The canine world is full of fun games, sports, and activities that include balls, frisbees, and other toys, but there is also another sport that comes from a noble trait still used among farmers across the world.
Sheepdog Trials offers a chance for those who dominate the art of herding sheep to show others what they can do together with their herding dog. It is competitive herding, where the dog moves a group of sheep around an open area such as a field, with obstacles like fences and gates to get past.
It is different from other dog sports due to the prestige that lies in it, and it is mostly practiced by farmers who have learned the trait with the purpose of using it in their everyday work lives; and while there has been a spike of interest in younger generations, sheepdog trails an unknown sport to many.
Introducing Sheepdog Trials
Sheepdog trials, or competitive herding, is a sport where herding dogs get to demonstrate their natural abilities to herd and to keep flocks of sheep in line. It is usually carried out on large fields and the sport is popular in various parts of Europe, North America, Southern Africa and more; and especially in areas where shepherds use dogs to control their own packs of sheep.
When competing, the dog and the shepherd (or handler) gets to prove to the judges and to those watching just how skilled they are, and it is a sport that herding dogs love to participate in.
History of the Sport
The first registered sheepdog trials were held as early as in 1867, in a town known as Wanaka, in New Zealand. A year later, in 1868, trials were reportedly held in both Wanaka, Te Aka and Waitangi, and they were then continuously held for several years to follow. Australia started hosting sheepdog trail competitions shortly after, and the first sheepdog trial in the UK was held in 1973, in Bala, Wales.
The trials quickly gained popularity all over the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), and it sparked an interesting discussion. It became obvious that there was a big difference in how show collies – dogs used and bred for dog shows – performed in comparison to working collies, and shepherds were baffled by how the show collie, due to breeding more for appearance than for work performance, seemed to be losing their natural ability to herd.
A competition was held as an experiment, for some believers to demonstrate that show collies could still do what they were once bred for, but it was a failure where the show dogs didn’t perform nearly as well as the working dogs. This highlighted a potential downside to breeding dogs based on aesthetics.
Today, the sport is popular in certain circles all over the world, and it is big in countries like the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, and it is kept alive by dedicated organizations like the United States Border Collie Handlers’ Association and the International Sheepdog Society.
Different Sheepdog Trial Events
There are different types of trial events held, and it usually depends on the location of the competition and on the organization hosting it. The most common variety in countries like England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, Botswana, and the United States is one commonly known as the British Course. In these trials, the dog will move the sheep across a large field, past obstacles and to a set finish line, preferably with as little assistance as possible.
Australia has another favorite that you will see frequently when attending sheepdog trials there; one handler, 1-2 trained dogs and 3-6 sheep are moved across the field while the judges time the attempt, and the team gets a penalty (added time) if any of the sheep should move away from the group or in another way stray from the set trail.
There is also another variety where the group of sheep is split into two, and where one dog will lead half the flock into different small pens and past obstacles, while another dog will stay with the rest of the sheep – keeping them there despite the natural instinct of the sheep to want to stay together.
Yard dog trails are a little different, and while the basic principle is the same, it also includes elements of the dog having to move sheep in and out of a truck without requiring too much guidance or help from the handler.
Trial Field Dynamics
There are not necessarily any rules for what the field needs to look like in a sheepdog trial competition, but there are a few things you will almost always find to keep the trials fair for all competing dogs and handlers. Below are a few of the tasks that the dog may be asked to perform during sheepdog trials:
+ The dog is asked to leave the handler’s side and move to where the sheep are located (usually a small distance away).
+ The sheep is taken control of and brought back to the handler.
+ There will often be a moment where the dog is asked to drive the sheep away from the handler, as this goes against the nature of the dog and is considered a tough test that only the most skilled sheepdogs will pass.
+ Dog and handler move the sheep and loads them into a vehicle (usually a truck), a pen or any other type of enclosed space.
+ A Cross Drive is where the dog walks ahead of the handler, moving the sheep from one side of the field and to the other, and where the sheep is expected to move in a straight line.
+ In Singling, one sheep is separated from the rest of the group by the handler and the dog working together.
+ Shedding is another element, where the judges guide the dog and the handler to separate the sheep into two groups. It is almost always carried out in a marked-out ring on the ground, and how the sheep are separated depends on the instructions from the judges.
These are the most basic tests a dog is put to during sheepdog trials, but there are also a lot more difficult tasks that might be required, depending on the level of difficulty of the particular sheepdog trial.
You never really know what to expect, and it is an interesting sport to watch as you never quite know what to expect, and it is not hard to see why many consider it an art form.
The Scoring System
Before the trials start, each element of the competition is assigned a maximum score – meaning the top number of points a team can get after completing it. The max score is set by the judges after carefully reviewing each aspect of the trial field, and points are then deducted during the trial for each mistake or fault committed by the dog and/or the handler.
Sheepdog trials are timed, which is usually about 15 minutes from start to finish, and while it does not give any extra points to finish the trial fast – points will be deducted if the team takes longer than the given time to finish.
The type of point system used today has been around since 1979, and it is simple enough to not take the focus off the competition itself. Judges will look mostly on the behavior of the sheep rather than that of the dog; every dog has their own herding style and what matters is how efficient they are in their methods.
The dog is not allowed to bite the sheep as this can get them disqualified, and for the dog to cause the sheep unnecessary stress can lead to a reduced final score (the final score being the total score after completing each element).
Herding for Beginners
While the sport is mostly practiced by farmers and those who herd sheep as part of their profession, there is also a growing interest in hobby herding! Some establishments offer those with herding dogs to pay a fee for coming out to let their dog herd, and others may offer herding courses for those who are interested.
Herding is great exercise, and it can be incredibly rewarding for a dog breed that was bred to herd, especially if it is not something they normally get to do.
You should never release an untrained dog with a herd of sheep, thinking they will know what to do simply for being bred for it, as this could be dangerous both for your dog and for the sheep. If you are interested in letting your dog try herding – contact a local kennel club, as these are likely to know if there are any herding opportunities in your area. In the case of them not knowing – turn to Google, as you may have to travel to find a place where you can give it a go.
Rules may vary depending on the country and the competition, but this article should give you a basic idea of what sheepdog trials and competitive herding is, how it works and who might enjoy participating and/or watching.