Sheepdogs and Their Trials

So you’re getting a sheepdog?

That’s what my friend asked me after I shared my secret plans to take Andy to a sheepdog trial for his birthday.

Wait, your family doesn’t travel hundreds of miles to sit in a field all day and watch sheep get herded around for fun? Weird.

Or maybe we’re the weird ones.

It’s surprising how many subcultures exist under the surface of popular culture in this country. There is actually quite a bit of healthy activity surrounding the sheepdog subculture in the U.S. Every weekend, sheep farmers and border collie enthusiasts travel many miles to enter their dogs in these outdoor competitions that are typically hosted in some random pasture out in the sticks.

Dog handlers and their families sit in lawn chairs and winter coats for 10 hours a day to watch the same activity repeated over and over again. The dog runs toward the sheep. The sheep run away. The dog tries to herd the sheep through some gates. The sheep don’t cooperate. The dog tries again, and again, and again to move the sheep toward the pen. Spectators applaud, or grimace. Then it starts all over again.

People pay money to do this.

It’s almost like those parents who sit outside for hours at a time, hunkering down in the blowing rain and yelling at the little humans who are running around, kicking a ball or other people’s shins in a game where the ball may only enter the net at the end of the field one time.

It’s ALMOST like that.

So our family headed down to central Ohio one gloriously sunny weekend this November to take in our first-ever sheepdog trial. We have sheep but no sheepdog, and we wanted to learn more about what these animals can do and how they might fit into our farm operation someday. We had no intention of buying a dog and guessed there wouldn’t even be dogs up for sale at an event like this.

So when my friend asked if we might be coming home with a dog, I said no. We’re getting to a number of sheep where a herding dog would be helpful for moving them from pasture to pasture, but we didn’t yet feel like we had enough land to occupy a dog with that kind of energy and spirit.

We wanted to see them in action and talk to the people who work with them to see what we would be getting into before making that kind of investment. Andy would LOVE to have a working dog, but we weren’t sure this was the right time…

The setting for this particular trial was a grazed sheep pasture in rural Ohio. On Saturday morning, we pulled into a field partially filled with trucks, vans, campers, and trailers and gawked at the beautiful border collies running about everywhere. We walked carefully around the sheep manure and doggie deposits (this is the country, y’all) through a gate and to the crest of a hill overlooking a green rolling pasture bordered by red, yellow, and orange autumn trees with a creek and a wooden bridge at the bottom.

The view was priceless, and the weather was spectacular.

This is going to be awesome, I said, smiling at Andy. He agreed, as we breathed in the crisp air and squinted through the sun’s warming rays toward the lone dog and three sheep below us already busy negotiating their relationship.

We watched with interest (even the kids) as the hours rolled by and dog after dog took its turn herding groups of sheep through the obstacle course. We heard bits and pieces of conversation around us that helped us interpret what we were seeing.

First, three sheep are herded into the center of the field by a dog and its handler who were in charge of organizing the flock at the start of the course. Then the handler sends his or her dog out and the time starts.

Come bye or Away, they would say, depending on which direction they wanted their dog to circle around the sheep. Each handler has their own set of commands, and they sometimes vary from person to person, though there is a pretty standard set of terms that are widely used.

The dog runs around to come up behind the sheep and starts pushing them toward the first gate through which the sheep must travel. Ideally, the dog will stay a substantial distance from the flock, directing them by moving around behind and beside them to pressure them to move in the direction the handler wants them to go.

Sometimes the most effective thing the dog can do is just lie down and watch and wait to see what is required next. Lying down also helps keep the sheep from getting overly spooked.

The handler is almost constantly whistling or shouting commands at the dog to guide the whole group through the required elements of the course. They go through one set of gates in the center of the field, then down around the flagpole, and up to the right of the field through another set of gates.

Then sheep and dog cut across the field to the left side of the pasture through a third set of gates, down to the creek at the bottom and across the bridge, and through a tricky final setup where the sheep have to run through a half open fenced shoot to the end of the course.

The bridge was a difficult test for most groups. Sometimes time would run out and the handler would have to walk over and help herd the sheep across. The other wild card was the sheep. If sheep don’t want to go somewhere, there is almost nothing you can do to make them. The most skilled dogs handle these situations better than the more inexperienced dogs.

But the handler has to know sheep as well as dogs because their behavior, head position, and ear activity often indicates what they’re thinking and where they’re likely to move next. You have to be able to observe the sheep, monitor the time, judge far-off distances, know your dog’s tendencies, and direct all of them through a ten-minute course that can best even the most trained pairs.

It’s a contest that requires experience and skill, and like any sport, sometimes it’s just not your day.

Tweed struggled through both of her runs, Maggie’s performance was impressive, and everyone stopped talking and took notice when Storm was on the course. Over two days, we watched Moss, Mollie, Annie, Stony, Spur, Twix, Mole, Doris, Audrey, and countless others put their handlers to the test with sometimes awesome and sometimes embarrassing demonstrations.

We learned that most handlers are farmers themselves who breed, train, and compete with their dogs on the side. These were true working dogs accompanied by a mostly older demographic of handlers, with a couple of middle-aged and younger folks mixed in.

At the end of the two days, we packed ourselves back into our car and headed back north with no dog in tow. We really had no intention of getting one and it turned out that none were even being offered.

Which is a good thing for us because if the opportunity had presented itself, we might not have been able to say no. We love our animals what can I say?

And no, there were no pigs entered into this sheepdog trial. (I know you were wondering.)

Here’s a great gift idea: Bethlehem Farm gift cards are now available to send digitally.