Fit is good at a lot of things: catching Frisbees, running dive from a dock, lounging on a couch. But the 33-pound border collie is unquestionably the best at his main job: herding sheep on a Florida farm.
“She knows more about cattle than I will ever know,” marvels owner Cindy Deak.
Fit is the reigning farm dog of the year. She beat 100 competitors for a title that features a $5,000 cash prize, a year’s supply of dog food and recognition for the rambling pooches that serve as working dynamos on farms and ranches across the country.
These are not the preening dogs that get baths of shampoo, nails trimmed and their fur groomed to a gorgeous shine for professional dog shows such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In this contest, beauty is actually a disadvantage.
“Honestly, if I saw an exceptionally well-groomed or groomed dog, I would probably wonder if he was really doing his job,” said Deron Johnson, brand manager for an agricultural marketing company, who served as a judge. to the competition.
Farm dogs also don’t seem to care what other people think of them. On a recent hike near her dairy farm in Garrattsville, NY, Sonja Galley recalls being stopped by someone who recognized her Australian Shepherd, Bindi, as the Farm Dog of 2021 winner. Bindi was aloof in return. “She’s not the friendliest of strangers,” Ms Galley said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation launched the Farm Dog of the Year contest in 2018, in partnership with Nestlé Purina PetCare, to help the public connect with life on the farm. “Farmers, like all animal owners, also love their dogs,” said Jack Scott, a Purina executive who came up with the idea.
In Britain, working sheepdogs showed off their skills on the long-running TV show, “A Man and His Dog.”
Many people have had pets during the pandemic, with dogs leading the pack. In 2020, 45% of American households owned a dog compared to 38% in 2016, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Interest in the farm dog competition is also growing, from 80 submissions in 2019 to 101 last year.
Rules were set, including that participating farmers must write a story “describing how your dog provides companionship and makes farm work a little lighter…” On his ranch in Flatonia, Texas, Joe Sheeran has noticed an ad for the contest on Facebook and thought he and his Australian Shepherd, Woody, would give it a shot.
“He and I are pretty much a team,” said Mr Sheeran, 71, who credits Woody with saving his life in one fell swoop.
He told the judges how he was attacked by an angry heifer after he tried to save his newborn calf from a ditch, and Woody, then just eight months old, sprang into action. “Woody saw I was down and took that cow away from me,” Mr Sheeran said. “You know, it’s instinct.”
Woody was named the top Farm Dog of the Year, beating nearly 100 nominees. One of the judges that year, Dana Brooks, said the decision was not close. “I’m not going to lie, I was crying when I read that,” Ms. Brooks, president of the Pet Food Institute, said of Woody’s submission.
One of the finalists that year was Flint, an Australian Shepherd whose owners Rhett and Beth Crandall slapped a last-minute entry touting the virtues of their ranch dog in Springville, Utah.
“We filled out our application like 11pm the day before the deadline, so it probably wasn’t very good,” said Ms Crandall, 27.
The following year, she carefully selected photos from a Facebook page she had created for Flint and wrote about Flint’s proudest moment: the time he single-handedly herded an entire herd.
A few years earlier, she says in the entryway, she and her husband received a call from the local police: about 150 of their heifers were out and trotting through the streets of nearby homes. “We caught Flint,” she said. “I just pointed at them and said to Flint, ‘Get them. Flint turned them over and pushed them back into the pasture.
In January 2020, Flint was named Best Farm Dog. ‘I know I can never replace him and there will never be another Flint in my life,’ said Ms Crandall, wearing a cowboy hat as she cuddled her dog, in a video made for the winners. . “He definitely completed me.”
The contest is not for everyone. “My band isn’t ready for prime time,” said Cathy Williams, a breeder from Sebring, Fla., who talked about her mischievous dogs, Mia, Blue and Belle on Facebook.
And while there are no rules about which breeds of dogs can enter, some judges are quite candid about which ones they’re likely to reject. “I can’t imagine a Maltese would be a great farm dog, not to pick on Maltese,” Ms Brooks said. “They’re a bit particular at getting dirty.”
Ms Brooks said she was shocked to see an entry featuring a farmer’s dachshund, who rode with its owner on a “bloated” golf cart barking orders at cattle. “I may have voted high just because he was a weenie dog,” she said.
Australian Shepherds and Border Collies dominated the competition, in part because both breeds were bred for herding, according to farm office officials.
On their farm near Orlando, Florida, Ms Deak, 55, said she and her husband Andrew imported Fit from Scotland when she was 14 months old to help work their flock of 50 sheep .
Now weighing 33 pounds, Fit is dwarfed by sheep who weigh up to 200 pounds. But she said the dog knows how to run to, around and around animals to direct them to a barn or pasture. “This dog will herd cattle until the day it dies,” she said.
Ms Deak’s submission included a video of the black and white collie pushing sheep through a pasture and teaching young dogs tricks. Last October, Ms Deak received a phone call that Fit had won. “I was devastated,” she said, adding that she had been told to keep the news a secret until the agricultural bureau’s annual convention last January in Atlanta.
In front of 4,500 people, Ms. Deak and her beloved collie took the stage to accept the award. A friend had made a leash with glitter and a Swarovski crystal, “so Fit would have some bling,” she said.
As a video played with moving music, Ms Deak became emotional as Fit stood by, seemingly bored. “She was like, ‘I should work sheep. There’s no sheep here!’
Write to Jim Carlton at [email protected]
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