What is the point of a sheepdog trial?
What elements do the judges look for in sheepdog trial?
To answer these questions I believe you have to look at what a sheepdog does so we will first discuss the history of the most commonly used dog the Border collie. We will then look at a brief history of Sheepdog trails and their purpose and what the judges are looking for in a good trail.
Border Collies are the descendents of herding dogs used in many countries to help shepherds manage huge flocks of sheep. The Border collie of today and are said to have used various herding techniques. Thus, all pastoral dogs of the past had different styles and appearance.
Border Collies have been well-known to farmers as early as the 1700-1800s. However, no earlier than in the end of the 19th century, did the breed taste fame. After the first official sheepdog trial held in Bala, Wales, fanciers of all sheep dogs were eager to win the competition. The Border collie was often referred to simply as a sheep dog. However, breed fanciers agreed to name the dog “the Border Collie” with assistance of James Reid, a Secretary of the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS). The ISDS, together with the efforts of many Border collie lovers, promoted the breed not only in Great Britain, but also in other countries.
So lets look in brief at the history behind sheepdog trails as I mentioned the Border collie only really became famed for its skills and endurance in shepherding in 1973, when the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) held a Centenary Trial at Bala in Wales to commemorate the “first recorded sheepdog trials in Britain”, held on the very same spot 100 years before. The International Sheepdog Society was spawned in these early trials, and born in July 1906 with the purpose of bringing organization to trials that were growing in popularity, and “to improve the breed of the collie with a view to the better management of stock”. The sheepdog trails of today are much like any other type of trail which is to pitch your skill at controlling your dog and the dogs skills and intelligence against the best dogs and handlers in the country or even the world.
Each dog starts its course with a full set of points, judges deducting points as they deem appropriate and mistakes occur. Each phase of a run is individually pointed. Judges consider all relevant circumstances, e.g., the Behaviour of the sheep and their reaction to their surroundings.
The dog should be in firm control of the sheep from the moment he “lifts” them, moving them quietly and smoothly. This method is an indefinable quality of work possessed by Border Collies, some dog seem to have a natural calming effect on the sheep when working them giving the sheep confidence and a sense of trust. Sheep should ideally be moved around the course at a steady pace if the stop stops and starts the sheep making them unsteady points would be deducted.
The following are some of the moves the dog has to make within the trail, and a brief description of what the judge will be looking for. Each handler starts with 110 points and will be deducted point for faults.
The outrun, to left or right as the handler chooses, should take the dog on an arc so that he arrives behind the sheep, at a little distance from them. Points are deducted if a dog crosses the course, thereby approaching his sheep on the opposite side from that which he started his outrun. The perfect outrun needs no commands to re-direct the dog. If a dog stops, or has to be stopped for further commands, more points will be lost.
The lift is very important. A run can be ruined by a sharp approach that unsettles the sheep. The dog should pause to allow them to become aware of, and accept his presence, then walk firmly and steadily towards them, quietly moving them down the course in as direct a line as possible toward the handler. A slow, hesitant lift, or a rough one, or many commands to encourage the dog to lift the sheep, will be penalised.
Any deviation from a straight line on the fetch will lose points, and points are lost for each sheep missing the gates. A wide turn around the handler at the end of the fetch will lose points.
As in the fetch, straight lines from gate to gate are required in the drive, and tight turn around the drive hurdles to maintain the correct line across the course. Points are lost for faults similar to those in the fetch.
Sheep in the ring, the handlers are allowed to leave the post, and endeavour to separate two unmarked sheep. The dog is called to assist, and hold these two sheep, showing that he is capable of taking them away from the others. The shed must be accomplished within the ring, with points lost if sheep pass out of it. The sheep should be re-gathered in the ring before the handler proceeds to the pen, leaving the dog to bring the sheep.
Once holding the six-foot rope attached to the pen gate, the handler must not let it go until penning is completed. He may assist the dog but the dog must do his fair share of the work, or points will be lost. Sheep being allowed to go round or part way around the pen, being allowed to mill about in the pen mouth, or break away, will incur loss of points. The gate must be closed on the penned sheep, and when they are released the handler must close and fasten it before proceeding to the shedding ring.
The sheep taken back to the ring, one of the two sheep marked with red collar bands has to be separated the dog being called in to cut her out and hold her away from the others until the judges are satisfied of his ability to do so. A loss of points is incurred for similar faults as may occur in shedding.
In conclusion sheepdog trails are as important to the continuing work of the border collie the same as the gun dog trails are to the Spaniel or Labrador. The judges are looking for speed, accuracy in the way the dog handles the sheep and in the way the handler controls the dog. Without these trails the owning, breeding and working of such dogs would not be as important as it is today. The trails today, show that the border collie is one of the ultimate working dogs and this reflects on the popularity of the breed.