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Sheep Dog Trials Offer Gray Muzzle Award and Tough Challenges
Tuesday, October 12, 2021


Kelly Ware knew when she put her border collie Becca up against the sheep from the Flat Top Sheep Company that she would be dealing with sheep with an attitude.

After all, these sheep had been roaming up and down slopes in the mountains near Hailey and Sun Valley all summer and they weren’t apt to take kindly to border collies from British Columbia and Texas telling them what to do.

Knowing how difficult it would be to pen these sheep, dog handlers came anyway—so many that the Trailing of the Sheep Festival Championship Sheepdog Trials had to start up a day early—on Wednesday—to accommodate them all.

In the end, even the winner of the five-day trials failed to pen her sheep, although she came close.

The first-place winner Jemma, owned by California physician Diana Sylvestre, penned her sheep two seconds after the buzzer ended the 20-minute finals challenge. Only two finalists—Libby Neider’s dog Kit of Bountiful, Utah, and Sharon Northrup and her dog Eric—penned within the time limit.

More than a hundred border collies and Australian shepherds—the best in the West—competed in the trials. Sporting names like Trigger, Rey, Dru and Rubee, they took part in a synchronistic dance with their handlers who used special shepherd’s whistles that are flat and shaped differently than the whistles referees use.

Even then there was an occasional twist--like that of a dog that headed out towards the sheep when its handler said "Go bye" and just kept going.

This year’s trials sported a couple new things–a special category for beginner sheep dogs and the Gray Muzzle Award for sheep dogs 8 and older. That was won by Cora, the dog of Angela Akers. Cora also took overall winner on Friday.

Making a comeback at the trials was the Double Lift Competition, which took place 20 years ago.

This 20-minute competition was reserved for the top 15 dogs who had won earlier 8-minute competitions involving five sheep. The finals challenged dogs to bring a group of eight sheep through the gates and leave them while going out to find another group and bring them in. The finals were relegated to the top three dogs from each day plus a few wild cards who had earned top points.

It was not an easy task for dogs who think it anathema to leave their sheep, said Sylvestre.

Indeed, she found Jemma clearly confused when she told her “Look back.” The dog looked at her as if to say, “I brought you this herd of sheep. What are you asking me to do?” Finally, the dog seemed to understand and turned back to dash through grass the color of wheat towards a second group of eight sheep herding them into towards the crowd.

“Normally we don’t train to do this because you don’t expect to get to this level,” said Sylvestre.

Once Jemma brought the second group of sheep in, she was tasked with separating five of sheep with orange collars from the rest in what’s called the International Shed. The dogs, of course, don’t understand it’s the collared sheep they need to cull; they’re watching their handlers to see with sheep to separate.

And the sheep, wanting mightily to stay together, were not easy to separate.

“The International Shed is the event that separates the winners from the rest of us,” Sylvestre said earlier during the trials.

When the dust had cleared, two of the dogs had penned their sheep—Kit, who is owned by Libby Nieder of Bountiful, Utah, and Sharon Northrup and her dog Earl. But three others won the competition based on the points they amassed.

After Sylvestre and Jemma, Tammy Wilden and Ben placed second, and Carol Clawson and Timp placed third. It was the first time a wild card draw has finished first.

“It was fascinating to watch,” said Boisean Marly MacDonald, who watched parts of all five days. “It was so exciting because I didn’t believe it could be done, that the dogs could pen 16 sheep and then separate five of them. The sheep just wanted to be together and it was a precision thing between herder and dog.”


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