Gary Ericsson & The Hangin' Tree Legacy

Living in Salmon, Idaho (and later in Oklahoma) Gary Ericsson and his family made their living on a cattle ranch and breeding, training and selling stockdogs.  Gary took his decades of cattle knowledge, breeding knowledge, and combined that with a set of clear values he wanted in an Australian Shepherd stockdog.  Over the course of many years, and many breedings, he was able to establish a line of Australian Shepherds are still talked about today. The following is information I have been able to gather to help tell only a fraction of the Hangin' Tree Australian Shepherd story.

The Early Days

Being in the cattle business, Gary began to seriously breed dogs for the traits he wanted in a stockdog in the early 1980s.  He needed dogs that were tough enough to work cattle.  He developed his Australian Shepherd line by combining outstanding individual dogs from existing ASCA kennels (Zephyr / Don Donham, Las Rocosa / Hartnagle Family, and others) with Australian Shepherds that he and his extended family had bred for decades. A key part of his breeding program, was to cull heavily and breed only the best stockdogs with the traits he had the strongest convictions for.  Below is a short list for the characteristics he valued.  

Hangin' Tree Australian Shepherd Desired Traits:

Gary had strong convictions for what he wanted in an Australian Shepherd.  

  • His Aussies had to be strong working dogs and registered with ASCA.  They had to have power, confidence, athletic, built for speed, endurance, and agility.  
  • His dogs go to work at an early age.  By a few months old, they better already be learning how to be a hand on the ranch.  
  • His Aussies needed to be tough and have the courage to stand up to and handle all types of cattle.  
  • His Australian Shepherds had to have good dispositions.

HOF WTCH Hangin' Tree Black Bear PATDc RTDcs RDg

One of Gary's most well known, and influential, Australian Shepherds is Hangin' Tree Black Bear (Hangin' Tree Buddy x Zephyr's Angel Blue). He is so well know, so pivotal, many people outside of the breed have heard of the name "Black Bear" as well. If you are looking at pedigrees, you will see his name a few generations back in many, many working dogs. Black Bear (and Gary) have played an influential role in Australian Shepherds and the Hangin' Tree Cowdog breed. (

Gary's family had working Aussies for many years on ranches in Arizona and Idaho.  Gary got an Aussie from his brother in Arizona.  This Aussie was later on in life and carried the named Hangin' Tree Buddy.  Buddy would be an outcross with Gary's current females and said "he was a tough old cuss".  He was mentally tough, smart, fast, and aggressive on cattle.  Gary also saw some of these same characteristics in Buddy's ancestors.

At the time, Gary's best producing female was Zephyr's Angel Blue.  Angel was a very effective ranch dog in her own right, and tougher than most females.  Gary felt she would cross well with Buddy.  The first Buddy x Angel cross produced Hangin' Tree Black Bear.  Interestingly, Gary sold Black Bear to neighbor ranch friend who really wanted a tough little puppy.  Two months later, the friend said the 'little black pup' was a real handful and asked Gary if he would be willing to trade for a less challenging puppy.  Gary took Black Bear back.  Immediately Gary noticed Bear's remarkable talent and intensity at this young age.  At 4.5 months old, Gary started training Bear on stock.  Gary said that Bear was smart, tough minded and serious just like Buddy.  Actually he was more than smart, he was almost cunning and also receptive to many forms of training, Gary said.  He was stubborn, and just would not back down from a challenging animal.  Black Bear was physically durable and had long lasting endurance and had speed.  Gary said, "He remains the toughest and most powerful Aussie I have ever seen."

At a young age, after some training, Black Bear was used regularly to gather and break tough range cattle, and was labeled with the nickname The Enforcer.  He was extremely tough, and worked close and hard on stock.  Gary was pleased that Bear equally hit both heads and heels, and was both agile and intense.  Gary did point out that Bear was not as biddable as his previous Hangin' Tree bred dogs, but was more than willing to work with this shortcoming in exchange for the power he saw.

At 13 months old, Gary and Black Bear were successfully evaluated for their ASCA Ranch Dog title.  Due to this designation, Bear was able to immediately compete at the Advanced level in ASCA arena trialing.  Bear only trialed in ASCA one weekend in Alberta, Canada and completed his Working Trial Championship (WTCH).  All six of his qualifying scores that weekend were over 100 points with Gary handling him.  In addition to that, Bear twice won the Idaho State Stockdog Championship (all breed competition).  One characteristic Black Bear always demonstrated was power.  Although he is known for his work on cattle, he was equally talented on sheep and ducks.

September 1992

In 1992 Gary sold the home ranch due to pressures.  In the previous few years leading up to the sale of the ranch, Gary and Choc developed a new breed called the Hangin' Tree Cowdog.  In September, Davene Peters of Montana began the purchase and transfer of Hangin' Tree Australian Shepherds kennel from Gary.  In total she purchased stud dogs Black Bear and Spook, and seven outstanding, hand-selected brood bitches.  All of these bitches went to work as little puppies, had so much concentration, and were so easy to teach.  Gary knew the Peters family for many years and respected them as stockman.  He was hopeful that 30 years of his dedicated Australian Shepherd breeding would be carried forward for many years. 
Davene worked with Gary for several years and continued to consult with him as she transitioned to full possession of the line.  In the purchase agreement, Davene paid $20,000 specifically for Black Bear, who was transferred to her ownership via ASCA registration in June, 1994.  An additional $8,500 was paid for the remaining breeding stock.  The agreement also included a 5-year non-compete clause that prevented Gary from breeding and registering and Australian Shepherds. 
Davene campaigned Black Bear in the North American Professional Stockdog Association for several years.  They won a year long points program and were awarded the title of Montana State Championship Stockdog.  Black Bear did well in time and point competitions against all-breed working dogs.  Since Black Bear did so well a various trials, over the years, his reputation continued to grow. Davene and Bear also competed in ASCA trials throughout the west and qualified for Finals.  In late 1996 Bear was retired from trialing.  About that same time, Davene suspected that a reductive injury made Bear incapable of siring litters and was no longer used as a stud.  His last litter with her was whelped in the summer of 1996.
Davene ran her business of breeding stockdogs for the ranching market.  She produced an average of about 12 litters per year with many of the puppies being sold unregistered (this was/is not unusual) to farmers and ranchers throughout the United States and Canada.  Her dogs were in high demand and she maintained a near constant waiting list for puppies.......especially Black Bear puppies.  During Davene's time in Aussies, she assisted and mentored other kennels (Diamond S, Four Bar X, etc.) who utilized Hangin' Tree progeny.  Davene used both the Hangin' Tree and Peters Ranch kennel names on registered offspring.  I don't know if there was a system for which puppies were labeled with which kennel name.  By the late 1990's the Hangin' Tree dogs she purchased (Spook, Black Bear, Hucklebrry, etc.) were phased out and she was not producing or selling.  Essentially the Hangin' Tree line of dogs had faded away.  
Gary the Visionary and Innovator
The part I admire the most about Gary - he is an innovator and had a vision for what he wanted to do.  How many people do you know that created their own breed of anything?  Once he (and his son Choc) determined what he wanted in a 'super cattle dog' they went to work.  Gary and Choc decided to take everything that is good from a few breeds and create a new breed - the Hangin' Tree Cowdog.  The ultimate cow dog.

 The Hangin' Tree Cowdog is:

 A cattledog that is a gathering, retrieving, herding type dog.

  • A tough aggressive dog that has the courage to stand up to and handle all types of cattle.

  • An intelligent dog that is easy to train.

  • A dog with good disposition that is not overly sensitive.

  • A short or slick haired dog that can stand the heat when needed and also shed burs and mud with minimal coat maintenance.

  • A dog with good bone structure that can take the abuse that a cattledog takes from being kicked and ran over.

  • A dog that is deep and wide in the chest with endurance that will stay with you when the going gets tough.

  • A dog that can wind and trail cattle.

  • The Hangin Tree Cowdog is a purebred working dog bred specifically to work cattle.

Gary chose four breeds originally to develop this breed: 

  • 3/8 Border Collie for their intense herding instinct and intelligence.

  • 1/8 Catahoula for the ability to trail and find cattle, also for their toughness and slick hair coat.

  • 1/4 Kelpie for endurance and also herding instinct and short hair.

  • 1/4 Australian Shepherd, only a dog named Hangin' Tree Black Bear went into this breed. Bear was a super dog with courage, confidence and the ability to handle any kind of cattle.

I only spoke to Gary a few times on the phone.  I wish I would have been able to talk to him more and just learn about his philosophies about ranching, stockdogs, breeding and so much more.  During our phone calls, I was simply trying to get to know him in some small way.  He was family man and a stockman.  An artist and entrepreneur.  He was a cattleman, showman, and a poet.  He was an innovator and a creator - a giant in the dog world.