For Chris Soderstrom, watching a dog herd a trio of sheep across a field is like watching magic.
She said it’s hard to believe the animals are so smart, that a dog can perform such work instinctively, with the help of a good handler.
But that magic happened time after time Saturday out at Fido’s Farm in Thurston County. A back field at the farm held more than 60 sheep dog trials, with amateur to intermediate competitors. The advanced group will compete Sunday (Nov. 27).
“They’re performing tasks that relate to real farming,” Soderstrom said.
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The course used Saturday, called the international course, is the same one used in competitions in the United Kingdom. Soderstrom explained that dogs are expected to get behind the sheep, then bring them to the handler in a straight line, between two panels of fencing. The dog shouldn’t bring the sheep in too quickly, or they’ll be stressed out; if the sheep have time to stop and eat, they’re moving too slowly.
Bringing the sheep in close allows the handler — or on a real farm, the farmer — to examine the animals, Soderstrom said.
The dog then drives the sheep out, then back to the handler in a triangular pattern. Handlers and dogs must then separate one sheep from the herd, and then put all three into a pen, she said.
All of this is accomplished through a series of commands and whistles.
Handler Norman Rivers of Rochester said good dogs like his border collie Lucy know three languages. In addition to understanding whistles and commands given in English, they should be able to interact with other dogs.
Rivers and Lucy have been working together for about six months and won the intermediate competition Saturday. Rivers has been working with herding dogs for about nine years, beginning shortly after moving from New Jersey to Thurston County.
While living on the East Coast, Rivers primarily worked with sporting dogs. But two years after he moved to Rochester, Rivers’ son gave him a border collie puppy.
“I said to my wife, ‘This dog has to have a job,’” Rivers said. “She suggested doing agility, but I thought herding would be better.”
That dog died about a year ago, and Rivers was left without a herding companion. His wife had been drawn into herding, too, but recently stopped competing. She gave Rivers her dog, Lucy.
The family owns three other dogs, and when Lucy isn’t working she’s running with them. Rivers said she’s been allowed to live inside the house for about six months.
At 10 years old, Lucy is still full of pep, he said.
Handler Diana Craine said that in addition to training their dogs, handlers have to train themselves.
“They said it takes five years to make a dog and 10 years to make a trainer,” Craine said.
One of the toughest things to master is the whistle, she said. The tone alone can tell the dog a lot.
And when it comes to training dogs, it’s important to remember that no two dogs are the same, Rivers said. Some dogs are soft, so handlers can’t push them as hard. But others need a firm hand.
“You have to get to know your dog or you can’t work together,” Rivers said.
When: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 27)
Where: Fido’s Farm, 9829 Evergreen Valley Road SE, Olympia