In a scene straight out of the 19th century, cowboy Mike Estrada herds a cluster of black and rust-colored cows and their calves across the gently rolling hills of Los Osos, his six dogs circling him like satellites.
“Get ahead,” Estrada calls, and Jay, Dally, Boo, Zeke, Dotty and Fire wheel in front of the herd to cut off afew stragglers. At the command “Lay down,” they crouch in the golden grass, their ears pricked attentively.
“These dogs work their hearts out,” said Estrada, dressed in a plaid Western-style shirt, blue jeans, calf-length leather chaps and a battered, mud-flecked straw hat.
The California Mid-State Fair celebrates the ages-old partnership between canine and human with two separate competitions: the Cow Dog Trials, held July 19, and the Sheep Dog Trials, held at 10 a.m. today at the Equestrian Center at the Paso Robles Event Center.
Atascadero resident Jan Davis created the Cow Dog Trials, which traditionally coincide with Cattleman & Farmer’s Day at the fair, around 1995. In the countywide competition, handlers use a combination of whistles and verbal commands to help their dogs coax four cows through a timed obstacle course.
“We want the amateur cowboy-rancher to be able to show off his dog,” Davis said, while entertaining the crowd. “All the guys that are sitting in the grandstands watching (that) have a dog at home, they think they can do it. You never know until you try.” So, what makes an ideal herding dog? According to Hearst Ranch employee Chris Herrera, who’s worked with cow dogs for about a decade, it’s a combination of breeding, training and in-born talent.
Border collies are prized for their intelligence, kelpies for their endurance and hound dogs for their keen sense of smell, Herrera said, adding that he prefers a cross of collie, kelpie, Catahoula leopard dog and blackmouth cur. He also likes McNab shepherds, a short-haired breed first developed in Mendocino in the late 1800s.
Although some breeds are suitable for herding sheep and cattle alike, individual dogs vary by discipline.
“The sheep dogs are really impressive. They’re very well trained,” Davis said, “but they couldn’t go out and trim a bunch of cows off a hill because they’re not trained to do that.”
For starters, Estrada said, sheep dogs tend to be less aggressive.
“Biting the sheep is a big zero,” the Morro Bay man explained, “but with cattle, you want (the dogs) to bite them. You have to have respect.”
Herrera described a dog’s predatory drive to chase and corner prey as the “building block” on which all other training is based.
By channeling those natural instincts, starting at six months or so, handlers can teach their dogs how to slow down cattle, speed them up or send them moving in a certain direction — whether it’s over a ridge, down a hill or into a holding pen.
Sometimes, Herrera will have his dogs slowly guide the cattle through a gate so he can do a head count. They’ve also helped him and his fellow cowboys load cattle onto trailers.
“Those dogs are very athletic,” he said, as well as remarkably intelligent. “It’s just amazing how fast they are. You can miss them in the blink of an eye.”
Cow dogs are most effective, he added, when they work in tandem with their handlers.
“Something I’ve learned throughout the years is being in the right spot,” he said, positioning himself and his horse in a way that catches cows’ eyesight and blocks their movements. “You can be 20 feet away, but if you’re in the right spot it helps the dogs.”
Estrada agreed. “These dogs can be an extension of your arm or an extension of your presence,” he said.
According to Estrada, well-trained herding dogs are essential to day-to-day operations at a working ranch.
“Once the cattle are dog-broke, it makes your job a lot easier,” said Estrada, who has worked for Gary Evans, a rancher and veterinarian with Large Animal Practice in Los Osos, for almost three years. “One good dog is comparable to three men on horseback.”
In fact, he added, “A good dog is worth his weight in gold.”
Pedigree puppies can sell for anywhere between $100 and $2,000, while adult dogs usually garner a few thousand dollars. (The most experienced, skilled cow dogs go for as much as $10,000 to $21,000 at auction, Herrera said.)
Still, that’s a small price to pay when considering all the time and effort that goes into training a cow dog, Estrada said.
“I’m definitely not doing this for financial gain,” he said. “A person’s got to do this because they love doing it.”