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Herding Dog Trials

August 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Dog Activities and Training, Featured Articles

Have you ever watched a sheep dog work?  It’s amazing to me that they can move a whole herd just by the look in their eyes.  It’s your mother’s evil eye, on steroids.  Competitive events featuring herding dogs are often called Sheepdog Trials, but the term “Sheepdog” is used to indicate the function for which the dog is used, not the breed.  Many of the best competitors are, in fact Border Collies, and under some sanctioning bodies’ rules, the trial may include any type of dog who has been trained to work livestock.

Sheep Dog Trials

What does the herding dog do at a trial?

Just as they would at work, herding dogs drive sheep through specific tasks during competition.  Depending on where the event is held and which sanctioning body is in control, the trial may contain different elements.  The most common are described below.

With the handler staying in one place (the stake position), the dog is sent out to find a group of sheep and bring them back to the handler.  This is the most basic task a stock dog must be able to do.  Although it goes against the dog’s instinct, they are often told to drive the sheep away from the handler, as a test of how well the dog is willing to follow directions.  In some trials, the dog must move the sheep in a straight line across the course in front of the handler, but at a distance far away from where the handler stands.

Once the fetching and driving portions are done, the handler will usually leave the stake position and join the dog, working together to accomplish the remainder of the tasks.  The dog and handler may be asked to herd the sheep into a pen or onto a truck.  They may be called upon to single out a particular sheep and separate him or her from the rest of the stock.  Alternatively, they may be asked to divide the herd into two groups based on a random characteristic given by the judge.  For example, half of the herd may be marked with a particular color, and the dog must separate those that are marked from those that are unmarked.

The various tasks each have a different name and must be completed in the order specified by the judge, which can vary from one event to another.

  • Cast is when the dog leaves the handler and rounds up the herd.
  • Lift means bringing the herd back to the handler.  A double lift requires the dog to bring one group of sheep back, then do another cast for a second group.
  • Away drive involves driving the animals away from the handler’s position.
  • Cross drive means walking the animals across in front of the handler.
  • Singling means separating one sheep out of the herd

What commands does a herding dog understand?

Herding dogs are among the most intelligent dogs on the planet, so there’s no limit to the number of commands they will understand.  In fact, when multiple dogs are used in herding, each dog may be taught different commands so that the handler can instruct them to do different things without even using their names.  Commands may be given verbally, with hand signals, or with a whistle.  The major commands are:

  • Come-bye or bye, which means to circle around the stock clockwise
  • Away to me or away, which means to circle around the stock counter-clockwise
  • Stand, which means to stop or at least slow down
  • Wait, down, or sit, which means to stop
  • Steady, which means to slow down
  • Cast, which means to gather the stock into a group
  • Find, which means to search for the stock
  • Hold, which means to keep the stock in one place
  • Bark, which tells the dog to bark to keep the stock in line
  • Look back, tells the dog to go back for an animal he has missed
  • In there, tells the dog to go into a gap (however small) between animals
  • Walk up, walk on, or walk, indicates the dog is to move closer to the stock
  • That’ll do, which means the dog is to stop working and return to the handler.

How is a herding trial scored?

The judge assigns a maximum number of points available for each element of the competition.  Each dog starts out with that number of points, then deductions are taken for each fault.  A dog cannot lose more than the maximum number of points for each element.  For example, if the maximum number of points for the cast is 10 and the total number for the event is 60, a dog who really messes up the cast cannot lose 15 points, even though the total score still has enough points left to accommodate the fault.  The dog cannot lose more than 10 points on the cast because that element only had 10 points available at the outset.

Herding Dog Trials

Dogs must complete each element in the specified order before moving on to the next task.  A total maximum time is set for the course, but there is no benefit to finishing faster than the allotted time.  For any elements that are not completed when the time has elapsed, the dog loses all points available for that element.  For example, let’s say the maximum points allowed were:

Element 1:  15            Element 2:  25             Element 3:  10

Element 4:  20          Element 5:  10

If the dog made it through all of the first three elements and half of the fourth, the dog would lose all 20 points for element 4 and all 10 points for element 5.

If you watch a herding trial, you might be surprised to find the judge concentrating more on the sheep than on the dog or the handler.  A dog who can manage the herd without needlessly upsetting them is a great asset, and this can be best judged by watching how the sheep react to the dog as he or she works.

It’s all about the eye

A sheep dog is said to have a strong eye if he or she is able to maintain constant eye contact with the stock animals.  Border collies are known as a strong eye breed, although there are some individual Border Collies who aren’t particularly strong eyed.  If you see one in action, you will notice that the dog spends most of the time with their front shoulders close to the ground, very intensely staring at the sheep, but rarely barking.  These dogs are great at covering large areas to bring a herd together at the command of the handler.

In contrast, a loose-eyed dog will use his or her body position to control the stock and will most often work in a more upright position.  The loose-eyed breeds, like the Australian Cattle Dog, often bark while they work.  Loose-eyed dogs are usually bred to work more independently, away from the handler.  They usually work in smaller areas such as in pens and stockyards.  Dogs known as heelers may nip at the livestocks’ heels to make them move.

Where can I see Sheepdog Trials?

The very first sheepdog trials were held in New Zealand in 1867, and the sport quickly spread throughout the United Kingdom during the 1870’s and to the United States in the 1880’s.  In the United Kingdom, the main sanctioning body is the International Sheepdog Society,  while in the United States, the Border Collie Handlers Association, the Australian Shepherd Club of America,  and the American Kennel Club all hold trials.

The biggest events are the West Soldier Hollow Classic in Utah, the Meeker Classic in Colorado, and the Border Collie Handlers Association’s National Championship, which is held in different locales each year.

Click here for the Border Collie Event Schedule.

Click here for the Australian Shepherd Event Schedule.

Check your local listings for televised events.

Can I teach my dog to herd?

Herding behavior is mostly the result of a dog’s having a huge prey drive, modified to stop before killing the prey.  Dogs who excel at herding have been bred through the centuries to treat livestock as prey, but not to hurt the stock.

If your dog has a very strong prey drive, it may make a good herder.  Other qualities include stamina, intelligence, focus, and obedience.  You may want to join a club to learn the basic rules of herding trials.  Most club members are happy to give you free advice and training tips for your dog.  However, make sure to match the type of dog you have to the type of club you join, as the skill sets are quite different for different types of dogs.

Strong-eyed dogs like the Border Collie typically work in front of the stock, staring down the animals to keep them in a group.  Heelers drive the dogs forward by nipping their heels.  The Australian Kelpie is known to work both ahead of and behind the herd.  In addition, these dogs will run along the backs of the sheep to get from one end of the group to another.  Because of this multi-tasking, they are said to head, heal, and back.

If you have had the privilege of living with a herding dog, you already know that these breeds have a tremendous amount of energy.  Participating in herding trials can be a great way to keep both their minds occupied and their bodies in shape.

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