Play Dogs of the New West

She may have washed out of cow-dog school, but her new life suits her just fine.
By Jon Billman, February 2009

My cow dog Daisy and I are going to work. We’re eating goldfish crackers—two for me, one for you—in my pickup truck and howling Buck Owens and Merle Haggard ballads off the tape deck, when we come across a broken pickup 39 miles down 40 miles of bad road. Old blue-and-rust Chevy. Open hood, pair of boots sticking out from underneath. Four tires bald as apples, three with air. I roll the window down and I can smell that they haven’t had a shower for weeks.

 

South Dakota plates, they may be horse thieves, but friendly enough. The guy under the truck doesn’t say much while the upright waddie speaks through the two front teeth he has left. “We’ve got 120 head a beef up Crystal Creek. Forty horses. Some not worth a bullet, but some’s ok. Most ain’t broke.” He leans over to inspect for progress. “Been out for a month. Going into town for a shower and a couple beers.”

 

“Got what you need?” I say.

 

“We ain’t got nothing but a screw jack and no handle.”

 

This waddie regards me as a yuppie and not to be relied on. I’m wearing a sun visor, the kind an amateur tennis player might wear. Hiking shorts, and some après-ski slip-ons popular with the lodge set, which isn’t very smart considering the air force of mosquitoes and rocky tire-changing terrain. Sporting a coffee-stained T-shirt that reads something about a ski company. These punchers take me for the tourist I am, but this tourist has a jack. “I’ve got a bottle jack,” I tell him. I pull over and rustle for the jack under the jump seat. Then I piece the handle together and reach it to the one under the truck. The jack is, embarrassingly, almost brand-new, though I have replaced a few tires on this very road. My tires happen to be brand-new as well, compliments of the Firestone recall. My truck is a little Japanese outfit that is never asked to haul anything more than a mountain bike or a canoe. These hands know my income doesn’t come from cows and they may suspect a trust fund, which isn’t accurate.

 

Daisy stays in the safety of the truck cab. A guy on horseback gaits by, checking cattle, two rangy Border Collies tailing behind, running in and out of the sagebrush. Daisy barks at them through the window. What a sissy, the ranch dogs must think. She can’t even ride in the back of a truck, has to stay up front with the organic dog cookies and air conditioning. Cow dogs, I think, have the most expressive eyes of any breed, and I see it in her brown pair—she hankers for the working cow-dog life.

 

Make it me, Daisy’s whines say. Her bat ears perk up, those eyes go wide. I want to be a cowgirl, I want to cut calves and keep coyotes at bay. I was wired to be in the front row at brandings and sheep dockings. I can surf a two-story rick of hay. For her it is an atavistic need. I had unrequited dreams, too: I always wanted to be a pro ball player but wasn’t nearly good enough. So I try to explain to Daisy that she is with me, and a play dog, because she wasn’t very good at working cows. They docked her tail, turned her out, and didn’t perform up to snuff, flunked the tryout, was cut from the squad. I’m pretty sure she’d been abused; she still doesn’t like tall men in cowboy hats. Most of the ranchers I know don’t keep pets.

 

Dogs and wolves, researchers believe, diverged from a common ancestor around 135,000 years ago, domesticated 100,000 years ago. For the past thousand years, breeding has focused canines to perform specific work. In Wyoming, where we live, work means working cattle. Ain’t much use for a dog who don’t work cattle. (As I write this, a pickup truck with hay stacked two stories high rolls by, a pair of Blue Heelers surfing on top, guarding the stuff that’s worth more than gold in this, the third year of severe drought.) Daisy, and a passel of doggies just like her, doesn’t work cattle. She’s a dog of the New West, accustomed to mountain bike trail drives instead of cattle drives, wool ski hats instead of herds of sheep. She’s at home with her canine friends on the deck at the brew pub, or with me, angling for trout.

 

But that makes me wonder—what happens to a Cattle Dog that doesn’t work cattle? How does such a dog evolve?

 

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.

 

Tim paid his dues in order to live here; he lived in a teepee and washed dishes at the Lame Duck for years until he could finally afford to buy a place. Tim’s is the biggest heart in all of Teton County and he allows us—me, Daisy, Hilary—to use these cabins whenever we please (just be sure to close the gate). This week, however, many people with the dubious occupation title of “writer” will show up.

 

Daisy and I will commute the hour each way into town in the morning for the dreaded writer’s conference, and back each afternoon to watch the stars, contemplate our place in the world, and listen to the coyotes. Tim, the founder of this conference, is in charge, and he allows his B-team writers to stay out here while everyone else, the A-team, is off wining and dining. There are writers who have been on Oprah. I have never seen the Oprah show, so I was banished to the line shacks. Fine by me and Daisy. These conferences are exhausting and don’t pay squat unless you’re a “star,” but we do them because Tim asked and we get to stay in this amazing place and there are good bars and restaurants in town and we can catch up with our drinking and eating. Daisy’s main job here at the conference is to not, under any circumstances, heel any Pulitzer Prize winners.

 

Daisy loves this place. Last time we were here—last fall—there was a wonderful dead cow, bloated to twice normal size, in the front “yard” of the cabins, mostly bunchgrass and rabbitbrush, so close I could spit and bounce a sunflower seed hull off its belly. Daisy went straight for the hocks. The smell was insufferable for us, divine to Daisy. She barked, Git up cow, you’re hitting the trail—git up! Remember, a thousand years of genetic programming informs her it’s her job.

 

One morning some hands rumbled up in an old four-wheel-drive pickup. They chained the dead cow’s legs to the bumper of the truck and drove off. Opposing wheels dug into the dirt and then—pop—off came the beef’s front legs. Dead cow juice flew into the air. Daisy was beside herself, inside the cabin, trying to shoot through the fly screen using her head as a battering ram. All her circuits were telling her to go, full throttle, that there was bovine business being done, carnivorous possibilities, and she was part of the larger plan, if only to cover herself in dead cow and take some of it back to town to share the tale with buddies.

 

The temperature rose and the cow bloated even more. Or seemed to anyway if you count the smell’s effects on my imagination. The hands came back in the afternoon, full-on sun, with a come-along and winched the carcass into the back of a truck. Took it down toward the river and dumped it for the coyotes and buzzards.

 

****

 

I let Daisy out of the truck and she makes a beeline to the grave, which is a stone’s throw from the Gros Ventres River. Daisy rolls on her back, trying to absorb any dead-cow scent that might still be there. Then we fish.

 

Later Daisy and I eat chicken. It’s our meal together. Hilary is not here—we have grease up to our elbows. We giggle and chew, belch and fart. I even give the love of my life a thimbleful of beer to wash down the bird. Hilary calls these trips “stealing away with my girlfriend.” And in a way, it’s true, given the way Daisy first flirted with me at the pound. We named her Daisy after Daisy Fuentes. But I tell everyone at these writers’ conferences that she’s named after Daisy Buchanan, the great love of Jay Gatsby. We leave the bones for the magpies. Daisy has chicken farts. Tomorrow there will be a party of writers here. And dogs.

 

****

 

Todd, a geriatric Corgi, got his collar hung in the willows of the creek we named Daisy Creek because no one else had taken the initiative to name it something else. Steve, local seller of fine books, jumped in like a Marine—“Semper Fi!”—and untangled the old dog very shortly before he would have drowned. A toast to Steve! Roxy is here, Tim and Carol’s Australian who doesn’t give eight eggs for Daisy’s juvenile antics. Bluebell the cowpie-eating Poodle. Oakley, the rich-kid papered Golden Retriever puppy named after the expensive sunglasses; Daisy would periodically roll Oakley for measure, letting him know who was in charge of this camp. And Daisy’s favorite, Abbey, a  cow dog/Labrador puppy that could be Daisy’s sister, only with her long black tail intact. She is a ski/trail running dog from the Driggs, Idaho, pound. The two of them, a brace of bat-eared hellcat, ripped through the crowd and barbecued beans, upending bottles of beer and knocking over children in a less-graceful canine impression of a Shriner’s circus. As I watched this posse of New West dogs I realized that these nonworking “working dogs” (as they are called at Westminster) did not lose their sand after we stole them away from the ranches that are becoming fewer by the year; they very easily turned into “play dogs,” a class not yet recognized by the kennel clubs. Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ll argue that play dogs with cow dog blood in them—Heelers, Shepherds, Kelpies, Collies—play harder than the ubiquitous Huskies, Labs and lap dogs.

 

This lasted three beers long, when the dogs both collapsed, Abbey having to be carried to the car by her owner, Carrie, a Jackson Hole outdoor athlete and purveyor of bagels. None of the dogs harassed the Pulitzer Prize winner. Count it a good night and a job well done.

 

****

 

Daisy and I don’t use the outhouse to whiz. I pee in the weeds. Beside me, Daisy pees in the weeds. Peeing, we look at each other in the light of the quarter moon. There is an understanding: We are lucky to be here, under the stars, at elevation, with the birds and bats and mosquitoes. I am not a baseball player. You are not sorting cattle on a working ranch. We are lucky just to be here, peeing in the weeds. Tomorrow we’ll go fishing.

 


This story appears in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown.
© Jon Billman.

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.