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Sheepdog Trials: What you need to know

Using dogs to herd sheep is an ancient practice – dogs have been used to guard and herd livestock for thousands of years. Over the years, shepherds bred dogs with high intelligence, drive and focus, with the ability to manage herds of hundreds of sheep in difficult conditions.

Sheepdog trials soared in popularity over the course of the 20th century – and remain a staple of countryside culture. It’s a sport that puts working sheepdogs in the limelight – it’s great fun as a competitor or a spectator. Here is everything you need to know about sheepdog trials.

History of sheepdog trials

Whilst sheepdogs had regularly been shown and tested at agricultural shows around the UK for many years, the first recorded sheepdog trial took place in 1873, in a field near Bala, Wales. Despite being a wet and cold day, over 300 spectators turned up to watch. By the next year, attendance topped 2000, and the trials continued to rise in popularity. By the 1930’s, sheepdog trials were being held around the country, and eventually, the world.

How do sheepdog trials work?

In a sheepdog trial, dogs are guided by their handler to move sheep around a field and through various obstacles. 

 The obstacles and movements are designed to reflect tasks that a dog and their handler would complete in everyday work and give them the chance to show off their best skills. These include manoeuvres like driving the sheep in a straight line, between gates, or separating specific sheep from the herd.

All dogs start with a full set of points, and experienced judges will make deductions from their points when the dog makes an error.

The field size, breed of sheep and obstacles varies between trials, depending on the location and experience levels of the dogs competing.

What types of dogs can do sheepdog trials?

In theory, sheepdog trials could be practiced by any type of dogs (and pigs, if the movie Babe is anything to go by!) In practice, there are a limited number of breeds that have the qualities that make them an effective sheepdog such as:

  • Border Collies (who make up the vast majority of competitors)
  • Border Collie crossbreeds
  • Welsh Sheepdogs
  • Bearded Collies
  • Kelpies
  • Huntaways
  • Other working pastoral breeds

For competing at national and international levels stricter rules do apply, requiring the dog to be ISDS registered, and in most cases requiring a pedigree – this generally limits the breeds to Border Collies and a select few other breeds known as ‘Working Sheepdogs’. 

Border Collie sat in a field wearing a red PitPat GPS Tracker

Getting Started with Sheepdog Trials

Training your dog to work sheep is no mean feat, and it’s not for all dogs, even if they are a Border Collie. If you think your dog has got potential, you’ve got a few courses of action.

  1. Start by attending sheepdog trials. Watch, learn and talk to the people there – you’ll start to pick up knowledge very quickly and make connections who can help you learn the skills needed.
  2. Get training. The ISDS can provide steps on how is best to do this.
  3. If you haven’t got a dog yet, you could consider purchasing a started or trained dog – they have had the foundation of training making it easier for you to work with them (as opposed to starting from scratch).
  4. Practising for sheepdog trials doesn’t even need a field and sheep (though if you want to compete, you’ll need sheep eventually!) You can train your dog the basic commands such as Come-Bye, Away, Stand, and That’ll do, and hone your skills by using ducks or geese instead of sheep!

Keeping your dog in shape

Sheepdog trials are undoubtedly one of the best canine sports for Border Collies and Sheepdogs (mind you, they’re pretty handy at lots of others as well!) It provides mental stimulation by the bucketload, as well as a physical challenge. 

You can keep track of all their activity with a PitPat Dog GPS tracker – as well as their location. It tracks your dog’s activity throughout the day, so you know how much exercise your dog has done. We even have a special calibration for Border Collies since they have such a smooth flat run that other activity trackers might find it hard to detect!

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