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Posted September 18, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Leading the herd: Top sheep dogs compete for title at national finals

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Thousands of dog lovers -- along with 150 well-trained dogs and 650 sheep -- will descend upon Belle Grove Plantation in the coming week for the National Sheepdog Finals.

The sheepdog trials, which begin today and last through Sept. 26, will showcase the herding abilities of the top dogs -- most of them border collies -- from all over the United States and Canada.

The dogs have spent the past year competing in the regions where they live, prequalifying them for the national trials, said Jim Murphy, the site coordinator for the event and a director for the United States Border Collie Handlers Association.

The best five trials for each dog are counted, according to Murphy, bringing the top 150 dogs from all of North America to the nationals.

Although the trials are open to any breed, the dogs at this level are all likely to be border collies, Murphy said. The dogs are natural gatherers, but they do have to be trained to do it properly, he said.

Murphy was at Belle Grove recently preparing the course for the competition, along with his two border collies, Trim and Jed. Trim doesn't compete because she is deaf, Murphy said, and Jed came in just under what was needed to qualify for the national trials.

"He came in at No. 160 and they are using 150 [dogs]," he said.

Nonetheless, 6-year-old Jed was eager to show off his abilities. As his owner used a whistle and some voice commands, Jed seemed to strike poses for the camera.

Murphy's dogs, as well as most of those that will compete, are actual working sheepdogs. Trim and Jed help Murphy on their farm in Canada, he said.

"All these jobs [in the trials] are supposed to replicate what's done on a sheep farm," he said, "and they do."

The difference is that in the competitions the dogs are timed and judged on how well they listen to commands and work with their handlers.

Starting today, 100 nursery dogs -- those under 3 years old -- will compete for the title in their class, with the winner chosen on Monday. The open trials will begin Tuesday, with some of the nursery dogs competing in those trials as well. About 40 dogs a day will compete from Tuesday to Friday, with some being disqualified along the way, Murphy said. Next Saturday, the semifinal round for the top 40 dogs will be held, with the top 17 dogs competing in the double-lift finals next Sunday. The national sheepdog champion will be chosen that day.

In the first open rounds, each dog will work with four sheep. The sheep -- which are being brought in from Pennsylvania especially for the trials -- will be released at the end of the field close to U.S. 11, while the dog and handler will be in the same field about 450 yards away, near the Belle Grove manor house. On command from the handlers, each dog will run about 450 yards out toward the sheep, in what is called the outrun, ending with the dog directly behind the sheep. In technical terms, other parts of the course include the lift, fetch, drive, pen and shed. But ultimately, the dogs must demonstrate their ability to herd the sheep back down the field and into a pen.

"He's running the better part of a mile, mile and a half when he finishes," Murphy said of each dog in the open competition.

In the double-lift finals on Sept. 26, the course is much more demanding, and the dogs work with a greater number of sheep.

This is the second time Belle Grove has hosted the competition. The sheepdog finals were held at the plantation in 1999, which was also the first time they had ever been held in Virginia, said Core Gnegy, Belle Grove's events and program coordinator.

"It's usually held on private farms in the Midwest," she said.

Gnegy said the plantation's ties to sheepherding can be traced back to Isaac Hite Jr., who built the manor house at Belle Grove in 1797. Hite was married to Nellie Madison, the sister of James Madison, and it's believed that this is what tied Hite to Thomas Jefferson, who introduced French sheepherding dogs to the United States, Gnegy said.

"So we have a special historical tie to sheepherding," she said. "During Isaac Hite's time period ... there is record that he had 500 Merino sheep here."

Belle Grove Executive Director Elizabeth McClung said the historical tie is one reason the plantation is a perfect place for the trials; another is the site itself.

"It's been a real favorite site for the sheepdog handlers," she said. "This is a natural amphitheater for the trials. That's one reason the handlers love it."

There is also plenty of surrounding land that the handlers and their dogs can camp on during the week, she said.

With two of the four judges coming from Ireland, and spectators from Belgium planning to attend, it's turning out to be "a worldwide event," Gnegy said.

About 20,000 people attended the trials at the plantation 11 years ago, McClung said. With the Internet, word has probably reached more people this time around, she said, so turnout could be much larger.

"It's a great family outing ... watching these amazing dog athletes," McClung said. "And it's a wonderful echo of Belle Grove's past and a way to keep our agricultural history alive for the future."

During the coming week, Belle Grove will offer special tours, food vendors, demonstrations and more. Admission to the competition each day is $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 12. Tickets are $60 for adults and $30 for children for the entire event. For more information, visit www.nationalsheepdogfinals.com or www.bellegrove.org.

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