Watching the Castle Country Stockdog Trials last weekend reminded me how much I enjoy watching dogs work.
I’ve seen sheep competitions before, but this is the first time I watched dogs move cattle in an arena.
Clyde McCourt and Doreen McCourt were organizers of the event. The event was sanctioned by the Mountain States Stockdog Association. Carbon County is one of the stops on a circuit of events.
Dogs and handlers came from as far away as Louisiana. All proceeds, after expenses, are donated to the USU Eastern rodeo club.
Steve Wight with his dog Levi, won the open class. Wight also placed second with his dog Stan. They are from Bancroft, Idaho.
Cindy Campbell with Misr Cap, from Midwest, Wyoming, won the Intermediate class. Elliot Roberts with Willow, from Granite Bay, California, placed second.
Kevin Behunin with Jewel, from Ft. Bridger, Wyoming, won the novice class. Kevin Witmer with Misr Luke, from Price, placed second.
Chris Bennett with Chip, from Jackson, California, won the nursery class. Clyde McCourt with Misr Stud, from Wellington, placed second.
The competition consists of an obstacle course which is different at each event and at each stage within each event. This way dogs cannot be trained for a specific obstacle. It becomes a team competition with dogs and handlers working together to herd three cows through the course. There is a six-minute time limit. Points are awarded for each cow that is successfully herded through each obstacle. In the case of a tie, the fastest time wins. Dogs and handlers compete for cash and prizes.
The competition took me back 50 years when my family was in the ranching/farming business. My grandfather was ranch manager at Antelope Island in the 1950s and 60s, when the island was still privately owned. He had dogs for two reasons. Some dogs were fighters that protected the farm yard from predators. The biggest problem at that time on Antelope Island was badgers. But, with Riley and Shiner on guard, badgers were less of a problem. The story went (I was too young and I only heard it later) that when Grandpa would hear a ruckus in the barn yard in the middle of the night he would grab his pants in one hand and his shotgun in the other and run to the fight.
If the dogs knew they could beat the badger they would ignore Grandpa’s shouts, announcing his arrival. If the dogs were outmatched, they would back off and allow Grandpa to shoot the badger. Yes, it seems a little morbid now, but to a rancher it’s just protecting the other animals. After all, the badger was there to get a meal and he really didn’t care who he had to kill to get it.
Then there were the stock dogs. These were very different dogs. I believe they were all Border Collies, one of the most recently established breeds.
The Border Collie was only recognized by the United Kennel Club as a separate breed on January 1, 1961. According to Wikipedia, “The Border Collie is a working and herding dog breed developed on the Anglo-Scottish border.” They were originally bred for herding and obedience and initially used to herd sheep. They are well-adapted to working with cattle. All of the dogs at the Carbon County event were Border Collies.
Today there are lots of Border Collies working on ranches throughout the world. Some have adapted those skills to competition. Thus, Stockdog Trials.
The Castle Country Classic is one stop on a circuit of events. It has become a sport unto itself, although most of the dogs also work on a ranch.
On the ranch the dog helps move sheep and cattle where the rancher wants them to go. If you’ve ever encountered a cattle drive in the middle of a highway, there are no doubt dogs (usually Border Collies) following the herd. When a sheep or cow wanders out of the main group it usually only takes a command from one of the cowboys for the dog to recognize what’s happening and after the rouge it goes.
In competition those same skills are used, but concentrated into a six-minute event. Common commands like “Away,” “Walk-up,” and “Down,” (there are lots of others) are all that’s necessary for the dog to understand what the handler wants.
The idea is to get three cows to go through a series of obstacles as smoothly as possible. Some dogs really “get it.” Others must be coaxed.
The best dogs are often those who do the least. The more a dog needs to assert itself, the more difficult the cows become.
More than once during the competition last weekend I heard a handler say, “That was my fault.” By that he meant he gave the wrong command or otherwise confused the dog.
On the ranch it was very different. A dog came to understand the basics. We move the cows (or sheep) from here to there. I truly believe a dog came to understand that.
After Grandpa retired he took a job at the stock auction in North Salt Lake. It’s been gone for a long time, but at the time it was a going concern. I think they just hired Grandpa so he would bring his dog. Grandpa was the ring master. Yahtzee would go get a cow, bring it into the arena and parade it around. At Grandpa’s command Yahtzee would go sit down behind one of the protective barriers. I don’t know why, I guess that’s just where he was told to go. After the auctioneer was through, Grandpa would shout a command and Yahtzee would take the cow out and bring another in. And the ritual would be repeated. Grandpa never did anything but stand behind one of the barriers and shout commands. He would snap a bullwhip once in awhile, I think just for effect.
I was recently a volunteer at the ranch on Antelope Island. My dog was also the main attraction, although everyone just wanted to pet her. Skulli (yellow labrador) wouldn’t know a sheep from a cow.