Sheepdog event takes a trial run near Carbondale |

Sheepdog event takes a trial run near Carbondale

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesMolly, owned by Jim Swift of Grand Junction, tests her skills during sheepdog trials Friday morning at the Strang Ranch in Missouri Heights. The trials continue today and Sunday.

CARBONDALE – Anyone who thinks their dog’s pretty sharp because it can roll over and play dead ought to head for the Strang Ranch outside of Carbondale this weekend.

There, some 60 sheepdogs and their handlers are putting on a display of stamina, skill, communication and control. The sheep are doing their unpredictable best to throw a wrench into the proceedings.

The ranch is hosting sheepdog trials that are a qualifier for next year’s national finals in Virginia – much like the well-known and well-attended trials held each year in Meeker. The event, which organizer Bridget Strang hopes to repeat next year, is a test run for 2011, when the ranch has been chosen to host the national finals for the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association – an event that will draw top sheepdog competitors from around the country.

Hosting the finals is “huge,” said sheepdog owner Terri Warner, a Cimarron resident competing at this weekend’s trials.

The national finals will be good for the Roaring Fork Valley and, hopefully, Aspen Valley Land Trust, which receives a percentage of the gate proceeds, according to Strang, a competitor herself.

This weekend, though, spectators are welcome to watch the sport for free. About 40 dogs were expected to compete Friday and Saturday in the open and open ranch classes. Sunday’s action will feature about 20 young dogs and beginning handlers. The open class is the most advanced, in which handlers and their dogs can earn points toward qualification for the finals.

On an expansive, mowed field at the Strang Ranch on Missouri Heights, the course consists of a 430-yard “outrun” – the dogs run a much longer distance to circle around behind four sheep positioned 430 yards away from the handler. Using varying whistle tones and voice commands, handlers guide the dog through the “lift” – collecting the sheep, and the “fetch” – driving them back to the handler in the straightest line possible, guiding the sheep through a pair of gates along the way. Then, during the “drive,” the handler and dog drive the sheep back out and through a series of gates, while the judge looks for straight lines and a steady pace from the sheep. Also part of the maneuvers are driving the sheep into a pen, and the “shed,” in which two sheep are separated from the group. The dog and handler have 13 minutes to complete all of the maneuvers.

“It’s the most humbling thing you can ever do,” Strang said. “For me, it’s been a real learning experience.”

Well-trained dogs will change direction, stop or slow to a crawling advance toward the sheep, at the sound of the whistle, but nobody’s perfect. “Cut it out!” one handler yelled as the trials got under way Friday morning.

“It’s a real challenge – you and your dog out there trying to make sheep go in different directions,” said Loreli Judd, a competitor from Coalville, Utah.

“It’s probably the most humbling thing I’ve ever done,” Warner agreed. “One day you have it mastered, and the next time, you fall flat on your face.”

The dogs, who might run a mile if they keep the sheep on course and two or three if they don’t, typically retire at about age 10, after 3 or 4 years at their peak.

“That’s part of the addiction,” Warner said. “You’re always trying to find the one dog that gets it. You’re always looking for that perfect dog.”

“You get three or four years of running around the field, chasing the dog, then you get three or four years of just blowing the whistle, and then you have to start all over again,” Judd added.

The sheep for the weekend trials come from Silt. They are untested in sheepdog competition to ensure the competitors will have their work cut out from them.

“None of these sheep will have seen this before,” Strang said.

For Maureen Robinson of Ziconia, N.C., and her dog, Lizard, the sheep proved challenging. They ran out the clock trying to complete the final maneuver.

The sheep of the West, which graze on open range, are a far cry from the more timid farm sheep of the East, according to Robinson.

“A lot of people think there are not good dogs in the East. It’s not true,” she said, but spending some time training dogs with open-range sheep is key.

Lizard’s first competition with open-range sheep was just last winter, and she never managed to round them up and successfully drive them to Robinson in the fetch, the first maneuver. She did far better than that on Friday.

“I couldn’t have been more pleased,” Robinson said. “We won’t place, but she did great.”

Judd summed it up: “It’s a joy when you do it right.”

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