A Working Dog: Border Collies Are Bred for Stamina, Obedience, Range, and a Willingness to Tend Sheep

by Donald McCaig

IT’s ALWAYS HOT at Oatlands Plantation in late spring. After their runs the dogs flop in a water trough, lapping and panting. Oatlands is the final trial in Virginia’s Triple Crown, a weeklong series of sheepdog trials, the most important on America’s East Coast. Though border collies have worked stock in this country since the 1840s, sheepdog trialing is a fairly new sport, and hundreds of trials are less than ten years old. In Britain trialists are fulltime shepherds and farmers. Here perhaps a quarter are livestock men; others are vets, machinists, sheep shearers, and psychiatrists, who keep sheep only for the sake of their dogs.

Some have traveled far to get here, and the campers and motor homes parked behind Oatlands’s narrow course bear license plates from Texas, Montana, and Maine. Not much prize money is offered—only the top few dogs can hope to earn even gas money. But the Triple Crown is a chance to run your dog against the best sixty-six dogs in the country, against dangerous competitors, men (and a few women) whose conversation with their dogs is intricate, flashing, and profound.

intricate, Hashing, profound. The first two-day trial of the Triple Crown was the Blue Ridge, near Winchester. The midweek trial was Seclusival, below Charlottesville. By the time we got to Oatlands, we handlers were worn to a soft, rumpled ease with one another. Braggarts bragged more quietly about their dogs.

Oatlands Plantation is a National Trust property, near Leesburg, Virginia, and special events bring thousands of visitors here every weekend. This weekend it’s sheepdog trials; by midafternoon a thousand spectators will be standing around wondering what in hell is going on.

The course is skinny, bordered by trees, canted left to right uphill. Sheep are put out 360 yards from where you stand at the handler’s post. On the course are three sets of white board gates: the fetch, drive, and cross-drive gates. During the trial the sheep must leap a water-filled ditch and must be precisely in line to get through the cross-drive gate.

On the course the sheep are quicksilver, spooked, acting like they’ve never seen a dog before. When a dog puts on any pressure, the sheep shoot off, full tilt, and the dog can’t keep far enough back to settle them. No dog is doing very well. Scores are in the fifties, out of a possible 100.

Not only is sheepdog trialing a three-species sport—involving human beings, dogs, and sheep—but also every flock of sheep behaves differently. Sheep that are flighty in the morning may by evening be fighting a dog for every foot of gain, lowering their heads, pawing, refusing to go.

Behind the trial course the handlers are shaded by a somber awning supplied by Loudoun Funeral Chapel. We sit on lawn chairs and watch like hawks, critiquing every run.

The border collie, also known as working collie, eye dog, or shepherd’s collie, is one of the few pure working breeds left in the world. For 500 years the border collie was bred to herd livestock, particularly sheep. Although a few literary men — Samuel Pepys, Robert Burns, and James Hogg among them—noticed the dog, it went largely unremarked. The border collie belonged to shepherds as surely as shepherds belonged to farmers and farmers belonged to the laird. The British aristocracy valued hunting dogs and coursing dogs. Shepherd’s dogs were beneath their notice.

In the 1860s, when the English middle class took up the “dog fancy,”they sought “noble” dogs, “proud” dogs, dogs with an “aristocratic bearing.” Thus, while popular dog breeds were bred for beauty (the beauty of the show ring), the humble border collie was left in the hands of agriculturists, who bred for biddability, stamina, stock sense, a wide natural outrun, and a strong fetch: incomparable traits when a man is trying to catch a terrified ewe on a steep hillside with only his dog to help him.

Border collies have been called “the wisest dogs in the world,” but I’m sure that some border collies are smarter than others. At sheepdog trials I’ve seen dogs take distinct instructions (“Go left,” “Go right,”“Stand.” “Walk up”) at the rate of more than one command a second.

Distance is a critical test of animal control. The circus trainer who jumps his tiger through hoops inside a fiftyfoot cage wouldn’t have much chance of getting the beast to obey from a hundred yards away. Most pet-dog owners can control a dog at their feet, but let the dog get away, across the park, hying after a florid female, and the master’s calls and threats go unheeded. In Britain border collies routinely work to their shepherd’s faint whistles at a distance of more than a mile.

Some male border collies weigh sixty pounds, some bitches less than thirty. Though most are black and white and long-coated, some are short-coated, red, merle, black, or black and tan. Purebred-dog breeders are routinely distressed by this lack of standardization, and every year or two some fool pipes up in favor of American Kennel Club recognition for the border collie. If the dogs were more uniform, the fool explains, they could be shown in the show ring. Breeding working dogs for the show ring makes as much sense as picking a lawyer by the color of his suit.

Eminent border collie sires and dams are sheepdog-trial winners. The first such trial was held in Bala, Wales, in 1873, and today sheepdog trials are held in all the major sheep-producing countries. The trials more or less replicate the tasks that border collies perform at home. Trials test a dog’s physical, mental, moral, and (pardon me) spiritual qualities. Many perfectly adequate farm dogs cannot trial—they’re too shy around strangers or simply can’t take the pressure. (How would you like to do the toughest bits of your daily work overseen by a hundred critical spectators?)

A few naive spectators always attend these trials. Astonished by the dogs’ skills, they often ask. “Are the sheep trained?” No.

“What’s the dog’s reward?” A job well done.

The trial consists of consecutive tasks: outrun, lift, fetch, drive, pen, and shed. The obstacles on the course are freestanding gates with a twentyone-foot gap, and a pen six feet by nine feet, also freestanding. The dogs’ handler is never permitted to touch the sheep, and his ability to help his dog is circumscribed. The dog must not bite and rarely barks. Points are deducted for faults, rather than earned; when you begin, you have as many points as you’ll ever have. At Oatlands each dog has eight minutes to complete his work. The judge and the timekeeper sit behind the handler.

Often, when a handler and his dog go out onto the course, the dog will dash ahead or circle, looking for sheep. Perhaps the handler will pat his leg or call softly, and the dog will come to his side. This is a time to settle the dog, to see what can be learned as three sheep are herded to the let-out post, 360 yards away. At that distance a handler can’t tell much, but he can certainly see if a ewe is trying to bolt, or if the whole lot is fractious. Is a sick or feeble ewe lingering behind?

If you and your dog are right, your souls exchange confidence. The clock starts when you send him.

Outrun: 20 points. What you hope is that the dog will cast out from your foot, widening his approach as he nears the sheep so that he can come up on them from behind without startling them. The dog’s life experience determines his gather. He must have strong faith and have learned to delay gratification.

As the dog runs out, any command, by voice or whistle, will cause points to be deducted, and so a man never signals his dog unless to warn of trouble. The dog is racing away from its shepherd toward sheep it has seen or has been cued toward by the shepherd’s stance and body language. As the dog goes out, he can easily lose sight of his sheep; in dips and low places he certainly will. The dog’s instinct tells him to come in; faith alone keeps him sailing out. If he yields and comes in too soon, he’ll cross the course in front of his sheep and lose almost all his outrun points—disaster.

The dog must trust his shepherd to warn him when he’s gone too far, when he’s gone wrong. He must trust his shepherd’s silence and keep on, his course widening, ever widening.

When an inexperienced dog finally spots his sheep, he’ll charge, hoping to get to them, and, of course, they bolt like deer. A young ewe can outsprint a dog for a hundred yards. Sometimes a hundred yards and a hiding place are all a ewe needs to beat a dog.

The experienced dog knows that slogging on farther before he turns in, far beyond his ewes, is more effort initially but that nothing less works.

When the dog is behind the sheep, he stops of his own accord or is whistled to a stop.

Lift: 10 points. If the outrun is correct, the sheep notice the dog now and move toward the handler. This is the lift—a test of perception and a clash of wills. Permit me this analogy: One morning you’re walking down the sidewalk, thinking about dailiness— your work, perhaps your spouse’s birthday, the postcard you intend to mail—when a car pulls to the curb and a stranger gets out and blocks your path. He is strongly built and exudes menace. Although he carries a weapon, it’s not brandished. The stranger is dressed almost entirely in black but with reassuring touches. Perhaps he wears a badge saying SPECIAL CONSTABLE, or SECURITY. The stranger takes a step toward you.

If you are terrified, you might run or fight or bluster. If you are completely unthreatened, you might say, “Excuse me, please,” and step around him. If you turn and walk away quietly, it’s a perfect lift: full points.

Fetch: 20 points. When the sheep come toward the handler, with the dog trotting behind or to one side, the next portion of the course is an exercise in biddability. After the outrun the handler is allowed to command, and most twitter like birds. The judge deducts points each time the sheep stray off the straight and narrow, or if they pause or hurry. As the sheep come near the handler (and the throng of spectators immediately behind him), a three-species encounter takes place. This is the man’s best chance to eaim the sheep and the dog. Now he can see it one sheep is older or younger than the others. Which is the flock leader? Are any sheep out of condition or winded? Are they spooked or reconciled to being herded? At the same time, the handler must be preparing himself for a new, very different phase of work: the drive. To the left, a hundred yards ahead, at about ten o’clock, the drive gates await, and once the sheep come around behind the man, the dog aims them straight for the gate opening.

Drive: 30 points. Tight turns are important in trialing, and the nearer the sheep come to the shepherd’s feet as they pass around, the better. For the sheep, coming around the man is a great relief. Steadily they’ve been herded toward the man (danger) and a crowd of spectators (danger), and now, as they start the drive, suddenly danger is behind them and they bolt away, leaping like lambs in the pleasure of their freedom.

Obedient to every instruction, the dog must herd the sheep directly through the drive gates. Then the dog must whip around to their heads and get them going back across the course through the crossdrive gates, on the man’s right, at about two o’clock. As the dog brings the sheep toward the man again, the man walks from the handler’s post to the pen.

Pen: 10 points. Time ticking away, the shepherd hurries to the pen. He’ll open the gate, clench the gate rope with one hand, and extend his crook with the other. From left to right: crook, man, gate rope, gate—these form an illusory wall blocking the ewes’ escape. The pen yawns open.

The sheep know perfectly well that the pen is a trap.

Permit me to resume my analogy: Suppose that the menacing black-clad stranger has followed you for half a mile, walking on one side of the street or the other, never so far back that you can slip away, never so near that you’ll run. Now, suppose his car appears, the back door opens, and the stranger says, “In!”

If the handler comes on too strong, the sheep will run around the pen. If the dog presses too hard, they’ll duck under the rope or dodge the handler’s crook. Although the dog and sheep move freely, the man must not let go of the gate rope. He’s tied in place. If sheep waffle at the mouth of the pen, points are deducted. If a ewe breaks around, points are deducted.

The man swings the gate shut, glances at his watch, and turns the sheep out again.

Shed: 10 points. When threatened, sheep, like politicians, press toward the center, the stronger pushing the weaker to left or right. Old, feeble, sickly ewes are left outside the solid, woolly mass for predators to find. Tough on the senior citizens, yes, but as a species-survival strategy it’s as good as any.

Man and dog shed one sheep off from the others. Man on one side of the ewes, dog on the other, seeking the opening, just an inch or three, and the man cries the dog in and the dog cuts that single ewe off with the speed and precision of a surgeon’s knife. The ewe must not know what you intend, and when she learns she’s out there all by herself—prey—she must be transfixed by the dog’s glowing eyes until her terror paralyzes her and she is purely unable to take a step.

The judge calls, “Shed" or “That’ll do,” and that’s that.

I’VE GOT TWO trial dogs, Pip, age nine, and Gael, a three-year-old I bought in Ayrshire, Scotland, the previous June. This is Gael’s first year at the trials, and I hoped to show her off, but so far we’ve not done well. She is the best dog I’ve ever had, a light dog with brilliant balance. We were beaten by difficult sheep at the Blue Ridge trial, and at Seclusival I miscommanded Gael not once but twice, and when she came off the course she was confused and upset and disappointed in me.

A couple of the dog handlers are under twenty-five, several are well over seventy; the youngest dog here is two, the oldest ten and a half. A haze blurs the course.

Gael is relaxed, determined, when we walk onto the course. When I send her, I put my whistle to my lips, in case she stops short, but she comes around perfectly, like a lesson in how to do it, and my heart jumps and sweat pops out on my forehead. When I whistle her up, the sheep come down the course as if they were on a Sunday stroll. Gael corrects them onto the fetch line without a wobble. They are wild as they approach me, jolty, wideeyed, on tiptoe, but Gael aims them around and straight for the drive gates. Bingo! On the far side of the gates the sheep disappear behind the bushes and I can’t see Gael at all. I tell her to “Get up.” My mouth is dry as hope. The sheep come into sight, right in line. I misjudge the cross-drive gates (damn!), and the sheep miss the opening, but they march nicely toward me as I run to the pen. Skittish as these ewes are, we’ll get one chance. If they learn how to beat us at the pen, they’ll be gone. Gael brings them up slowly, very slowly, dead in line, just to the corner I want, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve feet away, and I ease the gate open. My timer buzzes: ninety seconds left. Ten feet away, standing in the pen mouth, the sheep bunch tight, heads swiveling looking for flight, and Gael lies down,

I read this as weakness. “Get up, Gael! Get up, lass,” and the instant she gets to her feet, the sheep fly.

The sheep having learned that they can circle the pen, nothing Gael or I do prevents them from doing just that. The timekeeper’s “Time, sir” comes as a relief. Back under the awning Gael drinks water and I drink iced tea.

Twenty eminent border collies will qualify for the Oatlands finals the next day, Sunday. The cutoff score is 63.5. Gael has 61.5.

Let’s have an instant replay of what happened out there, when I ordered Gael to get up and the sheep bolted.

This was Gael’s fifth trial in a week, and she knew perfectly well what was expected of her. She prefers skittish sheep and has a knack for settling them. Thus, from the get-go, she knew she was beautiful. She could tell from my voice, the soft commands, that I liked what she was doing. Perhaps her tattered confidence was surging in her wee breast. On she came, on to the drive and away again. She would have seen the cross-drive gates more clearly than I did, but probably didn’t care very much that the sheep missed them. Then, slowly, slowly, she brought them to the corner of the pen.

The sheep—fresh ones for each dog—had never seen anything like this pen gizmo before. They stopped, looking left, looking right, praying for escape. They were trembling, quite at the end of their tether.

When Gael lay down, she took pressure off them, calmed things down, gave the sheep a space to breathe.

Last weekend, at the Blue Ridge trial, Gael couldn’t move stubborn sheep around the course. So now, when she lay down, I read her move as weakness.

She was saying, “Take it easy, boss. When they’re calmer, we’ll go on.” I was saying, “I don’t trust you. You’re too weak.” When she took my command “Get up,” against her better judgment, she was saying, “I’ll take your word for it.” And, of course, the sheep blew up.

Dangerous competitors don’t make this sort of mistake. The rapport of an eminent dog and a dangerous man is deeply private and factual. Each mind is less without the other.

Although I can imagine my life changing so that I couldn’t live on a farm and couldn’t keep working sheepdogs, I wouldn’t want a dog that did no work at all. If I had to choose between a pet dog and no dog, I’d choose no dog. A pet dog can never be right.