Steamboat Springs Training typically is a frustrating but brief experience in dog ownership. Sure, there’s the occasionally mess on the carpet from a puppy, some shredded home goods from a lonely pooch, but eventually the basics — come, fetch, sit — get engrained.
The stars of the five-day National Cattledog Association finals redefined the term “trained dog” for many who’d never seen a stockdog work, however.
The event drew 120 boarder collies and their owners to the Flying Diamond Ranch on Colorado Highway 131 south of Steamboat Springs, and in a series of competitions, the precision of the dogs and the guidance of their owners wowed wide-eyed first-timers.
“I am still amazed,” said Cam Brandon, a five-year veteran of the sport. “I’m still amazed when I say to my dog, at 250 yards, to lie down, that it does.”
Stockdog competitions challenge dogs and their owners to guide a herd of animals through a series of obstacles. On Sunday, the final day of this year’s contest, featured first the nursery finals, challenging the top 10 dogs not yet 3 years old, and then the open finals, casting 20 dogs and dog handlers against one another.
“The goal is to test the abilities that people use on working ranches,” said Jeff Mundorf, who won Sunday’s open division championship. “They need to be able to gather cattle and drive cattle away. They need to be able to pin cattle and sort cattle.”
The task was not easy, especially for the open class. The handler was restricted to a small corner of a large meadow and cattle were released in two places on the far side. The dog had to zip uphill and across the 250-yard long arena, bring the two groups of three cows together, then push them through a series of gates.
Herding animals is as natural as breathing for border collies, though they also were challenged to push the herd away from the handler, which is not instinctual. Finally, the group had to be split again, the competitors finishing a final tricky maneuver before their turn was over.
The dogs accomplished it all thanks to that instinct and to neverending instructions coming from their handlers across the field. Those directions were delivered with a whistle, each different shrill tone sending the dog a different way.
“The reason for the whistling is distance. You can’t scream very far, but I’ve had dogs listen to me from a mile away,” said Dorrance Eikamp, of Gillette, Wyo. “Everyone has their own tone and each dog is on about 10 different whistles like left and right, walk, lie down, steady, look back, wide outrun, narrow outrun.”
The week of competition represented the organization’s first national championship after it was formed a little more than a year ago when it splintered from another group. The week’s competitors were selected from qualifiers across the country and much of the association’s coast-to-coast membership base made the trip to Steamboat Springs.
In fact, many of them were already talking about returning next year.
“We wanted to pick a venue with an agriculture background, access to cattle, beautiful open spaces and a lot of stuff for people to do,” Mundorf said.
“Every handler I’ve talked to says they’ve never (competed) in a more beautiful setting,” said Bob Wagner, who won the nursery finals.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com