Bala, Wales is credited with the first organized sheepdog trials in Great Britain. The year was 1873. Little is known about the trial except that a number of entries came there to test their skills in a fashion so as to simulate conditions incurred in every day duties on the farm. Ten dogs competed before a crowd of some 300 people.
Herding dogs had been an important asset to shepherds and farmers for a long time before the advent of the Bala trial as sheep farming was perhaps the Nation’s most important agricultural industry. Sheep utilize forage under conditions not favorable to other livestock. The necessity of gathering and tending of flocks under pastoral conditions brought about the need for a specialized dog to better manage sheep.
One only has to imagine Shepherds believing their dogs were able to complete tasks favorable to competing in sheepdog trials although judging rules and the course itself were unknown at that time.
Sometime later the International Sheepdog Society was formed to develop a set of Rules to govern trials that sprang up across the country and a Registry for those who wanted to record the ancestry of sheepdogs.
The United States Border Collie Handlers Association was formed in a similar fashion to provide order to sheepdog trials in this country although trials had been held in many areas of the country prior to its inception. Today the USBCHA boasts several hundred members across the States and sanctions hundreds of trials.
To the casual observer there are points that sheepdog trials are judged and may go unnoticed without understanding of the Rules.
First, each competitor and dog are required to begin their “run” from a common station or post. The dog may be cast to either side and should follow a pattern similar to one side of a pear. He should neither run too close or too far away from the sheep and would be penalized for infractions at the judge’s discretion. This phase of the course is called the “outrun” that carries a maximum of 20 points.
Secondly, the ‘lift” is the first actual contact the dog has with the sheep and may determine how they behave throughout the course. The sheep should be moved in a workman like manner not too slowly and not rash for the 10 points.
Thirdly, the “fetch” is the phase of work that delivers the sheep in a workman like manner through a set of gates in a straight line to the handler and thusly, the post where they are turned as neatly as possible toward the drive gates. 30 points are possible for the “fetch”.
Fourthly, the “drive” begins after the sheep have turned behind the handler and post in a direction so as to pass through the first gates situated some 100 to 150 yards away. The sheep are then turned as directly as possible to be driven in a straight line through gates situated some 100 to 150 yards across the course where they should, again, turn so as to be brought directly into the shed ring. Straight lines and workmanship may gain 30 points for this effort. The “drive” ends when all of the sheep have entered the shed ring situated directly in front of the post.
Fifth, the “shed” or separation of two sheep from the 5 inside of the ring while the dog demonstrates the ability to hold the two sheep has a value of 10 points. This phase is a team effort (man and dog). The shed demonstrates the dog’s ability to divide or separate a flock.
Sixth, the “pen”. The Rules allow this, also, to be a team effort although the dog is required to bring the sheep to the pen without assistance from the handler. The role of the dog is to get the sheep into the pen so the gate may be closed. Points are deducted for any infraction such as sheep going around the pen or dashing out to be re-gathered. A perfect “pen” allows the team to gain 10 points.
The “run” is completed with the last phase of work- the “single”. The sheep are returned to the shed ring where a single sheep must be cut off from the 5 and kept away to the satisfaction of the judge for a total of 10 points.
A predetermined time limit for each “run” is usually fifteen minutes. Points are deducted by the judge (s) for infractions from those assigned to each phase of work. Meritorious points are not awarded.
“Sheepdog trials differ from any other dog competition in that they stress one thing only-the working ability of dogs under natural conditions”. (Sheepdogs and Their Masters- 1938)