Carbondale hosts country’s top sheepdogs for national finals
IF YOU GO
Tickets: $10 for adults, $5 for kids and seniors. Parking is $5 a car, and carpooling is encouraged. No noncompeting dogs are allowed.
Action starts at 8 a.m. today and Friday, 7:30 a.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday.
The nation’s top dogs and their handlers are in the Roaring Fork Valley this week for the National Sheepdog Finals, arranged by the United States Border Collie Handlers Association, sponsored by Garfield County and hosted by the Strang Ranch just north of Catherine Store on Missouri Heights near Carbondale.
It all culminates Sunday, when the top pair are selected from 150 contestants.
“The USBCHA finals is the big one for North America,” said Dennis Edwards, a handler from Sundance, Wyoming, who will compete Friday with his dog Craig.
Although it’s a big event, many of the participants know each other from qualifying trials.
“It’s kind of a community, family-type organization,” said Edwards. “I met a lot of great people just because of the little black and white dogs.”
It’s not an easy club to join.
“I’ve heard people from other venues say this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done with a dog,” said Ellen Skillings of Rio Vista, California, who competed Tuesday with her dog Emer. “They have their own minds. You’re not making them do something; they’re doing something that’s innate.”
Asked whether the handler, dogs or sheep make the biggest impact on the outcome, Skillings called it 100 percent of each.
“The dogs often make the sheep, the handler makes the dog,” she said. “You’ve got these three species that you’re dealing with, and if any one of them isn’t on, the whole thing isn’t going to work very well.”
From the moment a dog streaks away from its handler’s post, the only link between them are whistles and a few shouted commands. From the sidelines it looks like some sort of magic. The dog is both an extension of its master’s will and a trained athlete in its own right.
The sheep are less cooperative.
“These are range sheep that come from big flocks,” said Edwards. They aren’t used to being broken down into five and handled by a single dog.”
Few of Wednesday’s contestants managed to corral their flock of five into the final pen, and some struggled during the fetch, drive and shed as well. All the while, a pair of judges watched, deducting points for every wayward movement.
“If it’s going good, it’s awesome,” said Edwards. “There’s not a neater feeling than your dog really listening and doing a good job of controlling these range sheep. But there’s times, too, when it’s not such a great feeling, when things go south and you’re struggling to get round the course [and] it seems like a long time being out there.”
It can be tricky to judge the quality of a run from the sidelines, but you don’t need to understand all the subtleties to be captivated by the spectacle.
“It’s a learning experience for us,” said Jane Dunaway. “We’re just in awe of these wonderful dogs.”
For some handlers, the dogs are a working partner, for others a companion and for many something in between.
“For me they’re my pets and my right hand,” said Bridget Strang, host of this year’s event. “I think it varies from person to person. More people than you would think have their dogs on their beds and on their couches.”
Although dogs and sheep didn’t seem to mind Tuesday’s rain, spectators and handlers alike appreciated the golden late summer sun that greeted them Wednesday.
With sunny days forecast for the Carbondale area over the weekend, organizers are hoping folks will take the opportunity to come view a unique sport in a gorgeous setting.
“It’s worth it just to sit here and look at the snow on the mountains, but also it’s a really cool sport,” Strang said.
Ticket sales benefit the Aspen Valley Land Trust a local organization which helps protect ranches, including the Strang Ranch, from future development.
“Strang Ranch is really a showcase for conserved land,” said Martha Cochran, executive director of AVLT.
Strang first brought the event to town in 2011, and had such positive feedback that she put in a bid for this year and may try to host again in 2016.
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