National Sheepdog Finals: Handlers and their dogs compete at Belle Grove

A border collie herds sheep during the U.S. Border Collie Handler's Association 2017 National Sheepdog Finals being held at Belle Grove Plantation this week. Preliminary rounds started Tuesday and go through today. Semi-finals are Saturday and finals are Sunday. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN – Open qualifying rounds continued at Belle Grove Plantation Thursday during the 2017 U.S. Border Collie Handler’s Association National Sheepdog Finals.

Brenda Short, of Powhatan, Virginia said she is spending a long weekend enjoying the competition. “I brought my camper and tent,” she said. “What a wonderful way to spend a beautiful fall day.”

Short has been a follower of sheepdogs since she was a little girl. “My grandfather had hand sheepdogs in Alabama,” she explained. About 12 years ago, Short said she finally decided to add a border collie to the mix. In 2013 she attended the national event at Belle Grove and “just loved it.”

The National Sheepdog Finals showcase the best working sheepdogs and handlers. This year’s competition hosts competitors from across the United States and Canada.

Kristen Laise, executive director of Belle Grove, said Thursday that she is excited to have the finals return to Belle Grove Plantation.

“Belle Grove was part of a competing bidding process to host this years finals,” she explained, noting that this is the fourth time Belle Grove has hosted the finals, which were held at the plantation in 1999, 2010, 2013 and 2017.

Faansie Basson, of Texas, grew up in South Africa where he farmed sheep for over 25 years. In 1996 he began running dogs in sheepdog competitions. He did it a bit backward, he explained.

“Most people have the dogs and then get the sheep; I had the sheep and then got the dogs,” Basson said. It was a natural spin-off for Basson to start competing.

Growing up in South Africa dogs had restrictions, he explained. Because dogs couldn’t compete, Basson and his family traveled to the United States for border collie competitions. Ten years later, he’s still here. When he’s not participating in competitions, Basson is giving training classes across the United States and helps handlers better understand their dogs.

Maggi McClure, of Washington, got her first border collie over 20 years ago. He wasn’t going to be an agility dog, she explained. To fix that, McClure decided to invest in working sheep because she was drawn to the concept of working every day with her dog.

“To me there’s nothing more exciting than going out every day with your dog and working,” she said.

McClure prides herself on the relationship she has with her border collies, explaining most people don’t have the type of relationships handlers have with their dogs.

“Being able to have that type of relationship with him means more to me than most would understand,” she said.

For centuries border collies have been bred for their ability to help farmers manage livestock as efficiently as possible by moving the animals from one location to another as needed by the farmer. There’s a shift in thinking of them as a pet to a collaborator, McClure said. The relationship between the handler and the dog really begins to matter when competitions roll around.

It’s not as easy as it might look. Handlers and sheepdogs work tirelessly to create a method that works for them both. Each dog is different, said McClure. Challenges include travel, time differences and humidity. Using signals and a whistle, the sheepdog must herd a group of sheep from one location to another. “Some dogs do really great, and some dogs don’t,” Laise said. It’s all about teamwork.

Two competitions occur: the open running and nursery running. The semi-finals are scheduled for Saturday and consist of 40 dogs running a full open course with the addition of a marked shed and single. From those 40, the highest scoring 17 dogs will earn the rights to compete in the finals, which will be held on Sunday on the full international course.

Spectators are encouraged to wear comfortable clothing. Food trucks will be on site providing food and beverages. They include: Shaffer’s, Blue Wing Frog and Jack Knuckles Gourmet. Tickets may be purchased at the gate and include a tour of the plantation. Parking is free.

“We expect to have a couple thousand visit us over the weekend” said Laise. The weather is expected to be on our side she added.

If You Go

Adult tickets are $14 per day (any day), $36 for a three-day pass (any three days) or $60 for a six-day pass.

Youth and senior tickets are $7 per day (any day), $18 for a three-day pass (any three days) or $30 for a six-day pass. Youth 6 and under are free.