Fit is good at a lot of things: catching Frisbees, taking a running dive off a dock, lounging on a couch. But the 33-pound border collie is indisputably best at her main job—bossing the sheep around on a Florida farm.
“She knows more about livestock than I’ll ever know,” marvels owner Cindy Deak.
Fit is the reigning Farm Dog of the Year. She beat out 100 contestants for a title that carries a $5,000 cash prize, a year’s supply of dog chow—and recognition for the scrappy pooches that serve as work dynamos on farms and ranches across the country.
These aren’t the preening canines who get shampoo baths, nails trimmed and their fur groomed to a gorgeous sheen for the professional dog shows such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In this contest, good looks are actually a drawback.
“Honestly, if I saw a dog that was exceptionally well-groomed or coiffured, I would probably question whether they’re really doing their job,” said Deron Johnson, chief brand officer of an agricultural marketing firm, who has served as a judge at 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 2021’s farm dog winner. Bindi was aloof in return. “She’s not the friendliest with strangers,” Ms. Galley said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation started 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, just like all pet owners, love their dogs too,” said Jack Scott, a Purina executive who came up with the idea.
In Great Britain, working sheep dogs have shown their skills in the long-running television show, “One Man and His Dog.”
Lots of people got pets during the pandemic, with dogs leading the pack. In 2020, 45% of American households owned a dog compared with 38% in 2016, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Interest in the farm dog competition is rising too, from 80 submissions in 2019 to 101 last year.
Rules were drawn up, including that farmers who enter must write a narrative “describing how your dog offers companionship and makes farm work a little lighter…” At his ranch in Flatonia, Texas, Joe Sheeran noticed an ad for the contest on Facebook and figured he and his Australian shepherd, Woody, would give it a shot.
“He and I are pretty much a team,” said the 71-year-old Mr. Sheeran, who credits Woody for saving his life in one close scrape.
He told the judges how he got attacked by an angry heifer after he tried to rescue her newborn calf from a ditch, and that Woody—then only eight months old—sprang into action. “Woody saw that I was down and got that cow off of me,” Mr. Sheeran said. “You know, that’s instinct.”
Woody was named the first Farm Dog of the Year, beating out nearly 100 nominees. One of the judges that year, Dana Brooks, said the decision wasn’t closed. “I’m not gonna lie, I was crying when I read that,” Ms. Brooks, president of the Pet Food Institute, said of Woody’s submission.
One of the runners-up that year was Flint, an Australian shepherd whose owners, Rhett and Beth Crandall, slapped together an entry at the last-minute extolling the virtues of their ranch dog in Springville, Utah.
“We filled out our application like at 11 o’clock the night before the deadline, so it probably wasn’t very good,” said Ms. Crandall, 27.
The next year, she carefully selected photos from a Facebook page she had set up for Flint, and wrote about Flint’s proudest moment: the time he single-handedly corralled an entire herd.
A few years earlier, she said in the entry, she and her husband got a call from local police: about 150 of their heifers had gotten out and were trotting through the streets of homes nearby. “We grabbed Flint,” she said. “I just pointed at them and told Flint, ‘Get ’em.’ Flint turned them all around and pushed them back in the pasture.”
In January 2020, Flint was named top farm dog. “I know that I’m never going to be able to replace him and there’s never going to be another Flint in my life,” said Ms. Crandall, wearing a cowboy hat as she nuzzles her dog, in a video made for prize winners . “He has definitely completed me.”
The contest isn’t for everyone. “My bunch not ready for prime time,” said Cathy Williams, a Sebring, Fla. rancher who spoke about her playful dogs, Mia, Blue and Belle on Facebook.
And while there aren’t rules on which dog breeds can enter, some judges are pretty upfront which ones they are likely to dismiss. “I can’t imagine that a Maltese would be a great farm dog, not to pick on the Maltese,” Ms. Brooks said. “They are a little particular about getting dirty.”
Ms. Brooks said she was shocked to see an entry featuring a farmer’s Dachshund, who rode around with its owner on a “souped-up” golf cart barking orders at livestock. “I may have voted it high just because it was a weenie dog,” she said.
Australian shepherds and border collies have dominated the competition, in part because both breeds were bred for herding, farm bureau officials say.
At their farm near Orlando, Fla., Ms. Deak, 55, said she and her husband, Andrew, imported Fit from Scotland at age 14 months to help work their flock of 50 sheep.
Now weighing 33 pounds, Fit is dwarfed by sheep that weigh up to 200 pounds. But she said the dog knows how to run at, around and to the side of the animals to point them in the direction of a barn or pasture. “This dog will herd livestock until the day she dies,” she said.
Ms. Deak’s submission included video of the black-and-white collie pushing sheep around a pasture, and teaching younger dogs tricks. Last October, Ms. Deak got a phone call that Fit had won. “I was floored,” she said, adding she was told to keep the news secret until the farm bureau’s annual convention this past January in Atlanta.
In front of 4,500 people, Ms. Deak and her beloved collie walked onto a stage to accept the prize. 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 stirring music, Ms. Deak got emotional while Fit just stood by—seemingly bored. “She was like, ‘I should be working sheep. There are no sheep here!’ ”
Write to Jim Carlton at Jim.Carlton@wsj.com
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