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A Century-Old Sport Teams Dog with His Best Friend

Vashon Sheepdog Classic

Many Americans watched their first sheepdog competition in the 1995 movie, Babe, in which a runty pig rises above barnyard prejudices and his own insecurities to become a prize-winning sheep herder and the pride of his farm. A century-old sport originating in Britain and New Zealand, sheepdog (sorry, no pigs) trials are gaining popularity in the U.S. and Canada, with more than 1,500 dog handlers participating nationwide in competitions like the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, scheduled for September 14, 15, and 16 on Vashon Island.

During competition, the handler and dog work in partnership to complete a series of tasks based on jobs required of working farm dogs. Sheepdog trials originated in the late 1800s as a way for shepherds to show-off the talents of their canine partners. Considered quintessential sheepdogs for their speed, work ethic and intelligence, Border Collies are the main dogs competing at these events.

"It’s like Babe in that the dogs must be controlling but compassionate, and do their job in efficient manner," said Maggi McClure, a Vashon-based dog handler, dog trainer and organizer of the event. "Now if only I could whisper ‘baa-ram-ewe’ to the sheep I would have had more success." McClure jokingly referred to the "sheep password" that led the movie’s sheepherding pig to victory.

About 100 dogs and their handlers will compete at the event, including the 2010 national champion, Patrick Shannahan. The United States Border Collie Finals are two weeks later in Kalamath Falls, CA and the expectation is there will have more teams traveling from the Eastern States to Vashon this year. The international-standard course is set on 30 rolling acres at Misty Island Farm. McClure considers it ideal not only because its hilly topography provides an extra challenge to the contestants, but a sloped eastern edge creates a natural amphitheater and wide-frame view for picnicking spectators. "This year we wanted to give our competitors a very different sheep challenge," added McClure. To add to the legitimacy of the 2013 contest 300 lambs will be trucked to Vashon from the Anderson Ranch in the Willamette Valley. The lambs will be wily but unorganized. "The leaders of the flock haven’t been established by 9 months of age so the lambs can be a bit unpredictable. The dogs will need to settle and relax them."

During each "run" a dog has 10 minutes to precisely and calmly move five sheep down the field. The handler remains near the finish at the opposite end of the course, communicating with the dog via whistle. A judge deducts points for errors as the dog and handler team complete six "tasks" including the critical "lift," in which the dog establishes a relationship with the sheep.

"It may only take only 10 seconds, but the dog’s first contact can set the whole run," McClure said. "If the sheep are treated compassionately and are comfortable moving with the dog, they let the dog take control and be the leader of the game."

"The drive" showcases a dog’s ability to keep control of the sheep while taking directional cues from the handler as it moves the sheep through a series of gates. One of the most challenging events is called "the shed," in which the dog and handler must separate two sheep from the group.

"It’s an equal partnership between handler and dog, and we’ve got to work together," McClure said. "Certain dogs make it look so easy—like a dance, where things are just flowing so easily in this unspoken language."

She said spectators recognize a successful partnership when they see one, and can feel a sense of peace when a duo is working seamlessly together. McClure thinks this is one reason why people get hooked on dog trials: "It’s a carefree social event that takes you back to simpler times."

If you go: Vashon Sheepdog Classic (, Sept. 14, 15, 16, dawn to dusk, $5/person (kids under 12, free), corner Old Mill Road SW and SW 220th St., Vashon Island. Parking on Old Mill Road SW. Great local ood, fiber arts, and kids’ activities on site; picnics welcome. Bring a chair, binoculars and dress for the weather.

Partners In Education will be hosting a free screening of Babe at the Vashon Theatre on Sunday Sept. 2nd at 1:30. All are welcome!