Feature

The Australian Shepherd is from: A) Australia, B) England, C) Spain, D) None of the Above

The truth about how one of the smartest, most versatile dogs in the world came to be in Colorado.

February 2012

When Ernie Hartnagle came home from World War II in 1946, having served two-and-a-half years in the Seventh Pacific Fleet and participated in the liberation of the Philippines, there was no time to relax or recuperate or bask in the plaudits of his nation. Though just 20 years old, he was, like many other young veterans, seasoned by his experiences. And that was a good thing, because his father died while Ernie was away in the Navy, and being the oldest child, it fell upon him to assume the mantle of the Hartnagle family upon his return.

That responsibility included running the family’s 99-acre ranch in Boulder—purchased by Ernie’s parents in 1929, the year of the stock market crash, and held on to with hard work and gritted teeth through some lean and difficult times—and providing for his mother, two brothers, and a sister. He quickly found that the ranch’s yield alone wasn’t enough and began to travel each spring to his Uncle Frank’s Bar-K Ranch in the Gore Range, on land that is today Vail Ski Resort.

There, he and Frank would fatten the herd of cattle by driving them from one mountain meadow to another, chasing the lush, seasonal grasses of the Rocky Mountains. Once summer began to set in, the herd would be based in the high country, at 11,500 feet, but for a period in early May, some of the best grass was found in the pastures in the valley at 8,100 feet. So every morning before dawn, Frank and Ernie would round up the cattle with the help of their stock dogs and drive them 3,400 vertical feet down the hill for a few hours of grazing.

But temperatures rise quickly at that time of year, and if the men and dogs couldn’t get the cows moving back up the steep slopes, which are now blue and black diamond ski runs, to the cooler fields atop the mountains, the cows would grow obstinate and ultimately so troublesome that even the dogs would wither. All of the dogs, that is, except for one.

A couple of Uncle Frank’s dogs were border collies imported from Nottingham, England. The border collie is the world’s unrivaled champion of sheep herding, a breed honed for this specific purpose over hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years. But border collies were then newer to working with cattle and were certainly not accustomed to covering thousands of feet of elevation gain, at high altitudes and in wildly divergent temperatures, over the course of a single work day.

When the day grew too hot, and the climbs too taxing, (1) these collies, famous for their drive and endurance, would fade and quit just like the cows, while a single black, bobtailed dog named Rover seemed inexhaustible. No matter the temperature, or the elevation, Rover would race uphill and downhill, nipping and barking at the cows until they resumed their march. The only way to get him to stop working was to force him to do so, and Ernie believed that, if not for human intervention, Rover might work himself to death.

Rover was the finest dog Ernie Hartnagle had ever seen, and he resolved to get himself a bobtail or two for his own ranch, once he had the money and could locate the source. At the time, he had no idea where to get one, (2) or how far this special kind of dog, which he’d gotten to know on the slopes of the high Rockies, would take him.

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