MEEKER — The sound of a whistle, the sight of several wooly grazers, and the feel of wind whipping behind the ears.
These are some of the sensations experienced by the canine participants of the 24th annual Meeker Classic Championship Sheepdog Trials.
The herding competition, host to some of the best sheepdogs and handlers in the world, goes into its semi-final round today, west of Meeker on Colorado Highway 13.
Flags flying around the field in Meeker represent the American, Canadian and South African competitors in this year’s contest, as well as stand-by contestants from Italy. These are accompanied by banners from past participants from Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway, among others, which circle the course where the dogs and their handlers display their talents for spectators.
About 5,000 people attend the event every year, publicity chairwoman Sandra Besseghini said, adding that many of the people who attend the event come back each year.
“There’s a couple from Illinois who just happened to drive by here years ago, and now they come here every year,” she said. “They’re hooked on herding.”
Besseghini said more people show up for the event’s weekend festivities than the preliminary rounds, which take place during the week.
But, the stands are just as full on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with regional elementary school students filling the seats.
Tyler Burkett, 7, a second-grader at Sandrock Elementary School, was among the Craig students on a field trip to the trials Thursday.
Burkett said watching the handlers and their dogs taught him how much hard work goes into training herding dogs.
“Watching the outrun was my favorite part,” he said.
The outrun is the beginning of each team’s trial, in which the dog first makes his way toward the sheep. This leads to the lift, which determines how well the sheep will respond to him, and the fetch, as the dog maneuvers the sheep around panels back to the handler.
Burkett said he is a dog lover and an owner of a Labrador, although he wouldn’t mind owning a border collie for their speed.
“My dog’s nowhere near as quick as these dogs,” he said.
Burkett’s teacher, Shawn Steele, said she has taken classes to the Meeker Classic for three years.
“The kids love it every year,” she said. “It’s great to see the local culture.”
Part of the Meeker Classic’s outreach to schools in the area is hosting experts who can instruct students in proper dog etiquette.
Shannon Koucherik, of Craig, has taught children at the event for 12 years, representing Honey Rock Dogs Boarding Kennel.
“The kids are always interested in learning about the variance of service dogs and dog safety,” Koucherik said.
Her curriculum includes explaining the difference between service dogs like seeing-eye dogs, and therapy dogs, which provide emotional support for medical patients and trauma victims.
Koucherik, who taught dog handling as part of 4-H for 30 years, said the event is “a natural tie-in.”
“It lets the kids learn in a non-traditional venue,” she said. “They just soak it up, they love it. The Classic gets better every year.”
Handler Don Whittington, of Belle Fontaine, Ohio, agreed with this assessment.
He said the Meeker Classic is more of an event than other herding competitions he has attended, many of which have few spectators.
“The community really gets behind this, and they’re an educated crowd,” he said.
Whittington has competed in the Meeker Classic for nine years. His 9-year-old dog, Fionn, completed his run Wednesday with a mid-range score of 33.
“It was a tough run because of the weather,” he said. “There are so many variables.”
He added that people from the Eastern part of the United States have a harder time in Meeker because they’re not used to the terrain, altitude and the kind of sheep used. The sheep are range sheep, which are sometimes more difficult to handle.
“Meeker has such a unique reputation, and it’s such a sought-after championship,” he said. “For dog handlers, it’s a big thing to win in Meeker, Colorado.”