Cowdogs are this Mobridge cattleman’s go-to ranch hands
Man’s best friend can also be their best assistant. Mobridge ranch manager, David Dagley relies on a team of trained cowdogs to help him manage cattle on the 10,000-acre AC Land and Cattle ranch. He also trains his own cowdogs for competitions and for other ranchers.
That’s Mobridge rancher David Dagley moving a group of bulls with his cowdog, Annie.
Before the AC Land and Cattle manager enlisted Annie’s help, the cowboy says moving cattle used to be quite a chore.
“Oftentimes we needed two to three people on four-wheelers or horseback …There were times I did not have much help and I was out there trying to move a few hundred head of cattle by myself and trying to be everywhere at once and having a hard time,” David says.
Annie is a Hangin Tree Cowdog trained by David to move cattle based on voice commands and hand signals. The Hangin Tree Cowdog is a registered breed named for the ranch where it was developed. A composite of Border Collie, Catahoula, Kelpie and Australian Shepherd, Annie is a medium-sized, muscular canine with intelligent eyes.
“I was quickly amazed by her working drive and her ability to work long-range and independently…. There’s times I will be taking cattle down a long alleyway, fence on either side, I can send that dog around to the right or left and just duck the fence - horse and rider could not get through it, they would have to look for a gate,” David says.
The AC Land and Cattle ranch covers more than 10,000 acres. And to best manage the native grasslands for forage to feed the more than 500-head of cattle he is responsible for, David implements rotational grazing practices. This means moving cattle about every two to three days during the growing season.
On this September afternoon David and Annie are moving bulls to a fresh grass. David stands at the top of a hill, calmly shouting commands, while Annie, swiftly responds. She races around the bulls, running up draws and over rangeland, gathering them up and guiding them into the next pasture.
“I use a lot of commands, probably 20 or more … If you have your cattle as the center of the clock, and I say “come bye” the dog is supposed to circle clockwise around the cattle. Or if I say “away to me” the dog will circle counterclockwise,” David says.
Along with commands and signals, Annie’s keen sense of smell means she is able to collect cattle David can’t even see. And the bulls’ response to Annie is as calm as David’s commands. David says that when he brought Annie to the ranch, he needed to “dog break” the herd. He did this by introducing her to the cattle in a controlled environment. He says this is a relatively simple process, but one a rancher should not overlook.
“The dog can teach the cattle to respect it,”
Annie became David’s number one ranchhand four years ago. He found her after months of online research focused on how-to train a cowdog and the best breed of cowdog to fit his needs.
“What started out as looking for ranch help, turned into raising cowdogs of our own. I’ve trained a number of Hangin Tree cowdogs. I’ve got to look for different working styles, and it has allowed me to select breeding dogs for what works good for our operation,” David says.
Starting when a puppy is about two months old, training a cowdog is a daily task. It takes about five months before the puppies are ready to be introduced to small livestock. The Dagley cowdogs are introduced to cattle as early as nine months.
When it comes to raising and training cowdogs, David has plenty of help. His wife, Susanna and their three homeschooled children: Hadassah, Clementine and Ephraim all pitch in.
It’s fun and I like feeling like I can get stuff done, like moving the cows by myself,” Clementine says.
Clementine is 12 and she is responsible for puppy chores, daily feedings and keeping their pen clean. Clementine and her younger brother, Ephraim help with cowdog training – the siblings and their dad also train their cowdogs to compete. Their sister Hadassah and mom, Susanna do not compete, but they help the others get ready for competitions. It’s a process that mom, Susanna enjoys.
“I learned just enough to know it is a lot harder than it looks, and so it is amazing for me to watch how David can communicate with the dogs and it’s like having tried it, I know he has a special gift for that and it’s amazing for me to watch him and the kids do that,” Susanna says.
During the competition, cowdogs and their trainer are judged on how well they move a group of cattle through a course. The course is designed to highlight many tasks the Dagley’s cowdogs are expected to accomplish during a typical ranch workday – like penning cattle, guarding a gate, running them through a gate and loading them onto a trailer.
David and Annie entered their first competition in 2018 and were named champions in the Novice Division. He says that like herding cattle, Annie enjoys the competition as much as he does.
“These dogs are extremely athletic they have incredible endurance, they can go all day long, in fact, I can move cattle, tell them, “that’ll do” and I have to keep an eye on them sometimes, because they will sneak off and go right back to work,” David says.
The Dagley’s cowdogs not only help with work on the ranch where they live, but the family also raises dogs for other ranchers.
To learn more about the Dagley family and Hangin Tree Cowdogs: