Sheep Dog Trials Held in Highland
No, this is not a test of the Emergency Alert System, nor is it today’s edition of Birdnotes, but it is a vital form of communication.
What you are hearing is the sound of a handler giving instructions, including whistles and verbal commands to a trained sheep herding dog at the Highland Sheep Dog trials, held this weekend at Donald McCaig’s farm in Williamsville. Mr McCaig is a renowned author and sheep dog enthusiast, having combined those passions into several books revolving around border collies and shepherding. He explained more about the event.
“We’re having our 26th Sheep Dog Trial. 26 years, that’s a little hard to imagine. There are dog handlers here, the lady who’s presently about ready to pen some sheep has come down from Canada, there are people from Georgia. And the reason they come, partly it’s because it’s the spring of the year, and they want to get out and work their dogs, but also because this is a challenging trial.
“54 dogs competing. Each one of them has 13 minutes, and what it has to do, in those 13 minutes, is complete a series of difficult tasks. The sheep cannot be harmed in any way. If the dog bites the sheep, or even seems like it has bitten a sheep, the handler is immediately disqualified with a score of zero. The handler cannot touch the sheep, the dog can’t touch the sheep, and so, what you’re seeing is essentially a mental test then. As we’re watching a pen right now, there’s one ewe who does not want to go in that pen. Well, you can’t blame them – they know that step one is you go into a pen, step two is lamb chops.”
Amanda Milliken has been working with sheep dogs for 30 years, and made the trip from Kingston, Ontario to take part in the event.
“There’s no premium for doing the work quickly. There’s 13 minutes allowed for the job, and you can use all 13 minutes, as long as you move things along in a flowing even way, that keeps the sheep moving, in a way that you’d like to see them moved on your own farm. So the dog that wins has got to be one that takes good care of it’s sheep, accepts good direction from it’s handler, and has a nice, what we call a feel for it’s sheep, so it keeps a distance from it’s sheep that is the perfect distance. The sheep accepts direction from the dog, they say “You’re a nice – I’m going to do whatever you say.”
“I’m crazy about the sheep dogs, and it’s easy to be. They’re very enthralling, it’s so sophisticated and yet primitive, all at one time, and it’s a beautiful sport to be part of.”
Mr. McCaig noted that, while this may have been a competition, the work and training involved with both man and animal has real world benefits.
“If you’re a sheep farmer, or a cattle farmer for that matter, a good bit of what you need for these dogs is instinctual in them. What the average farmer will say is “Shep, go get them” and Shep goes and gets them, and that’s all Shep is asked to do, and that’s just fine, because if Shep goes and gets them, he doesn’t have to go out and get them.
We used to do a little trial at the Highland County Fair, and it was the easiest audience you ever had for a sheep dog trial, because any time a dog did anything right, you get this wave of applause from these farmers, because when they rounded up the sheep, they had to get their kids and their cousins, and everybody else, and go chase through the woods after them, and here’s this dog doing it, you know.”