The truth about how one of the smartest, most versatile dogs in the world came to be in Colorado.
By the 1990s, the city of Boulder had grown so rapidly that it basically encircled the Hartnagle family ranch. In 1997, Ernie and his family sold it to the city, and it became “open space.” Now, pretty much every day of the year Boulder residents jog and hike on this land, often with Australian shepherds at their sides. Bisected by Boulder Creek, and with sweeping views of the Flatirons, it is some of the most pristine land remaining in the city.
Ernie and Elaine relocated to a smaller, 78-acre ranch near the town of Kiowa, about an hour southeast of Denver, where, in addition to a couple of horses and a donkey named Lila Jane, the couple keeps a pair of Aussies that assist Ernie in his daily chores. Among their jobs: fending off coyotes, rounding up Ernie’s flock of purebred Dorset sheep, (11) and separating specific animals when it comes time for vaccinations. Ernie—tall, broad, and ruggedly handsome even in the second half of his 80s—still shears the wool and on occasion ventures out to judge some of the Australian shepherd herding competitions.
Carol Ann (and her husband, Kenneth Madsen) and Jimmy (and his wife, Lisa) are now the primary torchbearers for the Las Rocosa brand. Carol Ann and Kenneth own nine Australian shepherds ranging in age from three to 15, and the couple still breeds, but no more than one litter a year from their small Adams County farm. She says she can’t remember any part of her life that didn’t prominently feature Aussies. The dogs worked with her siblings in the pastures, and the family traveled to herding competitions (12) on weekends. “I’ve known nothing else than having these dogs as part of our lives as companions and guardians and partners on the ranch,” she told me.
By the time Carol Ann was born, in 1963, Las Rocosa was so abuzz with Aussies that “the dogs almost raised me,” she says, and she’s only exaggerating slightly. One of her earliest memories on the farm, she recalls, is of a dog named Daisy who was entrusted with the very important task of keeping the toddlers away from the long driveway that led to the busy road out front. Daisy was taught to give the kids a certain amount of leeway, but if they reached a certain point, “she would interrupt us and dissuade our path,” Carol Ann says. “She would gently take our hands in her mouth. Her task was to keep us safe. It was amazing.”
Carol Ann says one of the things she’s most proud of is that—despite the fact that official AKC recognition in 1983 caused a spike in popularity that continues to this day, and the fact that the dogs have found a second niche as the go-to breed for the hiking/biking/skiing adventurer—the Australian shepherd is still primarily doing what it was bred for. “A significant number are still raised for real-world conditions,” she says, meaning for working on ranches, with sheep and cows. “Not too many breeds in America that can claim that.” (13)
Though she has a busy career as an executive for a professional records management company, Carol Ann, like her sister Jeanne Joy who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, still travels widely—even sometimes overseas—to judge Australian shepherd conformation and stock trials. One reason she breeds so few litters is that she insists on being present for the births and for the early weeks when the dogs’ personalities begin to develop.
The last time we spoke, in early December, she had a litter of puppies that was just 14 days old. It was a breeding she’d been planning for four years, and when the pups arrived, it was a profound occasion. Both the sire and the dam have lineages that go back to the very first dogs that Ernie and Elaine used to start the Las Rocosa line. These puppies, Carol Ann said, “are the 16th generation of our family program.”
Ernie might no longer have much of a hand in the operation, but Las Rocosa’s impact lives on. “I would say definitely that the breed is synonymous with our family,” Carol Ann says. “Anybody who has knowledge of the breed would understand that, and conversely no one can know anyone in our family without knowing the synergistic connection to Australian shepherds. They’re one and the same.”
Josh Dean is the author of Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, which will be published by HarperCollins this month. His writing has appeared in GQ, Outside, Men’s Journal, and the New York Times. Email him at [email protected].