The 14th annual Hotchkiss Sheep Camp Stock Dog Trial is less than six weeks away. And while the event attracts teams from across the western U.S., several locals are busy preparing for this year's trials.
Mike Furcolow is one of many stock dog owners who attends a weekly training session at Steve Allen's sheep ranch on Fruitland Mesa. Furcolow lives outside Paonia and has his own small herd of sheep, but says there's nothing like working dogs at Allen's place. The 1,600-acre ranch is located high up on Fruitland Mesa between Smith Fork Canyon and the Black Canyon and offers stunning views of Grand Mesa and the West Elks. "This is like heaven," he says.
Prior to training stock dogs he ran field bird dog trials for about 40 years. But after meeting legendary stock dog trainer Vergil Holland about 12 years ago, he re-focused his attention on stock dogs.
There's a lot that goes in to training dogs for the trials that the general public doesn't know about, said Furcolow. For one, "Sheep are surprisingly smart." It doesn't take long for them to figure out how to play the game, or, as Furcolow puts it, to become "dog smart." Once the sheep know they can go home after going into the pen, they will head straight for the pen, he said. In doing so they deny the dog the chance to hone its skills. "This is for the dogs to learn their lesson," he said.
Once the sheep are dog smart, it's time to trade them out for another set of sheep. To avoid having the sheep outsmart the dog, stock dog trials use sheep that have never been used in training or competition.
Dog and handler also work as a team, he said. They learn to read each other, and the dog learns to read the sheep. "It can take years, but when you get to be a team like that, it's pretty amazing," said Furcolow.
Allen began hosting the training sessions about three years ago. He and dog Blue compete in the trials because they require the skills needed for a good ranch dog.
This is the 14th year for the Hotchkiss trials. Gordon and Cheryl Hebenstreit have taken over organizational duties from event founder Richard Bailey, who remains active with the event. According to Gordon Hebenstreit, entries are closed and all of the classes, open, novice, pro novice and nursery, are full. The event is a qualifier for the United States Border Collie Handlers' Association national finals and attracts some of the best handlers and dogs in the country. And while most of the teams come from the western U.S., the event draws competitors from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri.
The trials are always held over the Mother's Day weekend on open lands owned by the Hotchkiss family. The community event includes sheep shearing demonstrations, weaving demonstrations, vendors, local fundraisers and the Ute Trails Car Club Classic Car Show. Trial entry fees are $4 for the first day, and $5 per day on Saturday and Sunday.
For more information visit hotchkissdogtrials.com.