When I adopted Maybelle, a Cattle Dog mix, I thought I knew what I was in for. I grew up with German Shepherds, and my friend has a Border Collie. In other words, I’m familiar with too-smart-for-their-own-good herding breeds. And while Maybelle is generally more laid back than your average Cattle Dog — thanks to the hound side of her heritage — I quickly started to realize that not all herding breeds are created equal. I started scouring the Internet for information about this most Australian of dogs, but some of the best insight I got into my dog came from unexpected sources.
At the end of September, I attended the Common Ground Fair in Maine, where one of the most popular attractions is a sheepdog demonstration. I watched with deep fascination as a team of Border Collies moved sheep, goats, and ducks around the field. The farmer explained that he chose to use Border Collies because they work silently — as opposed to many of the other breeds — which is important when you’re moving hundreds of sheep through small New England towns in the wee hours of the morning.
A bell went off in my head. For years I’ve been assuring people that when Maybelle barks at their dogs it isn’t aggression, it’s a misplaced herding behavior. In the absence of livestock, she will settle for an amped-up Labrador who needs to be told what to do — or pretty much any dog who is ball-obsessed. (This is why we no longer go to the dog park.)
But to be honest, I often wondered if I was just making excuses for her. After all, there are some dogs she zeroes in on right away and won’t let up on. Is she just a bully? When this farmer pointed out that other herding dogs — especially Cattle Dogs — are more vocal, I realized I’d been right all along. It wasn’t exactly model dog behavior — and believe me, I’d love to be able to get her to just chill out and leave the Labs to their balls — but she came by it honestly.
Last summer, I picked up A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans (which I highly recommend for all dog lovers), a story about a social wolf who befriended the people and dogs of Juneau, Alaska. Jans had a ringside seat to the lupine spectacle, as Romeo greeted hikers on the lake behind his house. He also had two Labs and a Cattle Dog. One of the Labs barely took note of the wolf, and the other befriended him. The Cattle Dog was a different story.
I won’t ruin the story, but as someone who often finds herself thinking, “If we ever run into a bear on a hike, this dog is going to get us both killed,” everything about the encounter rang true to me. When Jans described the difference between the two breeds, another bell went off in my head.
Labs have been bred for generations to be able to walk into a duck blind and immediately get along with whichever other dog might be in there. Cattle dogs, on the other hand, were bred to move animals that outweigh them by hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds across the Australian outback, and protect the herd from interlopers. They have a reputation for being territorial and not always dog-friendly. In other words, Maybelle’s leash reactivity is no surprise — and, in fact, is a relatively low-level manifestation of a common breed trait (and I may never be able to totally train it out of her).
We all expect to learn from the experts we seek help from: trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, sometimes the non-experts are just as informative.
Have you learned more about your dog’s breed — or breeds — from an unexpected source? Please share your experiences in the comments.
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About the author: Theresa Cramer is a journalist and editor by trade, an NPR addict, and an avid gardener. She blogs at Writer on the Prowl, where you will find pictures of her garden, her pets, and musings about whatever is on her mind. She is working on a book about content marketing and how to make the transition from journalist to brand journalist.