The scene of a border collie herding sheep over undulating knolls as fog rolls through a nearby stand of trees could convince you for a moment that you’re somewhere on a bucolic Scottish countryside.
But then the oohs and aahs of hundreds of people watching carefully to see if a whistling handler can direct the dog and sheep through the right course remind you: You’re at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic.
For as ancient as the skill of sheepherding is, it still attracts a growing mix of rural and urban dog-lovers who travel hundreds of miles a year to compete locally and nationally. More than 60 sheepdogs are showcasing the result of years of careful dog training at the trial at Misty Isle Farms on Vashon Island until about 6 p.m. Sunday. Top qualifiers will compete in a national event next month in Virginia.
While some of the handlers wound up addicted to the sport because they grew up or worked in farming communities, others became smitten by chance.
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“If someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be living on a sheep farm now, I’d say ‘You want to make a bet?’ ” said Diane Pagel, 55, who came from Carnation to compete with her border collie, Nan.
Pagel said her life transformed when she saved her late border collie, Tess, from a breeder who intended to kill the dog when she was an eight-week-old puppy. As Pagel found out more about how naturally sheepherding comes to her pet’s breed, she directed more hours of her life away from a stressful job to training Tess for the sport.
By the time Tess was two years old, Pagel and her husband decided to move from Bellevue to a sheep farm in Carnation.
The farm helps her train her dogs and others for a course such as the one at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic.
The timed sheepherding rounds start with a handler and his or her dog at one end of a large, grassy field and a group of sheep on the opposite side. When the round begins, an experienced judge from Ohio studies how well the dog runs around one side of the field to eventually come up behind the sheep.
When the dog first encounters the sheep, it’s key for the animal to convey an air of confidence, said the event’s course director, Bill DeVoe. That moment is called “the lift,” because it’s when the sheep raise their heads and become aware of the dog’s command.
From there, the handler uses a range of whistles they’ve crafted on their own over several years to direct the dog and sheep through two panels in the middle of the field, then through two sets of other panels on both sides.
After that comes a more challenging and sometimes comic task: The handler comes forward with a shepherd’s cane-like crook to help the dog get the sheep into a pen.
Sometimes it looks like a handler is going to do it perfectly until one sheep decides it’s not such a follower after all and bolts from the pen, an event that gets spectators laughing en masse.
While many watching are family and friends of the handlers, just as many are people coming to check out the sport for the first time in-between trips to vendors selling wood-fired oven pizza, homemade pies, pet-portrait services and woolen products.
While Cael Wilson, 6, of Kent lost himself in a loom lesson, his brother Aidan Wilson, 8, came running to his mom to tell her about an impressive border collie that just ran the course.
“This is the first time we’ve seen it in real life, and we’re thinking about doing it,” said Katy Wilson, their mom. “We would love to get into it.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.