HARRIS RIDGE — They are known alternatively as America’s farm dog and farm collies, but to their human companions who relish their smarts, work ethic and calm nature, English shepherds are simply the ultimate breed.

“English shepherds are two times less hyper than a border collie or an Australian shepherd, and they are easier to handle,” said Ginger Busta of the Kooskia area. “They listen, they learn quick or they teach you — one or the other — and they are incredibly versatile.”

Busta hosted an English shepherd gathering at her spread on Harris Ridge on Saturday that attracted regional enthusiasts of the little-known breed and some aficionados from as far away as Kansas City and British Columbia, Canada. They were there to show off their dogs, and run through exercises like a barnyard agility course, an obedience challenge and a hunt for mice.

But mostly the gathering was meant to bring like-minded people and their four-legged friends together. The breed was once common in rural America and earned it’s stripes as a sort of a canine farmhand, versatile enough to tackle a wide variety of tasks.

“They have always been an all-purpose farm dog, not a specialist,” said Kris Hazelbaker of Grangeville, who owns five English shepherds. “Herding is one part of what they do, but they also hunt and that can be anything from hunting vermin like mice and rats and stuff on the farm, to people use them for squirrel hunting and raccoon hunting and bird hunting. They do guardian stuff, watch the kids and announce when visitors come to the place.”

Sue Hagle, who runs cattle near Harpster, was introduced to the breed as a child.

“I grew up with them; my dad had a dairy and he would send the dogs out at night to bring the girls in,” she said.

Her mother would also depend on the family’s English shepherds to herd her flock.

“They love children,” Hagle said. “When I was a kid, the dogs would be baby sitters.”

She said her mom had a bell and when she rang it, the dogs would make sure the kids headed homeward, even if they had to be gently nudged or pulled.

Hagle uses her English shepherds for a variety of tasks, including moving cattle.

“They are just right for me,” Hagle said. “I lost my husband last year and I can still work the cows.”

Hazelbaker’s dog Ember herds critters that range in weight from a few ounces to a few tons.

“She has handled anything from little free range chicks in our barn, and gathered them up and got them back in their pen, and sheep and cows and calves. When I had to move cows and little calves, she was the dog I picked, because she is quiet and slow. She helped me move our 2,000-pound bull, the whole gamut.”

But when the work is done, these dogs know how to relax, something that isn’t necessarily true of all working breeds. It’s another endearing quality.

“These dogs have what they call an off switch,” Hazelbaker said.

“They are just laid back and easy to be around,” Hagle added, noting they don’t mind chilling out and if they get bored, they are able to entertain themselves with activities like hunting mice.

At the gathering, the dogs ran through an agility course constructed from hay bales, but many of them didn’t immediately take to the weaving through, up and over obstacles constructed out of an unfamiliar material. But with a little encouragement, most of them gave it their best.

Gayle and Pete Pettinger of Spokane are training their youngest, Bug-Z, for agility competitions.

“Hopefully you will see him at nationals someday,” Pete Pettinger said.

He then noted when English shepherds compete at the American Kennel Club agility competitions, they are referred to as “all-Americans,” a catch-all meant to include crosses or breeds not recognized by the club. The fact that English shepherds are not AKC-recognized is not at all a sore topic. In fact, their owners would prefer to keep it that way.

“It tends to ruin the breed,” Pettinger said. “People start breeding to reach a standard.”

Instead, members of the English shepherd club prefer to breed based on continuing the dogs’ traditional skills and temperament.

“At gatherings like this you can show your dog, but not for looks,” Hagle said. “That’s not what its all about.”

“These are just bred to be working dogs for the most part, but more and more of them are in companion homes,” Hazelbaker said. “Sometimes that works well, but not always, because sometimes the behavior you want on the farm doesn’t transfer to an urban setting.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

More information on the breed can be found at http://www.englishshepherd.org/.

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