For years I have yearned to spend Labor Day at the Soldier Hollow Classic. This year Miles helped make my dream come true. We spent the day in Midway, UT watching some of the world's greatest dogs and handlers work with some of creation’s simplest creatures. I do love sheep. I really do. And I really, really, REALLY love watching dogs work with sheep. It is truly amazing what one dog and one handler, equipped with nothing more than a whistle and a cane, can do with sixteen wild and wooly sheep on an open mountain range.
The competition starts with 8 sheep about a half mile up the side of a mountain. Via whistled commands, the handler directs the dog up the mountain to the flock. The dog brings the flock down the mountain, through a gate (the gate is nothing more than an opening between a couple panels, there are no fences) and into an open area. On the handler’s command, the dog then leaves the mini-flock and goes up the mountain again to find and bring down a second flock of 8 sheep. The second flock is also herded through a gate and is united through with the first flock.
The dog then brings the united 16 sheep flock down in front of the stands (where we admiring fans are seated), herds them around a pole, and then heads them back towards the mountain. They go through a different gate (an opening between two panels), across the foothills, through a third gate, and then down in front of the stands again.
In the flock of 16 sheep, there are 8 sheep who wear red collars. In front of the stands, the handler and dog must separate 5 red-collared sheep. Sheep are flock animals; they want to stay together. Sheepdogs are flock guarders; their instinct is to keep the flock together. Separating sheep is not natural for either species; the handlers demonstrate an incredible amount of skill, the dog show an incredible amount of training, and the spectators (me!) experience an incredible amount of awe.
Even more awe-inspiring than separating 5 collared sheep from the flock is the penning. The handler and dog then move the five collared sheep across the open field to a corral that is nothing more than a box created by 4 8’x8’ panels. With no help from fence lines, dog and handler put the sheep in the box. Sounds simple. For one who knows sheep, it seems impossible. But they do it. All of it. In 20 minutes. Breathtaking. Amazing. Stunning. Miraculous!
The tension is high. The suspense intense. The performance breathtaking. And the dogs heartwarming. If you have never seen it, you ought to go. Really.