Work Practices 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.
Read more about Cowmen speak of “dog-broke” cattle: