Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Man and dog at their best

Trials exhibit the age-old practice of border-collie sheepherding

Express Staff Writer

A sheepdog goes to work in Hailey. Photo by Mountain Express

Patrick Shannahan and his border collie, Riggs, just placed first at the nationals in Middletown, Virg., making them the top sheep-herding pair in the country. But there's little time to bask.

They're already heading west to Sun Valley for another sheepdog trial on Oct. 9-10 that Shannahan hasn't missed once in its 14 years. A 22-year veteran of the sport, he calls the championships one of the best in the West. The competition is stiff, but there's something else making the event unique, authentic. An underlying current runs through every whistle a handler blows to his or her dog here, an ode to a former way of life.

The Guigley Canyon competition field, nestled between steep sagebrush-covered hills, used to be sheep grazing grounds, as was much of the high-desert valley.

In the late 1800s, a white, woolly tide washed away what remained of the valley's mining rush. By 1918, Idaho's sheep population reached 2.65 million, outnumbering people 6 to 1. And Ketchum was the hub, the town at the end of the railroad line to which lonesome herders who lived in mountainous solitude during the summers would travel to sell their stock. In volume worldwide, the town's shipping center was second only to that of Syndey, Australia.

Sheepherding remains in the valley but not to the extent it once did. And so came the reason for starting the annual trial. This year's trials have attracted 50 border collies and their handlers, with competition lasting from about 7 a.m. to sunset Saturday and Sunday. Handler Lavon Calzacorta said courses can vary, but the basics never change. He said handlers aren't given a layout of the course beforehand, but it always involves the dog's first running about 400 yards out to bring the sheep—five in this case—to the handler, who must stand near a post. The handler can signal to the dog by whistling or voice commands.

The dog guides the sheep through a series of freestanding gates and then to a circle marked by stones, called a shed, where they must be kept standing together for a short time before heading to a pen that the handler closes behind the sheep. It takes about 12 minutes per run.

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Scoring works by each competitor starting with 100 points. Each dog also has a fresh herd. Deductions are made for errors along the way, such as failing elements. Deductions occur for not getting all the sheep to pass through the gates or for instances of the sheep moving off line or becoming scattered.

Calzacorta said a score in the mid-80s to 90 is exceptional.

"But, sometimes, a 60 can win it," he said, adding that it depends on the course's trickiness.

Calzacorta won bronze at the Soldier Hollow Classic in Utah's Heber Valley, southeast of Salt Lake City, at the beginning of September. The trial is one of the West's most prestigious, attracting 42 competitors this year and 24,000 spectators.

The trick for the dog is to not be a predator but still let the sheep know it's in charge. The dog guides the sheep from behind, often swerving back and forth to keep the sheep in a tight group. The dog sometimes hunches close to the ground in a pounce-like stance and uses a direct stare, called "the eye," to intimidate the sheep, but doesn't bark or bite.

Ann and husband Loren Saari, of Ilwaco, Wash., witnessed their first sheepdog trial in Sun Valley last year and were hooked. Since then, they've been to other trials.

"It was as if they were in a mind meld," she said of a dog and handler competing together for 10 years. "You could barely hear the signal before the dog acted."

But, Shannahan said, communications isn't always that simple. He's competing with three dogs at this year's trials and has had more dogs than he can count along the way, all border collies. He said this black-and-white, soft-haired, thin-framed dog breed has been bred for generations and generations for one thing. It has nothing to do with prestigious looks, and everything to do with the dog's mind.

Shannahan's dogs not only compete but work as sheepherders at his home in Caldwell, near Boise. So, he says, is the way of life for many of the dogs, which he sees time and time again on the circuit. Trials span from spring to fall, with the Sun Valley competition being one of the year's last.

Trevon Milliard:

Sheepdog Championship Trials

To get to the trials, take Fox Acres Road east off state Highway 75 in southern Hailey to the Quigley Canyon fields. Signs show the way. The entrance fee is $2 per person. Children under 5 get in free. Bring lawn chairs but no coolers. Food vendors will be at the event. Entrance fees go toward trophies and to offset the cost of operating the trails.

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