The behind-the-scenes heroes of raising sheep are the dogs that herd and protect them. Large, mostly white guard dogs fend off predators, but the fast and talented border collies keep them moving and keep them from getting lost from the flock.
Throughout the history of sheep ranching, the herding skills of sheep dogs have been in high demand. On Saturday and Sunday, 50 of the best of these dogs, and their masters, will compete in the Sheep Dog Championship Trials in Quigley Canyon near Hailey.
These trials are part of a National Point Qualification program and are sanctioned by the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association.
The trial will feature the West Coast's most talented border collies, paired with the top handlers. Teams will travel from Utah, Idaho, Montana, California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. The sheep are being loaned courtesy of Lava Lake Land and Livestock.
For the uninitiated, a demonstration of the herding instincts of the collies, under the command of a master, sometimes hundreds of yards away, is nothing less than astonishing. Several sheep are herded over vast spaces, around obstacles and into a pen. The dogs are all the while taking subtle signals from their handlers.
According to the online Border Collie Museum, border collies have a natural tendency to herd a variety of animals, including ducks, chickens, sheep, cats, cars and even children. They are bred and trained for several particular attributes when it comes to working sheep.
Ability to 'gather'
In Idaho, as in the Anglo-Scottish border region where the breed is said to have originated, the sheep spend a good part of the year scattered widely, and a dog must be able to circle around and gather the entire flock for routine management like dipping and shearing. In sheepdog trials, the gather is broken down into three parts.
The "outrun" is the first part. The dog is sent by the shepherd or handler to gather the sheep. The dog makes a wide circle around the flock so as to "gather in" the entire flock. In sheepdog trials, there will be only a few sheep, but on the hill it may be the entire flock of hundreds of sheep that needs gathering. This wide circle is called the "outrun." The direction (clockwise or counterclockwise) is determined by the handler and depends on the terrain, the distribution of sheep, and what the handler knows of the dog's strengths and weaknesses. (For example, some dogs more naturally go in one direction than the other.) While different handlers sometimes use different directional commands, most often "Come-bye!" is the command for clockwise, and "Way to me!" is used for counterclockwise.
The second part of the gather is called the "lift." The dog swings around behind the flock, and the flock begins to move off in the direction of the handler. And finally, the third part of the gather, where the dog brings the flock to the handler, is called the "fetch." In sheepdog trials, these three parts might be distinctive, but on the hill, especially in difficult terrain, they are probably indistinguishable.
The border collie controls the sheep with "eye," which refers to the amount of concentration on the sheep that the dog shows. The sheep are "held" by the strength of the dog's eye, and a dog in which this characteristic is well developed is called "strong-eyed." It allows the dog to move the sheep quietly and calmly. It is likely that there were dogs with this behavior early on in the working collie, and, as it is a useful behavior, dogs were bred for this characteristic. Eye is the single most distinguishing instinctual behavior of the border collie as a herding dog.
The border collie has a tendency to "clap," or go down and face the sheep with its belly close to the ground. This, in combination with "eye," gives the dog a singularly predatory look. Dogs were bred for clapping and strong eye for many years, but now some are being bred or trained to stay more on their feet so that they are ready to move quickly if necessary. However, even on its feet, a border collie still crouches forward and has a characteristic predatory appearance. This combination of behaviors is indeed how predators hunt and stalk their prey, and herding instinct is often described as "modified prey drive." (Sometime back in the murky annals of time, dogs were chosen because they could suspend their instincts to kill.)
Since an animal cannot speak, non-human intelligence is hard to define. The border collie is usually considered an intelligent dog. To shepherds, intelligence means a dog that can think for itself. Border collies are often sent great distances to gather the scattered flocks. Because they often had to work far away from their handlers, they have to be intelligent and independent. They are relied on to handle unusual situations without the assistance of the shepherd. Stories abound about how various sheepdogs handled themselves in these instances.
Portions of the above story were reprinted with permission from Carole L. Presberg and The Border Collie Museum.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Saturday, Oct. 8, and Sunday, Oct. 9, from 7 a.m. until dusk at Quigley Canyon fields, east of Hailey. Take Fox Acres Road east of state Highway 75 in Hailey and follow signs. Entrance fee of $2 per person; children under 5 free. Bring lawn chairs; no coolers, please.