The next time you think you are up against an impossible task, compare it to getting three sheep to move through a series of obstacles on a 25-acre hillside. Sheep are not the brightest animals (clueless is the word that comes to mind), but the border collies that guide them through this competitive course are brilliant, fast and oh so determined to be successful.
It isn’t every day you get an “open” trial of the US Border Collie Handler’s Association practically in your backyard. When you do, you go see this amazing spectacle. Tracy and I drove about ten miles to Edgeworth Farm, knowing almost nothing about sheepdog trials except that it involves sheep, dogs, a person giving commands (whistle and voice), a great big open space and some sort of timed challenge.
It’s a challenge all right. We stood looking out on a huge field that is roughly triangular in shape, in the middle of one flat edge (at the bottom of this drawing) looking toward the far point that was more than 400 yards away. That’s where the sheep start (the xxx at the top). I am not going to get a prize for drawing, and there are surely inaccuracies in this, but the obstacles and the route the dog has to take looks about like this.
The dog starts with the handler at the dot near the bottom, opposite the three sheep (the three xxx’s at the far opposite end of the field), a spot called the outrun. The dog has to run around to the left toward the outrun, approach the sheep from behind, “lift” them (get them moving in the right direction), then make them go through the middle “fetch” panels that are seven yards apart, veer around and then up through the “drive” panels, go across the field through the “cross drive” panels, go toward and then through the “Maltese cross” from one specific entry point all the way through (they are not allowed to go out the sides of the cross), then into the pen. The dog does not have to close the door of the pen; the handler does that and also can help guide the sheep through the cross.
The sheep do not want to do any of this. Therefore please also note: My lines are relatively straight, but the sheep zig-zag all over the place, and the dog zig-zags behind and around them constantly. The sheep clearly have absolutely no idea what’s going on. They just want to go home, back to the barn, back to the food, back to the safety of their many other comrades who, unknown to them, are also three by three having to go through this same inane exercise.
Oh and by the way, this whole course is 12 minutes!
A very nice man named John stood next to us, also watching. His wife is a handler so he goes to these competitions all the time. The way he explained it, there are two main things to know about sheep. 1. Sheep assume safety in numbers so they stick together. But that doesn’t mean one of them might not “squirt” (his word) and separate from the rest randomly. 2. Whichever way the sheep’s head is facing, that’s the direction they are likely to move, so the dog has to get them facing the right way.
In this trial, the dog had to keep all three sheep together throughout the course. Sometimes, in other competitions, one or more sheep will be marked with a bandana or something, and the dog has to purposely separate that one or two from the rest and then get the unmarked group to go through the panels or into the pen.
The photo above shows the dog and the sheep approaching the fetch (middle) panels and gives you an idea of how huge the field is. (I am not using a zoom lens.) You could barely see the sheep up near the trees when the dog was first released from the handler at the beginning of the trial. That black and white blob above the right-hand panel is the dog and the white blob in the middle is the three sheep, all clustered together, surely wondering what on earth they are doing running down this field and why this annoying creature is pestering them to do it!
John said the sheep are constantly deciding which is worse: the annoying dog always behind them that won’t leave them alone (so they continually try to get away from it) or the scary obstacle (gate, pen, etc) that the annoying creature is trying to make them approach and go through or into.
Next time you have to choose the lesser of two evils, remember these sheep! You can see them eyeing the “Maltese cross” with great skepticism (below), but that bothersome dog is still behind them. Why won’t it just go away??
The dog has to sometimes coax, sometimes drive, sometimes wait. The handler whistles or shouts voice commands but can’t do that too much. Until the dog gets to the cross with the sheep, the handler stays at the starting post issuing commands from there. The whole thing is not only timed, but point-based. Each obstacle is worth a set number of points. Getting the sheep through the fetch panels – from the starting point (the outrun) through the first (middle) set of panels is worth 20, for example. It is not only getting them through that matters, it’s how the dog gets them through.
Didn’t your mother always say: It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it! or, It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!
The rules are specific, though with a good bit of subjective judging required. Regarding that first part of the course, the USBCHA rules for international competition read as follows:
- At the end of the Outrun, the dog will either come to a full stop or merely slow down.
- The dog’s approach should be smooth, cautious and steady.
- The dog will take control in a firm and quiet manner.
- The dog should not rush in and startle the sheep nor should it lie back and require numerous commands before getting its sheep on the move.
- The lift should be smooth and balanced where the sheep move away in a direct line to the first obstacle.
- Judges should use their personal knowledge of sheep and sheep dogs to determine whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly and mark accordingly.
- Judges will deduct points for excessive commands, slowness, etc., at this point of the trial.
Several things strike me while reading through this. First, you try getting sheep to move in a direct line!! C’mon, sheep, you know you don’t want to just stand there. See that nice set of panels? God only knows what’s on the other side of them, but you know you want to go straight toward them and then right on through! Sheep have no idea whatsoever what a direct line is.
Second, “…whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly…“ – trust me, the sheep look very disturbed! Why is that infuriating dog behind us all the time??
Tracy and I watched eight or ten dogs try to do this course. Two or three got the sheep through the first (fetch) panels. One of those got the sheep through all three sets of panels (fetch plus drive plus cross drive). ONE! (This shows the “drive.”)
One of them (a different one) got the sheep to go through the cross (in the right entry point and without squirting out the sides). One of them (yet another) got the sheep in the pen at the end. This is hard!!! The sheep don’t want to go in the pen! Damn dog! Make it go away!
These dogs — and the people who train them — are remarkable. It struck me as its own world, a community of people and dogs who love this challenge, who work tirelessly to outwit and overcome the small-brained decisions of a bunch of sheep. It was highly entertaining and I’m sure is very hard work. The dog tries so hard! The sheep are so dumb! And when it works, when the smart, fast, skillful dog causes the dumb, jittery, unpredictable sheep to go where they are supposed to go, it’s so exciting, you cheer! Well, you quietly cheer because you are in such awe. You wouldn’t want to disturb the dog’s concentration or add any random noises that might add confusion. It’s hard enough!