Chasing dreams: Idaho rancher loves her life as a professional stock dog trainer

With over 35 years of experience, Robin Brown has built a national reputation for raising well-trained border collies, writes guest columnist Steve Stuebner.

August 10, 2023 4:10 am
Robin Brown at Broken Circle Ranch

Robin Brown at the Broken Circle Ranch with a border collie puppy about 7 to 8 weeks old. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Robin and Rocky Brown live in their own slice of paradise in Indian Valley, Idaho, where they raise and train border collies for ranchers across the nation.

The Broken Circle Ranch is surrounded by majestic mountains. The Little Weiser River flows by their home pasture in a sinewy grove of cottonwood trees.

With over 35 years of experience, Robin Brown has built a national reputation for raising well-trained border collies for herding cattle or sheep on a real working ranch.

She’s got a cattle herd and a band of sheep for real-world dog training.

“She’s been doing this for most of her life. You can’t do it that long without really knowing your stuff,” says her husband, Rocky Brown.

Watch her border collie “Lass” herd sheep across a field. With whistle commands, Brown instructs “Lass” to run clockwise or counterclockwise to move the sheep.

Brown says she has unique whistle calls for all of her dogs.

“This whistle is essential to what I do,” she says. “Because No. 1, when you’re whistling, there’s no emotion in the whistle. The dog doesn’t know whether you’re in a good mood or a bad mood, it’s always black and white, it’s always consistently the same. The other thing, the dogs can hear that whistle a mile out. I don’t have to yell, I don’t have to scream, I can just whistle.”

Growing up on a working Idaho ranch

Training dogs for herding livestock came naturally to Brown. She grew up on a working ranch, participating in cattle drives with her family as a kid.

Robin Brown at the family ranch near Cascade
Robin Brown as a young girl at the family ranch south of Cascade. (Courtesy of Robin Brown)

“The ranch was in Cascade, a beautiful ranch next to Cabarton Road, along the Payette River, absolutely gorgeous,” Brown says. “We ran cattle on West Mountain and all of that area up there. The greatest part was the early cattle drives we did every year in late May/early June, where we would take the cattle from Emmett and trail them all the way to Cascade.”

“We had a camp cook, we had cowboys, we had dogs. And that’s where my love of the dogs started was watching them do all of that work! I had my own horse. I had my own dogs even at a young age.”

In college, Brown went to her first dog trails.

“I watched these dogs do this work; it was like poetry in motion,” she says. “I want my cow dogs to do that. Is it possible? Maybe. And it was.”

She credits cowboy Jack Handley with inspiring her about the proper use of dogs when herding cattle. Handley worked with her family’s cattle operations, Jim Little’s cattle operations and others.

“Those cowboys were my mentors. I’d sit there on my pony and watch them do all of this stuff. Those dogs were important to him. It was his horse, his dog and him,” Brown says.

Cowboy Jack Handley
Cowboy Jack Handley inspired Robin Brown to learn how to train her own dogs for herding livestock. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Handley taught her that cow dogs weren’t just a tool. They needed to bond with their master.

“From the very beginning, when those puppies are little, they’ve gotta want to be with you, they’ve got to love you, they’ve got to be your friend,” she says.

When she first started out, it was a man’s world.

“I’ve been a trailblazer being a woman in the cow dog industry. I was one of only two women way back when,” she says.

And now, more than 30 years later, Brown is highly respected as a dog-trainer and handler on a national scale.

“I love what I do. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have the upbringing that I did that brought me to this journey in life,” Brown says. “I can come out, I have my own hours, just me and my dog, every dog is different. So it’s always changing, forever changing.”

Robin Brown with border collie puppies
Robin Brown with border collie puppies as a young woman in college. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

She’s a three-time national cow dog champion. In the Art of the Cow Girl competition in Phoenix recently, she received the prestigious honor of the “Master Dog Trainer” award.

And now she’s giving back by offering retreats and apprenticeships to women who want to learn the ropes.

“People will come here from all over the country, stay with me for a week on an apprenticeship or an internship, they’ll learn how to use cow dogs and sheep dogs, I also do a 6-week program called master of training, where for six weeks in a row they come out for a few hours.”

Walking through the Broken Circle kennels, Brown explains where the dogs are going to various ranches across the nation. This one is going to Texas, this one to Oklahoma, this one to Baker, Oregon, and so forth.

What’s the value of a trained cow dog?

From a monetary standpoint, trained border collies sell for several thousand dollars each.

For herding cattle or sheep, they’re invaluable, experts say.

“OK, this is my opinion. A dog will take the place of three men,” Brown says. “The dog can go places they can’t go. The dog always shows up for work. The dog is always happy when he’s working. But the dog can take the place of three men because of where it can travel and what it can do.”

“They’re invaluable,” adds Rocky Brown. “Working with livestock, I’d never think of doing it without a dog, and people who try to do it without a dog, will take all day, when we can do it in five minutes.”

Rocky Brown says one well-trained dog is worth six cowboys.

Rocky Brown herds cattle with his cow dogs
Rocky Brown herds cattle with his cow dogs and a golden lab. He says a well-trained dog can do the work of six cowboys. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

“They cover so much country, they look for cattle, they know their job, you’re not waiting on them to show up in the morning. You don’t have to pay them anything. Most of the time, they’re in the right place,” he says.

Plus, it’s hard to find cowboys available to ride cattle these days … making the dogs even more valuable.

Well-trained dogs help with range management as well.

“A guy will ride by a creek bottom and leave cows in it, they don’t see it,” Brown says. “The dogs hunt, they know they’re in there, you can depend on a dog so much more than you can depend on a person without a dog. So yeah, pretty invaluable.”

Herding dogs are essential for moving cattle from one pasture to another, too, for rest-rotation grazing, Brown says.

Robin Brown teaches proper stockmanship in her clinics, too.

“Stockmanship is taking care of your animals,” she says. “For instance, if you’re moving cattle up a hill, and it’s hot, and you’ve got your dog with you, you want to let the cattle rest. You don’t want to keep pushing them, pushing them, pushing them.”

“For instance, this morning, with the little baby lambs, they can only go so fast, so you have to take your time. It’s treating your animals right, with the least amount of stress possible.”

Brown feels that women have a natural touch when raising dogs because of their nurturing instincts. Many more women are getting involved in training stock dogs and competing at dog trials, she says. “Yes, it’s gotten to be huge. People all over the country want to be involved in training dogs.”

She’s seeing that potential come through with her daughter, Quincee.

“She’s very good at it,” Robin says. “She’s got a really good eye for it. She’s intelligent. She’s really great with the dogs. The dogs have to trust you or it doesn’t work. She’s got that kindness and thoughtfulness about her, to be able to do something like this and bring it forward.”

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Quincee remembers being surrounded by dogs growing up. Now that she’s out of college, she appreciates her mother’s talents.

“Coming back from college, I was never really involved in the training until I was an adult, there was much more of a brilliance to it than I felt growing up,” says Quincee Nuffer, one of three daughters that Brown had with her first husband. “There’s this dog and this mastery of intuitive communication that’s happening, often on the fly. After training happens, you really bond with the dog, and the dog has a sense of itself, and its duty and instinct.”

Robin Brown's daughter Quincee on horseback
Robin Brown’s daughter Quincee, right, on a horseback ride with a friend in Indian Valley. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

In essence, the master seeks harmony between the dog and the livestock.

“The best moments are when they’re in tune together,” Quincee says.

Robin is thankful to have her husband Rocky helping out full-time at Broken Circle Ranch.

“He’s very good with dogs because that’s all he’s done his whole life,” she says. “He gives lessons, he helps people, he makes it all possible. He makes things easy for me. He builds kennels … “

Robin Brown is hopeful that Quincee may stay interested in their business.

“She helps raise puppies, she’s started her own dogs, it’d be great if my Broken Circle Border Collies could keep going,” she says. “It’d be great if one of my kids could do that. I’m throwing that out there in the wind.”

In the meantime, Brown is ready to spend more time at home. “I’ve traveled all over the country doing the dog trials, but now I want to stay home more and eat apple pie,” she says.

Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.


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Steve Stuebner
Steve Stuebner

Steve Stuebner is well-known Idaho outdoor and conservation writer. He’s the author of "Paddling the Payette: 24 Whitewater and Flatwater Day Trips on the Payette River." He is also the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.