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$10,000 championship pits dogs against sheep

June 7th, 2003, 06:00 AM
By Marjorie Hernandez,
June 6, 2003

As cool air blew through the mountains surrounding the Santa Clara River Valley, all eyes were on 6-year-old border collie Pippa, who cunningly hunched down and commanded four sheep with her stare.

Pippa's mission: to break the four sheep into two pairs and direct them into a pen.

With less than a minute left, Beverly Lambert used calls and her whistle to direct Pippa. In a split second, the sheep separated and Pippa was on the run.

"That was perfect, just perfect," competition judge Alasdair MacRae said in a thick Scottish accent.

More than 50 sheepdog enthusiasts and their purebred champions displayed their skills on opening day Thursday at the third annual North American Sheepdog Championship at Brucker's Ranch just north of Fillmore.

The four-day event, which happens to be taking place at the same time as the city's Celtic Festival, attracts the cream of the crop of champion sheepdog herders and dog lovers from around the United States and countries that include Canada and Wales.

Event organizers Ted and Janna Ondrak of Drummond Ranch say people recognize and respect the dogs' skills and capabilities.

"We think that the reason why it has become so successful is because this is what these dogs are bred to do," Ted Ondrak said. "To the people out there who love their animals this is heaven for them, because they know that their dogs like doing this."

Ondrak said sheepherding has become the fastest-growing dog sport in the country.

On Thursday, it was all game faces, as more than 50 competitors directed their dogs through a course of hills and fences. Dog owners had 12 minutes to direct their dogs to herd four sheep through a course that simulates real situations shepherds face.

The course begins with a 500-yard out-run, where a dog retrieves the herd. With their owners' help, the dogs fetch the sheep and take them between sets of fences. Eventually, they must direct the sheep into a pen. All competitors begin with 100 points, from which there are deductions for mistakes. The winner of the event will walk away with $10,000 following the final run on Sunday.

It's the pursuit for the perfect run that keeps Derek Fisher, 22, going to competitions around the country. Fisher, who has been herding and training dogs since he was 14, brought his two dogs, Heidi and Glyn, and a few puppies.

"We're going out there to conquer the field," said Fisher, who lives in Boise, Idaho. "It's a thrill working with animals this brilliant."