The Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival was held this last weekend in Jefferson, Wisconsin. The crowd could be divided into three groups: yarn and fiber enthusiasts, sheepdog people, and sheep farmers (I hesitate to call them shepherds, as that conjures up an image of a lone boy driving a flock onto a high pasture instead of the more industrial-pastoral way of life of modern sheep husbandry). The festival featured classes on shepherding and fiber arts, a sheep show, scientific animal husbandry presentations, vendors, and sheepdog trials. I’ll be talking about all of these events in an upcoming podcast (tentatively slated for October 6, 2017), but as much of the day involved looking at sheep and their paraphernalia, it seemed appropriate to write a few blog posts as well.
Before dog agility courses became popular at dog shows, spry canines were herding sheep (and geese, ducks, and other flocking animals) competitively for at least a century and a half. These trials generally involve the dog and a shepherd working a flock of sheep through gates and into pens, as well as other traditional herding tasks. The trial at the festival was fairly typical in terms of requirements (from what I can gather; full disclosure: I am a novice sheepdog-trial enthusiast). Teams are judged on their ability to cleanly execute the tasks, for which they are awarded points. The photos below are of Teak (10-1/2-year-old border collie) and Victoria Kreiter (two legs).
The trial starts with the shepherd — complete with crook — and dog waiting at a post in front of the judges. At the other end of a field, probably 300 yd away, is a small flock of sheep (in this trial, the more advanced shepherds had five sheep, while the less advanced teams drew only four). The dog is sent out on a long run to the side and behind the flock. This is known as a “cast.” The dogs then “lift” the herd, which means gets it moving back towards the shepherd in a smooth, cohesive group. The “bring” consists of the dog working back and forth behind the sheep to guide them across the field, in this case through a 7-yd-wide gate. Teams get more points the less the shepherd has to whistle commands to the dog.
Once the sheep are brought in, the shepherd helps direct the dog and sheep through a series of drives. First the sheep are driven away and through another gate before being driven across the field to another gate. The shepherd communicates through vocal commands or whistles when the dog is far out. The most common one is “lie down,” where the dog flattens itself against the ground to stop the sheep from moving.
After bringing the sheep around the last gate, the dog runs the sheep into a pen the shepherd has opened. The team gets top marks for getting the sheep right in in one go, but sometimes the sheep bolt around to the side, and the dog must work them back to the open side. Once inside, they are held in the pen for a few seconds.
After the sheep are let back out of the pen, they are led to a large circle. Before long, the herd is split as two sheep are “shed” off by the dog at the shepherd’s direction. Once this is done, the sheep are herded off the course.
At least, this is how the trial at the festival was ordered. Apparently things get changed around at different competitions, but the elements seem pretty standard. You can check out the Wisconsin Working Dog Association or the US Border Collie Handlers’ Association for trials near you.