Steamboat Springs Dog-handler Florence Wilson stood on a field near Lake Catamount and waited for the judge to signal the start of the round. Her dog Cap crouched at her side, muscles tense and ears alert.
At the sign, Florence tipped forward her Shepard's crook and said, "Come by," the command telling the dog to move away from her in a clockwise direction. In a flash, Cap was sprinting across the field toward a group of 10 sheep 350 yards away.
So began the first finals round of the Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge at Lake Catamount. The 2-year-old competition began Friday morning with 70 dogs and 45 handlers from such places as Canada, Virginia and New Mexico. By Sunday morning, the field in the open division had narrowed to 10 dogs and 7 handlers all vying for the first-place prize, donated by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., of two roundtrip airplane tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. The winner also received a portion of a cash jackpot and a wool blanket.
About 100 spectators braved the cold weather to watch the finals.
In the final rounds, the competitors started with 26 minutes on the clock and two groups of 10 sheep about 350 yards away. The border collies first had to gather in both groups of sheep, combine the flocks and maneuver them around two obstacles. The dogs then had to separate the five sheep wearing collars from the other 15 and herd them into a pen. Handlers earned points for how efficiently the dogs completed the tasks.
"You look for the dog who takes in the sheep on the shortest route without harassing the sheep and with a workmanlike manner that stresses them the least," said event judge Patrick Shannahan.
During Wilson's run, she and Cap had a rocky start. Because the wind was blowing strongly, Cap had difficulty hearing her commands from afar, and he brought the sheep too far away from her. But once in closer proximity, things improved. Although Wilson struggled to separate two stubborn un-collared sheep from the five collared, she and Cap managed to pen the five with a minute and 20 seconds remaining.
"You're always pleased to finish, but on the fetches I couldn't get him to hear," Wilson said.
One of the nation's top competitors, Wilson ranches cattle in Virginia, and she travels around the world for stock dog competitions. She said the Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge is a favorite for her.
"People could come here just for the view," she said. "It's away from the traffic, there's the mountains and the people know what they're doing. It's ideal."
Wilson originally started training border collies to herd her cattle, but now she loves competing because she enjoys watching the different ways dogs herd the sheep.
"Just like some people can be acerbic, forward, argumentative and contrary while others are gentle, quiet souls who will persuade others to see another point of view, it's the same way with dogs," she said.
Wilson said the dog needs to have the right balance of aggressiveness and gentleness.
"Some dogs are too predatory and stalk too much rather than flowing with the sheep. Others don't have enough eye, and the sheep aren't scared of them at all," she said.
Despite their different personalities, the dogs share the desire to win.
"They're very competitive," said Shannahan. "They know when they've done well."
Along with the seasoned handlers such as Wilson and Shannahan, several "tenderpaws" were at the competition. Lise Andersen, a veterinarian from Monument, competed for her first time with her dog, Maggie, in the novice division and received fifth and sixth place out of 10. "It was such fun," Andersen said. "I walked out there and told my dog to come away from me, and she did it."
Andersen said the friendliness of all the other competitors added to her enjoyment. "Everyone, even the best handlers, would spend time with me and talk to me," she said.
Even though it's possible to spend $10,000 for a blue-blood stock dog, Andersen said she and her dog, as "newbies," just want to have fun right now and that they do all the things together other dogs do such as play with balls and Frisbees. "Maggie's just a normal dog," said Andersen. "Except she's brilliant."
Marianne Sasak, the chief organizer of the Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge, said she hopes to hold the event again next year but that it's dependent upon getting a location and enough public support.