Border collies and their handlers from far and wide are spending a working Memorial Day weekend competing in the third Sheep Dog Trial and Festival at Steppingstone Museum in Havre de Grace.
Roy Johnson of Gladys, Va., has been judging more than 200 dogs based on how well they can herd sheep through a course and into a pen, a task that favors dogs with speed and stamina. The competition continues through tomorrow.
Sheepdog trials are about showing off the herding ability of border collies, said Steve Paxton-Hill, who is co-host of the trials with his wife, Kathryn.
"We're bragging a bit," said Paxton-Hill. "We want to show that our dogs are better, and this is how we do it."
Using dogs to herd livestock and poultry is still an important part of economical farming, but it is predominantly practiced in the West and Midwest, said Allan Lynch, a sheepdog handler from Turbotville, Pa.
"They're not utilized anywhere near what they should be," said Lynch, who observed that using a well-trained sheepdog instead of a person to herd livestock can save a farmer a lot of time and money. Still, for most of the handlers at the trials, training sheepdogs is a hobby.
"People who do this are avidly interested," said Mary Felegy of Congers, N.Y. "Handlers run the gamut - scientists, professors, farmers."
Lynch, a hospice nurse, has been training dogs for competition for 11 years. He owns nine dogs, four of which are competing in the trials this weekend. One of his dogs, Joe, is competing against the advanced dogs entered in the open category and is ranked 18th in the United States and Canada.
"This is my way away from the hospice," Lynch said.
The dogs are organized into three classes. The novice and ranch classes for beginning dogs and handlers competed Friday and yesterday. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow, experienced dogs will compete in the open class.
A champion is selected each day in the open class, and a prize of about $600 will be awarded to the dog with the highest number of points over both days. Kathryn Paxton-Hill, who is also an artist, will be presenting the winning handler a ceramic plate decorated with hand-painted rendering of the winning dog's face.
Linda Tesdahl of Mount Airy has five dogs competing this weekend. A handler for 12 years, Tesdahl's dog Jaffe placed 14th out of 130 dogs at the 2002 National Finals in Tennessee. The dogs placing in the top 20 percent at the trials this weekend will be eligible to compete in this year's finals, to be held in South Dakota in September.
"What I think is fascinating," said Tesdahl, "is that you never know it all - it's a constant learning curve for you and the dogs."
Handlers and their furry counterparts embrace the challenge of variation, and, many say, part of the fun is adapting to different weather conditions, sheep and, this year, the sound of cicadas.
"It distracts the dogs' hearing slightly," said Paxton-Hill. "I've noticed with my dogs I've had to blow the whistle a little louder."
The dogs depend on the different sounds and rhythms of the whistle and verbal commands from their handlers to compete. The volume of the whistles can affect the performance of a dog by making it more uptight or relaxed. Good listening skills are one trait of a successful sheepdog.
"I look for a good listener," Lynch said of choosing a dog. "And I want a dog that's got power, one that can walk up on any kind of livestock."
"I like a dog that can think for itself and can read its sheep," Felegy said.
Felegy runs Fair Game Goose Control Inc., a company that uses dogs to control Canada geese that invade corporate parks, athletic fields and golf courses. While using sheep to train her dogs, Felegy said, she discovered how much fun sheepherding was as a sport, and she is now in her eighth year of competition.
Looks don't count
"I've never found something that is so compelling and thrilling to do," said Felegy, whose dog Becky won overall novice champion last year.
One quality that doesn't seem to matter in the competition is looks.
"We're breeding for ability, not necessarily for looks," said Lynch, adding that it sometimes takes time for a puppy to start showing instinct.
"They're just like we are - they're individuals," Lynch said. "Some just take a little longer to get their stuff together."
Still, many of the handlers agreed that it takes much longer for handlers to become experienced than for dogs.
Sheepdog competition is the kind of hobby that can consume as much time as an enthusiast allows. Handlers often spend five to seven hours each week training their dogs, and much more time on the road traveling to competitions.
Tesdahl said she attends about 20 competitions a year - an average number among handlers - and she has driven as far as Oregon to compete. Some compete in as many as 50 trials a year.
The love the handlers have for border collies often transcends the sport. Sarah Nicholson of Chestertown is the founder and director of Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue, a volunteer organization that spans seven states and rescues and rehabilitates unwanted border collies.
Nicholson's organization is at the festival to educate the public and raise money.
Nicholson, who also has a small sheep farm, has three dogs participating in the trials. It all began when she adopted a border collie, Nicholson said.
"I was immediately smitten," she said of competing with her first dog. "It's addicting - like peanuts."