You have to feel for sheepdogs.
Sheep get cranky in the sun, they’re afraid of being penned and they don’t always like to stay together. And just when a dog has them in the right direction, they veer off at the last possible moment. They’re the worst.
That said, I have a particular fondness for sheep. I spent a lot of time with them when I hiked the Dingle Way in southwest Ireland recently, where they were constant companions on my roughly 100-mile walk.
Feeling nostalgic upon return, I ventured to the Vashon Sheepdog Classic at Misty Isle Farms on Saturday, where a certain crispness in the air hinted at the last of such Saturdays.
I had never seen competitive sheep herding before – didn't even know it existed – but it was glorious, equal amounts compelling and frustrating (because of the sheep).
The handler and the dog team start at one edge of a long, hilly fenced pasture. The clock starts (they have 10 minutes) and the handler sends out the dog at full tilt. A herd of five sheep waits on the other side.
They start with 100 points and lose points for mistakes. Judges are allowed some leeway for more ornery sheep.
A seasoned dog knows to run a curved path along the edge of the field so as not to disturb the sheep. A young or inexperienced dog may stop in a valley because it cannot see the sheep anymore. The team loses points if the handler has to signal the dog to keep going during the outrun.
Once the dog has "lifted" the sheep, it guides the herd back to the handler to perform tasks: moving around a post and through gates, splitting off sheep from the herd while keeping them controlled and, in the final coup de grace, pen the sheep.
The handler uses a whistle to communicate with the dog over long distances. Moving the tongue changes the pitch and these subtleties tell the dog where to go. The team loses points for wasteful movements.
As for the sheep, they get no points – just the satisfaction of hearing the crowd groan when they make their great escape.
The National Sheepdog Finals will be held next week in Alturas, California, featuring the top 150 teams in the country.
Twenty-five teams from the Vashon Classic qualified for nationals in the open division, including Washington representatives J.B. Brick and Brisco (Bellevue), Ron Green with Kiki and Chavo (Nine Mile Falls), Joe Haynes and Keally (Arlington), Bob Hickman and Ryder (Yelm), Lynn Johnston and Jesse (Lacamas), Maggi McClure with Buster and Rob (Vashon), and Noelle Williams with Lad and Dusty (Deer Park).