Story by Paul Wood
Photos by Rachel Olsson
I never understood the expression “working like a dog” till I saw Zip and Trooper move twelve hundred cows through a gate wide enough for only two. When you have that much grass-fed muscle on the move—every cow bellowing nonstop like a trombone player in a marching band—the potential for damage is high. Young bovines can get crushed. Posts made from utility-pole timber can get broken. And a dog one-tenth the size of your average cow could easily be trampled.
I am standing on the incoming side of that avalanche with Fanny Po‘ouahi, a cowboy from a small, family-run ranch in leeward Haleakala. Fanny has left his ATV running at one side of the gate, and he is halfway up the fence on the other side, calling the cows with a high-pitched yell that carries for miles. Fanny is rousting up a stampede of sorts. The smarter cows, which know where the grass will be greener, rush the gate. The dimwits hold back, mooing and shoving. A brash bull places himself directly across the gate, blocking the flow. It’s a potential bovine Altamont.
Enter the dogs.
The “alpha dog” is a two-legged cowboy named Ryan Wendt. He calls Zip, who leaps off the back of Ryan’s flatbed. Zip is purebred kelpie, black with tan features, lean like a coyote with tail curled up and ears pinpoint erect. “Walk up,” commands Ryan in a voice almost softer than I can hear. Zip moves to a spot about twenty feet from the gate. “Lie down.” Zip immediately flattens himself in the grass facing the cattle. Then he turns his head to look back at us, and I think he gives us a wink. “Aren’t we having fun now?” his lolling tongue seems to say. Then Zip turns his head back toward the cows. The animals instantly cease jamming themselves through the gate. Instead, eyeing the dog, they daintily step through one at a time, then skitter off.
Ryan says quietly, “That’ll do.” Zip withdraws. But the cattle mob the gate again. Ryan sends Zip back into position. Calm returns. “It’s a controlled situation,” he tells me, “like the emergency evacuation of a building. You want it to be orderly.”
Then he sends Trooper, a brown, whitepawed, kelpie-collie mix, into the herd. Trooper takes a position directly opposite Ryan, keeping the most confused cows between them. Using a shrill metal whistle, Ryan sends Trooper left, right, back or on out runs. He uses few commands. Trooper makes most of his own decisions as he nudges and nips, racing around a stand of kiawe trees to corral some clueless drifters. His goal is to bring the livestock to Ryan —or wherever it needs to go. The fewer whistles the better. “You don’t want your dogs to be submissive,” says Ryan.