George McDonald has a farm in Longbranch, Wash.
And on his farm — which is 28 acres of grassy meadows with groves of cedar and Douglas fir — he holds sheepdog trials twice a year.
Saturday he had 31 competitors entered in the Top Dog or Advance category.
“It’s a big deal,” said Linda Dejong, of Enumclaw, for handlers who aspire to “make it to the nationals.”
This competition is sanctioned by the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association, which takes the top 100 dogs from around the country to compete in the national tournament. Handlers accumulate points from different competitions and the trials on McDonald’s farm in Longbranch can send a handler and a dog to Virginia later this year.
The idea behind the competition is how well a handler and a dog get sheep from one end of a pasture to the other, with the least amount of stress put on the sheep.
“There is a practical application for all this,” said Dejong, who was keeping score and had also competed earlier in the morning. “Farmers send out their dog to get the sheep from one end of the pasture to the other.”
Today, on a cloudy spring morning, camper trailers, SUVs and wagons shared space on the farm’s many pastures with the barns and sheds. Competitors and their dogs waited patiently under tents for their turn to impress the judges. Their trip to the nationals depends on what they can do inside the fenced-in pasture.
It begins with the outrun, where the dog races across the pasture to get behind a group of sheep on the other side. The idea is for the dog to make “psychological contact” with the sheep — or the lift — said Dejong. Then the dog drives the animals across the pasture on as straight a line as allowed by the course. Sprinkled around the middle of the pasture are obstacles that look like chopped-up fences and white plastic bags. Points are made and deducted depending on how well the dog stays behind the sheep, as it responds to its handler’s calls.
A quick whistle or a double burst; shouted commands of lay down! Away! The competition’s cadence is a rhythmic series of commands and calls. The dog races back and forth behind the sheep, listening to the commands, as it slowly moves the horned Scottish Black Face sheep down the pasture.
“The kind of sheep we have here are actually very uncommon,” McDonalds said. “They used to be the draw. They’re generally harder to handle and more willing to fight the dogs.”
At the top of the pasture, McDonald holds court with visitors, explaining how the contest works.
Typically, a contest such as this uses groupings of 4 to 5 sheep said McDonald. Today’s competition features four sheep per demonstration.
“I can’t afford to keep that many sheep,” McDonald said. “I have about 70 heads of sheep on this farm and I rent out my sheep to the competition.”
But clearly these competitions makes McDonalds happy.
“I like it,” he said.
That goes for life in Longbranch as well. McDonald, who moved to his farm in 1988 where he has been a farrier for more than 20 years, grew up in Longbranch. His family moved into a house up the hill from this farm on 40th Ave. KPS in 1964, when he was 13 years old.
“I live here with my wife, lots of dogs and sheep and a couple of horses,” he said.
Although competitors pay an entry fee that helps pay to rent the sheep, he said, “I decide each year how much I want to spend to entertain my friends.”