Monday, June 17, 2019
Even Puppies Aren’t Sheepish When it Comes to Herding
Dogs can reverse a band’s direction, speed it up, slow it down or stop it cold, according to soft beeps of their handler’s whistle.
Friday, October 6, 2017


Lavon Calzacorta thought he had the trophy in the bag when his border collie Tess tied a puppy named Dash during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival’s sheepdog trials.

After all, Tess was a seasoned herder, an Idaho State Champion who had finished fourth out of 150 dogs at the National Sheepdog Finals, bringing home $1,800 in prize money.

“Tess was 7, a really good dog, a really good herder. So when they decided to do a silent gather to break the tie without the handler doing commands, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got this.’ But It didn’t go that way at all,” Calzacorta said.

Quigley Farm turns into a sheepdog handler’s paradise—or nightmare—every October during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

Puppy Dash ran out to the five sheep eyeing him from their position 600 yards out in the barley field in  Quigley Canyon. And he drove them right into the pen as straight as an arrow. He didn’t deviate an inch off the path.

“I always think of that dog and how anything can happen at the Sheepdog Trials,” said Calzacorta.

Calzacorta will preside over the National Point Qualifying Sheepdog Trials again today through Sunday on a 50-acre field in Quigley Canyon near Wood River High School in Hailey. The trials—part of the 2017 Trailing of the Sheep Festival—will run from dawn until dusk today and Saturday, Oct. 7, and from dawn until about 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $3. There will be about 30 vendors selling everything from wool products to dog collars. And there will be food vendors, as well.

Separating five sheep who have been part of a flock of 1,000 or 2,000 hanging around mountain meadows all summer and trying to get them to do what you want them to do is not easy, says Lavon Calzacorta.

Sixty-five dogs, including several hailing from 160 miles up the Alaskan highway, are expected to compete. Dogs from California, Washington, Oregon and Nevada will join dogs from Idaho, including an Idaho dog just crowned Reserve Champion at the national sheepdog finals that concluded on Sunday, Oct. 1, in Middletown, Va.

Sun Valley’s trials are a popular draw because of the beautiful location and because of the fact that it is one of the first to award points for the 2018 season, which goes year-round.

“Handlers also love the fact that people here love the dogs and that sheep rancher John Peavey provides fresh sheep that haven’t been worked a lot,” said Calzacorta.

Sheepdog trials originated in the United Kingdom in the 1870s as a way to prove one’s own dog against others.

Trainers and dogs typically spend about 15 hours a week training.

It’s the dog’s job to cast out wide and get behind the sheep to bring them straight to the handler. Any deviation from the straight line of travel, which is called “the fecth,” loses points.

At the appropriate time, dog and handler separate the sheep, removing a couple from the group, before gathering them into a group again to take into the pen.

Dogs are awarded points for each stage.

“As you’re watching them, look for the relationship between the sheep and dog. Is the dog scaring the sheep? Are the sheep challenging the dog?” said Calzacorta, who lives near Wilder, Idaho.

There have been years that no dogs have been able to pen the feisty sheep who have just come down from  summer pastures in the mountains.

Sometimes, it’s the last dog you would expect to do well that ends up doing the penning.

“One time we had a dog that was just horrible, lunging at the sheep. He ran the sheep around and around all over the field and the sheep finally jumped in the pen just to get away from the dog,” said Calvacorta.

The dogs work by instinct, the tweet of a whistle and a few simple commands, such as “Come by.” The handler coaxes the dog to be in the right spot, using vocal commands. But they use  whistles—whether whistles made with two fingers in their mouth or the brass, bone or plastic kind—for 80 percent of the commands.

“We start with voice command and we pair a whistle for every voice command,” said Calzacorta. “We use one to go faster, another to go clockwise, another to stop. We rely on the whistles because when the dogs are 500 or 600 yards away they can’t hear you holler at them.”

Calzacorta is not betting any money on the 6-year-old border collie he will enter in this year’s trials.

“He doesn’t have a lot of patience. He tends to crowd the sheep and these types of sheep don’t like to be crowded.”

But he is betting money on interest in sheepdog trials continuing to grow.

“Participation is growing. And, if we keep having trials of Sun Valley’s caliber, it will continue to grow.”


Turn on Fox Acres Road off Highway 75 at Hailey’s south end and follow the road past Wood River High School to parking near the football field.


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