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For the love of farm dogs

Sarah McNaughton Cattle herding dog working in field
NERVOUS CONFUSION: Not one to listen to his herding instincts, Ripley, the blue heeler, tries to stay out of the way when working cattle.
It’s taking time, but someday my dog, Ripley, could become an A-1 cattle dog.

I’m sure we’ve all made some less-than-great decisions that worked out in the end. Mine was driving halfway across the state to buy a cattle-dog puppy during my busiest year of college.

As a sophomore at North Dakota State University, a classmate of mine showed up to the barn with a blue heeler puppy, and told me that there was one more left in the litter. A quick text to the breeder and a photo response of the available pup had sealed the deal. I was off and determined to get my new puppy that I absolutely should not have been getting. I had three part-time jobs, a horse at NDSU and 20-some credits of class work on top of clubs I was involved in.

My parents were less than thrilled when I told them I was getting a puppy, but they still drove with me to Mandan to pick up my new dog. A meeting in a gas station parking lot and $100 handed over, and we were on our way back with this tiny, lethargic puppy. Ripley at 10 weeks old was absolutely filthy and covered in ticks after spending his first weeks living in an old horse stall. A bath, trip to the vet and some de-wormer saw him become a brand new puppy.

We never had cattle, but I was convinced that I’d somehow make this puppy a working cow dog. With what cattle, I had no idea, but I wanted him to be able to be a true cow dog.  Our first trip to the horse barn resulted in him being stepped on by my horse, and getting attacked by one of the barn cats.

So far, Ripley was off to a rocky start with other animals. He came with me every day for chores, but he stayed clear of anything that had four legs. Since I had no real need to use him for working livestock, I was content to just have him follow me around and stay out of the way.

Fast-forward four years and he had become a great “city dog.” I lived in a studio apartment and took him for daily runs. He went to doggy daycare a few days a week, and took bimonthly trips to Scheels pet store to pick out his newest toy.

Ripley came with me to visit friends, went to any store that allowed dogs and even frequented the brewery scenes. He had been in multiple obedience classes, beginner agility and even received a few American Kennel Club points from his work. He remained wary of horses, cattle, sheep, other dogs, goats and even our chickens after an unfortunate chase from a rooster.

Back to basics

We began spending time working livestock again in the summer of 2020, and while he would stand in the roping arena with his people, he stayed far away from any horses or cattle. Little by little he began realizing he might actually like working these steers, and that maybe he even enjoyed herding them. Sure, running up to a steer to lick it might not be the most help, but I was happy to see him overcome being fearful and become interested in the cattle.

This summer he has gone from standing behind my legs barking at steers, to being (mostly) helpful herding them through pens. A few disasters have occurred, like the time he chased the steers the wrong way back out onto pasture in the pouring rain, or when he stands directly in the gate they need to walk through. He still might be most interested in sleeping the day away at my feet, but maybe by next summer, I’ll be able to have a true cow dog to work beside me.


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