The man walked slowly into the field, the dog a coiled spring by his side. The pair reached a marking post; the man gave an imperceptible signal, and the dog was off in a wide arc, galloping across the gently rolling sides of the grassy bowl to a spot on the far side.
Spectators could just make out the four sheep the dog was after, sheep held in place by a second handler and dog until the gathering dog could work into position.
The test dog circled in back of the sheep and began to drive them forward, towards the man at the post. A whistle split the air as the sheep ran wide; the dog slowed and moved slightly to the side of the small flock to get them back in line to pass through the gates and up the grade to the starting post.
The sheep gathered around the man; the man directed the dog with a series of whistles to drive the stock back down the hill, through the gate, across the field through another gate, and finally, back up the hill to the holding pen. The man opened the gate; the dog slowly worked his way towards the milling sheep, pressuring here and there with the characteristic Border Collie crouch and eye until the four animals moved into the pen and the handler closed the gate.
The dog was one of dozens entered in the Bluegrass Classic Open Stockdog Trial in Lexington, Kentucky, (USA) in June. Here handlers proved their prowess as trainers and showed off the remarkable working abilities of their dogs.
On Friday, the young dogs ruled the course and excitement ruled the dogs. Often rushing the sheep or making mistakes that spooked the small flocks of four, the dogs nonetheless showed great promise for a future as a farmer’s working partner. On Saturday and Sunday, the mature dogs took over and showed the youngsters how the job is done.
The working Border Collie is a dog of many coats and colors and a workaholic personality. Black, red, tri-color or mostly white; long-coated, medium-coated, or short-coated; 25 pounds or 55 pounds, he is an obsessive-compulsive worker of immeasurable value to the sheep farmer. Few other dogs can match his dedication or his innate skill. Like the block of marble that awaits an artist to release the incredible beauty within, the Border Collie needs an equally dedicated handler to hone his skills and direct his energy.
Although many breeds herd livestock, none other has the Border Collie combination of eye, intensity, and working style, characteristics developed in the border country of England and Scotland. Here the sheepmen produced a breed of dog that made raising flocks in hilly country a profitable venture. Without the dogs, the cost of manual labor would have been prohibitive; with the dogs, an economy was built on wool.
Border Collies came to the US with Scotsmen who arrived to provide lamb meat for and wool for an expanding population. Sheep farms went west with the rest of the population, and the dogs made it possible for shepherds to control large flocks on a journey from New Mexico to the California gold fields to feed settlers and travelers. Today, of course, Border Collies bring to obedience and agility trials the same character and dedication that marks their work with sheep, but it is in the field with the shepherd and the flock that the dogs excel.
[More on Border Collies]
The Border Collie gathers sheep and brings them to the shepherd or takes them to a destination as directed by the shepherd. Directions are given by whistle, by voice, or a combination of the two. The sheep move because the dog pressures them to do so; the dog must learn how and when to exert the pressure to keep the sheep moving in the desired direction. Too much pressure makes the sheep run, risking panic and loss of meat. Too little pressure puts the sheep in charge of where they will go and when they will get there.
Over the years, breeders have sharpened the Border Collie into a dog with predatory behavior that makes sheep wary but does not culminate in a kill. Creeping and crouching in the field, running wide of the flock at times and close by at others, lying down on a whistled command, waiting, moving, and dropping down again, the ideal Border Collie works in a steady, unruffled manner to keep the sheep calm and in motion.
In a trial, the dogs must show their skill at each component of their herding jobs. They must do an outrun from handler to circle behind the sheep several hundred yards away; “lift” the sheep from their current spot to begin the drive towards the handler; bring the sheep to the handler at the post; drive the sheep away from the handler through two sets of panels set up as gateways; and finally bring the sheep to the pen. Advanced dogs also must show their skill at holding a single sheep apart from the rest of the flock.
Young dogs are taught basic obedience commands and accustomed to praise for a job well done. At about 10 months of age, their ability to work stock can be assessed by bringing the dog into a pen with a handful of sheep. A dog with good working instincts will circle the small flock and hold them together. With a few lessons, he will learn to keep the circle tight and to move the sheep without running them.
The dog learns not only to move the sheep, but to heed instructions from the handler, instructions relayed by whistle, command, or simple changes in body position or extensions of the shepherd’s crook. In this manner, the dog learns to hold sheep to the handler as well as to hold them in a group.
It takes at least two years of training to get a dog to advanced levels of competition. Each dog is different; a shepherd must read his dog to understand its strengths and weaknesses and to use training techniques that complement those strengths and minimize those weaknesses.
But all the training in the world cannot instill the instinct that makes a Border Collie a great working dog. A dog has a sense of how to deal with sheep, or he does not. He has a working style that sheep can tolerate, or he does not. He can make decisions on his own when out of sight and sound of the shepherd, or he cannot. Training can make a dog steady and give him confidence in his own ability, but it cannot give him that ability. But the training and the working and the partnership between man and dog are a triumph of the human animal bond as well as a practical application of that relationship.
For more information about Border Collies and herding training and events, contact
[More on herding dogs]
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