Sharpest dogs in the West 

Border collies might just be the most useful creatures in Montana, when we know what to do with them.

In a grassy enclosure, Nan is frozen in a crouch, staring down eight sheep. The sheep have packed themselves into a nervous ball, neck over neck, like one big, wooly, many-headed creature. They watch the border collie out of the corners of their eyes.

Lynn Mason stands just inside the fence with a long stick like a sheepherder's staff. He's a tall, practical, 72-year-old man with a short, white beard and a worn plaid cowboy shirt with pearly snaps. "Nan," he calls. "Nan, away to me."

The dog pops up and races counterclockwise around the small herd. They react by moving in one big blob toward the fence.

"Na-a-n!" Lynn says sternly this time, a warning for her to slow down. On the outside of the fence, two more border collies—Rose, a red merle, and Parfait, a 6-month-old pup—can barely contain their excitement. They're waiting for their turns with sheep. It's been a long few months since any of them have gotten much practice.

They may be idle just now, but these dogs are the seed stock for future generations of dogs that are bound up with Montana and the West, whether they're working stock with a drive and intelligence that seems to top any other breed's or just hiking with their owners or playing their border collie games at your local dog park.

click to enlarge Working sheep is a border collie’s favorite activity. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Having been bred for hundreds of years to work with people, border collies have largely been spared the beauty pageantry of the show-dog world. Breeding for intelligence over beauty has led to their rank as the brightest dogs in the world in instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence and working intelligence, according to a 2006 University of British Columbia study.

On a recent day in late February, Mission Falls Ranch is still enjoying a good deal of snow. The driveway up to the old St. Ignatius homestead is lined with stately box elders. At the front door, a happy pack of seven border collies bounds out to greet you.

Besides Nan, Rose and Parfait, there's Skookum, Wisp, Scarlett and Mac Duff. Not one dog looks like any of the others—some are the classic border collie black-and-white, others are either tri-color or an orangey-red, some are shaggy-haired and others are smooth. The Masons have carefully bred all of them for their herding instincts. At this working dog haven, they hone their skills.

The house, where Lynn and his wife Joan live, has been built onto many times since it was first settled in 1915. The 160-acre property, which is on the Flathead Reservation, was originally owned by an American Indian couple, then sold to an Iowa couple who raised pigs and corn. In the 1940s, it was run as a farm where people could come and pay for a sit-down chicken dinner. When the Masons took it over in 1985, they bought cattle and started learning about breeding and training border collies. Two years ago, they switched from cattle to 29 head of sheep, a herd that was recently decimated, leaving 12 dead, after what they think was an attack by roaming dogs. Occasionally, they sell a lamb, but most of their income now comes from selling puppies from their border collie litters and from the paintings—mostly of horses—that Joan makes.

At the base of a rolling hill are the sheep, penned at the banks of Mission Creek. Near to the old stone smokehouse are a pear and a crabapple tree, carefully trimmed to leave a sight-line from the house, where the Masons have set up a telescope fixed on a bald eagle nest. In a blue spruce tree next to the house, horned owls nest in a wicker basket Lynn hitched to the trunk. The whole place sits under the brilliant, looming shadow of the Mission Mountains, capped with snow and swirling in blizzards.

When they got their first border collie, Moxie, the Masons didn't know what they were in for. Joan went to look at the puppies at a woman's barn on a property that also was host to 1,000 sheep.

"How do they work?" Joan asked her.

click to enlarge The Mission Ranch in the Flathead Valley. - PHOTO BY MICHELLE GUSTAFSON

The woman replied, "I just tell her to go get—" and before she could finish, the woman's border collie shot out the door to round up the sheep.

"She had to call her back," says Joan. "From that point on, she spelled everything out so her dog didn't know what she was saying. And I thought, 'This is really something: spelling in front of the dogs?'"

When Joan brought Moxie home, she didn't know yet how to train her. One day, when the dog was six months old, Joan was moving heifers, trying to get them into a corral. But every time she was going in the right direction, one of the cows would break and climb up the hill away from her. Moxie stayed with her, but Joan noticed that whenever she called to the cows with a "ch-ch-ch," the dog would dive in to help. "Okay," she thought. "We can do that.... So I got them down to the bottom and I stopped watching the heifers and started watching her, and I'd go 'ch-ch-ch' and she'd dive in there no problem, even when they'd go up the hill she'd follow and I'd wait until she was in the right place and make the sound."

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