Sheepdog Smarts

Watch sheepdogs exhibit their impressive skills at the McCormack Ranch. 

Watch sheepdogs exhibit their impressive skills at the McCormack Ranch.

Imagine the excitment of watching 80 highly trained dogs and their handlers demonstrate their skills for livestock work. Plan on an entertaining day as the dogs move sheep around a large course and vie for a place at the National Sheepdog Finals in September. Bring binoculars and a blanket or folding chairs. (Please leave Rufus at home, since the only animals allowed are dogs entering the contest or service dogs.) Cost: $15 adults; $5 children 12 and under. Separate tickets for a lamb barbecue hosted by the Montezuma Fire Department on Saturday April 2: $15.  Event takes place rain or shine. Tickets sold at the gate and at various sites in Rio Vista. Info: Jeannie McCormack at 707. 374.2254, Ellen Skillings at 707.374.5236 or Hope Cohn at 925.550.0566 or here

Third Annual McCormack Ranch Sheepdog Trials
Friday April 1–Sunday April 3, 9am–5pm
7680 Montezuma Hills Rd, Rio Vista

Rancher Jeannie McCormack and her husband Al Medvitz practice sustainable farming on the McCormack Ranch. They have a longstanding relationship with Café Rouge in Berkeley, supplying lamb for the restaurant and meat market, and were the first ranch to supply lamb to Niman Ranch. Jeannie McCormack wrote the following history of the dog trials.


Sheepdog Trials in the Montezuma Hills
By Jeannie McCormack

For more than 70 years, farmers, sheepmen, and dogs have gathered each spring in the Montezuma Hills to compete in an annual sheepdog trial. This spring will be no different, when 80 dogs and their handlers convene at the McCormack Ranch on the first weekend of April. Contestants come from all over the Western United States and hope to win a place at the national competition in the summer.

While the Montezuma Hills dog trials began sometime in the 1930s, the tradition became associated with the Hoyt Ranch, bought in 1946 by Mrs. Eva Hamilton, then a young widow. Although the olive orchard at Hoyt Ranch never produced any olives, it did produce lovely shade in the spring and hot summer and was a perfect place for picnics and watching sheepdogs round up sheep. The Rio Vista Farm Bureau, with Mrs. Hamilton’s blessing, sponsored the first trial in 1946 or 1947 to raise money to build a meeting place for Rio Vista and Birds Landing farmers. And they continued year after year.

The sheepdog trials featured some nationally famous dogs, but mostly the contestants were well-known dogs from Solano County. In those days, Solano County was the second largest sheep-producing county in California, the second largest sheep-producing state in the Union. The sheepdog trials continued into the early 1960s. The Rio Vista Farm Bureau surpassed their goal of raising funds for a building and decided instead to create a scholarship fund, which still exists today.

In a sense, success killed the dog trials at the Hoyt Ranch. One year three tour buses arrived from San Francisco, bus doors opening to spill out drunken passengers clutching beer bottles. This did not sit well with Mrs. Hamilton. By the time attendees numbered close to 2,000, it was decided to take a break.

Rio Vistans continued to clamor for a reprise of the dog trials, which resumed intermittently and then restarted in 2014 at the Dan McCormack Ranch on Montezuma Hills Road. In 2015, the event added a lamb barbecue cooked by the Montezuma Fire Department.  This year will see the third consecutive trial on April 1–3, sponsored by the National Border Collie Association, McCormack Sheep & Grain, and Rio Vista Soroptimist.