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Many Paths Lead to the Vashon Sheepdog Classic

There are about 2,000 people in the (United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA,) the top level herding association in the US and Canada.  Somewhat surprisingly, two thirds of the handlers are women.  While the majority are either involved in full time agriculture and ranching or farm as a second income, an increasing number have turned to competitive sheep dog trials because they love the sport.  One thing that all these herders have in common is that they love their dogs.

In the issues of the Loop leading up to the Vashon Sheepdog Classic,  to be held at Misty Isle Farms from August 22 to 25, we’ll be offering profiles of four very different women who have made sheep herding competitions with their dog partners an important part of their lives.

Gael Gann.

“I thought watching a dog move sheep around a field would be boring.”
Gael Gann is one of many sheep dog handlers who stumbled upon the sport.  “My daughter, Kelly, was studying animal behavior at the University of California at Davis and she kept urging me to see a sheep dog trial.”

Gael resisted.
“I thought watching a dog move sheep around a field would be boring.”
And when she discovered how wrong she was, it changed her life.  
“I went to the 2004 Vashon Sheepdog Trial with my newly rescued border collie and fell in love with the beauty and intricacy of open field sheepherding.  

Gael wanted to try it.
“First comes the dog and then soon come the sheep,” Gael said.
Right away, Gael looked for training – for herself and for her dog. She found many gifted and experienced handlers and trainers to set her on the road. Among then were Scot Glen, Karen Child (who raised Chili, one of Gael’s dogs who’ll be competing in the 2014 Vashon Sheepdog trials, ) Patrick Shannahan, Don Helsley and Faansie Basoon, who raised Gael’s other competing dog, Joe.

Local handlers were generous, too, with their willingness to answer questions or address training problems. Soon Gael began to understand that learning goes on forever in this sport.  She thinks that’s what makes it so intriguing.
 “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Gael said.  “I’ve had to learn to be a stronger person. The goal is to keep getting better. The more I learn, the more I need to learn.”

Today she practices herding with her two border collies, Chili and Joe, two very different dogs.  Chili ‘s name suits him.  He’s raring to go and eager to move the sheep in a gentle but insistent way.  Joe is still a young dog at age three.  Many young dogs can be a little too eager, almost crazy, but not Joe.  He is almost too calm.   

“With Joe, I have to get him jazzed up. “  She does that by talking to him in a bright, light voice and cheerfully encouraging him.  Border collies are sensitive dogs and eager to please their handlers.  They are hardwired no matter what their individual style to think that herding sheep is the most fun in the world.  

Dogs are different from one another and everything else about sheep trials is variable, too. Some of it is difficult and frustrating.  The time of day makes a difference.  If the sheep are hungry, they want to graze and are reluctant to
put up their heads and trot down the field.  All breeds of sheep behave differently.  Some breeds are described as “light” which means they are flighty and may break from the others.  Other breeds are “heavy” slower movers and not always eager to trot along through gates and head toward the handler.  The sheep in the Vashon classic are often mixed and move at different rates.   

The best dogs know how to handle both.  The weather can play a big role, too.  Neither the dogs nor the sheep like heat.  The best dogs and handlers know how to work in all situations. Sometimes, though, dog and handler may disagree about the best way to handle the sheep.

 “It ’s important to learn how to trust a dog’s inherent abilities,” Gael said.

Gael works her dogs with sheep nearly every day.

She laughs when she remembers how boring she had expected it would be to watch herding.   The sport gains in popularity every year.  There were over 3500 spectators at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic in 2013.  With more dogs and an extra day of competition this year, crowds are expected to swell.   Every year some of those unsuspecting spectators will eventually become hooked on the sport.

“My daughter, Kelly, and I now attend trials together along with both my grandchildren and son-in-law – all with our own dogs competing at different levels,” Gael said.  “This is a very fun kind of family togetherness.”