Submitted by Douglas on Fri, 2006-12-15 15:30.
A Good Dog is Worth Three Men
Home on the Swamp with the Florida Cow Dog
Cattle ranching began in Florida when Ponce de Leon, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and other Spaniards introduced Andalusian criolla cattle in the 16th century. Today, Florida ranchers are in the cow calf business. They breed beef cattle, sell the calves when they reach about 400 pounds, and ship them out west, closer to the Corn Belt, where they grow to finished size. For years, Florida was the leading beef cattle producing state east of the Mississippi, and today remains in the top three.
The origins of Florida cow dogs and cow dog work practices are not easily traced. There were early Spanish influences; De Soto, for example, brought stock dogs to Florida in 1539. British and Celtic cultures have long histories of using dogs to herd cattle and sheep, and many the antecedents of Florida cattle ranching families were people of British and Celtic origin from Georgia and the Carolinas who settled in frontier Florida in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indigenous peoples used dogs as work animals too. In 1770, naturalist William Bartram observed “A troop of horses under the control of a single black dog…” and noted that the proprietor of the horses was an Indian from the Suwannee River Valley who “… trained his dog up from a puppy to this business.”
After the Civil War, an estimated 600,000 wild cattle descended from the old Spanish criolla stock roamed the state. Ambitious Floridians developed a brisk business of gathering up the wild cattle and shipping them to Cuba, where they fetched as much as fifteen dollars a head in Spanish gold—big money in a time when the South was in dire economic condition. The wild cattle had to be flushed from the scrub and swamps, and the men who accomplished that difficult and dangerous task were known as cow hunters. They used dogs to help flush out the cattle and keep herds together as they drove them to holding pens at Tampa, Ft. Myers, and Punta Rassa on the southern Gulf of Mexico coast.
When artist Fredrick Remington visited Florida in the late 19th century to document cowmen he found a rough and ragged lot that, in his opinion, did not compare with the dashing, romanticized cowboys of the West. In an article published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Remington wrote:
“…but they are picturesque in their unkempt, almost unearthly wildness. A strange effect is added by their use of large, fierce cur-dogs, one of which accompanies each cattle-hunter and is taught to pursue cattle and even take them by the nose, which is another instance of their brutality. Still, as they have only a couple of horses apiece, it saves them much extra running.”
Remington augmented his article with several illustrations including this one which shows a Florida cowman, or cow hunter, with his horse and dog.
Despite the intense heat, swampy rangeland, and seemingly infinite numbers of mosquitoes (some of which carried malaria and yellow fever), ticks and other insects, cattle ranching flourished in Florida. Open range remained a common practice in Florida until mandatory fencing legislation was passed in 1949.
Florida cow dogs are bred with one purpose in mind: to produce dogs that work well with cattle. Specific breeds might be included in the mix. Probably the most popular is the Southern Blackmouth Yellow Cur, also known as the Blackmouth Cur.
Although the origins of the Blackmouth Cur are debated, it is now a recognized and registered breed. Another breed popular today is the Catahoula Leopard, which has its origins among the French or Native Americans of Louisiana, depending on what claims one chooses to believe. But the Florida cowman has no interest in purebred dogs; they are usually too nervous, or have other weaknesses. Good cow dogs might contain strains of cur, for all around endurance and good working traits; hound, for long wind; and bulldog, for strength and aggressiveness. Mature male cow dogs usually weigh sixty to seventy pounds, females five to ten pounds less. Okeechobee ranch foreman and third generation cattleman Keith Bass described the varieties of Florida cow dogs he has encountered:
“They just got kind of a little round lookin’ head on ‘em, kind of short-eared. Not like a bull dog. Kind of got short hair on ‘em. Some of ‘em is stub-tailed or bob-tailed. Some of ‘em is long-tailed. Some of ‘em is yellow lookin’ dogs with a black mouth. Some of ‘em’s black, you know, with a little yellow on ‘em. I’ve seen some brindle dogs, leopard dogs.”
Florida cowmen overwhelmingly prefer dogs from bloodlines known to produce good cow dogs. For example, a cowman might proudly announce that his dogs are descended from those bred by the Partins of Osceola County, a family that has produced top-notch cow dogs for probably at least a hundred years.
Many working dogs do not last long—maybe three years, sometimes less—although a few continue to work at eight or ten years. They are subject to a number of on-the-job injuries including broken bones and teeth and the surprisingly infrequent snakebite. Several cowmen have told me they do not like a dog that is too “rank,” or aggressive, as they invariably will be seriously injured in a short time. Some dogs mysteriously disappear into the scrub never to be seen again.
To maintain a quality line of dogs, breeders are always looking for another good line with which to cross-breed theirs. Lines for cross-breeding are selected strictly by reputation for producing excellent work dogs, and such arrangements are often made between old friends.
Florida cow dogs perform three principal functions. First, they flush strays from hammocks, scrubs and swamps, easily working in areas very difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate by horse and rider. George “Junior” Mills of Okeechobee worked cattle throughout central Florida for more than seven decades. He considered cow dogs invaluable.
“Them dogs is just as important, in a way, as a horse is. He can get in places you can’t get, you know. I went one time to help gather a bunch of cattle on the old Uncle Wright Carlton place. Them cattle down there, you couldn’t handle ‘em, you couldn’t hardly do nothin’ with ‘em without dogs. They’d run in them hammocks and hide. You put them dogs in there and them dogs make it so hot for ‘em they got to get out of there.”
The dogs also control the movement of the cattle. As the mounted cowmen patiently drive the cattle forward from the rear the dogs work on the sides and in front to keep the stock in a cohesive herd. The dogs do not drive the cattle. Because Florida cow dogs approach the heads of cattle to control their movement they are known as “headers.”
The third function the dogs perform is to hold the cattle in a tight bunch once the stock arrives at a particular destination. The dogs accomplish this by repeatedly circling or “ringing” the cattle, all the while barking, nipping at the cattle, and generally giving them a hard time.
The dogs are bred for this work and no doubt enjoy it. Often, it all seems a big game as they frolic and romp. Inundated areas increase the fun as well as provide a welcome source of cooling. Many owners say the only training they have to give the dogs is to teach them to come back. The dogs instinctively know how to fetch strays and keep a herd tightly bunched. Starting with inherited knowledge and behavior, younger dogs learn the finer points from working with older dogs. Cowmen speak of “dog-broke” cattle. Cattle that have never been worked by dogs do not respond well to them. Cattle that are used to working with dogs, or “dog-broke,” respond quickly to the physical messages and sonic cues dogs give them. Because a rancher never sells his or her entire herd, there is always some fraction of the herd accustomed to working with dogs and the working relationship between cattle and dogs is perpetuated.
Reminiscing about nearly seven decades of riding Florida range, Junior Mills told a story that illustrates how tough the dogs can be. Working in Marion County in 1949, his horse fell into a sinkhole that had already swallowed a dog and a cow. His workmate rode into Ocala and returned about two hours later with a wrecker to winch the horse from the hole. As they freed the steaming, exhausted horse it heaved one last breath and died. The cow’s back was broken by the weight of the horse and had to be shot. Only the dog survived, and it had been at the bottom of the pile. Mills fished a rope down to the feisty canine. “He just reached down and bit it and shut down on that rope,” he recalled. Mills and his partner hauled the dog out of the hole by the strength of his jaws. After resting a good while in the shade of a cabbage palm the dog was ready for more.
Most Florida cowmen agree that a good cow dog is mighty handy. Kenansville saddle maker and ranch hand Mike Wilder expressed an opinion shared by many Florida cowmen: “When you really need ‘em, one good dog is worth three or four men.” Billy Davis, always a colorful speaker and one of the most skilled cowmen in south-central Florida quipped: “Now, I don’t know if I’m just sorry help or I’ve got good dogs, but a dog is just the handiest thing in the world around a bunch of cattle.”
The Cow Dog as a Symbol of Cracker Culture
In the early 16th century, the term cracker meant braggart or liar. By the mid-18th century, cracker was used to characterize poor or rogue settlers in the American rural south. In the early 20th century, cracker was used affectionately in the South, even as a name for baseball teams. By the 1950s, it became pejorative once again, and remains so to many, if not most, English speakers.
Today, Cracker (with a capital “C”) has come into popular use to denote someone who identifies with a certain set of values and ways of living which are connected to old Florida, the Florida before “Yankees” and various immigrants came to the state in large numbers, before Disneyworld consumed much of the untamed ranch land near Kissimmee. Most, but not all, white Florida cowmen and cow women use Cracker as a symbol of cultural pride.
One of the most highly regarded dogs used for breeding Florida cow dogs is the Blackmouth Yellow Cur. In this case, the term cur has evolved in a manner similar to cracker. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines cur as: “an aggressive dog or one that is in poor condition, especially a mongrel,” and cites “contemptible man” as an informal usage. Both cur and cracker were used pejoratively for centuries, and are still used in that manner by many. Today, both terms are used by Floridians who declare themselves Crackers or otherwise identify with Cracker culture as proud emblems of values they regard dearly.
The cow dog serves as an excellent symbol of Florida Cracker culture. It is rough and unpolished, nothing most tourists would understand or want any part of—or probably ever see. It is at home in the hot, insect-infested scrub and swamps that constitute what some call “Real Florida” or “Old Florida”—Florida before Disney. While Florida cow dog breeds might include bloodlines from out-of-state animals, such as the Catahoula Leopard, working cow dogs are esteemed as 100% Florida.
Like its human Cracker counterpart, the Florida cow dog is tough and tenacious, and pure Florida. Just as Crackers boldly assert their cultural identity in the presence of the behemoths known as mainstream culture and unbridled development, the cow dog does not hesitate to bite the nose of an animal twenty-five times its size—or grab its tail and risk a few broken teeth.
Since 1989, Bob Stone has traveled throughout Florida to research, document and present the rich diversity of Florida’s folk culture. He presently serves as statewide Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Folklife Program. He has produced eight albums for Arhoolie Records’ “Sacred Steel Guitar” series and directed the “Sacred Steel” documentary video for the Arhoolie Foundation.
Bob recently produced and narrated the “Voices of Florida” radio series, which includes a program on cattle ranching. You can listen to the entire half-hour program, as well as the seven other programs in the series, on the Web at: