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04-17-19

Local man and his sheepdog among the best
From the Oct 14, 2010 issue of The Owyhee Avalanche

 The pair is the best in the west, and the fourth-best in the entire United States. They work at least 15 hours on their specialty every week, in addition to near-daily roadwork and a careful course of diet and nutrition to keep the team in top shape for competition. Lavon Calzacorta is the strategic director of the pair in competition, while Tess handles the legwork and on-the-ground strategy, keying off coded whistles, the length, pitch and volume of which give each call a flexibility of meaning.
  Calzacorta and Tess aren’t working as spies or counter-terrorism operatives. They’re herding sheep.
  Living just across the Snake River off Garnet Road, Calzacorta and his partner Tess recently took fourth place in the National Sheepdog Finals in Klamath Falls, Ore., competing as part of a field of 153 dogs. They were also first in District One competition, making the duo the best in an area comprising Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii.
  Tess, a bright-eyed border collie, six years of age, is in the middle of her premium working years.
  It’s obviously important to Calzacorta that a listener understands his hobby and passion is a team effort. He rarely talks about competition without speaking of himself and his dog as a team. “We” predominates by far over the perpendicular pronoun.
  Working with a dog isn’t anything new to Calzacorta. He grew up in the Jordan Valley and Arock area, working with dogs running cattle, but his love affair with dog training shifted to sheep over a decade ago.
  “They take more finesse,” he said. “Cows are weak-eyed, if you run something at them, they’ll run the other way. Sheep are strong-eyed. You get near them, they’ll stop and stare at you.”
  Distances involved and the autonomy of the dog are also much greater in sheepherding, he said. Where a cattle dog may be working fairly close a drover, a sheepdog in competition has to be able to function at distances of 600 yards or more, responding to whistled or voiced commands, and dealing with problems on its own. If that sounds harder, it is, but Calzacorta relishes the difficulty.
  “That keeps me coming back for more,” he said. “It’s the challenge. You have to re-prove yourself, constantly.”
  He stressed how important mental toughness was for a good herding dog, but the same could be said of handlers and trainers.
  “It’s a very humbling sport. If you think you’ve got it, just run that dog one more time. It’s a little like golf … you hit a shot perfectly 10 times, and then you’re in the sand trap or the rough wondering how that happened,” Calzacorta said.
  His reasons for loving the sport are varied. In addition to being a self-admittedly competitive person, he said he loves to see good dogs working, enjoys meeting all the dogs and handlers he knows well at trials, and loves being part of a team with Tess. As a trainer, he also finds a deep satisfaction in watching a dog come up from unskilled puppyhood to a sheepdog that can round up or cut out sheep a quarter mile away with terse whistled commands.
  While Tess didn’t comment on the partnership, she happily showed her paces, herding a flock of a dozen or more sheep with energy and a doggy-grin as Calzacorta used a variety of whistles to guide her. After her professional demonstration, she discovered a very attractive drain-ditch and had a true dog moment, wallowing until she was suitably muddy and soaked. Her eyes never strayed far from the sheep, however, at rest or at work.
  While some trainers handle dogs, and some handlers train, there are those that, due to time constraints, do one or the other, Calzacorta said. He does both, and well enough to be one of the four top competitors nationally.
  Having the help of his family and employer has aided him in his quest to be competitive.
  “It takes a supportive family and employer,” Calzacorta said of competition. He’s been a handler and trainer for about 12 years, and his wife Cheryl and daughters Justine, 16, and McKenna, 12, have had the chance to watch him advance to his current level. He now attends about 15 trials each year, and has traveled as far as South Dakota to compete.
  Calzacorta works for Dynamite Marketing in Meridian, a company that markets Dyna-Pro nutritional supplements for pets and animals, something that dovetails well with his hobby. The company helps out, sponsoring nutritional products for Tess, something that Calzacorta has seen become more important over the past several years of competition. Bringing a dog in healthy and in top shape is important in a sport where judges begin by giving a team 100 points, then proceed to dock points for each mistake, he said.
  Living locally has also helped Calzacorta, as he has a solid base of handlers and trainers that he competes against in his immediate area.
  “There are lots of good handlers around here,” he said. “I can think of 10 just locally. At local trials, there can be 30 handlers that show up for a two-day meet, and who knows how many dogs.” Handlers and dogs compete in one of three classes depending on the experience of dog and handler: Novice-novice, novice-pro, or open class.
  Tess and Calzacorta compete in open class, but he has other dogs coming up at present: Gus, a 4-year-old, Hank, a 1-year-old who will be Calzacorta’s winter project, and Ike, “who’s busy being a puppy.” All are border collies, the breed he prefers for trials. He said the breed was especially adept at working at the distances that handlers deal with in competitions, and that shepherds need on the range.
  Border Collies need activity, Calzacorta said. “They’re not a good backyard dog; they need to be active, they need to have a job to do.”
  Training works with the natural talent the canine partner has, he said.
  “The training brings out the natural instinct in the dog,” Calzacorta said. “You work on the things you can’t do, not on the things you can. You’ll get a balanced, overall well trained dog.”
  Knowing your dog is also important.
  “A good trainer also sees when it’s a good or bad day for the dog; knows when not to push.”
  Dogs, like everyone else, can have off days, he explained.
  When not working or competing, or attending the many sporting events his daughters compete in, Calzacorta enjoys camping.
  “We pack the family, and the dogs, of course,” he said. Eyebrows tend to go up when his family, along with six dogs, begins to unload at a campground, but he said the dogs tend to win the camp neighbors over quickly, in most cases.
  Though the competition season is nearing an end, there are still a few sheep to be rounded up and judges to impress. Calzacorta was in Hailey at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival during the weekend, along with Tess and Gus, to take part in trials and events.
  Results posted Monday on the event’s Web site showed that Calzacorta and Tess were the overall winner at the event, which organizers said drew 1,500 to 2,000 people this year. The team also won best gather. Gus nabbed second place as well, in the last major competition of the year. Calzacorta said the event and weather were both wonderful, and that he’ll spend this winter following his daughters’ sports and attending a few local trials, where Gus will see additional work.
  This year’s national championships will be held in Virginia, which Calzacorta thinks may be too far for him to travel to compete, but the 2011 trials will be in Colorado, and he is hopeful that he and Tess will be able to better this year’s place.

-MML



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