Sheepdog Trails began in part to test amongst shepherds to see who had the best working dog but also - an indication of the very singular lifestyle led by the shepherds of long ago – as a social event. It gave ‘the lads’ a chance to meet up with their fellows and ‘chew the fat’. Many shepherds of long ago were also poets and singers and these gatherings gave them a chance to shine amongst their peer group.
These Trials started over 100 years ago in North Wales and by 1906 the International Sheep Dog Society had been formed and had held their first Trail in Scotland. This event was commemorated in 2006 with a return to the area of the first Trial and which was attended by HRH The Princess Royal – who has since become the Patron of the ISDS.
The ISDS remains the governing body of Sheepdog Trialling throughout the world and oversees a vast register of Border Collie dogs and bitches, information about which is available through their office in Bedford. They also produce a magazine – The International Sheepdog News - available to members every two months.
Trialling is a hobby amongst shepherds and is a means by which they can watch the progress of their young dogs as they gain experience over courses that reflect the sort of daily tasks that shepherds encounter.
Most important to all Trialling participants is the welfare of the sheep. As we live in an increasing culture of health, safety and welfare, making sure that the sheep and the dogs are not stressed is the handler’s and the event organisers first priority. There are plenty of animal activists who will seize upon any hint of ‘cruelty’ to impose their views on the whole world of Sheepdog work.
It takes many years to acquire the sort of ease of work that the top Triallists display but they know that it is time spent well. By demonstrating what can be achieved by dedicated training, the trialling elite act as examples of what you could achieve with application, time and patience.
Rules of Trialling
The Rules of Trialling are drawn up by the ISDS Council and most Sheepdog Trialling societies abide by these. Each Trail is overseen by a Judge who deducts points from the maximum for each section. In order to compete at National or International Level are good understanding of the Rule Book is essential!
The Trail usually consists of ‘Open Driving’ and in the South West of England, the ‘Maltese Cross’ is popular. In most cases there are ‘novice’ classes to accommodate the less experienced dog and/or handler. During the winter months the young dogs have their own series of Trials called ‘Nurserys’ which are run outside the ISDS Rules but following them as guidelines and have the additional classes of ‘nursery driving’, ‘nursery Maltese cross’ and ‘cradle’ classes to complement both for the really inexperienced handler.
In order for dogs to compete at National or International level an agreed number of points have to be accrued during the preceding ‘Open’ season. Points are awarded to the first six competitors at these trials. If too many people qualify for the restricted National Trials places then the ‘bar’ is lifted. Many people can be disappointed that one or other of their dogs has been displaced despite having collected a good number of points.
The sections of an ‘Open Driving’ competition are as follows:
- Outrun20 points
- Lift10 points
- Fetch20 points
- Driving30 points (or Maltese Cross 20 points)
- Shed10 points
- Pen10 points
- (Single after pen10 points)
The outrun will start with the full 20 points and points deducted for each error made so that a dog and handler team might end up with only 6 points for the outrun having made a bit of a pig's ear. They then begin the next section with a full complement of points for that section. And so on ....
In each section errors are noted and points deducted by the Judge for the Trial whose decision is final. In the event of a tie then the highest marks for the Outrun will be declared the winner.
The whole ‘run’ is timed with a loud bell or whistle announcing that ‘time is up’. The time given to compete depends upon what is to be achieved. For example a ‘double gather’ plus a shed and a pen will require more time than a single and earn more points.
The length of ‘outrun’ will vary with the National and Internationals having the longest. These can be anything up to 1000yds in length and the sheep invisible to the handler! About 250 yards is the usual length of a Club outrun.
Learning the 'Ropes'
There are around twenty commands that can be used in sheepdog work by either voice or whistle, but many handlers like to use as few as possible so as not to confuse the dog. The whistle is favoured as it is much clearer to the dog and can be heard over long distances.
Dogs who are used to Trialling can display a most uncanny understanding of their surroundings and of the different sets of sheep they encounter. It seems to us that over anxious competitive handlers can spoil a dog’s trialling work without realising! Even so, some dogs can be completely overwhelmed at high level competition and display the most out of character behaviour. We saw one dog grip a sheep at a World championship and had a lot of sympathy with the handler!
We are pleased to report that many people attending our Training courses have taken up Trialling! Some are seriously competing at Club level but we don’t think we have a National competitor as yet!
For information on Sheepdog Trials in the South West, see our Resources Section.