WHITNEYVILLE — One of the area’s premier athletes weighs about 35 pounds, stands about 18 inches tall at the shoulder and can stop and turn a 1,000-pound cow in its tracks.
Valkyrie or Kyrie for short is a 6-year-old female Australian cattle dog owned and trained by Cynthia Knowlton. The pair recently won the 2020 cattle herding championship belt buckle at the Australian Cattle Dog National Specialty Show. A specialty show features just one breed and covers a range of disciplines: obedience, rally, agility and herding.
“I’ve been chasing this buckle for at least 10 years,” Knowlton said.
Knowlton took Kyrie and Kasel, a 2-year-old male, to the weeklong National Specialty Show at Purina Farms at Gray Summit, Mo.
Knowlton acquired both dogs from breeders in Kansas, purchasing Kyrie at nine months. She switched to Australian cattle dogs 21 years ago after initially working with German shepherds.
“I like a tough dog,” she said. “Australian cattle dogs are just a smaller version of some of the shepherd breeds. I like a dog that will protect me and doesn’t back down easily.”
Those characteristics, along with others, are important when acquiring a herding prospect.
“Herding ability. A lot of cattle dogs haven’t needed to herd so it’s being bred out of the dogs,” she said. “Temperament first, then herding ability. They have to be non-aggressive, biddable and friendly.”
Herding ability, if a dog has it, usually kicks in when puppies are six to 10 weeks old.
Knowton, who also judges herding competitions, takes her dogs to four or five shows per year. In the arena herding class, dogs must move cattle or sheep through gates in a certain order before penning them within a set time. Dogs compete at three levels: starter, intermediate and advanced in both cattle and sheep
Kyrie, who is advanced level, competed in both the sheep and cattle herding divisions. She did three runs each day over two days, as both the 2020 and 2021 champion buckles were on the line, working cattle twice each day and sheep once.
“I’ve been competing with her for four years and multiple times she’s gone high in trials and always on cattle,” Knowlton said. “She is very biddable, very correct in her herding but occasionally she has an opinion because, well, she’s a cattle dog.”
Knowlton keeps sheep on her property for training her dogs. After a break for winter, she’ll resume working the dogs five to six times each week for about an hour at a time. They attend a few clinics each year to practice working cattle.
“She loves cattle,” Knowlton said. “She’s good on sheep, but she smiles when she’s on cattle because she gets to bite.”
The dogs don’t maul the cattle, but will nip and release a cow’s nose if it doesn’t turn away. The goal is to convince the larger and stronger animal that it can “win” by taking the desired path.
“Not a lot of people do this,” Knowlton said. “It’s neat when it goes well and hell when you get a dog hurt.”
Kasel, who worked at the starting level, took first in one of his cattle runs. Kyrie was highest of all scores in cattle and high score on sheep the first day, and followed it with another first in cattle the second day.
“She hit a new level this year. She’s always been good, but this year at six — oh my goodness,” Knowlton said.
At home, Kyrie and Kasel spend a few hours outdoors in the kennel, but live inside the house. They have a sense of humor and Kyrie has Knowlton’s husband “wrapped around her paw.”
“It’s amazing to me that they are this big and they can still control a thousand pounds of cow,” Knowlton said. “In no other dog sport do you need to be cognizant of your dog and the stock.”