Man has used herding dogs since the Neolithic age over 10,000 years ago. Their first job was likely to gather wild animals during hunts, making it easier for humans to dispatch the game. Dogs have been bred for thousands of years on every inhabited continent to suit local conditions and needs. Over time, certain dog types became associated with the individuals, clans, towns, or regions where they were developed. But popular breeds as we know them didn’t proliferate until the 19th century, when the class-conscious British became obsessed with recording the pedigrees of their pets and livestock.
In the late 19th century, a Northumberland man in Scotland combined several breeds to create his ideal herding dog. Lithe, athletic, and intelligent, this canine relied upon a predator’s posture and strong eye contact, rather than force, to do its job. It was ideal for handling sheep in the hilly, rocky border country dividing Scotland and England. Hence, it became known as the Border Collie. Many Scottish sheepmen accompanied sheep herds to the United States and brought these black-and-white dogs with them.
Beginning in the late 19th century and peaking in 1942, some 36 million sheep grazed the open ranges of the United States. Scotsmen certainly played their part, but the majority of foreign shepherds were of Basque origin. Border-dwellers like the Scots, Basques inhabit the Pyrenees Mountains separating southern France from northern Spain. Their bobtail dogs also came west and provided the foundation for the quintessential Western farm dog, the Australian Shepherd. This name is an historical accident, however; it comes from the fact that Basques also emigrated from Australia, often accompanying the sheep herds from Down Under.
Late 19th-century Australia
True Aussie natives, Australian Cattle Dogs are also known as Queensland Heelers, Blue Heelers, or simply as “heelers.” These dogs are generally more aggressive than Aussies or Borders. Most possess a low-heeling style well suited to balky, belligerent cattle. These feisty, smooth-coated dogs are favorites for chute work or cattle loading. They were originally used for long sheep and cattle drives, and like Border Collies, Heelers originated in the Northumberland area of Scotland. They were brought to New South Whales, Australia by a station owner, Thomas Hall, who is said to have crossed them with dingoes for stamina.
More than 25 years ago, Oklahoma cowboy Gary Ericsson visited a sheep-dog trial and came away convinced that he could come up with a tough dog that was also sensitive to commands and could guide cattle around a course. He combined several breeds to come up with the Hangin’ Tree Cowdog, named for his brand. These dogs, which vary widely in appearance, combine characteristics of the Catahoula heeler, a slick-coated bayou cattle dog, with the Border Collie, the Blue Heeler and the Australian Shepherd. Bred strictly for their working characteristics, they have found favor on many Western ranches.