Our McNabs

Posted July 13th, 2009 — Filed in Stockdogs

Melanie Leigh-Deux, who is working on a project towards “Preserving the Working History of the Original McNab Dogs in California” asked Bud and I to give her our recollections of the McNab dogs we have known.  Following is the information we sent to her.

Probably the first McNab Shepherds Bud and I came in contact with were in 1957 when we went to work for the Lone Pine Ranch near Covelo, California. Stanford Short was the foreman at that time. He and Allan Jamison, who also worked there, had some excellent McNabs. These dogs were foolproof at going to the lead. They would not only bring the cattle they could see, but they would check scent to be sure there weren’t cattle ahead that they couldn’t see. The cattle were horned Herefords and were not gentle. It took a dog with a lot of strength to handle them, and these dogs certainly had that. They could stop 200 head of cattle running at full speed down the mountain and bring them back. If a 300-400 pound calf broke back with three or four McNabs after it, the cowboys were in hot pursuit to keep the dogs from killing the calf.

Dean Witter, the owner of Lone Pine, imported several solid red Kelpies. These were crossed with the McNabs, and some very good dogs resulted. These cross-bred dogs were all black with very little white on them. However, little concern was given to breeding a McNab to a McNab. The only consideration was to breed a good working bitch to a good working dog, no matter what they looked like. At this time, in Northern California, a “McNab” was any short-haired stock dog that had a very strong go-to-the-lead instinct. They had no “eye” and were very tough and strong willed. They were not “yappy” dogs, but they did bark when they were working. This was often the only way the rancher could find the dogs when they had cattle held up in an area where the dogs couldn’t bring them back. Most of the ranchers would let their dogs “run” when they were starting to gather an area. They were proud of their dogs that would “hunt cattle.” When the riders heard them barking, they would go to them and take charge of the cattle. Some of the ranchers who had a little more control of their dogs would keep them with them until they saw fresh tracks or saw the tail-end of a cow going over the ridge.

Few people raised dogs to sell. A rancher would breed a bitch because he wanted a pup or two for himself and would give the excess to people he knew. We paid $5 for a pup in about 1960. Buck turned out to be the best dog we have ever seen at gathering wild sheep in rough country. Around this time we bought several “started” dogs for around $50. When I say started, I mean they were old enough to start to work, and we were able to see that they had interest and instinct when they were around stock, not that they had any training. We knew of a few dogs that sold for as high as $200, but this was rare since the good dogs were not usually for sale.

These McNabs came in all sizes and colors. though they were predominately black with white points. When you consider that before the days of horse trailers, the dogs had to follow a horse for two or three hours before you even got to the cattle, work all day, then have a two or three hour trip back home, and since all of this was in the mountains, natural selection resulted in a medium sized, fairly rangy dog with very good feet.

These dogs were worked by ranchers who needed this kind of dog to gather cattle in rough country. These men were not dog trainers. Their dogs had to have a lot of desire and instinct to go to the lead and either bring cattle back or hold them until the rider could get there. Some of the ranchers could call their dogs off so the men could drive the cattle, but it was more common for him to carry a pocket full of rocks to get the dogs off of the stock. Under no circumstances were the dogs encouraged to drive since they felt this would make them undependable to go to the lead.

Our first McNab was a black and white male named Ringo that was given to us by the owner of a little store near the Lone Pine Ranch. Ringo was about nine months old when we got him. He was a pretty good kind of dog, especially when you consider our inexperience and the “help” of a Border Collie that had been loaned to us. Blaze, the Border Collie, did not like to work with a pup, but he knew better than to fight him. It took us a couple of weeks to get wise to what was going on. When we sent them, Blaze would hang back and let Ringo go in the lead, then Blaze would run by and hit Ringo with his shoulder just right to send him rolling. Even though Blaze knew better than to chase deer, he would take out after one for just a few yards until Ringo started chasing it, then he would drop in behind the horses, all innocence. Of course the pup would either get a whippin’ or he would get lost from us and go back home. When we finally realized what Blaze was doing and had a “firm talk with him” they learned to work well together. When we left Lone Pine Ranch, we gave Ringo to Lawrence Hurt in Covelo, CA. As well as running cattle, Lawrence would turn out sows with little pigs on his ranch in the spring and gather them in the fall after they had fattened on acorns. He said Ringo turned out to be an excellent hog dog.

Bud loves to work a pup. As soon as a dog gets to the point to where he is a consistent worker, Bud is ready to trade him off. We had some pretty heated arguments about this early in our married life. The logic that made me finally agree was “If we don’t get rid of any, we can’t get any new dogs or raise any more pups.” At that time we would take any dog of stockdog breeding that was old enough to go to work. We knew a lot of ranchers around the country, and they would bring us their rejects instead of taking them to the pound. Many of our best dogs come to us this way. Bud especially liked a “runnin’ dog” and would trade a trained dog for two youngsters that were hard to catch.


Bootie

Baldy

Dot, also out of Bootie

In 1959 we went to work for McBride Ranches headquartered near Eureka, California. We lambed out sheep for them at Southmaid, Spicy Breezes, and Dublin Heights. These ranches were within sight of the ocean near Cape Mendocino. Our number one sheep dog at the time was a McNab male we called Baldy. We paid $50 for him when he was about a year old. He was a “picture perfect” McNab except for his white head. We later bought his mother, Bootie, who was black with a small blaze and limited white points. No matter what she was bred to, she always threw pups with a lot of white on their heads. Baldy and Bootie came from George Gravier who owned a couple of stores and a ranch in Covelo, CA. Baldy was a very fast, wide going dog. He was wonderful in big country on large bunches of sheep. We always had a Border Collie for close work and small groups of wild sheep.

When we came home from working, Bud would tell Baldy to “Go to the barn.” We left the sliding door open wide enough for him to go in and out. There was a water trough just outside the door. In the morning from the house, we could see him looking out the door. Bud would holler “OK.” and Baldy would come out and drink and drink. We didn’t imagine that he wouldn’t come out in the night to drink. We had to put a bucket of water in the barn for him.

When it was time to mark the lambs on Southmaid, Charlie Larsen, one of the McBride Ranch foremen, and several others came to help us gather. Charlie always had good dogs, but he had just lost his trained dogs to a Lepto (I think) outbreak. We had a very difficult place to put the sheep into the corral. Of course we know better now, but back then we ended up with 800 ewes in the lead and at least 200 lambs on the back end. We had dismounted and tied our horses along the fence and were attempting to get the sheep into the corral. Charlie just had a couple of pups with him that weren’t much help. Often a bunch of lambs would break and Baldy would bring them back. Jimmy Collins, manager of another of McBride’s ranches said, “Can you make Baldy Bark?” Bud would clap his hands and Baldy would bark, and we were making good progress at getting the sheep in. Charlie was pretty frustrated with his pups and made the comment that “That damned barking dog is getting my pups all excited and causing them to run wild.” Bud quietly told Baldy to “Go to the horse.” It took us another couple of hours to get the sheep into the corral. A bunch of lambs would break back and run right by Baldy and the horses but he wouldn’t even look up. Bud was young and he has always been a great walker, so he didn’t mind having to run back on foot to bring the lambs back. Charlie and Jimmy were older and were pretty pooped by the time we had the sheep in the corral. Later a friend told us that Charlie had said “Bud is a pretty good hand, but you’d better not say anything bad about his dog!”


Tippy

Another McNab we had at McBride Ranch was a black and white male we called Tippy. Tippy was given to us by Lawrence Hurt (who got him from John Rohrbough, Covelo, CA) when he was about a year old, probably because he didn’t have enough force to work cattle. Tippy was a natural lead-dog. The sheep loved to follow him, and he could take them just where you wanted.

In 1962 we went to work for the Wiggins Ranch near Korbel, CA. As we were moving in, I noticed a yellow McNab bitch with a litter of 14 pups in a pen. The pups were 5 or 6 weeks old and pestering her something fierce. Before I unloaded our car I went over and set a little table into her pen. She gratefully hopped up on it. This bitch was named Dinah and was from a line of dogs bred by Doug Lane. Dinah had a reputation for throwing good working dogs. We worked several pups from this litter and liked them a lot.

You asked if we knew anything about crossing McNabs with coyotes? No, I haven’t heard of that. We have known coyotes luring dogs away from the ranch buildings, but they always killed them. Personally, I have my doubts they would breed. I can understand where people might get the idea, though. In Dinah’s litter of 14, most of them were black and white, but there were a couple of brindles and a couple of yellow pups. The black/white pups and the brindle pups were normal acting, while the yellow pups were more wild and sneaky acting. Not that they didn’t make good cowdogs, but they definitely had a different mentality. We later found that same disposition in the other yellow McNabs that we came in contact with.

Lloyd Gillespie, the manager of the Wiggins Ranch, asked Bud to get rid of several dogs that were at the ranch. One of these was a black and white McNab named Top. He was about five years old and was seldom let off the chain because he was so hard to handle. Bud convinced Lloyd to let him work with Top, and they got along very well together. Top was one of Dinah’s pups and would have to be classed as one of the five best cowdogs that we have ever worked.

We had both sheep and cattle on the Wiggins Ranch. The best dog we have ever had or seen on wild sheep was a black and tan McNab we called Buck. We had heard that a ranch near Garberville, CA had some dogs for sale. When we arrived there was only a young boy at home. He said he didn’t know anything about the older dogs that were for sale, but they had some six-week old pups for $5. We looked them over and decided on a black and white pup. The boy said, “I wouldn’t take that one if I were you.” Bud said, “What pup would you choose?” “I’d take that black and tan one. He looks just like his daddy, and his daddy is the best sheep dog in the country.” If Buck’s daddy was as good as his son, he probably was the best sheep dog in the country.

When we first went to work on the Wiggins Ranch, Bud and Buck brought in over 200 head of long-tailed woolies that were over two years old. We didn’t count the yearlings. A long-tailed sheep was a sure sign that it had never been in the corral, and some of these were considerably older than two. When we would see a group of these sheep and tell Buck to go, he would look things all over, and maybe start out away from them. Perhaps he would use a draw or brush to hide himself until he could get into position. We would see him peek up over a hill, and if he didn’t think he was in the right place, he would drop back, and the next time we saw him he was in the right place. Then he would ease out just until the sheep saw him. He would wait until they ran together and calmed a bit, then he would start working them. I never saw sheep split up on him after he “grew up.” If the sheep stopped, and he stopped, waiting for the right time to pressure, and you tried to encourage him to walk up, he would maybe stand up (he would often sit while working, but never lie down), or take a step towards them, if he didn’t like the way they responded, and if you insisted that he “bring them on,” he would back off, swing way around and come back to you as if to say, “I know they aren’t ready to be pressured. If you want to split them up, you do it.” He could be a nuisance when we had a big bunch ready to go into the corral. He hated to have his sheep run, and they will often speed up when they go through the gate. If you weren’t watching him, he would be up working the lead to slow them down.

One day we were gathering a large pasture with about 800 ewes and lambs in it. This was country that included a lot of timber and logged over ground. We could see from a long way back that the sheep had taken the wrong fork in the trail so Bud sent Buck. By the time we got to the fork, the sheep were going the right way, but we couldn’t see the dog. This wasn’t too unusual since our dogs are expected to “stay on the stock” and not necessarily come back after turning them. When we got into the open country, we could see that Buck wasn’t with them. We called several times, but finally took the sheep on to the corral. We even went home to see if Buck was there. Bud finally went back to where he had last seen him and tracked him and about 50 sheep down into a rough canyon where there was a lot of down timber. Buck had them all under control, but he didn’t know how to get them through the maze to bring them back to us. This was over two hours later. He wouldn’t have had any trouble hearing us call him, but he wouldn’t leave his sheep. He was sure happy to see Bud, though.

In 1977 we were working for John Ford on the Diamond H Ranch in Covelo, CA. We continued to take other people’s rejected cowdogs. Audrey Rohrbough gave us a two-year-old McNab bitch named Lady. She said Lady worked pretty well, but when it was time to load up and go home, no one could catch her. They usually wound up leaving the truck door open, and eventually, since she liked to ride, she would jump into the truck. Anyway, when they unloaded her at our house (on a leash, of course) they told us to keep her tied for at least a week so she would get to know us and give us a better chance of catching her when the time came, etc., etc.

As Audrey was driving off, I asked Bud, “Are you going to let her get out of sight before you turn Lady loose?” We had a bunch of about 100 yearlings within sight of the house. As soon as we were sure Audrey was gone, Bud turned Lady loose and started walking towards the cattle. Lady soon saw them, went around and started bringing them towards him on the run. When the cattle went past she went for the lead and brought them back again. After a time or two she and the cattle had the edge off, and Lady was content to work them towards Bud at a more sedate pace. She knew that if she pushed them past him she was going to have to go stop them again. After about a half hour of her bringing the cattle along behind, she came around the corner and gave every indication that she would come if Bud would just call her, but instead he told her to “get back” pretty gruffly. They worked for another 15 minutes or so with him telling her to “get back” every time she “asked” to come in. Finally, when she indicated that she really wanted to come Bud just said, “Come here, Lady”, and she ran right to him. He made over her and told her how wonderful she was. From that day, anyone could work her and call her in at any time.


Jack and Strip on the barge


Strip helping unload sheep off a barge

In 1978 we took a job for Terry Miller on Umnak Island, Alaska. We took two McNabs with us, Strip and Pepper, as well as Amy, a Border Collie pup. Our job was to gather cattle and sheep that had been abandoned on Umnak about five years. Before the previous owners had left the island, they had butchered everything they could get into the corral. The only animals left were the outlaws and their descendents. Bud had been out with his dogs gathering stock when one of the other people who lived on the island drove up. They had been hunting reindeer and hadn’t had any luck. Andy asked Bud if he thought he could get one since they really needed the meat. This country is very open, with just a bit of a gentle roll to it. They could see a herd of deer a long way off. Bud took Andy’s gun, left his horse at the pickup and started off towards the reindeer. Strip and Pepper went with him. As he got closer to the reindeer Bud crouched down and was careful to use the little hill to hide him from the deer. He said he never gave a thought to the dogs until he got quite close, and was thinking that he should have tied them up at the pickup. He looked around to see them “crawling” along behind. When Bud got right down on his belly to work up to where he could get a shot, both dogs hugged the ground and stayed right where they were. Bud shot two deer. He said neither dog moved until he stood up and started walking normally toward the down animals. These were just two “pick up” dogs we had only had for about three months. They had never been taught to stay, and as far as we knew, they had never seen a gun before. They were taking their cue entirely from watching Bud and figuring things out for themselves.


Jack


Strip working sheep

Terry Miller bought some Hereford-Scottish Highlander cross cattle that had been abandoned about 20 years before on Simeonoff Island. Except for an occasional fisherman, most of these cattle had never seen a man. They were quite different from the Umnak cattle that were not only wild, but spoiled, too and only had one thing in mind and that was to get away. The Simeonoff cattle had never seen anything they were afraid of. The only predators on the island were eagles and a small gray fox. These cattle were . . . . . . . different, but with the help of Strip and Pepper and another McNab, Jack, that came from Richie Hunt in Arcata, CA, we were able to gather and ship three barge loads of bulls to the slaughter house.


Jack and Strip

In 1979 we were hired by NANA, an Eskimo Corporation, to gather their reindeer and gentle them down so they could herd them year ‘round. In the winter, when everything was frozen, they could use snow machines to more or less keep the deer where they wanted them. As soon as things thawed in the spring, they totally lost control. There were about 8,000 head of reindeer on five million unfenced acres. We bought two McNabs, Duke and Zap, from Doug Lane who was living near Orick, California at the time (Doug later shipped us another McNab, Rowdy).


Duke, Rowdy and Dolly

Wolves are a constant threat to the reindeer, and as far as they were concerned, our dogs were wolves. The first day Bud took Rowdy with him to one of the reindeer herds, he rode on his lap on the snow machine. About 1,500 deer were quietly feeding on top of an open ridge. As soon as the dog jumped off the snow machine they were gone! Bud took out after them and finally got them stopped in about five miles, then went back for Rowdy, who was trying his best to keep up but was at least a mile behind. Bud loaded him back up on the snow machine and went through the exact same procedure several more times before the deer calmed down enough to even let the dog start to do anything with them.


Rowdy and Zap on the sled


Rowdy and Zap on the Sno-Go with Bud

Rowdy came from Northern California where, because of the many deer on the cattle ranges, the first thing a rancher will do is break their dogs from chasing deer. When Bud finally got the reindeer calmed down enough that he could attempt to put the dog around them, he discovered another problem! When he sent Rowdy the dog went just perfect, but he was looking for cattle. When he couldn’t find any he looked back at Bud for directions. When Bud indicated the deer, Rowdy couldn’t believe it. He finally tucked his tail and came back as much as to say “You can’t trick me into doing something I know I’ll get in trouble for.” Bud had to come back to camp and get Zap, a big, rambunctious pup that had never been to stock, and took him up with Rowdy. When Zap saw the reindeer he ran right through the middle of them, barking and having a lot of fun. Bud kept moving around the herd with Rowdy telling him “good-dog” until he finally got the idea that it was OK for him to go. We have often taken a trained dog with a pup to get the pup started working, but this was the first time Bud ever had to take a pup out to get the trained dog to work.


Zap and Rowdy


Rowdy and Fly

I doubt if there is a stock-dog alive that can outrun a reindeer. We’ve sent dogs to get ahead of what I thought were running reindeer. If the dogs do things right and swing out very wide they could stop them and bring them back with no trouble, but just let the dog start cutting in too soon and the reindeer will turn on the afterburners and leave them in the dust like the Roadrunner in the cartoons. As soon as the reindeer loose their initial fear of a dog, they work very well for them. The intention of NANA was to reintroduce their people to herding the reindeer year around, however they didn’t take into account that people don’t want to live in camps and follow the herd in this day and age.

In 1990 we went to work for Vee Tee Feeders near Lloydminster, Alberta. Among other things, Richie Davies wanted Bud to buy them some stockdogs and teach them how to use them. This is when we realized that the McNabs that we had used and loved were nowhere to be found. The ranchers that we knew in Northern California, that we had always been able to get good dogs from, have passed their places over to the next generation. The old folks told us “There aren’t any good dogs left anymore.” We have bought several pups from various advertisements for McNabs, but were very disappointed in them. Bud came in one day lamenting the fact that it had been 20 years since he had started a pup that could/would put cattle through the fence.

Times change . . .. Now days they run cattle in the open country that they can get to with a 4-wheeler and a feed sack, and don’t even use the rough ranges any more. The people who use dogs do so because they want to, not because they have to. This kind of person is more interested in a dog that is easy to control, even if they sacrifice the strong desire that seems to go hand in hand with being hard-headed.