Cow Dog College

This story was originally printed in the February 2000 issue. For more on working with cow dogs, see this month's print feature, "Going to the Dogs."

Dogs have always been a part of ranch life, as mascots, companions, or, in the case of trained stock dogs, working partners. Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Australian Kelpies, and other livestock-working breeds have become more and more popular in recent years, finding homes both on and off the ranch.

Now, a California operation offers stock dog owners the chance to vacation on a working ranch and put to the test their dogs' skills at herding cattle and sheep.

Crystal Rose Cow Dog College, established in 1998, specializes in raising and training stock dogs (specifically Border Collies), giving lessons to novice handlers, hosting the occasional dog trial, and providing a one-of-a-kind vacation opportunity.

For around $100 a day, guests stay at the 500-acre ranch, nestled in a scenic valley in northern California's Shasta County, and bond with their stock dogs through training exercises in the corral and the field.

The people behind Crystal Rose, Merle and Sandi Newton, are fixtures in the stock dog world. Both come from ranching backgrounds-Merle in Oklahoma and Sandi in California-and the couple have raised and trained stock dogs most of their lives. The Newtons still hold the record for the highest-selling dog ($7,500) at the annual stock dog trials held in conjunction with the Red Bluff (California) Bull and Gelding Sale.

Requests to train outside dogs led to the idea behind Crystal Rose.

"We used to dream about how neat it would be to do this,"Merle says. "With stock dogs getting more and more popular, people want to get out and do some real work with their dogs, learn to train their dogs to work on livestock. The chance to come to a working ranch and be a part of it is appealing."

In 1994 the Newtons came to the ranch that would become Crystal Rose. Then unoccupied, the property was overgrown with blackberry bushes and its buildings were on the verge of collapse. Merle and Sandi cleared the bushes, refurbished the buildings that make up the outfit's headquarters, and redeveloped a neglected lake.

Today the ranch is a picturesque slice of northern California ranch country. Trail riding opportunities abound in the timbered hills that surround the ranch compound, and guests can watch wildlife from the front porch of the spacious lakeside lodge, which serves as a social center and dining hall.

The Newtons run 70 head of cattle and 50 head of sheep on the ranch, providing plenty of practice for guests' dogs and the 22 Border Collies kept in training at Crystal Rose.

Guest space is limited-intentionally. There are just four fully equipped guest cabins, ensuring each visitor gets plenty of one-on-one attention.

"If we book more than four individuals or families at once,"Sandi says, "we feel like they're getting shortchanged and not getting all the help they came for."

Crystal Rose also plays host to several sheep and cattle dog trials each year, providing guests a chance to observe top dogs in action and a shot at joining in on the competition.