The Sopris Sun

Strang Ranch ready for National Sheepdog championships

Sopris Sun Staff Report

North America’s top handlers and their canny sheepdogs will square off against wily, wild Colorado range sheep on Sept. 9-14 at Strang Ranch on Missouri Heights for the 2014 National Sheepdog championship title.

The national finals are a partnership between the U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Association, Aspen Valley Land Trust and Strang Ranch, according to a press release. It showcases not only a premier herding competition, but the Strang family’s commitment to land conservation and support of the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

“It’s about our western heritage. That’s what’s important to me,” said event organizer Bridget Strang.

For Alasdair MacRae, the 2011 winner — the last year the finals were held at Strang Ranch — the finals are a challenging test of “the dogs’ patience, perseverance, stamina and skill. It’s a very exciting spectacle.”

For this year’s finals the sheep are fresh off the range and much more difficult to handle — and herd — than ranch sheep. “They have a lot of attitude and will test a dog and come after them,” MacRae said. “Some dogs are up to the test and some are not.”

The competition takes place over six days. In the final event, the double lift, the dogs “gather in” a group of sheep to a central place in the field, then head out for a second group, all at breakneck speed. The dogs move the sheep through a series of gates, into a marked area (the “shed). The dogs then sort out five sheep wearing red collars. Dog and handler then attempt to pen the sheep without spooking them.

The real magic of the sport lies in the connection between handler and dog. Sheep, MacRae said, are the dogs’ natural prey. All of their instincts push them forward into the herd. Instead, they work around and behind the herd until they have the sheep under their control. It is their uncanny ability to work the sheep with a delicate touch that moves them forward or sideways without scattering the group, until in the end the handler has them firmly within the pen and softly closes the gate. That ability comes with training, instinct and a certain amount of magic.

MacRae, who trains border collies and instructs handlers, said the dog’s natural intelligence “click” is still a special moment for him. “When that happens, it about takes my breath away. It’s never ceased to amaze me.”

Opportunities to sponsor a team or an event are still available and volunteers are still needed. For details, go to sheepdogfinals.com.

Next steps

What: 2014 National Sheepdog Trials

Where: Strang Ranch on Missouri Heights

When: Sept. 9-14

Tickets: $10 for adults, $5 for kids 8-16 and seniors; $40 for six day adult passes, $20 for kids and seniors.

More info: sheepdogfinals.com.