A Competition for Clever Dogs Draws Thousands to Colorado

Each September, quick-witted dogs and their handlers gather in a Rocky Mountain town to test their herding skills—and travelers flock to see it.

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Akbash dogs—a large, primarily white breed from Turkey—provide around-the-clock care and protection from predators as livestock guardians.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

In a grassy field with a mountainous backdrop, sheepdog handler Scott Glen clutches a six-foot rope tied to a gate as Alice, his border collie, stares down five obstinate sheep. At nine years old, Alice is the most decorated sheepdog in North America. She has won all of the major sheep herding championships except this event, the Meeker Classic Championship Sheepdog Trial. With the clock ticking, these five sheep and the final maneuver—to herd the animals into a small, wooden pen—are all that stand between Alice and the title.

The Meeker Classic is a gathering place for what some might consider an obscure interest—the sport of sheepdog trialing—but for many of these handlers, working with a dog to gather and move livestock is a way of life. In 2021, the competition attracted 8,000 spectators, more than triple the town’s population, throughout the five-day event in northwestern Colorado.

The perimeter of the Ute Park field is packed with spectators. Some sit in lawn chairs, others are perched on bleachers, but all eyes are glued on the border collie in the center of the field. On this final day of the competition, the dog and handler teams have 30 minutes to complete the course.

As Glen cues Alice with a combination of whistle and voice commands, Alice remains locked in a contest with the sheep that would prefer to nibble on green grass rather than take orders from a dog. Glen and Alice are highly experienced, but the pair is running out of time.

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The annual competition takes place at Ute Park outside of Meeker, Colorado, in early September, Wednesday through Sunday after Labor Day. At an elevation of 6,240 feet, Meeker is near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and White River National Forest.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

The sport of sheepdog trialing began in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century. What were once neighborly competitions between farmers to test who had the better dog has developed into well-regulated competitions across the country and world—including Soldier Hollow in Utah, the Bluegrass Classic Sheep Dog Trial in Kentucky, and the Brenham Sheep Dog Trial in Texas—meant to test which dog moves the sheep most efficiently around a course.

The course is based on real-life skills a dog needs working on a farm or ranch. Following its handler’s commands, each dog starts with the “outrun.” With the handler standing at a fixed post, the dog takes off and must find a small flock of sheep, woolly dots on the horizon, more than 600 yards away. Then, the dog must “fetch” the sheep and bring them in a straight line toward the handler. Next, the dog must “drive” the sheep through a set of panels before returning with the sheep to the handler to “shed,” or separate, collared and uncollared sheep. The course ends with the “pen,” when the dog and handler enclose the five sheep in a 6- x 9-foot pen. The competition rules at the Meeker Classic are governed by the United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA), which stipulates rules for major sheepdog trials across the country.

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Left: During a sheepdog competition, the handler and their dog must work together to separate collared and uncollared sheep. Right: Bridget Strang holds a border collie puppy. While any breed of dog can compete in a sheepdog trial, most are border collies.

Photographs by Andria Hautamaki

Most sheepdogs have a short name that is easy for the handler to enunciate while directing the dog at a distance: Over the past 13 years, the top five most popular names for male dogs are Ben, Roy, Moss, Glen, and Spot; the five most popular female dog names include Meg, Jess, Nell, Fly, and Jill.

At stake is more than just bragging rights: Winning dogs and handlers take home prestige and prize money. At the Meeker Classic, competitors vie for a purse and added money totaling $27,000. Of that, the first-place winner is awarded $5,625 plus a stack of 15 bags (555 pounds) of dog food.

Julie Hansmire, a range sheep producer and owner of Campbell-Hansmire Sheep, has provided the trial’s ewes—female sheep—for the past 12 years. In order to supply the 135 competitors with “fresh,” or previous unworked sheep, 900 Merino ewes are trucked in for the competition.

From June through October, Hansmire’s sheep graze on high alpine meadows above Eagle and Vail, Colorado, at elevations ranging from 5,000 to 11,500 feet. From November through May, she winters her sheep in northern Utah.

“[Campbell-Hansmire’s sheep] travel a lot of miles and are exposed to bears, mountain lions, and wolves. They are tough,” said Mary “Maym” Cunningham, the trial director.

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Barb McPherson poses with her dog, Wren, for their official competitor picture by a historic sheep wagon. Shepherds still use sheep wagons as they tend their flocks across mountain rangeland, but modern models are often outfitted with solar panels, propane stoves, and a television.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

For a sheepdog to succeed at Meeker, the dog must be sufficiently assertive to march the sheep around the course. However, applying more pressure than necessary can cause the sheep to bolt, resulting in either disqualification if the sheep return to the holding pen or cause the handler to lose points—and potentially run out of time.

“Meeker is one of the hardest dog trials to compete in, and your biggest competition is the sheep,” said South African handler Faansie Basson, who currently trains dogs out of Hico, Texas, and is the only handler from outside North America to earn the title of Meeker Champion. “It’s extremely unique,” he said of the activity. “There is no other sport with animals where you control one animal, or animals, with another animal over an [extended] distance.”

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Spectators use binoculars to catch the action at the start of the course when the handler sends the dog more than 600 yards away to find—or gather—the sheep.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

The town of Meeker, established in 1885, is a gateway to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and the White River National Forest. Because the Meeker Classic takes place during Colorado’s spectacular autumn season, visitors often combine a stop at the sheepdog trial with other mountain activities, such as camping, fishing, or a drive on the Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway, a secluded, 82-mile road that connects Meeker and Yampa.

The first Meeker Classic trial took place in 1987 when three locals, Marv Brown, Grant Nielsen, and then-mayor Gus Halandras planned the event to energize the regional economy. Today, the Meeker Classic is considered one of the world’s most challenging sheepdog competitions.

“There’s a mystique about Meeker,” said Angie Coker-Sells from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, a trainer who placed first and second in the semifinals with her dogs Soot and Link. “The community really comes together, and they’ve developed a history here with the dog trial.”

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Local vendors sell a variety of food and snacks to satisfy hungry spectators and handlers.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

While the sheepherding competition is the central attraction of the Meeker Classic, additional activities educate and entertain guests. Encircling the verdant competition field, vendors in pop-up tents offer everything from canine kitsch and T-shirts to a kaleidoscope of dog collars and leashes. On-site demonstrations include wool spinning, Navajo weaving, leatherwork, and saddle making, as well as dog agility, K9 nose work, and flyball.

Inside the Wilbur Barn, a historic log building, visitors can enjoy a dog-themed art show and sample sheep cheese. Karen Strelko, retired from a career in finance, pokes a toothpick into a bit of “ewephoria,” an aged sheep milk gouda from Holland.

“I personally think more people would enjoy getting out and learning about what goes on outside of a nine-to-five city life,” said Strelko, who drove nearly five hours to the event. It’s her fifth visit to the Meeker Classic, a trip she looks forward to making with her sister each year.

“When you’re a newbie, it’s hard to figure out exactly how the handler and the dog work together. Starting out, I thought the dog was doing all the work, and then I realized that no, it really is a partnership,” she said.

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Competitors describe the Meeker Classic as a reunion for sheepherding enthusiasts. Kit Strang, from Colorado, and Amelia Smith (right), who lives in Oregon, catch up as they supervise a litter of curious border collie puppies.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

Basson, a sheep farmer for 35 years, starts his young dogs’ focused training when they are 10 to 12 months old.

“A lot of people think that you spend hours and hours [a day training]. You can’t do that. It’s like young kids learning how to read and write; it takes a long time. And in the beginning, you can’t push them too much,” said Basson. “Everything we do with our dogs in the competition is based on an actual real job, things we do on a day-to-day basis.”

Basson begins with short, 15–20 minute training sessions. A veteran handler can teach most young dogs the basics within six months, he said, but for a dog to be successful on the farm or at a sheepdog competition, time and experience are necessary. A successful working relationship between human coworkers requires trust and collaboration; the same is true of the bond between a handler and their dog.

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Campbell-Hansmire Sheep, a Colorado- and Utah-based range sheep operation, has proved the yearling Merino ewes for the Meeker Classic trial for the past 12 years. In late September, the flocks are herded down from rangeland above Vail and Eagle, Colorado, to sort the sheep and ship the lambs.

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

While many competitors do come from a ranching background, an agricultural upbringing is not required. (In 2021, a former pro-surfer, a farrier, a retired librarian, and a college professor competed alongside cattle ranchers and sheep farmers.) Another thing that makes the sport attractive: Sheepdog trialing is also accessible to people of all ages, with handlers as young as 12 competing with their dogs. Others enjoy the sport well into their 80s.

To finish the course, Alice must convince the five sheep to go against their instinct and enter the small enclosure. She controls the flock by using her position to either block or redirect their movement.

Glen, gripping the gate’s rope in one hand and waving a shepherd’s crook in the other hand, cannot touch the sheep. He can only support Alice by directing her with whistled cues or verbal commands. Several times the sheep appear to be on the verge of going into the pen. But then, one, or all, of the sheep squirt away from the opening, and the crowd groans. Alice gamely regroups her flock of five to try again—and again.

But the clock keeps ticking.

With less than 30 seconds left, silence falls across the crowd. Spectators squint through binoculars; others clutch their event program. Collectively, it feels like everyone is holding their breath.

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Left: The Purina Performance Dog Team delights the lunchtime crowd with acrobatic dogs and choreographed tricks performed to music. Right: Nine-year-old Alice is crowned the 2021 Meeker Classic Champion.

Photographs by Andria Hautamaki

Ten, nine, and eight seconds remaining on the clock, and Alice, gaze fixed, stands her ground. Glen glances at his wristwatch and then urges Alice to creep forward one last time. Unbelievably, the sheep stroll into the pen. Glen swings the gate closed and tips his cap to the crowd. Two seconds later, the ending timer chimes.

With her tongue lolling, Alice gallops over to a nearby tub of water and jumps in. Glen, wiping his brow, joins her next to the tub and cups handfuls of water over Alice’s back.

After Alice cools down, Glen clips on her leash, and she trots off the field by his side. Fans rush over to photograph the canine star, who lounges in the grass. Points are tallied and Alice is declared the 2021 Meeker Champion. The Queen, the most accomplished sheepdog in North America, has secured her final jewel.

Meeker is located 100 miles northeast of Grand Junction and 225 miles west of Denver. The upcoming Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials will take place September 7–11, 2022.

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2021 Meeker Classic Finalists (from left): Patrick Shannahan (judge), Diana Sylvestre and Kip, Jennifer Glen and Grit, Faansie Basson and Jack, Chris Jobe and Becca, Scott Glen and Alice (Champions), Russell McCord and Cutter, Angie Coker-Sells with Link and Soot, Barbara Ray and Grantham (Reserve Champions) and Maverick (not pictured: Bryan White and Terry Murray).

Photograph by Andria Hautamaki

Andria Hautamaki is an independent photo and print journalist from the United States who is based in Southern Chile.

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