Home CommentaryStudent Life Bred for the Outback, Urban Cattle Dog is always Ready

Bred for the Outback, Urban Cattle Dog is always Ready

by Archives March 10, 2009

Betty comes from a long line of Australian cattle herders.
She has many inherited characteristics that make herding second nature: She is quiet and nimble, short and stocky; it was never a problem for anybody from her lineage to sneak up on wayward cattle or move swiftly through a dense herd. Her brown eyes are sharp and alert, enabling her to keep track of everything around her. Her black ears are always perked up and twitch in all directions, detecting noises nobody else can. And her long, sharp teeth are just like those her great-great-great grandparents used to nip at the heels of their cattle.
In her four years on this planet, Betty has never seen a cow; the only thing this Australian Cattle Dog gets to herd from her apartment in Montreal is the occasional errant sock or sneaker.
All purebred dogs were initially bred for specific purposes, whether to guard, hunt, race or herd. “Those traits never go away,” said Ed Graveley director of the Quebec division of the Canadian Kennel Club. “An Australian Cattle Dog will herd. That trait is just there.”
Most dogs today, whatever the breed, are bred as companion animals according to Lee Steeves, director of the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador division of the Canadian Kennel Club. “Many of our purebreds were developed centuries ago,” she said. “And evolution has dictated that the original purposes have since become redundant or evolved somewhat. We no longer have uses for dogs who guard tombs or rid caves of vermin.”
But the traits are still in their DNA. That, Steeves said, is why sporting dogs continue to “hunt” when they point their paws at birds during walks or retrieve tennis balls while playing fetch and why herding dogs continue to herd, even when there are no sheep.
Betty has a strong tendency to turn anybody and anything into her “herd.” Whether it’s my friends and family, or strangers and their dogs at the park, people and animals often find themselves under Betty’s control shortly after meeting her. My father, who has weekly visits with his “granddog,” loves to tell stories about Betty and her herding. Once, he said, when he and Betty got to a field they often visit, there were about five dogs and with their owners. A couple of the dogs were running around, chasing each other. Others were chasing tennis balls. Betty, my father said, was itching to be taken of her leash – she saw she had a job to do. As soon as the leash came off, Betty set to work. She ran behind a couple of the dogs, and used her nose and teeth to nudge them in a particular direction; then she ran alongside another, and used her body weight to influence the other dog’s direction. Within minutes of being let off the leash, Betty had all the dogs huddled together, unmoving and confined to one side of the field; barely two minutes later, the owners were standing next to the dogs.
In the mid-1800s Australian ranchers began working to create a breed of dog capable of working hours on end, herding sheep and cattle in the Australian Outback. The Cattle Dog was developed through the trial-and-error crossbreeding of Dingos (the native Australian dog), Collies (herding breed), Dalmatians (known to be loyal to their masters and friendly towards horses), and Kelpies (a sheepdog). The result was an intelligent, energetic and fiercely loyal dog. The Australian Cattle Dog Club of Canada describes the breed on its website as “watchful, courageous and trustworthy, with the willingness to carry out any task, however strenuous.”
Cattle Dogs use their teeth to assert their authority. At a ranch, when cattle approach a Cattle Dog, the dog will promptly bite the cow’s snout. That’s the dog’s way of telling others who’s the boss. They also use their teeth to organize a herd that is either standing still or running in a particular direction.
Betty’s Cattle Dog tendencies were obvious from the moment I brought the seven-week-old puppy home.
With no cows around, Betty had no choice but to make me her herd. The behaviour was endearing when the Cattle Dog was a seven-pound puppy. Sitting on her hip, she would stare at me with her soft brown eyes, framed by white eyelashes. Her huge ears, the size of child’s hand, would stand straight up and rotate towards any sound. And her tongue would hang to the side, falling over her tiny, sharp teeth.
But she would go into Cattle Dog mode the moment I showed any signs of moving. Preparing to herd, she would shift into a squat. Her neck would stretch out, bringing her head a little closer to the ground and enabling her to focus her eyes on my feet. Her ears would aim forward and her mouth would close. Nothing mattered, except stopping me from moving.
I would stand up and take one step, and another. Then, in one fell swoop, Betty would plunge every one of her teeth straight into my ankle.
It was clear this wasn’t going to be cute for long. In another few months Betty would weigh 50 pounds. Eventually, I taught her to stop herding people through an intricate, inconvenient and uncomfortable training method that had me walking around with balloons tied around my ankles for a month.
As a child, I collected stuffed frogs and monkeys. But Betty promptly took ownership of every toy once she moved in. She would collect the frogs from all over the apartment and bring them to the living room. Then she would collect the monkeys and place them in the living room, separate from the frogs. The fuzzy amphibians, each a round disk with four chubby legs coming out the sides and beady eyes on top lay in one pile. In the other, lay the stuffed primates with long bodies, spherical heads, gangly arms and long tails. Betty would herd her master towards the piles and stand between them, wagging her long, arched striped black and white tail, so proud of the work she had accomplished.
Bred to herd four-and-a-half-foot tall, 1,600-pound animals in fields and deserts, Betty woke up one April morning in 2005 in a concrete jungle, surrounded by more cars than cows, over 160,000 kilometres from her homeland.
Betty doesn’t know a life other than the one she has in Montreal, where she spends springs rolling in the mud, summers playing Frisbee and winters soaring through the air to catch snowballs. She doesn’t need to be at a ranch or in the Outback to lead a fulfilling life. She will always find ways to be a herder. “The Cattle Dog’s ideal life is the one you offer,” said Steeves. “It’s the only life Betty knows and chasing snowballs and rolling in the mud suits her just fine.”

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