Against a blue fall sky at the 2014 National Sheepdog Finals at Carbondale’s Strang Ranch, mowed fields, rich earth, and a faint whiff of manure smell pleasantly ranchlike. In an expansive pasture with a view of Mount Sopris, Gail, a border collie with characteristic black-and-white blazes, displays the focus of a Zen master as she crouches next to her handler, multiyear champion Alasdair MacRae, waiting to gather a flock of five sheep some 600 yards out. The audience, seated in bleachers and beach chairs alongside the field, is politely silent as a formation of black birds flies noisy sorties around the dog. For about eight seconds, an eternity in view of her barely contained eagerness, Gail doesn’t move.
When MacRae finally gives a discreet nod, Gail rockets into the outrun, taking a wide path around the five sheep grazing in the distance. Her approach is deliberate but not aggressive, so as to avoid alarming the group by coming too close. Having already anticipated the directional commands whistled by her handler, the dog herds the flock in the “fetch,” a straight-line journey through a two-panel gate right to MacRae’s feet.
The action during sheepdog trials is based on what’s often a one-sided relationship. Sheep naturally default to grazing, clinging to each other like burrs for safety, while the trained dog, using hypnotic stare-downs known as “the eye,” quickly establishes its predator dominance. Sometimes a lead ewe will challenge a dog, but a dog is not allowed to bite a sheep. One exception: if a sheep butts it, the dog is allowed to momentarily nip the sheep’s nose.
This complex choreography between person, dog, and sheep, with enough subtleties to charm every attentive spectator, will take place locally again September 13–18, 2016, as the Strang’s high-plains ranch hosts the national finals for the third time. Some 150 dog-and-handler teams are expected to compete in the six-day competition. The spectacular open-air setting, ease of access with ample parking, a variety of foods and crafts for sale, a lamb cook-off, and a close-in nursery competition for pups under three years old add to the national event’s appeal.
In addition to highlighting Western heritage and promoting farm-to-table food production, says ranch owner Bridget Strang, the event will donate all gate proceeds to the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which works to preserve open land from development. The Strang Ranch itself, for example, is conserved in perpetuity for ranching and open space, producing, among other things, eggs and grass-fed beef and lamb for local restaurants. A sod farm helps fund the food operation.
But during the competition, the border collies—a shaggy, spotted breed developed in the pastoral Anglo-Scottish region—are the main attraction. As Strang says, “They’re born to bring sheep to you.” Thought by many to be the most intelligent domestic dog, the collies are capable of learning more than 300 words. Their physical prowess is impressive, too: they can make abrupt turns at 30 miles per hour. And their intuitive moves in the field demonstrate what the craft calls “presence.”
Says handler Maureen Robinson, who participated with her dog at the 2014 finals, “A good dog works smoothly from a distance, with correct pressure, and knows where to stay on the edge of the ‘bubble.’” She adds that sheep have “two faces, threatening and sheepish,” and that the more feral sheep used at the Strang event are the most challenging on the circuit, coming off of a summer of fending for themselves in the Colorado high country.
During the trials, after the initial fetch, a dog sets out on the “drive,” herding the sheep through two distant gates before returning to the “shed,” a designated small circle where handler and dog must separate two sheep from the rest of the herd. (If the action slows, a judge may quip, “I didn’t come here to watch sheep graze.”)
Next comes the delicate, slow-motion dance called the “pen.” During this stage, the dog tries to coax the sheep into a small fenced area, after which the handler will close the gate behind them, then open it again. This is followed by the “single,” in which dog and handler must separate and hold one sheep away from the group just outside the pen.
Scores are determined by subtracting penalty points from a predetermined total, which varies with the number of exercises and the level of competition. The judge focuses on the behavior of the sheep as an indication of the dog’s authority, and points are subtracted for allowing sheep to dawdle or wander. The team with the fewest penalties within a 15- to 30-minute individual trial scores the highest.
Once attuned to the devotion of the dogs to their task and the intricate bond between dog and handler, spectators find it easy to root for the canine performers. And everyone can identify with the relief the dogs get as they plunge into a cool trough of water at each trial’s end—a small but important reward for a job well done.