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Soldier Hollow to host dogs from around globe

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record staff
Jeannie Weaver s Canadian National Champion border collie, Jack, runs down a sheep during last year s event at Soldier Hollow
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The Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championships began as an open competition three years ago. Now the event has turned into a world-class, invitation-only sheepdog event.

It’s "positively the foremost trial in the world at the present time," according to the International Sheep Dog News, published in York, England. Similar events have been popular there for over 125 years according to Mark Petersen, the Soldier Hollow event director.

"To get that kind of recognition from the birth place of the sport is a tremendous honor it makes me smile," said Mark Petersen, event director.

The sheepdog championship trials will begin Friday, Sept. 1 and will conclude with the final championship on Monday, Sept. 4. Friday through Sunday, the open competition will begin at 8 a.m., with the championship rounds starting at 9 a.m. on Labor Day. The dogs will work with some of the state’s wild range sheep.

Karen Stanley, a Park City resident and dog trainer for 20 years, will return as the lead local representative and will be joined by three other qualifying locals: Shauna Gourly of Huntsville, second year qualifier, and first time qualifiers Donna Eliason of Salt Lake City and Charles Torre of Cache Valley.

Championship dogs and trainers from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, France and Germany will be in town to compete for the $20,000 purse. Dogs from across the country and four from Utah also qualified. Petersen expects this event to be the largest so far.

"For those people, they’ve told me it was a tremendous honor to be invited," Petersen said. "It’s truly a tournament of champions."

The venue for the event also hearkens back to the area’s past.

"One of the wonderful things about the event, it takes place in Heber which has a huge community of great sheep tradition. The Heber railroad was the biggest sheep producing railhead in North America in the ’30s. It’s rooted in heritage; there are old sheep families that go back 100 years. All of that basin, in addition to being a mine community, there were thousands and thousands of sheep here."

Petersen said this is a one-time chance for spectators to see world-class dogs from the country and world compete.

"There are 60 dogs and anyone could win. It’s all top competition. There’s no other opportunity for people to see this type of quality of dog."

The collaboration between the dog and the trainer is impressive. In less than 12 minutes, the handler instructs the dog through a series of voice commands and/or whistles. The dog locates the sheep at a distance of 400 yards from the handler, gathers and directs the sheep through a series of gates, separates designated sheep out of the fold and places all the sheep in a small pen.

The obedience of the animal in obeying whistles and commands in the field is obviously remarkable, but the true wonder of it, is behind the scenes.

In other types of competitions, Petersen said, "absolute obedience is what makes the dog win. That’s not the case with sheepdogs. That’s one of the most interesting elements of this."

The dogs are expected to disobey an order at times. Sometimes the trainer may make a mistake when ordering a command. The dog is given the freedom to improvise based on instinct to make a better decision.

"It is probably the most bilateral relationship between men and dogs," Petersen said. "It requires a tremendous amount of trust between the dog and the handler, and it goes both ways."

Every successful handler, Petersen said, will say there are times when their dog disobeys the whistle.

"I have to trust that the dog knows that I’m wrong," Petersen said. "It has to be understood between the dog and the handler that the dog is free to disobey when the handler is wrong. The dog also has to trust the handler that he can be OK with it."

Because the dog is right in the action and the handler is more than 400 yards away, disobedience at the right time can win a competition.

"You need to have a dog that can make a decision and say no," Petersen said. "On the other hand, it is a problem when the dog does it at the wrong time."

A good sheepdog is a dog that can think.

"Border collies are unique in they have an ability to reason," Petersen said. "They can put concepts together to solve problems; they’re probably the only dog that can be taught to do everything that other dogs do. They are very flexible because of that highly developed intellect."

The dogs in the competition work every day of the year, according to Petersen. They are in their peak as far as athletic and physical ability. For these dogs and their trainers, Petersen said practice is what makes them successful.

It’s hard work but Petersen said the dogs live for it. The dogs react similar to an athlete trying to make a football or basketball team.

"How do you get the dogs to herd? What’s the reward? Their reward is the opportunity to do it," Petersen said. "If they do something wrong, they call them off and the dogs hate that. The dogs love doing this, they are so excited."

Petersen said this type competition never sees some of the cruelty heard of in dog racing.

"You won’t find that here," he said. "The border collie community wouldn’t stand for it. They require a lot of affection. There are very different. You want a dog that can think, one that is thoughtful."

Petersen added that older dogs past their prime usually stay with their owners or are given to ranches in need of a sheepdog. He said the relationship built between the animal and the handler is what inhibits the animal from being treated inhumanely.

The sheep are also treated well.

"This event is all about not stressing animals out," Petersen said. "The dog that wins the event is the dog that herds the sheep with minimal stress. You have to take care of your sheep."

The competition, Petersen says, has wide mass appeal.

"We love dogs and we love competition," he said. "It allows people to reestablish roots of rural life. It’s a competition that makes you think. It celebrates the unique collaboration between human and dog in an event showcasing the physical and intellectual abilities of the Border Collie."

The Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials begins Friday, Sept. 1 and will conclude with the Final Championship on Monday, Sept. 4. From Friday through Sunday, open competition begins at 8 a.m., with the championship rounds starting at 9 a.m. on Labor Day. Vendor booths will offer international food, drinks and products from the shepherding cultures, including a barbecue by Utah Wool Growers featuring Utah lamb. In addition, the Soldier Hollow Classic will feature a new Kids Kamp activity center with duck herding competitions, rides, face painting, coloring contest, a medieval reenactment, a mega water mister. There will be demos and clinic including a Frisbee dog show from the K-9 Kings Flying Dogs.

Tickets are available at the gate. For more information visit http://www.soldierhollowclassic.com, or call Soldier Hollow at (435) 654-2002.


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