Herding Helps Competitor Overcome Serious Illness
by Mark Petersen
On September 2, the 14th annual Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship will kick off in Midway, highlighting the talents of the world’s most intelligent working dogs. Handlers from across the U.S. will compete against champions from as far afield as Wales and South Africa for a chance to take home a share of the $30,000 winning purse. Yet, for one local competitor, Coleen Hawker, simply competing at the prestigious event will be rewarding enough.
This time last year, Hawker, of Draper, was preparing for the Soldier Hollow Classic with Ike, her Australian Kelpie, a unique breed in a sport dominated by Border Collies and Australian Shepherds. Hawker had been working with herding dogs for 12 years and 7-year-old Ike, the oldest of her three Kelpies, was experienced and ready for competition.
Things were going smoothly as the two made final preparations, which included specialized training in Washington and Oregon herding sheep on hilly terrain similar to that on the Soldier Hollow course. Then, only a month prior to the Labor Day competition, Hawker fell ill with what turned out to be a serious case of pneumonia.
After suffering from worsening symptoms for three days, Hawker was transported to the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where doctors placed her in a medically induced coma after discovering embolisms in her lung and a large bleed in her abdomen. She would awake 10 days later remembering little of falling ill and the trip to the hospital, and would spend a total of 16 days in the intensive care unit.
The illness and resulting atrophy dismissed all hope of competing at the Soldier Hollow Classic and demanded a long and difficult recovery. Returning home, Hawker required bottled oxygen and was forced to use a walker when she finally got on her feet again. A crushing blow to anyone, Hawker’s lack of mobility was compounded by the fact she could no longer herd with her dogs.
Australian Kelpies, like their fellow working dogs, are high-energy creatures who excel at herding livestock and competing in agility trials. Prospective Kelpie owners are often warned these highly intelligent creatures are very independent with a passion for keeping busy—making them unsuitable for many homes. A lack of activity can make the dogs hyperactive, which can lead to destructive behaviors as an outlet for their pent up energy.
However, when Hawker returned home from the hospital, her three dogs seemed to realize the severity of the situation and their temperament changed dramatically. “They just crawled next to me and laid there for months, not asking anything of me, just being there for me,” Hawker recalled.
A therapist came to help Hawker get around the house and regain her independence. During those visits, it became clear how much Hawker missed working with her dogs and the therapist saw what an important part that activity could play in her patient’s recovery. “She knew that was all I cared about. She knew that the most beneficial thing for me was to be out working my dogs,” Hawker said.
So, loading the oxygen tank and walker into the therapist’s car, Hawker and her three canines were driven to the pasture in Sandy where they used to train and she began whistling her dogs once again. It didn’t last long on that first visit, but the activity had the desired effect as Hawker’s spirits were lifted and her motivation to recover was rekindled.
A month later, Hawker was driving again and soon replaced her walker with a cane and purchased a more portable oxygen unit. By early 2016, she was training with her dogs up to three times a week and, while competing with her herding dogs was never a priority, Hawker set her sights on a return to the Soldier Hollow Classic in September.
Now, with the competition just around the corner, Hawker has recovered fully from the shocking illness that knocked her off her feet a year ago. Even her doctors are impressed with her rapid recovery, when once they told her she’d be on oxygen for the rest of her life.
“I’d say I’m 110 percent, healthier now than ever before,” said Hawker, attributing her success to the combination of physical rehabilitation with Pilates and the motivation provided by her three Australian Kelpies.
“I want everyone to understand how important pets can be to us. The benefits of owning animals are more than just having an animal to entertain you; for a lot of people it’s the reason to get up in the morning, to get out and do things, and to get better,” she said.
Just like last year, Hawker plans on standing at the post at Soldier Hollow and showing off Ike’s abilities before the tens of thousands of spectators that attend the competition and festival. There, she will receive a warm welcome from her fellow competitors and the event’s staff, who missed her in 2015.
“Coleen brings a whole different breed of dog to our event and the sport with her Australian Kelpie. There aren’t many dogs that possess the agility and intelligence to excel at this level of competition, but we’ve seen her do it before with Ike and we’re honored to have her back this year,” said Mark Petersen, the founder and director of the Soldier Hollow Classic.
The event is renowned for being one of the toughest of its kind, with steep terrain and wild Rocky Mountain range ewes raising the degree of difficulty. Competitors must command their dog to herd sheep from distances of up to 400 yards using calls and whistles, before penning the ewes to stop the clock. Some of the best handlers from around the world make the trip to Utah to compete, making the chances of winning even slimmer. But for Hawker, following the many trials of this past year, simply standing at the post and working with Ike will be a win in itself.
To see Coleen Hawker and Ike in action, visit the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship in Midway, Utah, on Labor Day weekend, September 2–5. For more information, visit soldierhollowclassic.com.