Herding exhibitions popular with audiences
By TIM HEARDEN
VINA, Calif. -- Northern California ranchers who breed and sell working cow dogs are embracing the growing popularity of stock dog competitions.
Competitions can allow a rancher to compare the quality of his or her dogs to others, said Loren Holmes of Red Bluff, Calif., a multi-year qualifier for the National Cattledog Finals.
"How do you know how good your dogs are and how good you are if you don't compete?" Holmes said. "A lot of people who buy dogs never use them to their full potential, but it's there."
Increased participation in dog trials has led to an overall upgrade in the quality of dogs that are available, said Merle Newton, a Red Bluff, Calif., rancher and dog trainer.
"What a competition does is it gives you a chance to compare your dogs to other people's and to breed some better cow dogs," Newton said.
Dogs owned by Holmes and Newton were among more than a dozen entrants in a Tehama County Cattlemen's Association-sponsored competition March 27 at a local ranch. The competition was part of a field day of events, including roping, branding and horsemanship competitions.
The cattlemen added the dog trials last year after seeing the popularity of stock dog exhibitions at the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale, which auctioned off nearly 20 dogs this year.
"People like to watch it," said Josh Davy, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor. "It's a different group of people. ... It isn't so much a roping and horsing event."
People can gain tips on how to handle and train their dogs by watching other owners, Davy said.
"It's no different than watching the good horses work," he said.
Dogs have been used for work with livestock for centuries, but the recent growth in interest in herding dog trials has resulted in a greater interest in the natural abilities of breeds such as border collies and kelpies, according to a stock dog Web site operated by Wolston Farms in Scio, Ore.
Today, hardly a weekend passes when there isn't a stock dog competition somewhere in North America, explained the site, www.stockdog.com
For Holmes, the key is to "make a ranch dog first" then prepare it for competitions, he said.
"Sometimes ranchers will get a trial dog and hate him because they don't know what to do," he said.
Going to national competitions has allowed Holmes to see how people from different parts of the country work their dogs, he said. For instance, while ranchers in the West command their dogs from horseback, many in Texas work with them on foot, he said.
"They'll say, 'If I have to saddle a horse, what do I need a dog for?'" he said.
Stock dogs are becoming more popular within agriculture, too, Holmes said. Dairy farms are beginning to use dogs now, and gentler dogs are more effective with the smaller herds of today, he said.
A good dog can fetch anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 in a sale, he said, and a litter of pups can bring a good return on investment.