No boundaries for border collies

'They're too intelligent to sit around all day. They need a job, a focus in life.'

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It's a long way from Fyn, Denmark, to the grassy fields of Meeker, but for Tony Ottesen, the trip was well worth the time and money.

Ottesen is in Colorado for the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials being held this week.

After buying a few sheep, Ottesen started looking for a sheepdog.

"I went to the library and asked about a border collie book," he said.

The book he found was called "Lessons from a Stock Dog," and it led to his dog, Tweed, who is with him at the competition this year, which continues through Sunday.

"I was really lucky. He's good," Ottesen said. "I went out in the field and trained, then came back and read some in the book."

Joining a dog club in Denmark led to an invitation to dog trials being held in Utah, and then to Meeker.

Northwest Colorado held some interesting changes for the team from Denmark.

"We're not used to this kind of sheep," Ottesen said. "We're used to smaller sheep that have been handled more."

The mid-day heat and the altitude in Rio Blanco County was also something to contend with for the trainers and their dogs, he said.

The Classic's announcer, Art Unsworth, has been working the event for nine of its 20 years.

He said he gets as excited as the handlers and their dogs.

"Meeker is the trial to win," Unsworth said. "This is an event -- a happening, as the young people would call it.

"It's not just the dogs out there. It's all of this," he said pointing around to the spectators and handlers. "It's prestigious to do well here."

Unsworth said the event gets tougher as the contestants advance. By the finals, the dogs go from herding five sheep to herding two groups of 10 sheep. They must cut out one collared sheep from the herd of 20 as they approach the pen.

It's tough on the dogs, and tough on the handlers.

"You don't beat the sheep, you survive them," Unsworth said. "Handlers can't believe the sheep beat them."

He said the border collie is the only official breed that is not bred for color. They are bred for intelligence and physical ability.

"The border collie is the most intelligent dog at adapting to circumstances," Unsworth said. "It's a balance between the two, the dogs and the handlers. You have to let the dog lead."

Jeannie Weaver, of Michigan, agrees. She has seven dogs of her own, from puppies to "retired."

"These dogs don't make good pets," Weaver said. "They're too intelligent to sit around all day. They need a job, a focus in life."

Randy Campbell has been supplying sheep for the competition for two years and runs about 675 sheep on his ranch in Edwards.

"These are all yearlings," Campbell said. "They're all the same size and age. They all have equal stamina."

As important as the sheep for the competition, are the practice fields owned by Ila and Pat Sturgeon.

"I'm booked solid all day," Ila said about the fields.

The Sturgeons run 1,000 ewes on their ranch west of Meeker, where they've owned their business for 45 years. During the sheepdog trials, they allow trainers to come and practice on their fields, and their sheep.

"These are range sheep, just like they're running at the trials," she said.

Pat added, "A lot of them tried to pen them yesterday. They had some trouble."

Coming from Hop Bottom, Pa., Cheryl Jagger Williams agreed about the observations on the sheep.

"Sheep back east are handled a lot more," she said. "These dogs get so worked up just getting out there."

On the way out from Pennsylvania, she stopped at trials in Wisconsin. She's headed to the National Finals in Klamath, Ore., when she leaves Meeker.

"Exposure to these kinds of sheep is wonderful," Jagger Williams said. "At first, the dogs don't handle them correctly. Still, I'm excited about their prospects."

Unsworth said though the sheep may be tough, there's something special about the Meeker Classic that draws people to the town year after year.

"People come from around America for this event," he said.

"They plan their holidays around it."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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