Dogs that know how to keep sheep in line

An annual Foothills event features herding demonstrations.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 14, 2014 

A toddler squealed with delight Saturday morning as she sat on the grass at the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center and watched Annee, a 7-year-old border collie, swing wide of three sheep and keep the livestock from spilling into the crowd.

Terri Zurcher, of the Sleepy Z Ranch in Middleton, gave Annee orders by blowing on a special whistle. The tones and the intensity of the blasts alerted Annee to what her owner wanted.

Demonstrations by Zurcher and handler Mary Miller and her border collie Lacee, also from Middleton, was meant to show city residents how a sheep owner and her dog work together as a team. For many of the hundreds of people who attended the fourth-annual Sheep in the Foothills gathering, it was the first time they had been up close with sheep and a working dog.

"We thought it was cool. We had never seen this before," Boise resident Kirsten Deutsch said.

Deutsch and her daughters, Emory, 11, Elsa, 9, and Annika, 6, said they were amazed at how well Annee worked to keep the sheep, a mix between Tunis and Dorper breeds, from straying from the demonstration area lawn.

Deutsch asked her daughters how their dogs, a cocker spaniel and a Newfoundland-Labrador retriever mix, would have reacted to the sheep.

"They would have tried to play with the sheep," Elsa said.

Gretchen Hyde, executive director of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, said the event allows people to interact with sheep and learn about their long history and importance to Idaho's economy. They also learn how a large flock of sheep moves through the Boise Foothills twice a year as the sheep head to and from grazing areas.

"There are sheep on the trail for a couple of weeks in the spring and again in the fall," said Hyde, an Emmett resident and great-granddaughter of legendary sheep rancher Andy Little, dubbed the Sheep King of Idaho.

It's important that people know that sometimes there is danger lurking in the Foothills, Hyde said. She noted that Teson, a 1-year-old border collie that belonged to sheepherder Frank Shirts, was killed May 8 after being attacked by a wolf in the nearby Upper Hulls Gulch area.

The Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center is operated by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department. It focuses on education about the Boise Foothills and the surrounding high-desert environment.

Zurcher said she enjoyed bringing Annee and her sheep to the event. While Annee is used to working in a less-confined space without an audience, she did a good job of keeping the sheep from the audience. Only once, when an exuberant ewe led the flock astray, did they go into the crowd. With some help from Zurcher, the border collie brought the sheep back to the grassy area where they were performing.

A good sheep dog has the ability to herd animals without making them so frightened they're scared, Zurcher said.

"You want them fearful enough to respect them," Zurcher said. "You want a dog that the sheep feel good around."

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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