By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Our ranch dogs were smart, and knew it

Our working dogs were cocky animals — the cockiest animals on our Eastern Oregon ranch. More so even than Billy, our ram with the curling horns, who stalked Mother when she went to the barn. More than the Rhode Island Red rooster who strutted as if he owned all the hens. More than Lynn’s saddle horse, Bug, who every frosty morning strived to buck off any human attempting to climb into his saddle.

Rusty and Blackie were our two cattle dogs, George was our sheep dog. They thought themselves quite invincible, and in Grant County, they had worthy challengers.

We had other dogs, too. Major, our little short-haired dog went on hikes with me and was my companion. Mother and her two Pekingese, which the rest of the family regarded as rather ridiculous — because of their short legs and flattened noses — to have on a cattle ranch. Their job was to go with Mother to feed the chickens.

True, our working dogs had intelligence to back up their cockiness. George, the oldest, we rated as most intelligent. But as George aged, he used his intelligence to mask his increased dislike for physicality. At first, we humans were not perceptive enough to recognize it as such.

It came to light one hot summer day when we were herding the sheep in an area overlooked by rimrocks atop a steep hill. A small group of strays left the herd and showed up in the rimrocks. It was a long steep hike up there to bring them back, but that was what George was for. We called him to our side, patted him on the head, pointed to the strays, waved our arm in that direction, and said, “Bring ’em back, George. Good dog. Bring ’em back.”

Good Dog George, with his high IQ, knew exactly what was expected of him. Off he trotted through the sagebrush to do our bidding. We sat down, relieved that we were not heading up that hill.

We waited. And waited some more, expecting George to appear up in the rimrocks, rounding up the strays and heading them back. George did not show up, although he knew well the command. He’d done that countless times. So what happened to George? Whatever the answer, we had to act. Those strays were valuable property. They represented income.

Instead of George, I now became the retriever. I would hike up the steep hill. Off I started through the sagebrush, in the same direction as had George. I’d gone only a short distance, and then ahead of me I saw in the shade of a sagebrush old George. He had decided it was too hot to play herdsman, and that intelligent dog had not wanted his master to find him out.

“George,” I shouted as I saw him lolling in the shade, smiling to himself, “George, you get up that hill. Now.” He jumped to his feet, mortified at being discovered, and obediently started for the strays.

In addition to aging, our working dogs faced other challenges — such as porcupines. Any Eastern Oregon dog that ever wandered out of a ranch yard knew about porcupines.

And our invincible dogs refused to believe that any porcupine could get the better of them and often tried to prove it. If they were ever successful in doing so, we did not know about it, but when they lost, we well knew. Back to the ranch house they slinked with the soft flesh of their jowls and noses now pincushions of quills. Our poor dogs knew what happened next. Lynn, holding a dog with difficulty as it tried to writhe free, with pliers pulled out each quill. Our intelligent dogs knew well the quills did not slip out smoothly like a splinter. The barbed end of the immersed quill meant they must be twisted out.

After such an encounter, the dogs avoided porcupines for a bit, but then the cockiness returned. No porcupine was going to make them back down.

Another challenge for them were the traps set by government trappers, and even by my little brother, Jack. Off in the hinterland, the dogs, on their own, would travel, and always we hoped they would not be the victim of such. Our working dogs were lucky, but my poor little Majie was caught in a trap, unknown to us, and had to chew off his hind leg in order to release himself. My plucky Majie wasn’t slowed a bit by the loss of one leg.

And we hoped our invincible dogs would have respect for rattlesnakes and not challenge them. If such encounters took place, and they undoubtedly did, the dogs must have been winners, because they did not come home bearing witness of having been bitten. But one of our horses was killed by a rattlesnake bite.

Coyotes, too, were a challenge — not for our big dogs — and luckily, we had no Chihuahuas. But little Majie could have been a meal for them, as well as Mother’s Pekingese. Badgers also offered a huge challenge. We fervently hoped the working dogs would not challenge those ferocious badgers.

Another challenge threatened our dogs: Eastern Oregon winters. The dogs adjusted well to the hot summer heat by sleeping under the shade of a sagebrush, or digging a hole in Mother’s flower beds. But the bitterly cold winter weather tested even the cockiness of the big three.

Their intelligence solved that problem, too.

Ordinarily, our big dogs did not come in the house — but they intelligently noted that we humans had warmer quarters inside than did they. Two wood-burning stoves heated our house: the cook stove in the kitchen and the heater in the living room. Our alert dogs noted also that the stoves, because of fire hazard, had to be located a goodly distance from the walls. There behind the cook stove, warm quarters were commodious enough to accommodate one dog, or two, or even three, where no one could stumble over them.

They avoided bedding behind the heater in the living room because they would have immediately been noticed — and perhaps ordered out into the cold by my stepfather. But my kind-hearted, dog-loving Mother knew well the secret of the dogs behind her cookstove, and the dogs loved her for it.

When I left the ranch to go to school, I left behind family, friends, Monument. I left behind, too, the three cocky canines, the Pekingese and my little Majie.

No one sent word when they passed on.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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