If you’ve never actually watched a sheepdog competition, you might not realize what you’re missing. I certainly didn’t. I mostly attended the championships at Soldier Hollow because I thought it’d make for a great photo opportunity (I was right), but I was honestly more interested in the programming that the rest of the schedule had to offer: dock diving for dogs, and demonstrations on a plethora of subjects including raptors, police dogs, exotic animals, draft dogs, and other entertainments. (I’ll have photos to share of all of that later.) I wasn’t disappointed on that count either, but I was taken by surprise by exactly how ridiculously enthralling the actual sheepdog herding was.
I attended day four of the event, which meant I got to take in the final championship round, the cream of the crop, the best of the best, and the most difficult course, the “International Double Lift.” The handlers, controlling their dogs through a series of specific whistles and occasional spoken commands, had to guide the dogs through what looked like a frankly harrowing course, over a long distance. (The location at former Olympic venue Soldier Hollow was also gorgeous and perfect for the crowd to be able to see the action on the opposite slope.) The dog is first sent on an “outrun” along the outside of the course, to gather a small group of sheep from the top of the hill, guide them between a pair of free-standing panels set up like gates, then drop that group and go and fetch a second little flock of sheep and do the same thing again. The dog then had to round up the first group, merge it together with the second group, and run the combined herd through another three obstacles, going around a post, then through a series of two more “gates.” The dog then gathered the sheep into the “shedding” ring, which was just a ring of ground marked by colored sandbags. The herder and dog together had to sort the sheep into two groups, keeping only five sheep wearing red cloth collars, and “shedding” the rest out of the circle. If they managed to get that far, they then had to herd those five remaining sheep into a small fenced pen, which was clearly about a million times harder than it sounds. Actually, it was clearly all about a million times harder than it sounds, and they had to do it all before the timer counted down to zero. The judges were also awarding points for any number of nuanced things, like how straight a line the dog managed to keep the sheep on, whether the handler changed sides with the dog during the shed, whether the dog ran out too wide or not wide enough in the cast. Neither herder nor dog are allowed to touch the sheep in any way, and the sheep aren’t necessarily inclined to be cooperative, either. By the time they’ve been herded for nearly a half an hour, they start to sass back.
It’s hard not to get into it, as you’re watching. I’d suggest not even resisting, because a competition like this could make a sheepdog enthusiast out of anyone. When you’ve watched a team do something so obviously difficult for twenty minutes, it’s tough to see it all fall apart. Every time a sheep made a break for it, the entire (very sizable) crowd gasped. When sheep broke free of the shedding circle and put the shepherd back at square one, everyone groaned in sympathy. And when a ewe broke free and celebrated with a manic bucking fit, we all found it hilarious, because we were together in our appreciation for sheep-related humor. Since I was new to sheepdog competitions, I was glad I’d spent the five bucks on a program, which explained not only the course and scoring but also provided illumination on the voice and whistle commands, which is both educational and hilarious. (For instance, “way to me” instructs the dog to move counter clockwise to the sheep, and the corresponding whistle command is listed as “whee-who.” “Whee-wheeeo” on the other hand means “come bye” or “move clockwise to sheep.” So if I told you “whee-whee, whee-wheeeo, whee-whee, whee-whee, who-hee-who,” I trust it would be obvious what I wanted.)
It was truly a pleasure to watch these skilled stockmen and their incredible dogs working sheep the same way they would on the range, and it was nice to spend a day in the company of fellow dog lovers, getting caught up in the drama of it all together. We were rained on in the morning and I got sunburned in the afternoon, I got to pet a skunk and photograph a fox, and all in all I’d say it’s one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I’m officially a convert… I’d be happy to watch dogs run around after sheep any day of the week.