If you talk to a group of ranchers, they will each gladly tell you about the breed they think is the ultimate ranch dog. I want to cast my vote for the Shih Tzu. Although not the conventional favorite for ranch work here in Cambria’s backcountry, these little cuddlers have some advantages over the other breeds.
One of the many jobs ranch dogs are asked to do is guard. Have you ever met a rancher who doesn’t think dogs are meant to sleep with their owners, to protect them through the night from all manner of threatening situations? Of course you haven’t.
So, if you were a rancher, would you rather have a small, calm, non-shedding Shih Tzu in bed with you to alert you to trouble with a polite woof, or would you prefer a large, high energy, border collie dancing in circles on the bed and leaving a mountain of dog hair on your sheets? Sort of a no-brainer.
To be really effective for herding, ranch dogs should be small and able to hide easily in the tall grass until they are needed. If you are trying to move cows or sheep, why let them know there is a dog nearby that is about to insist they go somewhere they don’t want to go?
So much time can be saved using the sneaky Shih Tzu for this work. He loves to doze in the grass on his back with his short legs in the air — seemingly not paying attention, but cagily waiting to spring into action when the signal to drive the herd is given.
What would a border collie do in the same situation? I can tell you. He would be running across the field, darting headlong into the herd, barking orders, and giving the cows or sheep “the eye” with no subtlety at all. The herd would see him coming from a mile away, which would destroy the element of surprise and give the cows or sheep time to launch an offensive.
This would make the job of herding them in the desired direction a much more arduous task.
You will hear ranchers say that Shih Tzus aren’t even “real dogs” and don’t learn ranch commands quickly enough, unlike border collies, which learn faster than preteens can learn the latest computer software. Well? So? Do you really want your dog to be smarter than a child? Or smarter than you?
Shih Tzus are mostly interested in licking your face and napping. You have lots of time to get up to speed with their antics while they are sleeping. Border collies never seem to sleep — always alert to the next task they might be asked to perform. Even so, my vote for the ultimate ranch dog is the Shih Tzu — small and unobtrusive, but always ready when there is work to be done.
You will undoubtedly be fascinated to know that we live happily with three Shih Tzus and one border collie. My husband, John, likes to pretend that we have only the border collie — a “real dog.”
Marcia Rhoades (jmrhoad firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Cambria’s mountain community in the Santa Lucia range.