A sheepdog trial is a competitive dog sport in which herding dogs move sheep within a certain amount of time as directed by their handlers. The dogs are guided through a variety of tasks either by voice, whistle or a combination of both. Trials are intended not only to showcase the skills of the dog but are also used to qualify for national shows and to gain year-end recognition based on points accumulated over the season.
Past published newspaper articles point to the world’s first sheepdog trial taking place in 1867 on New Zealand’s southern island. The sport eventually made its way to the United States with the first recorded trial in 1880. By 1979 a sanctioning body was formed and numerous regional sheepdog associations were established.
Dog handler George Northrop of Royalston, MA believes sheepdog trialing really began to take off during the mid-1990s, which was around the time he first got involved. Northrop says he has watched the sport grow and evolve over the years.
“At that time there were not a huge number of people competing, nor were there a large number of trials to compete in,” Northrop said. “…The sport has grown in the last 25 years. There are many more trials, pretty much every weekend from May to October in the Northeast region as well as nationally. All winter long in milder regions.”
Dog handlers Jim and Joanne Murphy of Portland, Ontario, took up the sport of sheepdog trialing around the same time. They too have seen the sport grow in popularity over the years, especially among women and Border Collie owners.
“Trialing has become more popular and is still growing as more people want see what the Border Collie can do,” Murphy said. “More women have started trialing in what used to be a man’s sport. They also are making up some of the best handlers in the sport.”
While at trial newcomers have the benefit of seeing the dogs in action while learning the rules. The rules of trialing may seem confusing at first and may vary but most contain the same six elements. The trial usually starts with the outrun — the dog leaves their handler’s feet and runs off to gather the sheep located at the far end of the field. Next comes the lift which is when the dog first approaches the sheep in a manner to convince them to move down the field. The third element is the fetch and it requires the dog to push the sheep as straight as possible through a set of panels.
Once the sheep reach the handler the next element is the drive. During this part of the run the dog must push the sheep through two sets of panels while taking directional commands from the handler. The fifth element is the pen and it requires the dog to push the sheep into an enclosure while the handler holds the gate open. During the final element, called the shed, the dog splits off a specified number of sheep and then regroups the flock.
At most trials a judge watches each dog’s performance and deducts points for any miscues. Other trials are judged on a point system with the dog earning a specific number of points for each sheep put through each obstacle.
The dogs are certainly the stars of the show and handlers may act as their coaches but success is determined in large part by the sheep used during a trial. Most trials utilize farm sheep from the host or other nearby farms. The goal is to provide a consistent test for the dogs from the first run to the last by providing enough healthy and unbroken sheep.
The type of sheep dogs come in contact with during a trial generally fall into two categories: broken or unbroken. Each type of sheep is characterized by a certain level of flightiness based on the amount of interaction they have had with sheepdogs. Unbroken sheep are less flighty and will offer the most consistent challenge to dogs. These types of sheep are best to use for larger trials and national finals.
Broken sheep or dogged sheep are those that have been used repeatedly to train sheepdogs. Lightly dogged sheep tend to stay calm which makes it easier for the dog to keep them together. These types of sheep are good to use at smaller trials. Very dogged sheep are generally only used for beginner trainer.
There are many breeds of dogs used for herding, but the most common at trials are Border Collies. Not only do they have a strong natural instinct to herd but are intelligent, obedient, eager to please and one of the easiest dogs to train.
When it comes to training a sheepdog the biggest decision new handlers will have is whether to purchase a new puppy or mature dog. New handlers will find that by eight months, young dogs are ready to soak up new information and should be easy to train. Older dogs that have not received prior training will progress at a much slower rate.
In order to become more proficient at sheepdog trialing, the Murphy’s bought a farm with some sheep. Today they own a total of 65 sheep and they travel around the country taking part in different sheepdog trials.
According to Northrop not everyone looking to get involved in trialing needs to go quite this far. New handlers simply need to get access to a stock of animals, set up an area of control and begin practicing basic commands.
“Sheepdog trialing is different now as most competitors may keep a few sheep strictly for training their dogs or…traveling to other places to train on other people’s sheep,” Northrop said.
It’s been said a sheepdog trial is the most difficult test of human and dog communication ever devised but that means it can also be one of the most rewarding.