The original article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Stockdogs. This writing has been very slightly edited by the author.
History of the Slash V Australian Shepherds
by Terry Martin
How long does it take to establish a “line” of dogs? A bloodline should be established for a purpose and definite characteristics prioritized, but this can only develop over time. The more years of experience with the dogs, the more a person becomes aware of the hereditary nature of the traits they are striving for. Some traits become more important and others less as more and more is learned. Personal preferences and occasionally a “favorite” will influence any breeder and have an impact on what is to become an established line of dogs.
I am not sure just when I really felt that I was breeding my own line and not simply using the results of others who came before me. I know it was many generations from the bitch I now consider my foundation and whose great great great great granddaughter is now in our breeding program. To me, the best thing about what I have done is this: If I were to come up with a bitch exactly like Martin’s Red Fudge, that first little red merle whelped in 1972, I would feel I was right on track. I don’t feel my primary goal is to improve on what I had back then. Instead am trying to preserve it.
Martin's Red Fudge
It began on the Slash V Ranch in Rifle, Colorado in 1963 when we decided we needed a cow dog. We purchased a little black female Australian Shepherd from Mrs. Bernard Ely in Littleton, Colorado. “Lady” (pictured at right) arrived on the train in a little wooden vegetable crate with the top nailed back on. She grew into a sweet dog but not as strong on cattle as we had hoped. Next came a bit of that thing called luck that often is present for success. A friend gave us a black male. “Kid” was an experienced ranch dog who unfortunately disappeared every time his owner was out of town, and they were afraid one day he would never return. The dog was amazing and introduced us to the value of using a stockdog. He changed my life and started me down a long path with Australian Shepherds; a life which includes the best human friends I’ve had and so many wonderful dogs. Kid would load calves into a chute by himself, work pastures, and do anything we ever asked him to do. So many times he was just there in the right place at the right time and doing things no hired man could have done. We would wonder, “How did he know to do that?” We bred him once a year to Lady and sold the puppies for a whopping $25. Their offspring were an important part of daily life for many a local rancher. Interesting that at the time we never gave much thought to the fact we were breeding an outstanding dog to a bitch whose working instinct was limited. I realize now what an outstanding sire he must have been.
Martin's Sunny Lucky Lady
My first Aussie purchased in 1963 from Mrs. Bernard Ely
The Slash V (which was our cattle brand and is the letter V, not a five!) as an Australian Shepherd bloodline had its real origin in 1969, about six years after the purchase of our first Australian Shepherd. Our present bloodlines trace their origin to a little blue daughter of Taylor’s Whiskey and Taylor’s Buena named Martin’s Josie. Josie was accidentally bred by her brother, Martin’s Tim Tim and the resulting litter produced my first red merle (very rare back then), Martin’s Red Fudge. It also produced my son, Randy’s, beloved Buster Brown Shoe. Fudge was a little heeling dog only 18” tall but tough as nails. She would not go to a head, but would bite one if a cow turned on her. Our operation was strictly cow/calf, and calves were sold at weaning. Our
dogs day to day experience was working grown cows. In those days the ranchers who called only wanted heeling dogs, and I virtually never had a call for a head dog. I remember one call regarding a pup I had sold where the rancher told me, “the SOB kept running to the head and turning them away from the gate so I just shot him.” There was no understanding at that time in that part of the country of how to work a head or fetch dog. Most people were working range cows, and they needed a dog to help push cattle. The theory prevailing then was that if a cow ran off from the herd, she would come back if the dog went after her whether he went to the head or heels. It generally worked.
From the beginning I didn’t read any books or talk to a lot of people about how a dog should work or should act. We just kept the dogs who were useful, noticed what traits made them that way, and perhaps most importantly, listened to those who we sold or gave dogs to. The feedback from ranchers using these dogs formed many of the preferences I have in my dogs today. I have never stopped learning from those who use their dogs in real life operations. Their opinions are invaluable, because their dogs are tested and used, often without a lot of formal training, and are not allowed to stay on the job if they are not useful. To me it is the ultimate of performance testing.
On the ranch we always had a couple of really expert chute and pen dogs. Red Fudge was one of these. These chute and pen dogs just happened to be bitches about 18” tall who could slip under a gate or fence with a minimum of effort, get in and move something and get out of the way. Or maybe it didn’t “just happen’, but instead was more practical. I remember once when Rocky, who was about a 55 pound dog, was helping work the chute. A very mad cow ducked back when she was let out of the headgate. In a rage she went after the dogs who were boxed in a little area where we kept the branding irons and vaccine. The torch went flying along with irons, bottles and syringes. The two bitches easily slipped into the chute, but Rocky was trapped by his size. He eventually escaped past her without injury but was lucky. Since I too can’t slip under a bottom fence rail, I’ve more than once had to scramble over a corral fence with a wild cow in pursuit!
We had irrigated alfalfa fields, and in the spring the cows were after those fields like a kid after candy. They had eaten nothing but dry hay for all those winter months, and would go through, under, or over a fence. The beautiful green fields were irrigated, and cattle on them when they were wet was disastrous. It was practically a full time job to keep the renegades off the hay fields. The only way we ever found effective was with a dog who would get after them and not quit until they were back where they belonged. The more he terrorized them the better we liked it, because they would get to the point they would “head for home” when a pickup drove up! Any pickup! The cows always knew exactly where to go to get out even if we hadn’t yet figured out which piece of fence they had destroyed. Rocky was the perfect dog for the job. At times the cows would have come over a mile (not always our cows!) and, as with so many ranch dogs, Rocky learned when they were back where they belonged and would then return to the pickup. We had other dogs who would take the cows off the alfalfa fields, but none who would stay with them and keep pushing them far from us and out of sight. Tim Tim would get them out of the field, but then he would decide the task was completed and come back. Fudge would go bite one once or twice and then she had done all she thought was necessary. It took the cows about one time of that to know they just had to move off a little ways over a hill, wait a few minutes, and the coast would be clear. I sold more than one dog during that time to farmers who had no cattle at all, but were plagued by the neighbor’s cows on their irrigated fields in the spring. The Aussie’s ability to be a companion when there is no work to be done was perfect for these homes with only seasonal stock work.
We had a 350 acre mountain pasture that was fenced off in the middle of government rangeland. It was in a deep cut between two mountainsides with just about 200 feet of flat bottom with a creek. Cow/calf pairs were trucked up there in the spring when the calves were small, but there was no place to load them to bring them home. In the fall they would be rounded up and trailed with horses the nine miles to the home place. One person would stay by the creek with the pickup and honk the horn (the way we called them to feed in the winter) while doling out small amounts of hay to try to keep cows at the bottom. There was no corral. Two riders would work each steep side of the pasture with a couple of dogs. The hillside was full of oak brush with small open areas. The cows were pretty willing to go down but needed a push to get them to leave the brush.
This was when I really learned to be dead set on the idea that cows dogs should not bark. One fall we had friends riding one side of the pasture, and our view from the opposite side was like watching a movie. From our vantage point we could see cows here and there heading down the trails ahead of the riders. Although they would disappear into the brush, they would appear again farther down the many trails. Suddenly their dogs began to bark. We helplessly watched the wreck! Cows were running up the hill toward the sound of the barking dogs, and we heard bawling everywhere. The guy at the bottom was frantically honking the horn to call them back with little success. No more barking dogs for that job!
The nine mile drive to the home place was slow with fat cows, bulls and calves. The main problem was the bulls and fat calves wanting to lie down, especially in the shallow irrigation ditch that ran by the road. The dogs would wear from flank to flank of the herd keeping the laggards moving and repeatedly getting the bulls up from the ditch.
This is just some background of where our dogs and preferences came from. Since that time I have lived in situations where we needed working dogs, but also have lived where we had stock solely to evaluate the dogs. We have trialed our dogs and put on trials including two Futurities, one in Texas and one in Louisiana. I have of course learned how important it is that a dog can handle a head. Somewhere down the road there will come a situation working cattle where that dog must stop stock. As important as the trials are, my real love and interest is in the farm/ranch dog. I have been lucky to live in the mountain west, in Texas and in the deep south and to meet many people in all those places who work dogs in real life. The situations are so varied and diverse it sometimes defies the imagination, but one kind of dog will always fit the bill. A dog with intense desire who can stop cattle, start them moving and keep them moving, contain the herd, and work for their human partner can do it all.
Some time in the eighties I decided to try my dogs on sheep and was surprised they worked them so well. To this day our dogs are fairly close working which is not always ideal for a sheep dog. We have found that their ability to learn to use only appropriate force coupled with simple herding instinct will get a ranch/farm job done on any kind of stock. In the final analysis however, a dog must be able to handle cattle to be useful on most any American farm or ranch. America is cattle country.
I know I can’t fight progress, but I do have a concern that the increasing interest in trialing and the simple economic facts that make it easier for a hobbiest to have sheep than cattle will change the working strengths of this breed. The keen desire to work and the herding instinct is retained for sheep work, but important traits can be lost if they are never tested. The dog who works for hours and days at a time or follows a horse or four-wheeler for miles before he faces difficult work on cattle is tested far differently than the trial dog. He may be trained for half an hour a day and works for ten minutes in a trial, and no one ever knows just how dedicated he would be in real life. Dogs bred for wins and titles are not necessarily bred for the same traits that the dog who has to really work for a living needs.
I’ve learned from experience in Colorado, Utah, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana that a useful farm/ranch dog will tough it through cold, snow, ice, rough terrain, blistering heat, swamps, and unbearable humidity for two reasons – his desire to work and his bond with his human partner. If the traits that give our dogs this desire and toughness are never tested it is dangerous to assume they will not be lost.
Our bloodline, the Slash V, has been developed mostly by using a maternal line. We often linebreed but seldom make real close crosses. Our present dogs trace back to Red Fudge through her daughter, our ASCA Hall of Fame bitch, Slash V Semi Sweet “Ticki” who qualified for the honor three times over with offspring by three different sires. Our only bitch who does not trace back to Fudge goes back instead to her littermate sister, Buster Brown Shoe, and to Buckeye Bobby through his daughter, Brushwood Buckeye Charm.
When a bloodline is developed there are subtle preferences that begin to show after a few generations. Some are deliberate and some just happen without conscious intent. We have kept many puppies to adulthood only to decide they were not going to fit into our program. The dog must work the way we like. On the other hand, we need to just plain like him/her too. We have had nice working dogs that we just didn’t particularly like to live with, and so have not kept or bred them. We also have had dogs we were very attached to but who didn’t have the ability we felt we needed in our program. We have a certain “look” that we prefer, and I am sure choose puppies based on subtle preferences. Over the years some of the best dogs we have had were the ones no one else chose, so they ended up staying around long enough to try on stock and establish themselves as “keepers”. These would be what I call the “leftover puppies”.
We began with healthy hardy dogs, and our dogs have consistently lived long active lives well into their teens. We have OFAed our dogs since the 70’s but have found that does not mean you will never have hip dysplasia in a bloodline. To date we have not had any other health problems and consider ourselves very lucky in that respect. I am an ASCA Breeder Judge, and back in the seventies and eighties showed my dogs in conformation producing a number of Champions. I do feel that my knowledge of structure and movement, as well as the Breed Standard, has helped us to choose and evaluate soundness and to maintain a certain quality in the looks of our dogs. We are definitely not breeding for a show dog and long ago decided not to pursue that route. We do feel strongly that an Australian Shepherd should both look, work, and move like an Australian Shepherd. If we wanted a Collie, a Bernese Mountain Dog, a Border Collie or a Kelpie we sure would go out and buy one,(and have at one time or another done so with the exception of the BMD) but our Aussies had better both look and work like Aussies.
So what is a Slash V dog through the more than three decades that they have developed? Our ideal would be a silent worker with some moderate eye who will walk up flat footed and bite a cow on the face and do the same low on the heels. She will have a keen instinct to keep her herd together and an awareness of the “big picture” all the time. She doesn’t need to work wide. She needs to be trainable but have the ability to think for herself when the unexpected happens. We really do not like what I refer to as an “in your face” dog. Our dogs don’t have a strong play drive. If I throw a stick or a ball when out with my dogs they might go look at it, but they probably will decide that if I threw it away it isn’t important. We like a serious laid back personality. Someone once told me, “I wouldn’t have a dog who would let himself be stolen”. I like that. The first thing I liked about Aussies was that my dog knew she was my dog and was not
going to go home with someone else. I like a dog who would be protective if necessary but is accepting of those people who we accept. Since I am describing our “ideal”, she would be a dark red merle with dark eyes, no white or copper trim and small to medium size. She would be athletic and have good sound conformation. Do all Slash V dogs look and act like this? I’d be dishonest to say yes, because of course breeding for an ideal is extremely difficult. The total picture has to be considered. “She” above is simply the goal. “She” has existed but not every dog in every litter. “She” would be our WTCH Slash V Bittersweet who was known to her friends as “Possum” (pictured above).
The majority of our dogs go to farms and ranches. The Australian Shepherd was developed on American ranches to help American families in their everyday life. If, after more than 30 years, a Slash V Aussie can do the job we got our first Aussie for, then we will have done our part to preserve something very special in rural America.