National Sheepdog Finals continue at Strang Ranch | AspenTimes.com

National Sheepdog Finals continue at Strang Ranch

Jim Paussa/www.paussa.comA competitor at the 2011 National Sheepdog Finals cools down after taking a turn in the trials with five sheep. The competition continues through Sunday at Strang Ranch in Missouri Heights.

MISSOURI HEIGHTS – Retired cattle rancher Bill Myers gazed to the far side of a vast pasture at the Strang Ranch one morning this week and chuckled as a border collie scrambled to herd five plump, skittish sheep through an open gate.

“Look at those buggers – they don’t want to go through the gate,” Myers laughed.

His wife, JoEllen, noted that cattle would dash right through the gate because they have such a different mentality.

“We know about cattle,” Bill said. “We don’t know a damn thing about sheep.”

The Carbondale couple attended the 2011 National Sheepdog Finals out of curiosity and for entertainment: “I just love to watch the dogs,” Bill Myers said. “I think it’s fascinating.”

They have great instincts, he said, and many have a strong bond with their handlers, following whistles and verbal commands. The Myerses wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to watch the best handlers in the U.S. while they were so close.

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The Strang Ranch hosted the preliminary rounds of the sheepdog finals Tuesday through Thursday. The finals of the nursery field, the young dogs, will begin at 8 a.m. Friday.

The final preliminary round in the open field, the more experienced dogs, also will take place Friday. The top 40 dogs from 150 competitors in the open division will move to the semifinals on Saturday. That will be whittled to 17 finalists on Sunday.

For the top handlers, this event is like the World Series.

“There’s some camaraderie and some not,” said Scott Glen, a top handler from New Dayton, Alberta. “It’s just like any sport.” He explained further by saying he gets along well with some competitors and not so well with others.

That said, his personal philosophy is, “Remember, it’s fun,” according to an online biography from a prior competition.

He said he will watch some of the other teams compete – when he wants to see how a particular dog will perform. When he is out on the field, he’s focusing on the best possible performance with his dog, leading it through a series of tasks in a trial course that test the animal’s skill in maneuvering sheep.

“When things are going well I try not to think about it,” Glen said, noting that he doesn’t want to jinx his luck.

He qualified with two dogs in both the open and nursery divisions. The dogs in the nursery division had to be younger than 3 on July 1. Glen likened them to college kids: They often have a lot of training, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot until they gain experience or “feet on the ground.”

The organizers brought in 850 sheep from northwest Colorado for the competition. They will be rotated into the trials five at a time throughout the event, with at least one day of rest between runs. The sheep aren’t used to dogs. Glen, a handler since 1984, said he liked that “in theory.”

Sonia Craig, a handler from southwest Nebraska, said handlers from the western U.S. are more used to working with sheep that are from the vast emptiness of the range and don’t particularly like to be herded by a dog. Handlers from the East typically work with farm flock sheep confined to small spaces. That difference might play into the finals.

“You find out what your dog’s made of with these sheep,” she said.

One particularly belligerent sheep squared up to a border collie during a trial one morning this week and stomped its hoof several times, seeming to warn the dog not to come closer.

“These sheep are kind of fighting the dogs today,” Craig said. In cases like that, judges might allow more “grips,” or a dog’s gentle bite on a sheep’s nose or a nip at a side, to get compliance. Dogs that are too aggressive with their grip get disqualified.

Craig and other handlers at the finals take turns wearing vests that say “Ask Me.” They encourage members of the crowd to inquire about the rules of the trials and the strategy of the handlers. Early in the competition the audience was dominated by handlers and companions, she said. More novice spectators are expected Friday through Sunday for the final rounds.

The public is welcome. Tickets are $10 per day for adults; $5 for seniors and youngsters ages 8 through 16. Children 7 and younger can attend for free. Admission proceeds will benefit the Aspen Valley Land Trust and its conservation efforts. Spectators must leave their dogs at home.

The Strang Ranch is at 0393 County Road 102, roughly three miles onto Missouri Heights from Catherine Store. It is set up to accommodate large crowds, with ample parking. There will be dog-handling demonstrations hourly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the weekend, as well as cooking demonstrations and food and craft vendors.

Visit http://www.sheepdogfinals.com for a full schedule.

Glen said he is on the road from late March until early November, at competitions but also at clinics and schools to train people how to handle stock dogs. He didn’t take the bait when asked how long it took for him to become a good handler.

“I’ll let you know when I get there,” he said with a laugh.

scondon@aspentimes.com