What happens at a sheepdog trial and why?
Most trials in the British Isles are run to similar format. The handler and dog stand at a 'post' at one end of the course and sheep are held in a 'release pen' at the other. The course itself can be on anything from a flat field to the side of a mountain.
On a signal to the 'letters out' three or four sheep (more in major competitions) are released and quietly encouraged to move to a peg a few yards away. The idea is that the sheep stay by the peg although nobody has yet found a way of telling them.
When the handler feels ready, the dog's sent off on its 'outrun' - usually with a gentle Shhhh or softly spoken command. One or two judges are normally in a car or trailer a few yards behind and slightly to one side of the handler at the post. It's their job to watch every run of the day and mark them accordingly.
The dog should run out wide to the left or right (never down the middle) of the course and carry on to a position behind the sheep without disturbing them. It should then lie down or at least pause before moving up to collect or 'lift' the sheep and move them steadily towards the handler on the 'fetch'.
The judges will be looking for straight lines and the dog's general management of its charges. The dog should bring the sheep through the 'fetch gates' which consist of two gates placed a few yards apart approximately halfway between the peg and post. The handler is not allowed to leave the post until later. If he does, he's deemed to have retired from the run.
Once the sheep are through the fetch gates, the dog continues to bring them towards the handler and then behind and around him - left or right will be declared before the competition begins. They continue around behind the handler and then back to face down the course again until they're heading towards another set of gates - again to left or right depending on the earlier decision.
This stage is called the 'drive'. The sheep should go through these first 'drive gates' and then be turned across the field towards the corresponding gates on the opposite side of the course. This stage is called the 'cross drive'.
Once again, it should be calm and positive with the dog in control of the sheep and as little deviation from a straight line as possible. Once through these last drive gates, the dog turns the sheep back toward the handler and they're brought to a circle in front of the post which is called the 'shedding ring'.
At this point, the handler is allowed to leave his post and walks into the ring to meet the sheep. 'Shedding' consists of a given number of sheep being separated from the bunch and held apart from them until the judge is satisfied the shed has been done properly. They're then re-united with the others and the dog brings them to the 'pen' which is a small enclosure with a gate at the one end. The handler has to open the gate and control it with a 1.8 mtr rope. He must not let go of the rope nor must he use the gate to help pen the sheep. Once the sheep are penned, the gate is closed marking the end of the run.
Neither dog nor handler are allowed to touch the sheep at any time. If the dog bites or 'grips' the sheep it's disqualified. If the course is designated a 'right-hand drive' this means the sheep must be brought to the left of the handler at the post and driven away to the right-hand pair of drive gates. If any sheep miss the gates, (the very thought . .) the drive must continue without trying again and once the sheep are in the shedding ring they should not stray out of it until shedding is complete.
As soon as the run is complete (or the handler and dog have retired or run out of time) the sheep must be taken off the course and to the 'exhaust pen' by the dog. On occasions there might be a dog assigned to this duty but It's frowned upon if you just walk off the field, so best assume it's your job until you see another dog obviously doing the work for you.
Trials are run in this way to simulate as closely as possible the sort of work a dog's expected to do on the farm. The 'outrun' is obviously to gather the sheep from the field or side of a mountain. Often several dogs work together on a farm to gather many hundreds of sheep for various operations such as shearing, foot care or sorting lambs to go to market.
The 'lift' is really a highlight on the dog's working technique. Not too many farmers spend a lot of time worrying if the sheep moved or were disturbed by the dog approaching but it's good practice to encourage the 'lift' to be smooth and orderly. The straighter the dog brings the sheep to the handler, the quicker the job will be done so a straight 'fetch' is essential - besides, farmers love things to be in straight lines - have you ever heard the ribbing a farmer gets from his neighbours if his ploughing has the slightest curve in it'.
The job is neat and tidy if the sheep are taken round behind the handler - nice and close without overshooting the line for the first 'drive gates' and neat turns and straight lines are tops right through to the 'shedding' ring. This is one of the most important operations. The art of sorting sheep in the field. At larger trials, the sheep to be shed off are marked with collars. This is much more realistic as the farmer or shepherd would want to take certain animals away and leave others. Much more difficult of course.
Lastly, we reach the pen. This speaks for itself as you have to get sheep into some sort of enclosure to hold them in one place. To make life a little easier for young dogs, shedding is not normally required at Nursery Trials.