The History of Cracker Cowboys and Their Cattle Dogs in Florida  

We know that cattle ranches and cowboys are not the first thing that people think of, when they hear about or visit Florida.  But cattle ranching in our state goes back to the 1500’s and was Florida’s first agricultural industry.

Today, there are more than 1 million head of cattle being raised in the State of Florida, and our ranchers supply calves to every midwestern American state.   Are you surprised to learn that cowboys still use the same methods they have been using for hundreds of years, to raise world-class grass-fed beef in Florida?  They do. And beside a cowboy and his or her team as they ride out to check on the health and well-being of their herds, and drive them to new pastures, you can usually find another helper; the Florida cattle dog.

A Dog Gone Good Job at Herding

Cattle dogs are specially trained to assist ranchers to herd and drive cattle, but some are very sophisticated and can be directed to separate (or cut) a cow with a calf for instance, from the rest of the herd for evaluation.

It is safer for a cattle rancher to be up on their horse, where they can see the direction that the herd is moving, as well as any predators or other threats to their livestock.  One of the difficulties with herding cattle is that cows are pretty smart and will head into wooded areas that may be hard for the rancher to access on horseback.   Cattle are drawn to shaded areas for relief from the heat, but those areas also present an increased risk of predator encounters and injuries for the herd.

That’s where the Florida cattle dog comes in.  Low to the ground and fast moving, a well-trained dog can be directed to gather up stray cattle in the woods and bring them back into the main herd.  The cattle dog never bites or harms the cattle; instead it uses its bark to gently startle calves and cows into moving in a certain direction.  

For stubborn cattle, many dogs are also trained to ‘touch’ them with a paw or nudge them with their bodies to ‘get them to listen’ to the cues and direction that the dog would like the cow to move in.  No matter how stressed Florida Cracker dogs get, they will not injury the livestock which is important.

The Florida Cracker (Cur) Dog

Did you know that the first Florida Cracker Cur dogs were brought to the state in 1539, by Hernando de Soto?  The King of Spain had dispatched a first group of explorers to claim the new territory of Florida for Spain, but the Narvaez expedition had disappeared.   Hernando de Soto was sent to explore the Florida territory at the age of 39 years, as he had served in Panama and then Peru for the King.

Hernando de Soto and his explorers traveled by ship and brought with them some cattle and herding dogs.  The descendants of both the cattle and the dogs would become forever a part of Florida’s agricultural heritage.

Unlike other breeds of dogs, the true Florida Cracker or ‘Cur’ dog was bred for toughness and skills that were refined by working dogs over centuries of use by cattle ranchers in our state.   While the Border Collie is internationally recognized for superior smart herding skills, they are not really suited for the job in Florida as well as the Florida Cracker cattle dog.

First, the coat of the Florida Cracker dog is short, and that helps to not only keep the animal cooler during hot days, but it helps it move through grass and low brush with less resistance than dogs with long fur.  Speed is important for a number of reasons (including keeping up with running cattle and calves that can dash really quickly into water or wooded areas).

The second benefit of the specialized coat of the Florida Cracker dog, is that the short fur also allows the dog to move very quietly through brush.  If a cow and calf are in a dangerous situation with predators near by, the dog can essentially creep up on the predator and either bark to startle it into moving away from the herd, or stand between a predator and a calf, to reduce injury or loss.

But the Florida Cracker dog was also bred for courage.  From the earliest days of cattle ranching in Florida, cowboys had to actively protect their herds from predators like cougars, or even wild boars or bears.  The Cracker cur dog had no problem chasing off any kind of predator that posed a threat to the cowboys or the herds of cattle they were driving and were an important natural “security system” to alert ranchers and drive off threatening predators.

The Florida Cracker Cur breed is a working dog, and happiest on a farm or ranch, and some of them are talented tree climbers, where they can scale lower tree branches to survey the property and the herd.  They are spirited dogs that will go face-to-face with a bull and stand their ground.

Today you can still see descendants of the original Florida Cracker Cur dogs on ranches around the state.  Another part of our rich agricultural history and heritage, that is still alive and well on millions of acres of pasture land, helping ranchers provide world-class beef.