Steve Allen doesn't have a lot of spare time on his hands. He's busy running his 1,600-acre ranch located along the majestic Gunnison Gorge at the west end of Fruitland Mesa. In addition to growing hay and doing all the things required to run the ranch, he and wife Rachel keep sheep and goats, and also occasionally tend other people's cattle.
Friday morning Allen managed to get away long enough to compete in the annual Hotchkiss Sheep Camp Stock Dog Trials. The skills needed to do well in stock dog competition are the same skills required of a good working dog, he explained after he and Blue, one of his Border Collies, completed the course in the Nursing class under a light rain. "A good trial dog should be a good ranch dog."
Like Blue, competitive stock dogs are generally working ranch dogs, said Allen. They demonstrate skills like shedding -- separating animals from the herd for penning, fetching and driving -- all with little to no assistance and only a few basic commands. His older dog can catch lambs for tagging without hurting them. "He'll just hold onto the lamb until I get there."
Allen, who bought the ranch some 30 years ago, learned early on in his career that it's far easier to tend livestock with the help of a good cattle dog. "They do amazing things once they know what I want," he said. "You really need a dog like Blue to make it work."
Blue, age 3, has an age advantage over many of the dogs in last weekend's competition, said Allen. While he was slow to mature, because he was 2 years old prior to the Jan. 1 cutoff date he was one of the oldest and more experienced dogs in the competition.
Allen said he bought his first Border Collie at the urging of a friend and long-time local rancher. He took the dog to a Jack Knox dog-training clinic and attended the first Meeker trials some 30 years ago. He has attended the Hotchkiss trials several times since it began 13 years ago and tries to make it every year.
Spending time with the dogs is "a passion," said Allen. "I get in trouble for not letting anything go for the dogs." Unlike training horses, a dog doesn't need to be caught and saddled and bridled before the training even begins. With dogs, "You can accomplish a lot in five minutes."
Allen also hosts weekly get-togethers with other dog owners every Thursday. While the hours can change, these days they meet at 3 p.m. He keeps yearling sheep around for practice. Someone shows up every week, and on a good day he'll have five or more people, some bringing more than one dog. One day, he said, he counted 18 dogs.
One thing he's learned, and something he really likes about training dogs, is that, "No matter what, in training, using positive reinforcement works better." It also builds a great relationship between him and his dogs. They are very loyal animals, he said. When he's out irrigating or riding around, they stick with him.
"That's probably more important than being able to run them in a trial," he said.
Allen and Blue headed straight back to work after their competition. The irrigation water was turned on recently and there's a lot to be done, he said. That's the nice thing about the Hotchkiss trials. That he's so busy makes traveling to other trials and missing a day or more of work almost impossible. But with Hotchkiss, it doesn't interrupt his work that much. As long as he's registered, "I can just show up," he said.
This year, the national stock dog trials will be held at the Strang Ranch near Carbondale. Allen and Blue scored a combined 133 points in nursing to take second place, and while that qualifies them for nationals, he said they won't go. He hasn't got the time, and that's ok, said Allen. "The main thing is that he is a good worker."