Sheepdog Trials

A team of two, you and your best friend in the clean country air… and a bunch of little flockers to outsmart and outrun. You are clearly the brains of the operation as you whistle commands to your teammate, she runs up and down the arena on all fours, aggressively chasing them down while snarling. Holding your gate in position, she chases the flockers into your pen, one, two, and three – you close the gate. Amazing round! What a good bitch you have!

Sheepdog Trials (also known as Sheep Herding) is a game of strategy and inter-species communication. It has captivated many farming communities around the world and is a true testament to the relation of man and man’s best friend.

History and Culture

The herding of livestock has been around for as long as animals have been kept in paddocks, particularly in hilly areas where livestock is often dispersed around the paddock. The sport likely started by farmers competing against each other, in non-official contests. The first recoded Sheepdog Trail was held in Wanaka, in New Zealand’s Central Otago region in 1867. Events have been recorded in Australia as early as 1871, Wales in 1873, and Scotland in 1874. Sheepdog Trails as a sport had spread to the United States by the 1880s.

Which Way?
Credit: mozzercork via flikr CC BY 2.0

The sport has now spread throughout the world’s farming intensive regions including Great Britain, North America, southern Africa, South America, continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Each country holds their own local competitions and several have national championships. The World Championships are held every three years.

This sport isn’t for any dog, important traits in dog breeds are intelligence, work ethic, and the ability to form a strong bond with their human. Dogs should have a strong farming background to be successful athletes in this sport. The most popular breed is likely the border collie; kelpies, huntaways and cattle dogs (blue heelers) are also very popular.

Sheepdog Trails have been the subject matter of many literary works over the past century, including books, poem and movies. The most notable being the movie Babe, based on the book, The Sheep Pig by Dick King-Smith.

Basic Rules

Sheep Dog Show
Credit: Figaro via Wikipedia Public Domain

The main aim of the sport is for a handler to control a flock of sheep using dogs. Flocks can range in size, usually between three and six, and some events require two dogs, rather than just one. It is important to note that this is a sport based on skill and communication, not speed, and although a fast time won’t improve the overall score, time limits are imposed.

Competitors start with the maximum amount of points which then get deducted for each fault. Judges are used to spot faults and a time-keeper ensures the task is completed within the given time (excess to the allocated time will result in nullifying all points).

Common tasks or test elements include approaching the flock (lifting), singling out one sheep from the flock, shedding (dividing the flock into two groups as instructed by the judge), and penning the flock amongst various other tasks.

Most individual competitions set their own rules, and most countries have their own governing bodies setting standardised rules. However, the world standard is The International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) which has a standardised set of rules used for international competitions.

Sheep Dog Display
Credit: Martin Pettitt via flickr CC BY 2.0

How to Experience Sheep Herding

Sheep herding is most popular in countries with a strong agricultural background, particularly in Britain, New Zealand, North America, Australia, Chile and Argentina. It is even televised in some places such as New Zealand. The larger national evens are typically held in autumn and regional competitions usually occur year-round in most countries. Look online for events in your region, and remember these will likely be held in rural areas, so make sure you know where you are going.

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