Friday, October 11, 2013

Trials attract top dogs

Qualifying event for national competition takes place this weekend

Express Staff Writer

A handler and his border collie cooperate to move sheep through a requisite series of steps in the sheepdog trails. Express file photo

    The U.S. National Point Qualifying Sheepdog Trials will take place at this year’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival at Quigley Canyon this weekend from dawn until dusk Saturday and Sunday.
    According to festival Executive Director Mary Austin Crofts, there will be border collies coming in to compete from several states that include Washington, Utah and North Dakota.
    Crofts said the border collie owners love taking their dogs to this particular competition because of the quality of the sheep they are able to herd here.
    “We only allow the elite class of dogs,” Crofts said. “People love to come here because we have real wild sheep for this event. In many cases they don’t have that opportunity because they go to trials with sheep that are pets, with owners who have raised them and are easy to manipulate. These sheep are very tough to manipulate. They’re used to running together in a band of 1,500.”
    Hailey resident Curtis Mays will be in charge of the trials,. He said the handlers love seeingsheep that are competitive and feisty.
    “The handlers don’t want docile sheep,” Mays said. “They want sheep that live out in the wild and worry about predators.”
    Mays said there will be 50 dogs competing, handled by 25 to 30 owners.
    Each dog can be sponsored for $100. Sponsors receive free entry for both days of the competition,  and a photo of them with the dog and the handler. They are also listed in the program beside the name of the dog they are sponsoring.
    Crofts said not all the dogs have been sponsored yet, but she expects to see all of them sponsored before the trials take place.
    “People who train these border collies and do these trials are absolutely fanatical about it,” she said. “It’s like a community that travels all over the U.S. together to compete.”
    She added that she’s very excited to attend the trials for the fifth time as executive director of the Trailing of the Sheep Fesitival, and said attendees have a lot to look forward to.
    “People can expect to see a lot of really talented and beautiful dogs,” she said. “The people who attend are all just so gentle-hearted and love animals. We usually see 2,000 to 3,000 people over the two days, and we encourage people to bring their camera. This is a very fun part of the festival.”
    Each dogs run at the sheepdog trials begins with the handler and dog at one end of the course facing five range sheep at a distance of 450 yards. Each dog begins with a total of 100 points and the judges deduct points as the dog negotiates six steps. The steps must be completed in sequential order. Each dog has 12 minutes to complete the course.
    Step 1: OUTRUN–20 points. The handler releases the dog to run in a pear shape around the sheep without “spooking” or startling them. The distance can be up to 600 yards. The dog then begins the lift.

    Step 2: THE LIFT–10 points. This is when the dog “introduces” itself to the sheep and slowly begins to move them forward.

    Step 3: THE FETCH–20 points. Here the dog brings all five sheep to the handler waiting at the end of the field.  The first part of the fetch is to bring the sheep 200 yards and through two parallel “fetch” gates. Once through the gates, they will travel another 250 yards to and around the handler clockwise.

    Step 4: THE DRIVE–30 points. Broken into three parts. In the first part, the sheep are herded 150 yards toward and through the first “drive” gate. In the second part, called the “cross-drive,” the sheep must cross the entire field, an additional 150 yards, and go through the second “drive” gate.  The third part is the drive to the shedding ring.

Step 5: THE SHEDDING RING–10 points. When all five sheep are in the shedding ring, which is 40 yards in diameter and marked only by a circle on the ground, the team must then “shed” or separate the back two sheep from the other three. The judge usually calls “good” and the sheep are then regathered in the ring and head for the pen.

Step 6: THE PEN–10 points. Once all five sheep are back in the ring, the handler will walk to the pen and open the gate. The dog will then attempt to herd the sheep to the pen. The sheep have never been worked in groups of five before, so this can be very difficult. The handler can assist the dog, but once the handler’s hand is on the rope of the gate, that’s where it has to stay. Once the sheep are in the pen, the trial is completed.

Sheepdog trials showcase work ethic of border collies
    Border collies will be the four-legged competitors in this year’s sheepdog trails. These dogs are considered a beloved and indispensable animal for many ranchers.
    “Ranchers couldn’t do their jobs without border collies,” said Mary Austin Crofts, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival’s executive director. “Around the world, everyone uses sheepdogs in their sheep operations.”
    Crofts spoke adamantly about how close border collies are to the hearts of their owners.
    “The border collies are so amazing and intelligent,” she said. “Even if they have a full-time job, the handlers live and breathe border collies.”
    Sheepdog trial administrator Curtis Mays said he’s impressed by the way border collies are able to herd sheep.
    “These dogs have an ability to use their eyes, feet and agility better than any other dogs, at least with the U.S.-type of sheep,” he said. “There are some border collies that will go on top of sheep once they can get together and actually walk across the top of them, but I have yet to see that in person,”
    Mays also said those who attend the trials should pay special attention to the way the border collies communicate with their handlers.
    “What makes these dogs so special is the way they communicate with their human handler,” he said. “The way they move the sheep, it’s not a miracle but it’s so hard to believe they can do that.”
    Crofts said she’s intrigued by the work ethic and the energy of the dogs.
    “Border collies love to work—they need a job and just love what they do. People who have them for pets still need to give them jobs. They’re working dogs and they’re herding dogs that absolutely love to work. They’re so sweet, nice and totally focused on whatever you want them to do.”

Express photo by Roland Lane

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