Athleticism on display in Carbondale, CO as sheepdogs compete in national final
On a crisp fall morning at the Strang Ranch in Carbondale, CO, some of the finest athletes in North America competed to show they have what it takes to overcome the toughest challenges their sport has to offer.
The challenge? Ornery range sheep from Colorado’s high country, and miles of field to run them on.
The athletes, as you might’ve guessed, weren’t people. They’re border collies, bred for generations to herd livestock, mostly sheep and cattle.
The 2023 United States Border Collie Handlers Association National Finals took place in Carbondale this year, from Sept. 26 to Oct 1. The event featured the best herding dogs, all border collies, from around North America, working with their handlers to herd stubborn Colorado sheep.
Their handlers use a series of whistled and verbal commands to tell the dogs where to go and what to do. But a lot of the sport starts with instinct, and the border collies' innate desire to work the sheep was on full display.
“They know what to do,” said Ellen Skillings of California. “It's just building the communication system between the two of you and developing them and correcting the bad little bits, trimming them off and saying, ‘No, no doggy, don't do that. But yeah, just go ahead and do what you naturally want to do and we'll put the commands on it.’”
Skillings has been in this sport, also called “dog trialing,” and working with animals for nearly 40 years. She said the dogs competing at Strang Ranch in the finals are the best of the best, and represent a bond between the handler and dog that can only be built with dedication and hard work.
“This is a big course with pretty tough sheep, and so the dog really has to have a lot of stamina to get through it,” she said. “It requires quite a lot of dog.”
The course and tasks are meant to be transferable to actual farm and ranch work with livestock.
For example, a good stock dog will need to be able to herd stock over long distances, especially in the West, where ranges stretch miles and predators — such as wolves and coyotes — are abundant.
Or, if someone comes by the ranch to purchase a sheep, or a sheep is sick and needs doctoring, a dog needs to be able to help its handler separate it off from the rest of the herd. And of course, a dog needs to be able to help get the sheep into a pen.
These abilities are all tested throughout the trial course here at the Strang Ranch.
Among the teams competing here was Bridget Strang - whose family owns and runs the ranch - and her dog, Bill. The pair have competed in trials all over the country… but Bill’s main job is helping out on the ranch.
“That's kind of how I train them,” Strang said. “I give them… I teach them a few tools, and then I go out and I do a job. And through that, through that series of chores and tasks is kind of how I train my dog. And I think other people probably have more method.”
You might think Bill would have had a home field advantage, but he’s only three years old, and hadn’t worked with these specific sheep from Montrose, CO before.
For Strang, hosting the National Finals is a special experience.
“You know, I live for the dog trialing,” she said. “I would still have dogs and sheep and do the work if I didn't dog trial. But with every job I do, I sort of have my eye on the ball for how that might help me with the trial field.”
In the semi-finals Strang and Bill were able to corral all of their sheep into the pen, but had some missteps.
“I think I mishandled it, I misread that panel so I missed that panel, then I made a mistake in the shedding ring,” she said after their semi-final run.
In the end, their score didn’t qualify the duo for the finals on Sunday. Strang felt satisfied with the results, however.
“He’s good, he’s young,” she said. “He’s got the future in front of him. It’s his first national finals, first year in open.”
The overall winners were Scott Glen and four-year-old Pip from Alberta, Canada. The pair’s final score was far and away the best of the competition.
Even for a seasoned winner like Glen, it’s breathtaking to watch the dogs work.
“It always stuck with me how neat it was that the dog knew left and right,” he said. “That always impressed me because we had cattle dogs. But I mean, it was ‘Sic ‘em’ or ‘come back,’ ‘sic ‘em’ or ‘come back,’ hopefully. But just the great distance of them, of them going, I think is awesome.”
Glen brought home tens of thousands of dollars from the prize purse, but the reward for Pip, Bill, and all the other dogs who had been sprinting for miles — was to cool down by taking a plunge in big buckets of cool water.
The 2023 USBCHA National Sheepdog Finals are over for this year, but a lot of these handlers and dogs will be back in Colorado next September for the Meeker Classic, a trial that will qualify dogs and handlers for the 2024 final.
There will also be plenty of newcomers, like Ellen Skillings’ pup Frayer, who’s not yet one year old. For all of Skillings’ experience, she can’t say what next season will bring.
“It's never the same,” she said. “You're never done training and thinking about it. The more you do, the more questions you ask. You can never 100% predict what’s going to happen. Every time you go out there, it’s new.”
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