When a friend said they were going to come to visit I started to do some internet searches on unique things to do. We were on the hunt for fall colors so I was mostly searching Eastern Idaho and anything up in the mountains. One of my search results was The Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Ketchum, ID. This sounded just strange enough that I decided it needed to be on the itinerary. We didn’t fully know what to expect other than they parade a bunch of sheep through downtown Ketchum. Ok, sounded fun.
For 4,000 years man has used dogs to help them manage their flocks of sheep and other livestock. The nomadic people of Europe and Asia were the first to use dogs with their flock. As they migrated to new areas, dogs became vital to protect the sheep, which were essentially helpless against predators. The dogs were able to move within the mob of sheep without disturbing or frightening them. In addition to offering protection, the dogs were able to rein in straggling sheep that strayed from the herd.
Around 1900, sheep farming was becoming a booming industry in eastern Idaho. By 1918 the sheep population in the state was 2.65 million, six times the population of the residents. This was also the tail end of the Basque immigration into the western US, mostly from the Basque Country, a region in the Pyrenees Mountains. Many Basque migrated to the Western US with the Spanish, during the gold rush of the 1800s. Most failed and instead turned to a life of livestock. This life of isolation required no knowledge of the English language and little formal education, and ironically most of them had little experience with sheep herding let alone training the dogs. While the lonely life made it hard to build families, it lent well to the sheep thriving.
By the 1990s the sheep farmers of the Wood River Valley were running into conflicts with local cyclists who used the newly converted rail line made bike path. The sheep trail north into the high country in the spring, and return down the valley in the autumn, for optimum feeding. What started in the late ’90s as an informational meet up at a local coffee shop, to help educate residents, would eventually evolve into the festival we see today. Their goal is to keep the history alive, while also educating and entertaining residents and tourists alike.
Some breeds of dogs are naturally more inclined to herd, think border collies, Australian shepherds, cattle dogs, Shetland sheepdogs, and even the short-legged corgi. Herding dogs are trained to control and pilot animals that can outweigh them by hundreds of pounds. They often have to control both stubborn animals that don’t want to move, as well as delicate newborn lambs.
Dogs are one of the only species, other than humans that understand direction. Making them ideal patterns for controlling and containing thousands of livestock. Teaching your dog to herd is no simple task. Most dogs that have been pets for generations have lost the herding instinct or interest. So training starts with an instinct test, where the dog is slowly introduced to stock. Herding cats and kids aren’t the same things.
The most important thing a trainer can do is set their dog up for success. The dog will learn commands including their directions, stop, fetch, and drive. In this case, fetch is bring the stock to you, not the tennis ball. With whistles and oral commands, the handler is the pack leader, instilling a hierarchy of discipline. Just like kids, some dogs learn faster than others and some learn skills more easily than others.
Herding sheep, or any livestock, is a team effort. An experienced handler can manage thousands of acres with a few well-trained dogs. Eventually, the dog will begin to read the herder’s body language, creating what looks to an outsider as an effortless dance, moving thousands of animals.
It’s not all work and no play. Herding has become a spectator sport. With groups like The American Kennel Club (AKC), Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), and the American Herding Breed Association (AHBA) involved, there are lots of great events throughout Idaho. Janie Nafsinger is with the Idaho Herding Association and says “These dogs are judged on obstacles, out running, and fetching. Dogs that meet the different levels of achievement are rewarded with awards and titles.”
If you are interested in checking out the dogs moving 1500 sheep through downtown Ketchum, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival is expected to be held on October 6-10, 2021. There will also be Championship Sheepdog Trials held as part of the festivities on October 7, 8, & 9, and October 10, 2021, at the Quigley Canyon Fields in Hailey, Idaho. For up to date details visit https://trailingofthesheep.org