The truth about how one of the smartest, most versatile dogs in the world came to be in Colorado.
By the mid-20th century, around the time Ernie was first smitten by Rover, it had finally occurred to people to start writing things down, and the story of the Australian shepherd began to crystallize. Before that, dogs that appeared to be Aussies were doing their jobs all over the West, but no one seemed interested in documenting their provenance. It didn’t matter to most owners where a particular dog came from, or who its sire was; it only mattered that the dog was good at its job. Very often you will find these dogs referred to in old texts as “little blue dogs” or “little blue bobtails” or, especially among natives in Colorado, “ghost-eye dogs,” and it’s pretty clear that the three common physical characteristics of the Australian shepherd, as it developed organically, were a blue coat, a bobbed tail, and a high occurrence of blue eyes.
The characteristic that led to these dogs becoming a formal breed, however, was the thing that struck Ernie: their ability to “work” livestock—at first sheep, but also horses, cows, ducks, geese, or any other animal a farmer might need to tend to. (7) And because of their remarkable abilities, bobtails began to show up in and around Colorado.
Rover was the dog that first caught Ernie Hartnagle’s eye, but it was a pair of dogs he encountered at a local stock show in 1952 that forever changed the course of his family’s history. There, Ernie met Jay Sisler, a rodeo star whose act starred Stub and Shorty, a pair of blue bobtails who performed dozens of remarkable tricks and became so beloved and famous while part of a touring show that they went on to star alongside Slim Pickens in a 1956 Disney television show titled Cow Dog.
Ernie couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed at the show—dogs walking for minutes on end on hind legs, or doing handstands atop broomsticks, and any number of other impressive, intricate tricks on command—and after the performance he sought out Sisler, who told him that these off-the-chart smart dogs, which looked and acted like Rover and the other bobtails he’d seen working sheep, were known as Australian shepherds. “We’d never heard that name before,” Ernie recalls, “but we decided then we’d get some of those dogs.”
One year later, in 1953, Ernie met and fell in love with an A&W Root Beer stand carhop named Elaine Gibson, who just happened to have grown up amongst these dogs herself. Elaine knew them as “bobtailed shepherds,” and the Gibsons of Wyoming had owned them as far back as the 1920s, when her grandfather had one he called Bob (for its tail) that he used to bring his colts in from the range to prevent them from being attacked by mountain lions. It’s a funny coincidence, Carol Ann says, “that both of my parents have a very unique history in parallel with these dogs.”
The Hartnagles acquired their first bobtail together the same year they met, a female named Snipper, and very quickly sought to add a second dog like her to the family. In 1955, when Ernie spotted an ad in the Denver Post for “blue Australian shepherds” at an address outside Littleton, he drove down and met Juanita Ely, a “salty ranch woman from Idaho,” as Ernie describes her. Ely got her blue dogs from Basque shepherds, and the animals looked a lot like Rover and Snipper. Ernie and Elaine were thrilled; they’d found their source.
The Hartnagles took home their second Aussie, Badger, and were so taken with his herding ability and courageousness that they went back to Ely again for Goodie, Badger’s half-sister. Those two dogs became the foundation of the breeding program for all the family dogs that would follow.
It was Ely, Ernie says, who is probably most responsible for the Aussie getting its start. Though Ely’s goal was never to open the pipeline, by breeding high-quality blue, bobtailed sheepdogs of Basque origin, Ernie says, “She was the fountainhead.”