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Play Dogs of the New West

Will this branch of Kelpie evolve into the Rocky Mountain Trout Dog? She’d need a Labrador’s fat for that, perhaps. Might Border Collies turn into North American Mountain Bike Dogs? Too long-haired I think. Best to go with the cur that does it all, I think. Spring that pup from the pound and grab your skis.


Ranch dogs can smell a city mouse a country mile away; real ranch dogs would love to kick Daisy’s ass. You see it when we drive by and they notice her, Little Miss Gourmet Kibble in her sissy Japanese truck. You there, with your Day-Glo yuppie bird-dog collar. Is that a Frisbee your owner has? What a sissy. Where you from—Pennsylvania? You going home to get your teeth brushed?


In fact, she is.


Bet you live in town, too.


We do.


I knew what it would mean when we picked her up at the pound. On trail runs above Kemmerer, she would run herd on pronghorn antelope, which is something like trying to herd those proverbial cats, though she would at least get them headed in any direction they wanted to go. I know she was thinking that this is why we were up there—why would anyone run all the way up Oyster Ridge just to unwind and think good thoughts?


Two years ago in Sublette County I had a working cowboy compliment my dog. “That’s a good looking Kelpie,” he said. Thanks. “She work cattle?” Naw. “Break out the Frisbee, eh.”


How did he know?


Real cow dogs are one-person animals and will go to most lengths to guard the truck and the string, including taking a hunk out of your calf if need be. They have a vital job to do and they’re going to do it, Mister, so don’t give them headaches. Real cow dogs don’t get to play; they go to work 24/7 so others can play.


With people Daisy will act demure, blink her eyes, roll on her back, jump on you inappropriately, lick your face. With other dogs, females, Daisy is a punk. Our ski friends won’t let her play with Addie, their babied Border Collie, nor Sadie, another Border Collie who downright hates Daisy and would like to kill her and has tried. More than once her owner, Marcia, and I have had to dive into the middle of a dogfight, skis still on our feet, then head back home and patch up our respective dogs over beers.


Daisy heels our neighbor’s big yellow snow blower, snapping at the chain-wrapped tires. She runs herd on mountain bikers, but males only, which, I think, most closely resemble slow-moving beeves.


She tried herding Shriners in the Jackson Hole July Fourth parade, but my wife, Hilary, put the kibosh on this in short order.


Daisy doesn’t truck with most men under cowboy hats, a handicap for canines in the cattle industry, but it works for her new career as “ski dog.” Last spring Daisy and I were skiing Beaver Mountain and came upon two snowmobiles, yellow and black, beastly colors, nature’s danger flag. Daisy heeled them—yip, yip, getalong you beasts! The riders, overweight folk, as snowmobilers often are, lifted their face shields and laughed, though sheepishly, like, that’s real cute, but what’s wrong with your dog, mister? Her vet Dr. Bob called her a ski dog on her first checkup when his assistant asked what kind of dog she was. Dr. Bob is a cowboy and was tickled that this fine specimen landed on her feet, but a bit disappointed, I think, that she’d be frittering away her days running through nose-deep powder, eating dust behind the mountain bike, and swimming through holes in the river that moments before housed fine trout. In another four hundred years, will cur genes program dogs to instinctively make dollar signs in the snow, dissecting my S turns with a straight line down the fall line? New breeds may even emerge—the Tetonic Telemarking dog—with genomes far more diverse than the inbred purebred pedigreed glamour dogs we have today.




Back to work. Today Daisy and I are headed to a couple of line cabins up the Gros Ventre River and the end of the line. My friend Tim Sandlin rents these cabins from a former governor of Wyoming. Tim is a fine novelist and I remember when I was just a kid, admiring the hell out of Tim’s books and the fact that his author photo showed him in front of such a rustic, romantic cabin. His outhouse here has cult status in the world of contemporary letters.


Jon Billman is author of When We Were Wolves. He is a former wildland firefighter and seventh-grade teacher; he now teaches at Oklahoma State University. english.okstate.edu

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