What is a Sheepdog Trial?
Those who need to look after sheep, sometimes on difficult country, need the help of one or more able sheepdogs. For many years dogs have been bred to develop the traits of intelligence, stamina and obedience. The finest example is the breed known as the Border Collie. How do we know which breed lines are producing the most able dogs? We arrange competitions, or demonstrations, where the abilities can be compared - these are sheepdog trials.
The culmination of the breeder's skill is demonstrated in sheepdog trials, and although breeding is of paramount importance, it is the sheepdog trial that is the 'shop window' for the end result of the breeder's labours, and is the endless delight of those who compete and those who spectate.
Many trials take place at a local level, organised by small, local groups. All ages and abilities can participate. There are Nursery trials for young dogs who demonstrate early skills, and Open trials where handlers gain points to permit entry to the National trials.
Competition is held between the 'home' Nations of England, Ireland (including the Isle of Man), Scotland and Wales. To be eligible to enter a National Sheepdog trial the dog must be entered in the Society's Stud Book before the 1st of June in the year of that Trial. National Trials are run over a 400 yard course with five sheep, containing the standard elements of Outrun, Lift, Fetch, Drive, Shed, Pen, Single. The fifteen highest placed competitors from each of the four National Trials meet together in competition at the International Trial.
At the International, the same size of course and number of sheep is used for the Qualifying Trial, which is run over the first two days, but on the third and final day, the highest placed fifteen competitors, irrespective of country, meet to compete for the most coveted title in the sheepdog world - Supreme Champion! For this competition the course is lengthened to around 800yds, with the dog having to fetch one lot of sheep and then go back for a second. A total of twenty sheep are guided around the course. This is the greatest test any working sheepdog can possibly undertake and not for nothing is the 'Supreme Champion' the proud boast of the winner!
As far as possible, the conditions and work to be encountered in everyday shepherding on the hills and farms are followed at sheepdog trials. They are not intended as a succession of 'tricks' or gimmicky obstacles, but rather a practical demonstration of the skills the dog uses every day of his working life. Many of the dogs you see on the trials field will have been at work on the farm, probably that very morning before setting off for the trial. It is true to say that the skills they acquire in their everyday work are key to them gaining maximum points. The system of scoring at trials is that a maximum number of points are allocated for each element and dog and handler actually 'lose' points for any faults as they progress around the course. The whole of the trial is of a practical nature and the ISDS rules for these competitions are solely concerned with the working capabilities of the Border Collie and its master.
There has been tremendous interest and following of sheepdog trialling, enhanced no doubt by the success of the television coverage it has attracted over the years. The only individuals not affected by this comparatively sudden 'recognition' are the dogs - often referred to as 'the wisest dogs in the world'. They remain unspoiled by the fame of their ability and that of their handlers and it is this unaffected joy in the work that they do that gives trialling its charm.