Sheepdogs show drive in Lacamas Valley

Annual competition brings talented teams from across the West

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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If you go

• What: Lacamas Valley Sheep Dog Trial championship round

• When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today

• Where: Johnston Dairy Farm, 104 N.E. 252nd Ave., Camas

• Cost: $5 adults; children 12 and under free

• More information: Call 360-597-6725, or visit http://lvsdt.com.

photo Yelm resident Bob Hickman and his border collie Mojo attempt to pen a group of sheep during the Lacamas Valley Sheep Dog Trial on Saturday. The event drew dozens of competitors from all over the western U.S. and Canada, plus hundreds of spectators.

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photoBen, a 2 1/2-year-old border collie, competed with handler Rob Miller, a past champion at the event.

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photo Ben, a 2 1/2-year-old border collie handled by Rob Miller of Middleton, Idaho, drives a lamb Saturday during the Lacamas Valley Sheep Dog Trial outside Camas.

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CAMAS -- Watch one run at any sheepdog trial, and it's easy to see why newcomers to the sport are impressed.

The first leg of the timed test sends a laser-focused border collie sprinting across a huge field to collect a group of five sheep more than 500 yards away. Meanwhile, its handler stays put, coaching at first with only well-placed whistles and commands from a distance.

Impressive, handler Kris McElhinney said, because any dog owner knows the challenge of training a dog to do even the simplest task. Some "can't get their dog to sit at their feet," she said, laughing.

About 170 dogs and 80 handlers showcased their skills Saturday at the ninth annual Lacamas Valley Sheep Dog Trial outside Camas. The event has become a big stop on the regional sheepdog trial circuit, drawing competitors from across the western U.S. and Canada. Last year's event drew close to 1,000 spectators over four days.

This year figures to be no different.

"It's really gratifying to see the looks on people's faces when they come in and see what these dogs are doing," said Lynn Johnston, who hosts the event at his family's Johnston Dairy Farm. "It's really remarkable."

The routine goes something like this: After collecting its sheep, the dog guides the animals through a series of gates and maneuvers. It stalks smoothly from behind, careful to keep the sheep close together. When one strays, the dog swings out wide, bringing the sheep back into a tight group. Its handler helps choreograph the dance with specific cues, depending on what he or she wants the dog to do.

Near the end of the run, the dog and handler work together to split two of the sheep from the group, keeping full control of the animals -- all while keeping them inside the designated "shedding ring." The team then guides all five sheep into a fenced pen on the course.

If there's time left, the dog and handler can bring the sheep back out and separate one from the group for bonus points. The entire run lasts 11 minutes.

Fifteen finalists -- the top five scores from each of the first three days -- advanced to today's more complex final round.

Among those in the running to advance Saturday was Rob Miller of Middleton, Idaho, a past champion of the event. Earlier in the morning, Miller posted a score of 77 (out of a possible 100) with his 21/2-year-old border collie Ben. The tally was good enough to keep them in the top five well into Saturday afternoon.

There's a lot that goes into training a sheepdog. But many handlers will tell you they're just harnessing instinct.

"It's born into the dogs," Miller said. "We just control it."

Plenty of wild cards can affect the success or failure of a run.

Perhaps the biggest is the behavior of the sheep themselves. Each handler gets a "fresh" group, meaning none of the animals has been out on the field that day before his or her run. Some are difficult, Miller said. Some are not. Often, it's simply a luck of the draw. And making your run in the hot afternoon hours can mean the sheep are more uncomfortable, and generally less inclined to cooperate, Miller said.

Still, competitors recognize that's part of the game, said McElhinney, who lives in north Clark County.

"You can have a bad group, and a really good team," she said, "and they'll turn it into a good run."


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.