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Sheepdog showdown on Vashon

Eager border collies and a few (sometimes) freaky sheep mix it up in an island pasture.
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Tucker, a border collie, driving his sheep during a late-day run.

Eager border collies and a few (sometimes) freaky sheep mix it up in an island pasture.

Laura Vishoot and her border collie, Tucker, had four sheep cornered near the gate of an eight-by nine-foot pen. Tucker crouched tensely in the grass as he and Vishoot stared down the wide-eyed flock of four freshly sheared sheep. The sheep inched in unison toward the pen-gate and finally lurched inside. Vishoot swung the gate shut and the thinning crowd cheered and applauded.

Welcome to the Vashon Sheepdog Classic. The annual three-day event drew more than 60 sheepherding teams and about 700 spectators last Saturday, according to organizer Maggi McClure. The handlers and the dogs — mostly border collies, though there were also a few kelpies — competed last weekend at Vashon's Misty Isle Farm. (There was also a competition on Friday for less experienced teams.)


Vashon Sheepdog Classic draws big crowds. Credit: Bill Lucia

Sheepherding competitions test the ability of handlers and dogs to gather and guide groups of four or five sheep through a course the size of three or four football fields. Each team gets one run, or ‘trial,’ per day where they must complete a series of herding tasks. The handlers communicate with their dogs using whistles and words, sometimes while the dog is out of sight and nearly a quarter mile away. Judges grade the team’s efficiency and style on a 100-point scale, deducting points if the dog herds the sheep on a meandering path, or causes any of them to bolt from the pack. If a dog bites a sheep — this is known as a ‘grip’ — it is disqualified.

“It’s exhilarating to run the dog at a competition,” says Ray Coapman, from Montague, CA, who along with his dog, Jill, won Saturday’s competition by scoring 95 out of 100 possible points. “I could see she was moving them perfectly, moving them along at the ideal speed. I wanted to keep nice steady pressure on the sheep, and it worked out. There wasn't one real freaky [sheep]. Once in a while you get a freak-out that wants to get up and go.”

While it’s a niche sport, sheepherding has a dedicated group of competitors in the Pacific Northwest, some who drive hundreds of miles to compete in contests as far away as California, Wyoming, Colorado and even Middletown, Virginia where the National Sheepdog Finals are held each year. Nationwide there are about 1,000 sheepdog teams competing in the top-level contests known as “open runs,” according to Herbert Holmes, President of the United States Border Collie Handler’s Association. Holmes said that about another 3,000 handlers and dogs compete in other divisions.

“When I first started a lot of people were ranchers or farmers,” says Patrick Shannahan, who’s been herding with sheepdogs for over 23 years, both competitively and on his farm. “Today a lot are hobbyists. A lot of people start out and then decide to have a small farm and change lifestyles.”

Shannahan works as a professional sheepdog trainer and also has a ranch with about 300 sheep in Caldwell, Idaho. He has won the National Sheepdog Finals twice, once with his dog, Riggs, who has been competing for almost a decade and is something of a rock star on the local herding circuit.

Veteran sheepdog trainer Patrick Shannahan on what makes a good trial run.

“This is a weird way to want to spend your time,” allows McClure, who has organized the competition since 2010 and also competes with her four-year-old border collie, Rob. “It’s like golf. Perfection is so hard to achieve. It’s like you’re having a dance between the dog and the sheep.”

A sheepdog trial run has six parts. Each is designed to simulate a common sheep-ranching situation. Judges look for smooth and efficient movement that doesn't upset the sheep. “If these sheep were going to auction, no one would want their livestock stressed,” McClure explains.

At the Vashon competition, the action unfolds in 11 and-a-half minutes; a handler can retire early if the run is going poorly. The 250 sheep at the event came from Anderson Ranches in Brownsville, Oregon. Most of the animals run in only one trial each day.

The terrain on the Vashon course is especially challenging. Rolling hills make it difficult for handlers to see their dogs during some segments of the trial. “The dog kind of owns that part,” says Joe Haynes, who works at a biotech company and also owns a sheep farm near Arlington, Washington. Haynes has competed in sheepdog trials for about 10 years and placed second on Saturday.


Sheep on standby. Credit: Bill Lucia

McClure says handlers need to be aware of subtle factors, like how humidity affects their dogs and how sheep become more finicky late in the day, when they get tired. “It takes 4 dogs to train an owner and four years to train a dog,” she says.

McClure’s first foray into sheepherding was 20-years ago with a border collie named Jake. Initially, she entered Jake into ‘agility’ competitions, where dogs navigate obstacle courses with tunnels, ramps and teeter-totters. “He sucked,” says McClure. But a friend convinced her to take Jake to a sheepherding clinic. “He was hooked and I was hooked,” she says. Although Jake was better at herding than obstacles, McClure says he never became a top competitor. “He tried really hard," says McClure. "We had fun." But in the end, "he sucked at that too.”

“It’s not a sport that’s good for someone who likes instant gratification,” says Coapman, Saturday’s winner. His dog Jill is a natural herder, who trained well enough to trial in just six months. “We didn't have to show her anything twice,” says Coapman, adding that he's spent up to 18 months training other border collies. All his fellow competitors expressed admiration for the intelligence and sharp herding instincts of the breed.

“They’ve been bred special to do this,” says Shannahan. “If you look at the puppies, all the knowledge is in there already. It’s been in there for centuries.”

Shannahan weathered a tough run on Saturday. Riggs spooked the sheep at times, causing the pack to run and break up. Eleven-year-old Riggs will retire later this year. But his instinct to herd doesn't seem to be waning. Even after Shannahan told the judges he wanted to retire Riggs didn't quit, running in a wide arc across the pasture, tongue flapping as he reeled in a wayward sheep.


Riggs, 2010 U.S. National Sheepdog Finals champ. Credit: Bill Lucia

“Riggs is like a partner,” says Shannahan. “[He] wants to be part of a team.”

Holmes, president of the UBCHA, explains that the bond between sheepdogs and their owners, much like the one between Shannahan and Riggs, is very specific. “They’re one man’s beast,” he says. “There’s a relationship there and they won’t just work for anyone who comes along.”

As for Laura Vishoot and Tucker, they didn't crack the top ten, finishing in 11th place. They lost 19 points on the "drive," the part of the contest where handlers use whistles and directional commands to help their dogs move the sheep through two sets of gates.

When the final results were posted and most of the spectators and handlers had gone home for the night, the trial organizers let the flock of 250 sheep loose to graze in the open pasture, unherded and unbothered by those relentless border collies.

  

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Sheepdog showdown on Vashon