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About Sheepdog Trials

By Pearse Ward posted July 30, 2016


The Border Collie breed was developed in the border counties between England and Scotland in the mid-1800's. The shepherds there needed dogs who could work the steep hills and rough country where the sheep flocks were pastured in summer. They needed a dog who could work at a distance and gather in sheep, often out of sight of the shepherd. This required dogs with instinct and intelligence. They also needed dogs who could work in any weather and all day every day. This required dogs with stamina, courage, and drive. From these requirements came the Border Collie, now reckoned to be the most intelligent of all dog breeds.

The traits that make a successful sheep dog took generations to develop, but can be lost in one or two generations if breeding does not take working ability into account. You will see dogs of all sizes, colours, and coat length at the sheepdog trials because working Border Collie breeders do not breed to a physical standard but to a work standard and for stamina, courage, intelligence, and the ability to form a partnership with their human partner.

Sheepdog trials test the ability of dogs to do work similar to what they would need to do on the farm but in an unfamiliar location on sheep who do not know the dog. This levels the playing field between all of the dogs as there is no "home field advantage". The dogs are judged on their ability to control the sheep and move them as directed by the shepherd. It's a team event, with human and dog working in partnership to get the work done.

Border Collies can work at distances of a mile or more from the handler. Their keen hearing allows them to hear the whistled commands at those distances even on a windy day. When they are out of sight or out of hearing distance of the shepherd, they will try to gather the sheep and bring them on a straight line to the last place they knew the shepherd to be. In a typical sheepdog trial, there are four or five phases of work (depending on the class/experience of the dogs) which the team must complete in a set period of time. A judge, or judges, will evaluate the run in terms of the quality of the stockmanship (were the sheep moved at a slow and steady pace), the straightness of the lines and tightness of the turns, and the quality of the work. A team starts with a set number of points and the judge deducts points based upon any deviation from an ideal.

Border Collies move sheep by the power of their eye. They will stare down the sheep and cover all of the exits, except the one in the direction the shepherd has told them to move the sheep. Barking, and biting (or gripping) are discouraged. A dog who grips, unless it is to protect itself from a charging sheep, will usually be disqualified.

The phases of work are described below:

THE OUTRUN

The dog can be sent either to the right or left to get the sheep (usually 3-5) set somewhere between 250 yards, and 800 yards away. Which side the handler sends to is determined by the terrain, where the sheep are set, and sometimes which side the dog prefers.

The dog needs to go wide enough so that he/she can get to a point directly behind the sheep without disturbing them, and without needing any commands from the handler (the only phase of work where commands are penalized). The ideal shape is an upside down pear.

The outrun is worth 20 points. Deductions are taken for commands, for the dog stopping, for being too wide, or too tight, or for disturbing the sheep before coming in behind them.

THE LIFT

When the dog finishes the outrun he/she stops behind the sheep and walks forward to start moving the sheep down the field. This is called the "lift" and it is where the dog takes control of the sheep.

The lift needs to be done carefully but with authority. The dog needs to let the sheep know who is boss.

There are 10 points for the lift, and the judge will be watching for the sheep to move straight down the field at a walk or trot, not splitting up or zig-zagging, and the dog not requiring excessive commands to move forward and take control.

THE FETCH

Once the sheep have been lifted, the dog's job is to bring them straight to the handler, through a set of gates set about 150 yards from the handler's feet. 

The Fetch is worth 20 points, and the judge is looking for very straight lines and the sheep brought under control at a walk or moderate trot. 

Missing the gate is a deduction of 1-2 points per sheep. The gate is 21 feet wide, and you can think of an imaginary lane 21 feet wide from where the sheep are spotted for the lift to the handler's feet. Any time the sheep stray outside that 21 foot lane, the judge will deduct points.

THE DRIVE

Once the sheep reach the handler's feet, the dog will turn them around the post there, and drive them around a triangular shaped course, through two more gates.

This is an advanced skill for dogs. Their natural instinct is to bring sheep to the shepherd. In driving, they are being asked to take sheep away on their own. This is worth 30 points and the judge again is looking for straight lines and pace, and putting all of the sheep between the gates.

PEN and SHED (Open)

The last two phases of work demonstrate close in work and require the shepherd and the dog to work together.

The pen requires the dog and shepherd to work together to put the sheep into a free-standing pen. No fences or walls to help. It's like loading sheep into a trailer (sometimes used instead of a pen) in the middle of a field, which is something you may need to do on the farm. The shepherd cannot touch the sheep). The pen is worth 10 points.

The Shed is also worth 10 points and is only part of the Open class. In shedding, the dog will be required to separate one or more sheep from the rest of the group as directed by the shepherd. This is also a practical skill used most often when an animal needs to be separated for treatment, or ewes and lambs need to be brought in from the field to the barn.