Watching Maggi McClure’s border collie Ace coax sheep across McLure’s Vashon Island field is a thing of beauty. Lean and whip-smart, Ace reacts to McClure’s every call, changing direction on a dime behind the trotting sheep. Watching, you can understand why thousands of people flock to the island each year for the Vashon Sheepdog Classic trials, this year starting June 9.
But seeing the loving, let’s-do-it-again gaze that Ace gives McClure at the end of the run explains something else: why ordinary folks go to such lengths to compete.
“Imagine if your dog could help you vacuum your floor,” says McClure. “Or work in your garden. (Sheepdogs) truly want 100 percent to help. When you have a working partnership with a dog, it takes the level of the relationship to a whole different place than just a pet.”
McClure should know. The Vashon dog trainer has six working dogs and three retired ones, plus a flock of around 70 sheep with which the dogs practice. More importantly, she runs the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, held each year on the mega-property Misty Isle Farms. The trials began in a low-key way in 1999 and ran for four years before disbanding. McClure, who’d grown up on the island, moved back and got the event going again in 2010 with a few other herding friends.
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8,500 The number of spectators at the 2015 Vashon Sheepdog Classic.
From there things took off. Spectators grew from 3,000 in 2013 to 5,000 in 2014 — McClure ran out of chairs. Last year saw 8,500 people attend the trials over the four-day event, with some 4,000 on Saturday alone. Around 150 competitors and their dogs are registered this year, from as far away as Georgia. For the last few years, there’s been a Fiber Arts Festival held at the event, with textile demonstrations, vendors, group knitting and sheep shearing. There are food trucks and a festival atmosphere.
“It’s the biggest event of its kind on the West Coast,” says McClure.
It might also be the quirkiest, in true Vashon style. All the food is local, from Patty’s Tamales to fresh sausages from Midlife Crisis Farms and Nashi Orchards pear cider. The gate to the sheep pen is covered in hand-knitted “sweaters” of various fuzzy textures and colors. There’s a family of bagpipers who play while the sheep are let out to graze between events. And the event helps support various island charities and organizations.
We’re transporting people to the highlands of Scotland out there. It’s sweet and quirky, and very friendly.”
Maggi McClure, Vashon Sheepdog Classic director
“A lot of the big trials have a kind of cowboy culture,” McClure says. “That’s not us. We’re transporting people to the highlands of Scotland out there. It’s sweet and quirky, and very friendly.”
Set on a sloping field that makes a natural amphitheater, it also makes great viewing — even the unpredictable parts, like when a sheep jumped the fence into the audience last year, or the time when McClure brought in range sheep from Colorado that were used to eating sagebrush and scrub.
“Here they were in green grass nirvana,” remembers McClure. “The dogs had a tough time even moving them — they just wanted to eat.”
Now McClure trucks in sheep from the Willamette River valley in Oregon that are used to green grass.
But what’s most interesting thing about the Vashon trials are the competitors: ordinary people who discovered sheepdog handling and got hooked.
With herding you never know what you’ll get. There’s nothing predictable about it.”
Paul Murray, sheepdog handler
On a Thursday after work, Paul Murray, Kelly Gann and their 21-year-old son Kylo are standing in their 4-acre field in Roy, working their dogs. They have around 15 sheep, give or take a lamb, and the dogs take turns to work a small group down the field and around their handler, as they’ll have to on Vashon before sending the sheep upfield, through several gates and back down into the pen. While they’ve always had dogs — Gann grew up on a farm — they only got into sheepdogs in 2006, when Kylo was a teen.
“I didn’t want to travel the countryside for soccer games,” says Murray. “I had already done some trials, and Kylo thought it was the coolest thing ever. So we got him a dog. Then I didn’t want to sit and watch him trial, so I got a dog too.”
Then Gann got a dog, and even her mom eventually got into handling. All four have competed on Vashon and do other trials — usually one a month. Last year, Murray made the nationals.
“It usually takes about four years to train a dog to this level,” says Murray, a high school teacher who works with his Border collie Lexi for around an hour every day. As well as training on their own sheep, the family travel to Fido’s Farm in Olympia every week to learn from other teachers and work the dogs on a bigger field.
Communicating with whistles rather than calls because of the distance, Murray and Lexi take several passes to round up the sheep, who look tired.
“It’s genetically wired into the dogs,” explains Murray. “We’re just figuring out how to tell them to do it. They have to know — it happens too fast to micromanage them.”
On Vashon, Murray says, you add in the difficulty of the terrain: hilly with blind spots, so you have to trust your dog when you can’t see him.
Out in the field, Gann now sends her dog Briar after a lone sheep, which leaps 2 feet straight up in the air before running back to the flock.
Sheepdog handling isn’t a hobby for the faint-hearted. Sheep cost $100-$200 at auction and eat hundreds of dollars’ worth of hay. Dogs cost $100 per month in vet bills and the same in food, says Murray, and then there’s travel costs and time, renting fields, paying teachers.
But for the Murray-Gann family, it’s worth it.
“It’s fascinating,” says Murray. “It’s not simple. We’ve done agility and obedience. But with herding you never know what you’ll get. There’s nothing predictable about it.”
“It takes more thinking and planning,” adds Kylo. “You have to know what kind of dog you have.”
And for Gann, who’s seeing more people at the classes she teaches at Fido’s, there’s another reason.
“People try it and see how much fun the dogs are having, then they have fun too,” she says.
Vashon Sheepdog Classic
When: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-June 12. See the complete schedule online.
Where: Misty Isle Farms, Old Mill Road and Southwest 220th Street, Vashon. Shuttle service Saturday-Sunday from north (Seattle) ferry dock.
Cost: $10 Friday-Sunday (pay-as-you-can Thursday). Kids 9 and younger get in free. Food available for purchase. Bring cash.
Also: Don’t bring your own dog unless they are friendly, vaccinated and can sit quietly without disturbing the competition.