Working dogs still rule the range

Roland Fowler fondly scratches the necks of Cinch and Tack, a pair of border collies he and his partner Shelley Minato use on their ranch as stock dogs. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)Roland Fowler fondly scratches the necks of Cinch and Tack, a pair of border collies he and his partner Shelley Minato use on their ranch as stock dogs. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Tack the border collie is one of two dogs that Shelley Minato currently owns and competes with in stock dog competitions. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)Tack the border collie is one of two dogs that Shelley Minato currently owns and competes with in stock dog competitions. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Peter Wells said many local border collies are descendants of his loved Bronco Murphy including Pickles, his great, great-granddaughter. (Photo submitted)Peter Wells said many local border collies are descendants of his loved Bronco Murphy including Pickles, his great, great-granddaughter. (Photo submitted)
Peter Wells’ stock dogs Matty and Trica cool off in a bucket of water together after working some cattle. (Photo submitted)Peter Wells’ stock dogs Matty and Trica cool off in a bucket of water together after working some cattle. (Photo submitted)
Peter Wells and Roland Fowler play with the puppies of Matty and Spike as the proud parents look on. (Photo submitted)Peter Wells and Roland Fowler play with the puppies of Matty and Spike as the proud parents look on. (Photo submitted)
Shelley Minato’s dog Tess herds a trio of cows during a stock dog competition at the 1999 Top Dog competition at the Williams Lake Stampede. (Shelley Minato photo)Shelley Minato’s dog Tess herds a trio of cows during a stock dog competition at the 1999 Top Dog competition at the Williams Lake Stampede. (Shelley Minato photo)

A good stock dog is more than just man’s best friend, it’s a rancher’s trusted sidekick.

A well-trained dog can help drive 100 head of cows or sheep from one field to another, said longtime rancher Peter Wells. This reliability has made good stock dogs, especially border collies with their natural instinct for herding cattle, more popular than ever.

Wells joked that part of their appeal is that they cost less than a ranch hand and don’t cause as much trouble in their off time.

“They get so well trained (they become) a complete extension of the rancher out there,” Wells, 69, said. “Compared to 20 years ago, there’s hundreds, thousands, of more dogs actually working.”

Working dogs will get their spotlight again this fall at the North Thompson Stock Dog Association’s Dogs with Jobs competition Oct. 15-16 in Barriere.

Roland Fowler knows all about the benefits of a good working dog. Over the years, he has owned several stock dogs. His favourite was Nikki, and he still keeps a photo of her by his bedside.

“I have some very fond memories of moving my herds of animals on my own with my horse and my dog, they’re a very invaluable animal to have with you,” Fowler, 70, said. “My dogs worked on their own. They knew what I wanted to do and figured it out so I guess I got lucky that way.”

While Fowler’s dogs were purely used on the range, Wells focused on training dogs for the ring.

In the 1980s, Wells bought an exceptional cow dog named Bronco Murphy. Together, the two of them embarked on the training and competitive side of stock dogs. Bronco Murphy never won any big competitions, Wells said, but the “wild show” he put on was a real crowd-pleaser.

Thanks to this notoriety, Wells was invited to organize an annual stock dog competition during the Williams Lake Stampede he dubbed Top Dog.

The event, which ran from 1992 to 2007, saw dogs enter the arena and be challenged to herd three cows into a pen within a set amount of time. The prizes were modest, usually consisting of a few hundred dollars, dog food and a belt buckle, but that wasn’t the point.

Wells said he just wanted to promote the importance and value of working dogs.

One of those competitors was Fowler’s partner Shelley Minato, who bought her border collie Tess shortly after moving to her farm near Gateway in Forest Grove. Tess was Bronco Murphy’s granddaughter. When they tested Tess at five months old she was “all business,” staring intently at nearby sheep with that “border collie eye,” Minato said.

“We went to obedience lessons and she graduated first out of 24 dogs,” Minato, 63, said.

In 1998, she and Tess won the B.C. Stock Dog Novice Cow Dog Champion. “That earned us points and respect to compete at the Top Dog event at the Williams Lake Stampede.”

The following year, they earned Top Dog billing, with full points and a time of 3:15. They competed again several times over the years before the Top Dog ended in 2007.

Fowler and Mina agree there are two different training disciplines for the ranch dog versus trial dog.

“A ranch dog thinks on its own. With a trial dog, the dog is waiting for a command,” Fowler said. “Most of the time, with border collies in particular because they’re quite enthusiastic, at trials you have to slow the dog down while at the ranch you just let that dog do its own thing.”

Minato and Wells will compete at the Dogs with Jobs competition and invite other local stock dog owners to come along, especially those with descendants of Bronco Murphy.

“We’re all pumped up about it and the timing is right for me because I have three dogs the right age with the right training who could win,” Wells said.

“We’re trying to get entries right now before the heavy hitters from Alberta and the United States get their entries in. We want this event to be as filled with as many amateur handlers from British Columbia as possible.”

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