Dog day afternoon

Cattle Dog Trials at the 2022 NWSS

“If you get to thinking you’re a person of some influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.” — Will Rogers

The 2022 National Western Stock Show returned in January with uncertainty and changes, but the enthusiasm remained. Along with new stockyards in a changed location were some old favorites, including the Stock Dog Trials (Open Finals Cattle Competition) on the historic event’s last weekend. As a result of COVID-based protocols that kept some competitors from showing up, there were fewer dogs and handlers on hand, but the number remained solid and spectators made the extra effort to show up and watch the working dogs in action.

“I think it is very satisfying,” said Cattle Dog Trial superintendent Bob Wagner about having spectators fill the bleacher seats to watch the trials. “We had 42 open dogs here. With COVID and everything that is going on — we lost at least two from Canada because of COVID, so we would have had more. We limit it to 50 dogs. We also limit the handlers to two dogs (here). That keeps the numbers down, but the quality and caliber here is very good.”

Even with the change of location to the new stockyards which are located further from the main hub of the current stock show setup, the 2022 Cattle Dog Trials still managed to draw a solid crowd to watch the dogs in action on a sunny January day at the NWSS. "I think it makes it fun to do when you have more people watching," said Cattle Dog Trial organizer Bob Wagner.

On the last Saturday of the NWSS, the cattle dog trials kept an outside arena next to the brand new HW Hutchison Family Stockyards Event Center busy as they went through both Open Finals Cattle Competition patterns and a Gambler’s Choice contest. In the Open Finals competition, there was a set pattern of obstacles (between barrels, through gates and into and out of pens) the dog and handler must get the cattle to navigate. Successfully navigating the obstacles awards points and there was a time limit. With a perfect score of 120 points possible, the differential between competitors and their dogs became who navigated a perfect score in the shortest period of time.

With the Gambler’s Choice contest, there were numerous similar obstacles set up inside the arena with differing point values assigned in relation to those obstacles’ degrees of difficulty. The goal for the handler was to get their dog to put the cattle through as many obstacles as possible within the specified timeframe. The most total points won the contest.

Working dogs and their handlers congregate behind rhe scenes of the Cattle Dog Trials at the 2022 National Western Stock Show in Denver during the last weekend of the stock show. "Everybody likes competition," said eventual winner James Butler from Center, Texas. "When you can go to an event like this with the history and the heritage that this event has got, I mean, who wouldn’t like this?"

“You don’t get a pattern,” said James Butler about the Gambler’s Choice contest. Hailing from Center, Texas, Butler was competing at the NWSS with 4-year-old Gus, a reserve Open Dog of the Year in 2021 and leading in the points for 2022’s Open Dog of the Year by the National Cattledog Association. “You just get as many points as you can in that amount of time. This was my first time (doing it) and it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was a lot of fun.”

Butler and Gus not only had fun but they also made it look easy, as the duo worked their magic to top the field with a 195-point score. For comparison, at the time Butler and Gus totaled their 195, the next highest score was 150.

As one of the cows decides to run in a different direction, the dog is there in a burst of speed and attitude to remind it to cooperate. Athleticism, quickness, and even the flash of teeth are requirements in a good cattle dog. "(Your dog has) to have that strength. That presence," said 2022 NWSS Cattle Dog competition winner James Butler when discussing cattle dogs at the NWSS venue.

“Everybody likes competition,” said Butler about attending the NWSS and taking part in the Cattle Dog Trials. “When you can go to an event like this with the history and the heritage that this event has got, I mean, who wouldn’t like this?”


Competition is one thing, but what makes working dogs so important to a livestock producer?

“A cattle dog will take the place of two of three hands,” said Butler. “Sometimes it is hard to get hands that are reliable and that will show up. We are in the Angus business and we use the dogs when we are working cattle. You know that dog will do whatever I tell him, whenever I tell him,” he added. “There is a respect there with a dog.”

"Bob" works a trio of cattle during the Cattle Dog Trials while a crowd of people watched at the 2022 National Western Stock Show in Denver. Pushing them through a set of panels was one of many obstacles Bob and his handler, Milt, accomplished as they notched a perfect score of 120 points. The standard trial competition was decided by points as well as the fastest time notched in accumulating those points.

“A good dog can move cattle faster and easier than two or three men,” agreed Wagner on the topic. “And they don’t need as much pay. These dogs are bred to just love to work. They are happiest when they are working.”

Wagner, a molecular geneticist, and his wife, Jan (a doctor focused on interventional pain management), raise Border Collies on their Colorado ranch where they train them and sell them. He has helped head up the cattle dog trials at the NWSS for “probably 12-15 years” and understands their importance within the stock dog community.

“Two reasons, I think,” said Wagner when asked why competitions are important. “It is fun, which is why most people are competing here. It is really fun to work a dog that does well. Secondly, it shows what these dogs are capable of doing and how they are useful. The National Cattledogs Association mission statement is to educate people about the use of well-trained cattle dogs. I couldn’t work my ranch without my dogs. So it is partly education and partly fun. For some people, breeders and things, it is advertising.”

James Butler and 4-year-old Gus take a moment to relax after posting a high score of 195 points inside the arena for the Gambler's Choice cattle dog competition at the 2022 National Western Stock Show in Denver on Saturday, Jan. 22.

Despite the changes to the location on the stock show grounds, as well as changes planned ahead by the future expansion of the NWSS, Wagner foresees a continuation of the cattle dog trials.

“The event will be forever and I am happy to do it as long as they want me to do it,” he said while he surveyed competitors and dogs working inside the sun-filled arena. “We have been pretty successful and get really good cattle here. I enjoy it (and) you can tell people like the dogs.”

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” — Will Rogers


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