By Josette Keelor
STRASBURG -- It's only every three years that the National Sheepdog Finals take place on the East Coast, and on Tuesday they'll return to Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown.
In what Belle Grove Executive Director Kristen Laise called "the Super Bowl of sheepdogs," the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association rates 250 working dogs on their ability to follow directions while rounding up and sorting sheep.
Many are border collies, but that's not a requirement, said Monroe Williams, who trains sheepdogs at his home on Possum Hollar Farm west of Strasburg.
"They said it's a herding trial," he said. "See? There's a difference. You can take any dog you want to a herding trial."
On his farm, he and his wife Evelyne, both 61, currently train border collies and Australian kelpies.
Border collies are a premier choice among sheepdogs because they're easier to train, but he said kelpies have become popular on the West Coast.
Each breed has its own style, he said. Kelpies bring sheep in from the field in sections to save energy, and border collies cover the entire field to bring in sheep. But what really matters is getting the job done.
That's where Williams comes in.
On a recent fall morning on the farm he purchased so he could train sheepdogs, Williams combined spoken commands with distinct whistle blows to direct his Kelpie Cowboy and border collies Moss and Queen one at a time around a field of training sheep.
"Away ... steady ... get back ... stand ... in here ... get out ... down ... come out," he told Cowboy before adding "that'll do."
"Away to me" tells the dogs to circle the field counterclockwise before rounding up sheep; "come by" means to go clockwise.
"And this is where you teach 'em," he said. "This is what you call teaching 'em patience. It's not their sheep until you want them to have the sheep."
Between commands, Cowboy tried taking the lead among a nervous group of ewes and lambs Williams raises ultimately for meat, but Williams corrected the dog with some sharp words.
"See how they want to go to the head?" Williams commented.
The commands he uses remind the dogs of their purpose, but it's the simple presence of a dog that makes the sheep respond.
"They know there's a dog out there when they hear this whistle," Williams said. But without Cowboy, Queen or Moss on their tails, the sheep won't rally.
Queen is 11 years old and doesn't compete anymore, but "she can move them with her eye," Williams said. "Her eyes make them uncomfortable."
"They feel the pressure," he explained. "I can tell where the dog is just by looking at what the sheep are doing."
When not in the field, Cowboy and Moss retired to pre-assigned spots along a fence outside the training pasture, waiting their turns, Williams said.
"The main thing is you got to be consistent," he said. "I wouldn't have livestock without a dog."
Williams and his wife have a room full of awards and ribbons at home, but they've never competed on the national level and won't have any dogs in next week's finals.
Instead they'll get to size up the competition over the next few days when dog handlers from all over the country descend on their farm.
Possum Hollar isn't the designated practice location for trainers and their dogs, but the Williams have agreed to loan out their sheep during the finals to participants who called and asked.
Instead of payment, the Williams will ask that handlers who use their farm to donate to Bonnie's Bus in West Virginia, which raises money for breast cancer awareness.
"When I go to a trial, win, lose or draw, I don't care," Williams said. Sure he goes with the intention of winning, "but you might as well enjoy your friends," he said. "This is what I do."
Possum Hollar also will hold its first novice sheepdog trials Oct. 26 and 27. Registration to run a dog is $20, but admission is free to spectators. The trials will begin at 9 a.m. and go until they're over, which will depend on the number of participating dogs.
Since 1999 Belle Grove has hosted the National Sheepdog Finals whenever it's on the East Coast, and Laise said it's an appropriate honor because the plantation once was home to sheep and working dogs.
"It's not every year that this happens," said Laise. "This is a pretty special event."
The National Sheepdog Finals at Belle Grove run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and will include herding demonstrations of ducks and canine law enforcement units. Daily schedules of the sheepdog finals will be posted on Belle Grove's website at www.bellegrove.org. One day passes are $12 for adults or $6 for ages 8-16 and 65 and older. Six-day passes are $40 for adults and $20 for children and seniors. Children younger than 8 get in free, and cash is the preferred payment type.
Admission includes a self-guided tour of the plantation house. Food and other vendors will be on site too. For more information, call 540-869-2028 or visit www.bellegrove.org or www.nationalsheepdogfinals.org/.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org