When railcars first began chugging into the Wood River Valley in 1884—forever changing trade and manufacturing—another industry was well into its renaissance.
Pack-train operator John Hailey, one of the first to successfully maintain herds of sheep in Idaho, first began leading small flocks into the state in the 1860s. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
“After 1870, Idaho proved to be a sheep vacuum into which many small flocks were drawn,” historian Edward Wentworth wrote in 1948.
But by the mid-20th century, the U.S. sheep ranching industry had fallen into a steady decline, and Idaho was no exception. (In 1918, 2.65 million sheep lived in the state, compared with 230,000 in 2018.)
Today, those in the industry have persisted despite increased competition, rising costs and tighter government regulation.
John and Diane Peavey—owners of the Flat Top Sheep Co. in Carey—are one such example. As part of the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival, their ranch will provide dozens of ewes for the annual Sheepdog Trials at Hailey’s Quigley Canyon Fields.
Around 80 sheepdogs and their handlers will help bring the sheepherding tradition back to life on Oct. 11-13 in John Hailey’s namesake town. Admission is $5 for everyone over 5 and needs to be paid in cash.
The trials, scheduled for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, will be juried by Carol Clawson of the U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Association. As it’s the last trial of the year of this caliber, the event will draw serious canine competitors and their handlers from at least eight states.
One competing pair—Kelly Ware, 62, and dog Wilson—will make the 180-mile drive from Ware’s farm in Parma, Idaho, where she cares for more than 300 sheep and five trial sheepdogs.
Ware, who has been raising, training and showing border collies for the past 11 years, is also coordinating the weekend trials. The Idaho Mountain Express spoke with her to get an inside look.
What dog breeds can we expect to see this year?
As far as I know, all 80 dogs are border collies. Some of the other breeds people could potentially compete with are Australian kelpies and Australian shepherds, but you usually don’t see them at this level. These particular sheep are pretty difficult to handle for any dog except a border collie.
Border collies have consistently ranked as the world’s smartest dog. Do you agree?
Of course I do, but I’m prejudiced! You can’t go by me. But when it comes to sheep, I think that’s true—the border collie will actually maneuver them with their eye. They’ll stare at the sheep like the Pied Piper to control them, essentially capturing them in a bubble. We call this “casting out the eye,” and other dogs don’t really have that ability.
Can you talk a little about the training process?
It’s a different story for every dog and depends on the class, but we usually start training somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 14 months. A lot of it comes build right in, so what you’re doing as a handler is you’re shaping that instinct—you’re teaching the dog not to [herd] automatically, but control the sheep in a more mechanical, technical way. By the time my dog, Wilson, gets them around the field, they’re just about ready to do anything. He has a really nice way with sheep.
For readers unfamiliar with sheepdog classes, how do they differ?
There are three sheepdog classes, and only open-class dogs—the most advanced—can enter Trailing of the Sheep because the course is so difficult. At other trials, there’s a class called Pro-Novice, where you have either an experienced handler and a new dog or experienced dog and a new handler, and then you have the nursery class for dogs under 3 years old.
So, the difficulty is what makes the Trailing of the Sheep trials so unusual?
Yes, it’s really challenging by trial standards. Quite honestly, most people come out to the trials for the Flat Top Ranch sheep. These girls have been up in the mountains all year, left alone to protect themselves from wolves and coyotes—so one thing that makes them unique is that they’ve never seen sheepdogs before. And in order to move the sheep, each dog has to exhibit particular finesse in herding without getting distracted or splitting up the group.
What’s that initial dog-sheep interaction like?
The dogs don’t usually spook the sheep, actually. It’s more of a ‘Whatever, little dog, I can handle myself’ attitude coming from the sheep.
What will the judge be looking for, in both handler and dog?
Carol will definitely be looking for good stockmanship in the handler, or a solid understanding of sheep on behalf of the handler, and efficiency in moving stock around the course. I’d say a winning dog is one that will control the sheep without harassing them, and of course completes the course in the 10 allotted minutes. A lot of people have asked me if their dog needs to be fast and smart—I tell them great partnership is the most important thing. The best border collies on the field are willing to really partner and work in tandem with their handler.
What’s in store for the future Trailing of the Sheep trials?
Next year, the hope is to expand the trials to run from Thursday through Saturday with an additional championship round on Sunday. Right now we’re running about 53 dogs per day—10 hours’ worth of dogs—and of course it takes time to get the sheep off the field between runs, so that kind of round isn’t possible now. But yes, a championship is in the works and I’m excited about it.