By David Jessup
She was supposed to be a companion dog for my wife, Linda. Suburban-raised, well trained, affectionate, calm (the dog, that is). A classic Australian Shepherd: blue-black back, white collar, buff patches around brown eyes. A polite dog. She’d chase a ball to humor you, but nothing obsessive, like some Aussies we’ve known. Nothing unusual about her.
Until she spotted her first elk herd. (See video here)
Promise came to us in Maryland, courtesy of a friend who had to move away to take care of her aging mother. A month later we flew Promise out to Colorado for our annual nine-month stint at the ranch. It was April, time to begin irrigating our Big Valley hay field. I invited Promise to go along. She cocked her head and stood by the open car door.
“Hop in,” I said.
She sat down.
“Up,” I said. I tried to make my voice sound excited. I snapped my fingers.
Promise looked at me as if she suspected I was taking her on a one-way trip to the dog pound.
In danger of losing my position as pack leader, I was forced to act. She accepted my gentle boost into the car seat well enough, and as we drove into the Big Valley twenty minutes later, I expected her to stick her head out the window, panting and salivating at the prospect of having a good run in this new, wide-open valley.
I looked around. Promise was asleep.
I drove on in to turn on the center pivot sprinkler system, got out and opened the back door. Promise shot out of the car and raced toward the west pasture, a blue-tray fur ball, feet flying. That’s when I saw them. A hundred elk, helping themselves to our struggling new hay crop. They were as shocked as I was by the hurtling, furry missile , fast approaching their outlying members . Instinct had taken possession of our Promise. Instead of a lap dog, we had a wolf on our hands.
Alarm spread through the herd. It divided, some elk running north along the base of the hill, some running south. Promise flanked them perfectly, racing past the stragglers and turning the leaders up the hill, then returning for the southbound bunch. As if she’d trained for this all her life. As if she knew what elk were!
As the elk clattered past the half way mark up the hill, alarm hit me. What if she chased them all the way to Canada? What if I couldn’t call her back?
I started yelling. “Promise, come!” My pack leader voice took on a note of panic.
But there was no need to worry. The blue-gray fur ball materialized on the horizon and grew into a full-fledged Promise, loping up to me with a goofy grin on her face. Yes! She responds to commands! She’s a wolf with remote control! She got a treat from her relieved pack leader.
Since that first crazed elk-chasing experience, Promise has become my partner. She no longer leaps out of the car with no warning, but instead, waits for my command to “go chase elk.” She joyfully, skillfully does her job. And she always returns when called. We’ve done this rapid elk removal exercise a dozen times now. Check out the video here.
Why is pushing the encroaching elk herd off the tender, new-growth hay important?
The Colorado Division of Wildlife reimburses ranchers for elk damage to hay crops. But to collect the funds, you have to do two things. One is submit all the paperwork—reports every ten days. Second, you have to take steps to discourage elk from camping out in your hay field. They require you to allow hunting on your land, which we do. They distribute things like firecracker shells, which are fired out of a shotgun and explode over the herd. We tried all those things, and more. The elk amble off a few yards, turn around and laugh.
But with Promise chasing them, the elk actually leave the valley. Not forever, but for hours, sometimes days.
I called our local game warden with the news. She was pleased but cautioned me that elk-chasing dogs must be under control at all times, must not chase elk into neighbors’ property, and must not chase them through fences.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Promise is a pro. She drives the herd over the top of the ridge – far enough to discourage them from coming right back –and always stops immediately when I call her. She’s a dog that takes pride in her job. She’s a real working dog. ”