheepmen that had spent time in Australia. One ancestor of the Australian Shepard is the Berger de Pyrenees. The Australian Shepard breed originated in the western United States in the mid-1800s. With the popularity of ranching during that era, the Australian Shepard was bred to herd livestock. They are affectionate, easy-going dogs that make great family pets. As are most herding dogs, they are quite active and do their best in an environment that allows them to exercise and use their intelligence. A large-fenced yard or rural setting would be ideal for this dog. This type of dog loves to chase and play fetch.
There are various famous fictional Cow Dogs. One of the most famous, of course, was “Hank the Cowdog” which many of us read in elementary school. Hank the Cowdog is a series of 76 books written by Texas Author John Graves, (1920 – 2013) which has sold over 10 million copies. The suggested reading level of the books is grades 3 – 5 although older children show interest in hearing these books also. Hank was from the West Texas Panhandle and was the self-appointed head of ranch security. Hank the Cowdog’s official website offers a podcast series starring Matthew McConaughey. Find out more about Hank the Cowdog and the podcast series here. The website states that Hank the Cowdog’s fictional character was based on a real Australian Shepherd named “Hank.”
As a matter of fact, Hank is one of the most popular Cowboy Dog Names in modern-day history!
Other Shepard herding breeds are:
- German Shepard
- Pyrenean Shepard
- Miniature American Shepard (Make good apartment dwellers)
Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian Cattle Dog (sometimes referred to as the Australian Cow Dog) originated in Australia in the 19th Century and came to America in the 1950s. Heelers or Blue Heelers as they are commonly called were developed from the dingo and bred with known herding dogs. Dingos are members of the Canidae family, a wild dog native to Australia. The Australian Cattle Dog or Heeler got its name from nipping at the feet of cattle. Heelers are active, medium-sized dogs. The heeler is a one-person dog as it is quite faithful to its master. However, they do adapt to families and can make good family pets. They are good watchdogs and are also good with children.
Heelers can be an array of colors but typically are red-speckled or blue-speckled, with markings in black, blue, or tan. This cattle dog is an active breed needing room to run and typically does not make a good apartment dweller. Miniature Blue Heelers have the same characteristics as their bigger version and are miniature to toy size. They have the same herding instinct as full-size heelers. Heelers are very independent, and not in need of much cuddling. However, they do like to play, exercise and work. Most healers both big and small love to play ball, and fetch doing best with equally energetic owners!
Sheepdogs are thought to descend from the Collie and the Shepard. Many sheepdogs were originally from England. There are various breeds of sheepdogs bred to herd livestock however, they are now mostly family dogs and companions. Sheepdogs are warm, easy-going, affectionate animals who love attention.
The Old English Sheepdog has a distinctive fluffy, shaggy coat and its average weight is 60 to 100 pounds. These dogs do need constant grooming as their coat can become matted. They make excellent family pets and do well with older children.
Other sheepdog breeds are:
- Belgian Sheepdog
- Bergamasco Sheepdog
- Polish Lowland Sheepdog
- Icelandic Sheepdog
- Shetland Sheepdog
Corgis are strong athletic livestock herding dogs and also make good family dogs. Corgis can bark a lot and are very high-energy animals. They are small in stature with powerful legs and thighs. They are quick and agile; their strong bark makes them great watchdogs.
Other Corgi breeds are:
- Bearded Corgi
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Pembroke Welsh Corgi
More Cow Dogs and Ranch Dogs
Other Cow Dogs Belonging to the Herding Dog Group are:
Puli’s are vigorous active dogs with a striking natural coat of curly, wavy cords similar to dreadlocks. Their shaggy coat requires constant attention. Their agility and quick-stepping style make them excellent herders. They are typically 16 to 17 inches tall weighing 25 to 35 pounds.
Spanish Water Dog
Spanish Water Dogs are energetic, medium-sized dogs that originated in Spain. They are highly intelligent animals. However, their owners should be experienced with dogs and they need an owner that is a confident firm leader to teach obedience. The Spanish Water Dog is a great family dog however older children are recommended as they do not always do well with small children.
Great Pyrenees are large powerful dogs that originated in the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe, the border between France and Spain. It is thought that the Great Pyrenees evolved from the white mountain dogs of Asia Minor over 11,000 years ago. This breed of dog needs socialization at a young age so they do not become fearful of strangers. Their vocal tendencies and excellent hearing make them great watchdogs. They are also affectionate and gentle making them wonderful family dogs.
More Herding Cow Dogs
Also belonging to the herding dog group are:
- Portuguese Water Dog
- Belgian Malinois
- Belgian Tervuren
- Bouvier des Flandres
- Swedish Vallhund
- Berger Picard
- Norwegian Buhund
- Canaan Dog
- Entlebucher Mountain Dog
- Finnish Lapphund
- Catahoula Leopard (Sometimes referred to as Catahoula Cow Dog)
- Florida Cracker Cur
- Hangin’ Tree Cowdog
Selective Mixed Breeds Can Make Great Cow Dogs
Mixed breeds can make great cow dogs as well as family pets with proper socialization and training. Modern-day purebreds were cross-bred through selective breeding. If your mixed breed is to be a herding dog, with the right combination of parent breeds, care, and discipline they can make great working cow dogs. There are endless possibilities in shelters and rescues. They generally have fewer congenital issues and are often times healthier than purebreds. Unless your rescue is a puppy, you can look for markings and other telltale clues as to the dog’s ancestors as well as determine the full adult size. Additionally, you can also determine temperament, energy level, agility, and other good traits for working dogs with these adult rescue dogs.
In Conclusion, Cow Dogs
In conclusion, Cow Dogs make excellent family pets, companions, and watchdogs. If they are lucky enough to live in a rural setting then of course they make hard-working ranch and farm dogs. In addition, they are alert, watchful, intelligent, and courageous animals that are never happier than when they have a job to do!
Cow Dogs was written in loving memory of Peaches, Petey, and Roxy.
Read about popular Cowboy Dog Names here.
More information regarding “Herding Group ” breeds here.
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Cow dogs are not just Australian Shepards, Australian Cattle dogs, and Heelers. Cow Dogs are herding dogs or sometimes referred to as working dogs. Herding dogs share characteristics and physical traits. These dogs have a keen intellect, agility, and speed. Cow Dogs are loyal by nature as well as energetic and athletic. They are friendly, attentive, and easy to train. The AKC states herding dogs control the movement of other animals. In fact, the cow dog descendants were predatory animals that through selective breeding and inclusion of other selective breed traits have minimized their natural inclinations to prey while maintaining their hunting and herding skills.
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