Michael and Bridget Slaven, both from County Tyrone, Ireland, settled in the hills west of Zamora, CA in the 1800s. The ranch now belongs to their grandson Bill Slaven, host of the Zamora Hills Sheepdog Trial. Click on the photos to make 'em bigger.
Take along a pair of binoculars. The range ewes are set out on a ridge maybe 700 yards distant, and the sheepdog won't be able to see them as he walks with his handler to the post. The dog -- a working border collie -- will run more than half a mile to reach the top. The hills all around are vast and green and empty: it's beautiful countryside, not great for crops, but good for sheep and cattle.
The Slaven family's Zamora Hills Sheepdog Trial is one of the best-known in North America. The dog that wins won't earn points towards a title, since the USBCHA shuns such nonsense, but everyone at the trial will know what that dog is made of. The judge this year is Jack Knox, and with any luck I'll be there with bells on to watch part of it. [Probably Sunday, given the drive and all. Look for a pug.]
If you are going to be anywhere near Northern California from February 15th through the 18th, pack the folding chairs, sunblock and binoculars and follow the directions to Zamora Hills:
Directions to trial site: North on I-5, take Zamora exit, head west, 92B is about 1-1/2 miles from exit. Turn left and the ranch is the first place on the left. From Highway 505 – Take the Zamora exit and head east. Turn right on 92B (about 4 miles from exit).First run is at 7:00 each morning -- Nursery and Pro-Novice dogs run on Monday. Food and drinks will be available at the trial site. There'll be fine handlers and dogs from as far away as Canada. Bill Berhow will be there: he and his good dog Pete won Soldier Hollow last year. Here are some shots from 2007.
The handler's post -- the Lombardi Tower -- is out of sight on the left. Sheep are set out on the far ridge, at about one o'clock from the orange post in the middle of the photo. There's a dry creek bed between the drive panels and the pen. Sheep are brought around the orange post (rather than around the handler's post) prior to the drive. The shedding ring is to the left of the pen.
The shedding ring is in the middle of the photo, marked with sawdust. The shed's done --- the dog is fetching the sheep to the pen. 2007 judge Bill Berhow is seated on the flatbed truck. The Lombardi Tower [named in honor of rancher Guido Lombardi, a long-time champion of the working border collie in California] is just to the right of the shedding ring.
Top young handler Haley Howard steps down from the tower as Diona [out of sight behind the sheep] brings the range ewes to the shedding ring. Legs at left belong to the judge -- I recognize the knee brace ;~)
Something else is coming up... oh, yeah. Westminster.
The announcer will say something about border collies being great sheepdogs. And smart. Tops in agility. He may say that this or that dog has an AKC "herding title," which means the dog was able to follow tame sheep down a fence line in a small arena. Three times! But the truth is that none of the border collies in the ring at Westminster can work stock. Not one is competitive in agility. Here, in a nutshell, is what the border collies at Westminster are bred for:
HeadNo, that isn't from the AKC standard, but it might as well be, since the conformation ring in the U.S. has all but surrendered to the Australia/New Zealand standard. [You can read more about the border collie and the AKC here.]
The skull is broad and flat between the ears, slightly narrowing to the eye, with a pronounced stop [from Merriam-Webster: "the depression in the face of an animal at the junction of forehead and muzzle"], cheeks deep but not prominent. The muzzle tapering to the nose, is strong and the same length as the skull.
Breeding to the conformation standard of Oz means that a border collie pup without that pronounced stop will be sold to a pet home on a spay/neuter contract, no matter how excellent his health and how keen and biddable he may be. His good-looking littermate with the "perfect" stop -- the perhaps slightly more anxious, perhaps somewhat less intelligent pup with perhaps one or two very mild health issues -- is the one that will go on to win a championship, and he is the one that will stay in the gene pool. And so it goes, generation after generation. "This is the head I'm breeding for," I heard a woman at ringside announce the year border collies were "recognized." Her dogs won at Westminster.
Breeding to a conformation standard produces healthy, stable companion dogs by accident rather than design. This isn't meant to suggest that show breeders want to produce dogs with health issues and less-than-stellar temperaments, or that they don't take health and temperament into consideration. Of course they do. But the pronounced stop [among other characteristics described in the standard] is absolutely essential, because without it a border collie has no hope of success in the breed ring.
If the goal were simply to produce healthy, temperamentally sound companion dogs, breeders might take a page from guide dog experts and start crossing Labs with Goldens. They would breed pugs that don't need surgery in order to breath normally, and bulldogs that don't require C-sections to whelp. They would breed dachshunds and Bassets that don't develop back problems.
They might even give up the conceit that breeding for pronounced stops has no effect on working ability. The truth is that breeding for appearance eats working ability for breakfast. A good stockdog needs a finely calibrated set of tools to get the job done. A pronounced depression at the junction of the forehead and the muzzle ain't one of them.
Conformation-bred border collies are beautiful dogs, and no doubt fine companions, but the cookie-cutter structure, the matching fluffy coats and those pronounced stops have come at a considerable price. If you are lucky enough to be at the Zamora Hills trial next weekend, you'll see what the border collies at Westminster have lost.