Growing interest in sheepdog trials across North America has fueled the success of the annual Vashon Island Sheepdog Classic, coming Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Many Americans watched their first sheepdog competition in the 1995 movie “Babe,” in which a runty pig rises above barnyard prejudices and his own insecurities to become a prizewinning sheep herder and the pride of his farm. A century-old sport originating in Britain and New Zealand, sheepdog trials (sorry, no pigs) are gaining popularity in the U.S. and Canada, with more than 1,500 dog handlers participating nationwide in competitions such as the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, scheduled for Sept. 30-Oct. 2 on Vashon Island.
During competition, the handler and dog work in partnership to complete a series of tasks based on jobs required of working farm dogs. Sheepdog trials originated in the late 1800s as a way for shepherds to show off the talents of their canine partners. Considered quintessential sheepdogs for their speed, work ethic and intelligence, border collies are the dogs competing at these events.
“It’s like ‘Babe’ in that the dogs must be controlling but compassionate, and do their job in an efficient manner,” said Maggi McClure, a Vashon-based dog handler and dog trainer, and an organizer of the Vashon event. “Now if only I could whisper ‘baa-ram-ewe’ to the sheep… “
McClure jokingly referred to the “sheep password” that led the movie’s sheepherding pig to victory.
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100 dogs, “willful” sheep
About 100 dogs and their handlers will compete at the Vashon event, including last year’s national champion. The international-standard course is set on 30 rolling acres at Misty Isle Farms. McClure considers it ideal not only because its hilly topography provides an extra challenge to the contestants, but a sloped eastern edge creates a natural amphitheater and wide-frame view for picnicking spectators.
“Wise and willful” sheep trucked in from the Blue Mountains of Eastern Washington add to the legitimacy of the contest; accustomed to harsh weather, cougar attacks and running in flocks of 2,000, they thoroughly test the dogs’ skills.
During each “run” a dog has 10 minutes to precisely and calmly move five sheep down the field. The handler remains near the finish at the opposite end of the course, communicating with the dog via whistle. A judge deducts points for errors as the dog and handler team complete six tasks including the critical “lift,” in which the dog establishes a relationship with the sheep.
“It may take only 10 seconds, but the dog’s first contact can set the whole run,” McClure said. “If the sheep are treated compassionately and are comfortable moving with the dog, they let the dog take control and be the leader of the game.”
Dog and handler team
“The drive” showcases a dog’s ability to keep control of the sheep while taking directional cues from the handler as the dog moves the sheep through a series of gates. One of the most challenging events is called “the shed,” in which the dog and handler must separate two sheep from the group.
“It’s an equal partnership between handler and dog, and we’ve got to work together,” McClure said. “Certain dogs make it look so easy — like a dance, where things are just flowing so easily in this unspoken language.”
She said spectators recognize a successful partnership when they see one, and can feel a sense of peace when a duo is working seamlessly together. McClure thinks this is one reason why people get hooked on dog trials: “It’s a carefree social event that takes you back to simpler times.”
Kathryn True is a Vashon Island-based freelance writer.