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Hubert O’Hearn is a well-known essayist, editor and playwright. His most recent books include For Freedom: A Human Rights Reader 1948-2015 and Do Angels Breathe? Born and educated in Canada, he moved to Ireland in 2012 along with his faithful Border Collie named Stella. They currently live in a quiet village in County Mayo.


Want to know more? You can purchase Hubert’s book on Amazon.com by clicking on the link below!

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If you have a border collie, you may not know the working history of this amazing dog breed.  Herding sheep is arguably the border collie’s calling in life, which is a truly difficult skill that they show off in field trial competitions.  In this wonderfully entertaining essay written by renowned essayist, book reviewer, & author, Hubert O’Hearn, learn more about the history of field trials and how border collies have become the dominant breed in these ever-popular competitions.  

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The Field Trials

During the 1800s in the UK it became a regular custom each autumn for the owners of  specialized herding dogs to get together, have a few pints and compare notes. Of course as any one of us familiar with the social bonding arrangements that emerge from those four little words ‘a few pints’ knows, frank and open differences of opinion will be expressed and there are only two ways of settling those. It’s either flying fists or arrange a competition. As winning a side wager or two was seen as preferable to explaining to one’s wife the absence of teeth upon one’s return home, the first field competitions for Border Collies were arranged.

The first sheepdog trial was actually held in New Zealand in 1867. However, as there were no Border Collies present (given that they hadn’t been invented yet) we’ll just pretend that never happened and was just some colonial ballyhoo of which no further notice is required[1].

As far as the UK is concerned, trials began in the fields surrounding Bala, Wales on October 9, 1873. That event was organized by the journalist and author Richard John Lloyd Price. Amongst his books was the weightily titled Rabbits for profit and rabbits for powder : a treatise upon the new industry of hutch rabbit farming in the open, and upon warrens specially intended for sporting purposes; with hints as to their construction, cost, and maintenance. Incidentally, Price also founded the Welsh Whisky Distillery Company in 1887, having noticed that the Celts and Gaels to the north and west in Scotland and Ireland seemed to be making quite a splash with their own varieties of Amber Fist, so why not Wales? The venture did not go well and so Price off-loaded his distillery to a Bala businessman in 1900 who in turn liquidated the company ten years later. This liquidation can be seen from the perspective of today as a tragedy, for any man who adds liquid to whisky is no kind of a drinking man.

While his business may have gone to the dogs, Price’s business with dogs was much more successful. That first competition near Bala attracted ten entries and some three hundred spectators. Its first winner was Tweed, a black and tan dog from Scotland described as having a foxy face and owned by a Mr James Thompson, whose own face was not described.

In a rather perfect bit of symmetry, the very existence of the competition led to the development of what would become its dominant breed, the Border Collie. As the trials in Bala led to off-shoots, a group of owners decided to take the show on the road to London in 1876, specifically to Alexandra Park; the actual park, not the similarly named Australian actress, as she’s not that old. Without making too fine a point of it, the trial was a disaster. The majority of entrants were show dogs, not actual farm-trained working collies. To quote a report of the day, the show collies ‘barked, yelped and lost control of many sheep.’ The winner, almost by default, a common red coated working collie named Maddie, owned by John Thomas, a Welsh shepherd who probably was delighted at showing those London toffs what a real dog could do.

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The trials continue in popularity to this day, drawing upwards of twenty-five thousand spectators plus television viewers across the UK and indeed around the world. So, what actually is involved in one? While there can be and are local or regional variations, we will go with the general description offered here:

The exact layout of the trial field can vary significantly. Most experienced handlers agree that there are certain elements that are important to ensure that the challenge to the dog and handler is a fair and complete test. These elements include:

  • The dog must leave the handler and fetch sheep that are some distance away
  • The dog must take control of the sheep and bring them to the handler
  • It is against the dog’s instinct to drive the sheep away from the handler so an away drive is a good test and should be included
  • The dog and handler should be able to combine to move the sheep into a confined space, typically a pen but in some trials they are asked to load them onto a vehicle.

Other popular test elements that are often added include:

  • The dog must separate the group into two groups in a controlled way in accordance with the instructions from the judge. This may involve some sheep being marked and the dog and handler working together to separate them from the rest or some variation of that. This is known as shedding and is almost always required to be done in a ring marked out on the ground.
  • Singling is another test in which the dog and handler combine to separate one sheep from the group.
  • Most trials include a cross drive where the dog is required to move the sheep in a controlled way in a straight line from one side of the field to the other in front of the handler but some distance away from them.

In addition there are various elements that may be added to increase the level of difficulty of a trial. One such example is the double lift where the dog is required to fetch one group of sheep, bring them to the handler, look back and find another group, somewhere else on the trial field some distance away. They must then leave the first group and do a second outrun to fetch the others and bring them to join the first group.

In most competitions the dog will be required to do the fetching and driving tests on their own. During these test elements the handler must remain at a stake positioned during the layout of the trial course. During the shedding, singling and penning the handler usually leaves the stake and works with the dog to achieve the task.

[1]  Dear Kiwis – that was satire.

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