Arthur Goertz and his cowdogs lip until told to “Let ‘im go!” He separates out the right one on command, the one in the crowd to be branded or castrated or de-horned. He gets an animal out of brush his master can’t enterin the rough Central Texas ranch country littered with dense cedar brush, the catch dog is in his element. A header leads the cattle where the cowboy wants them to go; or, on a shout of “Hold ’em up!” he keeps them still. He chases down a stray, forcing an unwilling one back by bitingor threatening to biteits ear or nose until it rejoins the herd. He rounds up a scattered herd, circling the cattle round and round into an ever-tighter, easily corraled knot. But a heelerwell, he has. more detractors than he has friends. A heeler stays behind the herd, chasing stragglers. Too often, he nips at a cow’s hind legs, and a well-placed bite can tear ligaments, maybe cripple the animal and necessitate its being shot. All of C. P. Johnson’s cowdogs are headers. “Me and my horse are the heelers,” he says with a shy grin. Arthur Goertz, a 55-year-old Rockne rancher, has a team of headers too; he also has a ready way to deal with a dog that shows a tendency to heel. “I’d kill a heeler,” he says with the force of a man who has done away with more than one dog that didn’t work out in the 30 years he’s been ranching. But, though Goertz can unhesitatingly fire cowdogs that don’t perform, he has a real soft spot for those that do. “You got to reward them when they do it right. Why, sometimes I talk to ’em just like I talked to one of my babies,” he says. And, typical of long-time cowdog owners and trainers, he has an all-time favorite. “Tiger was the most outstanding dog in any nearby county. He could work more cattle than ten cowboys.” Then, pausing to worry that he’ll “sound like I’m bragging,” Goertz asserts that Tiger’s superiority was an accepted fact in the area. “Tiger was great because he was smooth,” he says, rolling out the double-0 for emphasis. “Smoothness,” you see, is a highly desirable traitit refers to a cowdog’s ability to get the job done with no unnecessary fighting. Cattle that are excited needlessly lose weight needlessly, and the lost poundage means lost dollars at market. But how to assure the right traits in the dogs? They’re anything but a single breedthough there are those who will answer “cowdog” when asked what kind of dog they have. But while hybrid vigor is a relatively new concept in Texas cattle breeding, it’s old-hat to the business’s dogs. Most are some mix of Catahoula leopard, Blue leopard, Lacy, hound, East Texas Cur, and what-not. Texas sheepherders and goatmen have long used Australian shepherds and border collies to round up their animals, but cowdogs have to work longer and harder to move their more stubborn clients. The longhaired shepherds and collies tire easily, even have heart attacks, herding cattle in the hot Texas summers. A little bloodhound doesn’t hurt either. As Arthur Goertz explains, “They’re the ones that can pick up the right scent on a trail when one of the cows takes to the dense brush and tries to hide.” He says, too, he once had one with a good bit of Airedale. “He was real rugged; could take the heat better than most dogs.” Then he grins. “But he was so ugly, you couldn’t stand to look at him.” More important than the breed is the trainingthat and luck. Most have to be trained not only to work the cattle, but also not to chase or attack chickens, not to chase deer, or rabbits, or armadillos, or. . . . As Earl Blundell tells it, “A cowdog usually gets deer-broke as soon as his instincts for rounding up cattle are pretty well practiced.” Then he goes on: “You deer-break ’em by schooling them when they go after a deer.” For “schooling” read discipline, in the language of the rough-hewn but gentlespeaking Blundell. In fact, “schooling” usually means a severe beating. “You might have to school ‘etn pretty hard, because you don’t want to be wasting time with foolishness.” He pauses: “But then you got to be nice to them at other times, beause a good dog is the best friend you can have. You can ask a lot of them, and they won’t ever desert you if you’re good to them.” Earl Blundell doesn’t desert his dogs either. A few years ago his wife, Lela, was offered $150 for one of his best cowdogs. She refused to sell, but she did tell Earl about the offer when he got home that evening. “I told her that if she had sold him, well, she might as well have gone with him,” he says, smiling as she laughs. For most of these men, their cowdogs are ranch hands, helping to work the herd, helping a neighbor round up an especially troublesome cow. But for a few, a cowdog is a tool of a specialty trade. Two such men are David and Bob Buckholz of Dripping Springs. When there’s a thorny problem to be solved say a bull that, in it’s owner’s opinion, just flat-out can’t be roped or penned it’s time to send for the Buckholz boys and their dogs. That’s how these two brothers in their mid-20s are known hereabouts, and they make their living rounding up other people’s stray cattle, breaking horses, and tending to their cowdogs. “It’s not a big-paying deal. There’s no retirement fund. And if we get hurt, we’re just hurt. But it is our deal,” David explains. The same goes for the dogs. Earl Blundell means it when he says, “There ain’t no dog that has got as rough a life as a cowdog.” Their work is hard and gritty, they do it in the heat of the day, in the heat of long summers. And even skill and agility don’t nullify their risks of being gored or tossed or trampled by an ‘animal weighing teni to 20 times their weight. But the cowdogs I saw seemed to enjoy their work and to bask in their owners’ praise at a round-up well done. The workaholic animals even seem to get bored when they’re not workingmore than one cowboy has gazed out his ranch house window of a lazy Sunday afternoon to see his dogs rounding up and corraling his cattle for the sheer brazen hell of it. 0 Pamela Mayo Clark is an Austinbased freelance writer. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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