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Herding sheep

The Border Collie was originally bred for accurately driving a flock of sheep. In contrast with most breeds of the working group that work with cattle (that is, keeping cattle together at a certain place and protecting them) the Border Collie is mainly used for herding sheep (collecting them from the hills, moving them from pasture to pasture, etc.). In the hilly landscape sheep have to be fetched past trees, bushes and through ditches.

A herding Border Collie
A Border Collie from Wales at work.
Full size picture (75kb JPEG)

For the care of the sheep it's often necessary that they are taken into a small space, or that a few sheep are isolated from the flock (lambing season, vaccinations, trimming claws). This requires a special dog, so special that he can often do the work of seven to eight men all by himself. In order to do this the dog was taught a (limited) set of commands. These are either whistled commands or voice commands.


In 1873 the first official sheepdog trial took place in Bala (Wales). These trials have grown into a full-blown competitive sport with national and international championships.

It is remarkable that the way a trial is built is an accurate representation of the work a Border Collie has to do in the field. All elements such as fetching, driving away, shedding and penning sheep are built into the course. An extra and most important aspect is that presentation determines the scoring for a great deal. Apart from the original English course a Dutch course can be used (in which a trailer or a ditch for treatments is used as an extra -- and often difficult -- element).

In the United Kingdom trials are held for one dog (Single) as well as for two dogs (Brace).


Shedding ring Penn Lift Fetch Fetch Drive Outrun As an example we present a widely used course. You can click on many elements in the picture. The dog starts at the bottom where the shepherd stands (see arrow) and goes either to the left or to the right to the sheep (at the top of the picture).

Although courses often look the same there is plenty of room for the organisation to add difficulties by using natural obstacles like bushes (sheep are out of sight), ditches (the dog has to follow a straight line) and hills (some sheep like to walk uphill) or varying the breed of the sheep or their temperament (whether the sheep are used to dogs or not), etc.


The dog is sent away from the herdsman and runs in a -- preferably pear shaped -- line to the point where he is behind the sheep. At that point the dog is often whistled 'down' to prevent the sheep from taking off too fast. The difficulty here lies in the distance between the dog and the sheep. If the dog comes too close it often presents you with problems in the rest of the course. The sheep are so scared that they take off at full speed.


The moment the sheep start to move towards the handler is called the lift. At this point the dog shows his strength of will (if the sheep refuse to walk) or his self control (if the sheep are skittish).


The first straight part towards the handler looks easy, but the sheep need to be fetched in a controlled way and the line through the gate has to be straight. The first real problems often arise here because of the speed of the dog and the speed of the sheep. Sometimes the rest of the flock, which isn't being used at the moment, is in sight, which causes many sheep to move back to the rest.


After the sheep are brought to the handler, the flock moves behind the handler and on to the left gate. From there the sheep go across the field (the 'Cross Drive'), through the right gate and move to the next part of the course (the shedding ring). If sheep pass the gates on the outside you will be penalised (in points). Points are also taken away for not following the ideal line.


The shedding ring is made of a circle of heaps of sawdust. Inside the ring one or more (sometimes marked with collars) sheep have to be separated from the rest. Before a shed (approved by the jury) is completed no sheep may leave the ring. Depending on the temperament of the sheep and the co-operation between handler and dog the shed can take a lot of time. Once the dog has shown that he can separate the sheep and keep them separate, the final part is reached.


The sheep have to be moved to a small, fenced area. It looks easier than it is, because no sheep may escape. Sheep sense when they will be penned and will often try to prevent that at all cost. This exercise shows accurate short distance control. By using small corrections and applying the right amount of pressure the sheep will be convinced to enter the pen.


The herdsman needs to have his dog well in hand. Dogs that are too unruly and dogs that bite sheep can be disqualified.

Other elements

Sometimes elements like the 'Maltese cross' (a crossing made of fences where the sheep must cross without escaping through the exits on the sides) or the trailer (with separate entrance and exit) are placed in the course.

Taz drives the sheep away.
Full size picture (22KB JPEG).


In Great Britain trials for two dogs are also quite common. The course is slightly adjusted for this. One dog is send to the left and the other to the right (the Outrun). The Shed is extended; part of sheep is put in an open Pen (one dog has to guard this Pen) and the rest is taken to the regular Pen. It's important in the Brace that a dog never crosses to the side that the other dog handles.

Copyright © 1998-2013 Jigal van Hemert & Danielle Boshouwers
This page last modified: Wednesday, 30-Jul-2008 16:40:30 CEST
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