Sheepdogs of the American Southwest during the 1800s

The New Mexican Sheepdog or Pastor Dog

Sheepdogs on the wide open ranges in the Southwestern United States were common a century or more ago. Without his services, the shepherds would have been hard pressed to care for their huge flocks in the sheep-raising districts. The New Mexican sheep dog traced its bloodline back to Spain, where its ancestors had guarded wandering flocks from wolves and were  introduced to the Americas at the time of the Conquest. They were larger and tougher than the Scotch and English breeds.

A Mastiff (Mastín) by Diego Velázquez

A portrait of a Mastín by Diego Velázquez

“Many anecdotes could be related of the wonderful instinct of these dogs. I very much doubt if there are shepherd dogs in any other part of the world except Spain, equal to those of New Mexico in value. The famed Scotch and English dogs sink into insignificance by the side of them. Their superiority may be owing to the peculiar mode of rearing them, but they are certainly very noble animals, naturally of large size, and highly deserving to be introduced into the United States.” – The Practical Shepherd: A Complete Treatise on the Breeding, Management and By Henry Stephens Randall.

Arrogante, a Spanish Sheep-Dog was imported from Spain with a flock of Merinos / Sheep husbandry by Henry Stephens Randall; C. M. Saxton & Co., 1856

Arrogante, a Spanish Sheep-Dog was imported from Spain with a flock of Merinos / Sheep husbandry by Henry Stephens Randall; C. M. Saxton & Co., 1856

In 1844, J. H. Lyman, an eyewitness described the Mexican sheepdog was better at guarding and more gentle in handling sheep than any other type of dog.  He said if a sheep strayed, the dog would gently take it by the ear and lead it back to the rest of the flock. He wrote, “Mr. Kendall speaks of ” meeting, on the Grand Prairie, a flock numbering seventeen thousand, which immense herd was guarded by a very few men, assisted by a large number of noble dogs, which appeared gifted with the faculty of keeping them together. There was no running about, no barking or biting in their system of tactics; on the contrary, he continually walking up and down, like faithful sentinels, on the other side of the flock, and should any sheep chance to stray from its fellows, the dog on duty at that particular post, would walk gently up, take him carefully by the ear and lead him back to the flock. Not the least fear did the sheep manifest at the approach of these dogs, and there was no occasion for it.” – American Agriculturist (Volume 3)

A few trained dogs could control thousands of New Mexican sheep. They kept the flock tight while grazing; moved it to new pastures on command of the herder, and patrolled the perimeter on the lookout for predators. George W. Kendall, who came to New Mexico from Texas in 1841, was amazed at the way dogs cleverly handled the sheep. “There was no running about, barking or biting. On the contrary they were continually walking up and down like faithful sentinels,” he said. “Should any sheep chance to stray,” added Kendall, “the dog on duty would walk gently up, take it carefully by the ear, and lead it back to the flock. Not the least fear did the sheep show at the approach of these dogs,” Albert Richardson, who toured the Mesilla Valley in 1859, wrote of seeing thousands of sheep grazing. “The shepherd dogs which guard them are sometimes left in sole charge for hours. They keep the flocks compact, driving all stragglers back, and never leaving their posts.” The sheep come to regard their dogs as protectors and move toward them in times of danger.

In Josiah Gregg’s account he states, “It is unnecessary to add that the flock is well guarded during the night by watchful and sagacious dogs against prowling wolves or other animals of prey. The well-trained shepherd’s dog of this country is indeed a prodigy: two or three of them will follow a flock of sheep for a distance of several miles as orderly as a shepherd, and drive them back to the pen again at night without any other guidance than their own extraordinary instincts. – Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies, or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader, 1831-1839 (1905) by Josiah Gregg.

“The pastores had charge of the individual bands, each comprised of about two thousand head. The pastores accompanied them day and night, moving with them as they grazed, and corralling them or bedding them down where they could attend them at night. The pastores traveled on foot, but were assisted by their dogs in keeping their bands assembled and in protecting them from wild animals. In fact, most dogs were able to keep their flocks together and protect them in the absence of the shepherd.” – America’s Sheep Trails by Edward Norris Wentworth

See also Flocks of the Mesta:

See also Herding Dogs of Colonial America:

See also Importance of the Merino: