Hayden Border collies can't help themselves -- they have to give in to their instincts and exert their will on cattle and sheep.
The skill and intelligence the small dogs are capable of bringing to bear on a trio of ornery steers were on display Monday during the Cattle Dog Trials at the Routt County Fair in Hayden.
"These dogs were born to do two things," Bonnie Mitts said. "To work livestock and to love us. You bond with that dog and the dog will do anything in the world to please you."
Mitts and her five border collies came all the way from her home outside Bill, Wyo. (population 1) to take part in the Cattle Dog Trials. It was one of several new events being introduced at Routt County's celebration of rural life.
Monday's event required handlers and their dogs to team up to successfully herd three full-grown steers through an obstacle course of orange highway cones and steel corral gates. The goal was to score as many points as possible within a span of 10 minutes.
The handlers gave their dogs instructions either through a series of verbal commands or five distinctly different sounds from a whistle.
Carol Lucero of Fort Lupton said the dogs must learn five primary commands in order to work effectively with their handlers. They include right flank (circle the steers in a clockwise direction), left flank (circle the steers in a counterclockwise direction), stop, walk up (approach the steers directly) and recall, which implies the dog leaves the livestock and turns its attention to a new chore.
Each round of the cattle dog trials began with the dog and handler poised behind a line at one end of the arena.
When the cattle were introduced at the other end, the dog sprinted to them and began the process of patiently herding them between two cones and back across the line. That's when the real work of herding the cattle through a steel gate and a steel chute began.
For every steer that went through the gate as intended, the dog/human team scored points.
Finally, the dog, following commands from its human, had to herd the cattle in the opposite direction and into a closed pen.
The big winner in Monday's competition was Stan Slagowski of Manila, Utah, whose dog, Jim, compiled 187 points to top Richard Baily of Hotchkiss, and his dog, Tank, with 166 points. Mitts and Gotch earned 144 points for third place.
Slagowski also won the nursery category for dogs 3 and younger, with Chuck Templeton of Kremmling placing second. Lucero and dog, Krystal, tied for first in the novice division with Spike Meyring and Deets of Walden.
In order to achieve a good trial round, Mitts said, the dog must show restraint at the same time it is exerting its dominance.
Ideally, the dogs exercise control over the cattle from a distance. But if necessary, they are permitted to play rough, by momentarily clamping their jaws on a steer, Lucero said.
"They can 'grip' on a hock or a head," Lucero said. "You don't want the dog to be like an alligator in there, just nipping at everything. But within reason, the dog is allowed an appropriate grip."
Mitts said her most experienced dog, Doc, who sired her younger dogs, has the savvy to grab onto the hock of a steer's leg and intentionally use his momentum to swing his body into a better position from which to turn the stubborn animal in the direction he wants him to go.
Gotch isn't even 2 years old yet, and doesn't have all of those skills, but he was effective in the arena on Monday.
"The goal is to work the stock gently and quietly with the power of the dog," Mitts said. "The dog will pick out the dominant steer and will take control of that animal."
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