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A classic sport takes hold on the Island
Islander Maggi McClure stood watch as her young border collie herded a flock of sheep down a field, criss-crossing quickly behind the white creatures and pushing them hundreds of yards toward her.
It was quiet on this Maury Island expanse, a wide-open field fringed by firs, except for the occasional sound of McClure’s high-toned whistle. As the sheep approached, McClure told Rob, her dog, to lie down. He instantly obeyed. “Come,” she commanded. He did.
McClure, a longtime animal lover, smiled at Rob, one of her border collies.
“There’s nothing he’d rather do,” she said, a shepherd’s crook in her hand, as her collie kept an intense eye on the flock. “He makes it look easy, but it’s not that easy. … He knows what to do; he’s making all these small adjustments.”
This weekend, both Rob and McClure will join dozens of other dogs and handlers at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, competing in what is becoming an increasingly high-profile event on the Island. McClure, however, will have a special role to play: She’s the organizer of the event, a three-day affair that will take place at Misty Isle Farms — 30 acres of rolling meadow in the center of the Island.
McClure started this new incarnation of the event (it actually began in 2000 but fizzled after a few years) three years ago and has pushed hard to expand it. She dreams of a day when thousands converge on the Island for the entire weekend to watch these highly trained dogs perform.
Already, though, it’s got some serious traction. A fundraiser for Partners in Education (PIE), the event last year drew more than 2,000 spectators and pulled in $8,000 for the nonprofit, which provides grants and materials for teachers and administrators at Vashon’s public schools. She’s hoping for bigger numbers — in both spectators and fundraising — this year.
The trial will feature food, crafts and raffles — from an afghan blanket to various pies — all part of an effort to support the education organization. Spectators can watch the herding action from the natural amphitheater created by Misty Isle’s terrain.
“We are very proud to be associated with (the Sheepdog Classic) because Maggi has a very big picture in her head of where this could go,” said Terri Colello, a PIE board member. “We’re proud to be a part of it and hope to continue it into the future.”
This weekend, top-notch dogs and their handlers from around the Northwest and as far away as Kentucky will descend on the Island, ready to give their best showing, McClure said.
“We’re still a very young trial, but we’re on schedule to becoming one of the West’s top events,” she said.
The Vashon Sheepdog Classic is a nationals qualifying event for the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association and is drawing quality competitors, including the association’s 2010 national champions, handler Patrick Shannahan and his dog Riggs. About 140 dogs will run the Misty Isle courses this weekend. Though the event is open to all breeds of dog, 98 percent of the entrants are border collies, McClure said.
“Maggi is one of our top handlers and is a good host,” said Francis Raley, secretary of the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association. “Handlers look forward to her trial.”
Two aspects of the Vashon event make it an attractive and challenging one for handlers and their dogs, McClure said.
Misty Isle’s rolling hills make visibility difficult, forcing the dog and handler to work with greater skill. What’s more, some of the animals the dogs will herd are lambs that have had little experience with canines; their minimal exposure to dogs and their young age could make them unpredictable and tough to keep together on the course, McClure said.
In the competition, each dog has a set of tasks on which it is judged. First, it must approach a group of five sheep 300 to 400 yards away, then herd the sheep down a field toward their handler. Next, the dog pushes the sheep through sets of wooden panels and separates two sheep from the rest. Afterward, the sheepdog must split just one sheep from its group, and finally guide the entire group of sheep through a gate and into a pen.
On each part of the course, the dog can receive a perfect score or lose points for errors. The top dogs and handlers from each day of the three-day event will receive cash and prizes, McClure said.
The Vashon Sheepdog Classic originally began in 2000 but was only recently revived in 2010. It started as a way for Vashon sheepdog handlers to give back to the competitive world of their sport, said Bill DeVoe, an Islander who founded the event and is this year’s course director.
“In sheepdog trialing, everybody has to contribute, and you all do your part,” DeVoe said. “Part of the way you can give back to the sport is if you can put on a trial yourself, … and we just thought we’d do our part and put on a trial.”
McClure has brought the event to a new level this year, DeVoe said, by including the Island community in the planning and execution of the trial as well as by securing lambs for the competition.
“You can evaluate the dogs and the handlers much better if you have challenging sheep,” he said. “It makes for an interesting trial.”
McClure looks the part of a sheepdog handler, with straight blonde hair that she wears in a loose ponytail and an upright carriage that gives her an air of dignity. But she’s also laid-back and relaxed, and as she sat in the living room of her comfortably worn house — a saddle in one corner and paintings of sheep adorning the walls — she gently rubbed the head of one of her dogs with her sock-clad foot.
McClure said she’s been passionate about the sport of sheepdog herding for years — the mailbox at her Point Robinson home has a cutout of sheep along the top of it — and re-establishing the Vashon Sheepdog Classic was a natural idea for her.
A graduate of Vashon High School, McClure moved back to the Island with her family in 2002. Her son, 9, attends Chautauqua Elementary School.
Today, she makes her living training animals for her Island-based company, Mighty Mutt. She offers training for dogs with aggression or other behavioral issues on Vashon and throughout the region.
“It’s a 50-50 partnership,” she said of her herding work with the dogs. “It’s this little dance.”
Back out at the field on Maury, McClure looked around her, taking in pastoral scene.
“It’s so much fun to stand in a beautiful field with your dog and your sheep,” she said. “This is such a wonderful way to bond with my animals.”
Rob’s work was winding down; he skillfully got the sheep back into the pasture where they’d spend the rest of the day grazing, then looked at McClure, awaiting further instruction.
McClure smiled at the eager dog, then uttered those words made famous by the movie “Babe,” about a sheepherding pig.
“That’ll do,” she told the dog, and the two headed back to her
The Vashon Sheepdog Classic will be held at Misty Isle Farms dawn to dusk Friday to Saturday, Sept. 14 to 16. Entry is $5 per day.