When asked a few years ago if he had any ambitions or goals, Yorkville shepherd, Kevin Owens, replied, “Well, I’m not a very ambitious type but if there is one thing I still dream of doing it is to win the Sheep Dog Trial at the County Fair.”
Last Sunday morning, September 16th, 2012, after competing in this event for thirty years since his debut in 1982, the Welshman’s dream came true when Bren, his nine-year old female Border collie, with the assistance of Kevin’s considerable ability and knowledge as a shepherd, produced a splendid performance in very difficult circumstances to clinch first place in the prestigious trial and a place in local shepherding history. Undoubtedly this news is probably still reverberating around the Welsh mountains 6,000 miles away where Kevin honed his shepherding skills many, many years ago.
I have known Kevin for twenty years or more and have worked with him and our dogs moving sheep in the Yorkville Hills on many occasions. I own Bren’s sister, Rosie, and her niece and nephew, Beth and Winston, but there is no doubting whom the ‘star’ of the family is. Bren is a wonderful working dog but perhaps even more important is that she has a truly gentle and loving nature. Kevin’s obvious familiarity with these characteristics was to play a very important role in this wonderful dog’s poignant story as she made her way to the pinnacle of their sport.
Having had some successes as a competitor in various sheep dog trials over the years, two years ago Bren fell ill. The vet diagnosed Heartworms stage 4, but there was something else wrong, an ailment/disease that a few months later saw her virtually paralyzed. Her back legs would not work and she could not stand up, lying at Kevin’s feet for hours on end. This lasted for a couple of weeks and it appeared that nothing could be done. “I took her in to the vets and he thought she may well have a tumor. I couldn’t stand to see her suffer.”
Kevin, not just a shepherd but a compassionate dog owner, was in despair and he prepared for the worst. He dug a grave on the property in Yorkville where he has lived for over thirty years, up in the hills a couple of miles off Highway 128. Then, after calling the vets to make an appointment, he put Bren in his truck and made the sad and tearful journey over the hill to the vets in Ukiah.
After a brief discussion with the vet it was decided that there really was no alternative. Bren was so weak and was unable to stand. The vet left the room and returned with a needle filled with the necessary drugs to ‘put her to sleep.’ Kevin stood silently by, tears running down his face. As the vet moved close to Bren, she lifted her head and uttered a slight growl. The vet tried to sooth her with words but the growl grew in intensity. Kevin was shocked. “She had never growled at anyone or anything in her life. She had always been such a sweetheart. I was stunned.”
The doctor hesitated and Kevin explained that this growling was something he had never heard from Bren. The vet went forward again and Bren growled even louder. Kevin immediately decided that this was a message she was sending, telling the vet that she was not ready to go. He asked the vet for some medications that might ease her pain for a little longer and made the decision to take her back to Yorkville and see if she might possibly improve.
Miraculously, Bren began to perk up the next day and over the next few weeks her energy levels returned, her willingness to join in around the property with Kevin’s other dogs became very evident, and her desire to herd sheep was once again restored. Having reached a real low point, Kevin too was rejuvenated and began to work his dogs with renewed vigor, particularly Bren, as he realized that “the growl saved her life.”
This year, as he had done so many times before, Kevin once again entered the RESDA (Redwood Empire Sheep Dog Association) Elimination Trial from which the top eight dogs in the region qualify for the finals at the County Fair. While Bren had come a long way back from where she had been two years ago, Kevin was very unsure of her capabilities at this point. She did not do well, finishing 10th with a very poor score of just five points and after her run Kevin realized that her best herding days were probably over and just hoped for her peaceful and painless retirement and old age. However, following the trial, the results revealed that first place finisher Colleen Duncan had another dog in the top eight and RESDA rules do not allow a handler to have two dogs in the Final. The first alternate, in 9th, was Barb McPherson, who had also placed another dog in the top eight. This meant that the second alternate, 10th place in the Elimination Trial, would qualify for the Finals — ‘you’re going to the Fair, Bren and Kevin!’
The County Fair Trial took place in the Fairgrounds in Boonville in front of a crowd of over 400 excited fans. It was a special day for many locals connected to the sheep world as lifelong sheep farmer, sheep dog trialist, and multiple winner of RESDA’s annual high points championship, Yokville’s Stanley Johnson, who passed away earlier this year, was to be honored with a minutes silence. Kevin knew Stanley very well and had spent many hours working his dogs on the Johnson Ranch with Stanley’s sheep. It was already beginning to be an emotional day.
I shall spare you the details of the trial in terms of its rules, the techniques used, and the style required, suffice it to say on this occasion the sheep were downright uncooperative — hence the ‘very difficult circumstances’ I mentioned above. They were supplied by the Gary and Wanda Johnson of Boonville, CA and had not been around dogs in their domain up among the hills overlooking the Valley. It showed. Every handler was having great difficulty and the scores were very low. Kevin was due up sixth out of the eight teams in competition, following Colleen Duncan and her dog Hope, who had convincingly won the Elimination Trial. However, this fine duo, who currently lead the season standings in the RESDA High Points Championship, and who have won four trials already this year, struggled on this day. The competition remained wide open and with the majority of the large crowd rooting for them, Kevin and Bren entered the arena.
“We were certainly helped by the fact that it was not too hot that day and, even more importantly for nine-year old Bren, was the fact that the sheep chose ‘fight’ over ‘flight.’ Had they been the kind of sheep we often get, who are skittish and run off, she would have probably struggled. She is not nearly as fast as she used to be. The fact that these sheep wanted to stand and confront the dogs caused problems for many of the handlers and their dogs but it actually helped us and Bren did a great job, showing great composure and intensity, completing the course and successfully penning the sheep at the end of her run.”
There were two more teams to go, featuring two splendid dogs, True, the daughter of the 2010 Champion, Cali, and Jasper, currently third in this year’s standings. Kevin and Bren watched and waited. Both of these dogs and their handlers had big problems with the ornery sheep and failed to complete the course. When the final results were announced and Kevin and Bren were declared 2012 Champions, the crowd roared in approval of the pair’s much-deserved victory. It was a special moment that Kevin will never forget.
I headed for the Lions Club bar where I found Kevin, ever the modest man, standing alone, a beer in his hand. We hugged, and he said, “I am in shock, I can’t believe it.” He was absolutely beaming, a smile from ear to ear, the glint in his eyes slightly dimmed by tears of joy welling up. I had never seen him so happy. We were soon joined by two other Brits — Alan ‘Sausage Man’ Thomas and Geoff of Elk, and after Kevin gave us a brief run-through of his thoughts during the trial, we proceeded to ‘rant and rave about this, that, and the other’ as we tend to do. Beers flowed, laughter was loud, and the Yanks around us were perhaps feeling very grateful for their forefathers’ victory back in 1776. They should be, but on this occasion, thanks to Bren, we had ‘won’, and a brilliant and amazingly resilient dog had ensured that her loving guardian had achieved his dream.