Stock Dog Challenge
The fourth annual Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge will be held at the Stanko Ranch on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Annie, a 6-year-old slightly crippled border collie, keeps a huddle of sheep in a pen by staring them down.
"She's pissed," says owner Marianne Sasak, who has trained Annie, along with her 2-year-old collie, Dot, to be stock dogs - moving herds of ewes around a field, directed by short voice commands and whistles. "That's a tough little dog to be able to stay there," she says of Annie, who hasn't budged.
Adorable but intimidating, Annie backs away a little when one of the ewes starts at her, but Dot, standing next to her at the edge of the small pen is stationary, backing her up.
"If the dog has any weakness, the sheep will take it, and they're fast," Sasak says.
Sasak is the organizer of the fourth annual Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge, which will be held at the Stanko Ranch from Sept. 1 to 3. Border collies like Dot and Annie, and their handlers from all over the United States and Canada, will compete in the challenge.
For the trial, each dog and handler will be judged on their ability to get a herd of sheep around a pasture and into pens. Handlers use whistles and a small set of voice commands to move their dogs around the sheep and the surrounding pasture.
In Sasak's field, Dot demonstrates those tasks. Her handler says, "come by," and Dot goes at the herd of sheep from the left, rounding them up in a clockwise direction. When the sheep move too fast, Dot backs off. When Sasak walks into the herd and says "there," Dot separates them into two packs and works a little harder to keep them apart.
When Sasak turns away, Dot automatically brings the sheep back to her, because Sasak didn't tell her to do anything else. Essentially, the Stock Dog Challenge takes the kind of work Dot is doing, Sasak says, and makes it very precise.
The reality of using stock dogs to herd sheep is pretty mundane, Sasak says. The sheep aren't supposed to go too fast, but they're not supposed to stop. They should come off a field at a nice, steady trot.
"All your work is based on keeping your livestock fairly quiet," Sasak says.
But range sheep have a tendency to fight the dogs at the trials - they're used to ducking predators, and the only way to do that is to huddle together or run headlong at the dog.
"That's their only protection really, is to be in a group and use their heads," Sasak says.
Dot is strong-eyed, so sometimes she keys in on the sheep so intently that it's hard to break her gaze. Other dogs are looser, not so leery. The best dogs, Sasak says, are the ones that fall somewhere in between.
"Border collies work like a predator, not like a guard dog," she says as Dot crouches and eyes the herd.
The Steamboat challenge, for many handlers, works as a training camp for the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, a larger event that has the same kind of freer range sheep and similar altitudes and weather conditions.
"This is the perfect place for them to practice before Meeker," Sasak says, later adding that she wants her event to stay on a smaller scale. This year, there are 45 handlers and 80 dogs signed up for the Steamboat challenge. About 250 large mountain sheep will be on loan for the weekend.
Last year, the trial drew between 300 and 400 spectators each day, Sasak says. Most stay for a couple of hours and move on. To vary the activities, Sasak has arranged a chuckwagon lunch for each day, and a few sheepdog-themed demonstrations.
They'll shear some sheep at about noon Sunday, and different breeds will be on display. Clinics on stock dogging and wool spinning run throughout the weekend. Sasak says she had seen some local interest in stock dogs and hopes to get more clinicians for the next challenge.
Overall, the scenery and setup of the Steamboat event make it a popular one for handlers, Sasak says. There have been a few hiccups - last year, an unwatched border collie drove five sheep across a road, but those are indicative of the breed's nature, which is a little restless.
Walking out of the field and toward Sasak's barn, a few sheep come trotting up from behind. Dot's not tied up, even though her show is over, so she's still running them. When you take your eye off a border collie, she says, it might run somewhere - with the sheep.
"I can't tell her anything. That's a border collie."