Working dogs strut stuff at herding clinic

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- In a big field off Chena Hot Springs Road, dogs sprawl at their masters' feet, eyes focused intently on sheep running in the distance. Waiting their turn to round up the animals, the dogs seem to plead, ''Let me work too. I want a turn at that.''

The dogs and their owners gathered Friday for a herding clinic run by the Interior Alaska Herding Club and guest trainer Bill Berhow of Worden, Mont.

Watching each person direct their dog in maneuvering three or four sheep around the pasture was like observing a choreographer working with dancers. The dog runs back and forth, moving the sheep at the command of his owner. Dogs must know basic obedience skills and be able to follow directions. ''Away to me'' indicates the dog should run clockwise and ''come by'' means counter-clockwise.

Berhow told the group to remember that the dogs are there to help them.

''We need to appreciate the willingness to work in a dog,'' he advised. ''That should be appreciated and we should have fun with it.''

The herders are not the typical ranchers and farmers who need dogs to help run their spreads. In Interior Alaska, herders are usually hobbyists who just enjoy owning dogs talented at rounding up sheep, goats, cattle, ducks or geese.

''I like the natural abilities the dogs are bred for and the fun of training,'' Bobbie Williams of North Pole said. She owns goats and sheep, but said her herd dogs are mainly a pastime; she also keeps a recreational dog mushing team. ''I like working dogs,'' she said.

Williams has great respect for border collies, the most popular dogs for herding, because of their amazing talent at reasoning, she said. One of her border collies even figured out how to turn off the alarm clock.

Mari Hoe-Raitto of Salcha likes the teamwork between humans and animals that herding makes so evident. A longtime musher, Hoe-Raitto got interested in herding when she decided to acquire more of a companion-type dog. She was already familiar with border collies from her childhood in Norway, and after going to a Texas ranch to train with her first border collie 15 years ago, she was hooked. ''I like training dogs,'' she said, ''and more than obedience. I like dogs that can think on their own, but at the same time, you're part of it.''

The short summers here make it difficult for people to get too serious about herding, she said. ''It's hard to get sheep to move when it's 40 below,'' she laughed. ''Up here it can take a lifetime to fully train a dog.''

People who get really caught up in the sport usually send their dogs to the Lower 48 for training, Hoe-Raitto said. Herding can get very competitive, but for her ''it's a great way to do something with your pet.''

When everything flows correctly, she said herding ''is like having a remote control'' to round up livestock. Smiling down at her border collie, Rika, Hoe-Raitto said the breed is versatile, and can be used for skijoring, search and rescue, tracking and even dog mushing. Pointing toward the sheep, she said, ''This is what they (the dogs) love the most. They don't need treats ever.''

The outdoor aspect is something that attracted Brian Cash to herding. A lifelong dog lover, he took up the sport while living in Atlanta. ''It's a fun dog sport,'' he said. ''This is something to do in the summer when I can't mush. It's fun for the dogs and fun for me.''

Tolli Nelson of North Pole took up herding because of the bond it creates between people and dogs. ''I like to see animals working at something they were bred to do, and I like sheep,'' she said. ''This is more fun than any other dog events. You can see their progress. It's outdoors, and it's good exercise.''

Her border collie Hawk goes everywhere Nelson goes and sleeps in her bedroom. ''He's a good working companion,'' she said.

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