Trials In Croppy Country, Getting Into The Game
From sheep! September/October 2016 — Subscribe for More Great Stories!
By Julia Hollister
The overflow crowd at the high school football field grew silent as the participants entered from opposite ends of the field.
The opening score? Sheep: 3; Dog: 1.
These Northern California sheep dog trials are sponsored by the Redwood Empire Sheep Dog Assn. (RESDA).
The aim of RESDA is “to provide each contestant with equal opportunity without prejudice, to present attractive entertainment to members and spectators, and to advance the concept of good sportsmanship and growth of the Association.” (RESDA Const. & Bylaws, 6.1)
Getting Into Sheep Herding
As with all types of livestock, people can enter the world of sheep herding for surprising reasons.
For example, a glut of protected Canada geese in many regions of the U.S. delights in muddying the shorelines of ponds and streams, stripping bare struggling pastures and defiling what’s left with huge amounts of very wet dung. The goose situation got Allison Westley, of Massachusetts, involved in sheep herding: “We have been coming to these trials for 25 years,” she says. “This is a singular experience that’s reminiscent of the Old West.
We have a horse ranch and use our Border Collie to control the geese,” Westley notes. “We bought a place near Boonville where we vacation—and so we can attend the trials.”
Thirty years ago Karen Kollgaard, with the sheep dog association, was working as a horse trainer and teaching folk music when she decided to take another career path.
“My sister was attending University of California-Davis and bought a Border Collie,” she said. “I watched her train the dog and I fell in love with the process. I bought my first dog a short time later and ended up breeding dogs for many years. I also worked in the national system.”
She said sheep and Border collies naturally go together. Training is a skill that takes a while to develop and now it has become a spectator sport.
Most dogs can learn the skills in six months. As a rule, the states with more livestock have more sheep dogs.
“Back then when I started training dogs, farmers were about the only dog trainers. But today you can go to clinics,” she said. “I have people who come from all over Northern California to train the dogs with me. It’s fun and there is a relationship. They are so wonderful doing what they do.”
Kollgaard says that although Border Collies can be “started” in six months, that six months begins when the pup is at least nine to twelve months old.
“Dogs don’t work as well with all sheep breeds,” she explains. “Rams are rarely used (for dog training). Black face breeds tend not to flock as easily and may fight the dogs instead of moving—or refuse to move at all. So they aren’t commonly used. Mostly, white face ewes are used in these sheep dog trials.”
Bottom Line: Sheepdog Trials Must Have Sheep
Gary Johnson owns and raises the sheep that participate in RESDA’s Boonville competition.
“We don’t use rams (in the trials) because they’re stubborn and harder to handle,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll just stomp their feet and stand up against the dog. I usually pick 50 sheep out of a flock of 200 for the event. If it’s their ‘first rodeo,’ the yearlings get a little excited.”
He also advises, “The more sheep are worked, the sooner they figure out the game.”
Coyotes are a continuing problem on his ranch. “They’re smart animals,” Johnson says. “They started coming onto the property in the 1970s and now it’s harder to control them. The main problem is they’ll eat anything from grapes to lambs. Coyotes seem to ‘sense’ when the guard dogs are resting, that’s when they chase down a wandering lamb.”
Boonville’s Famous Charm
The setting of the Northern California sheep dog trials is the tiny town of Boonville, located about two hours north of San Francisco on the coast. This place is also known for its Boontling, a recognized lost American language that has about 1,500 words.
This language is almost 150 years old and is no longer taught in schools. In Boontling, the word for “dog” is “haireem”—a truncation of the phrase “hairy mouth.” The word dates from the days when Airedales were the “in” pet.
The word for sheep is “croppy.” Its origin is said to be from the sound the sheep make when they’re chomping weeds.