The History of Sheepdog Trials

In the latter part of the 19th century, the best working collies could be found in the border counties between Scotland and England, hence, the name ‘Border Collie’ is used today. Though they are called sheep dogs, these dogs are also used to herd cattle, turkeys and pigs. Border Collies are prized for their skills in gathering, driving, penning, singling and shedding (separating out particular sheep from the flock). They exhibit what is known as ‘eye’, the ability to hold and control sheep with only the force of their firmly planted feet and fixed stare.

In October of 1873, in a field near Bala, Wales, shepherds met for the first time to test their skills and determine individual superiority among their collies. This was the first sheep dog trial. This same trial has been running for nearly 125 years. Since the beginning, these trials have spread to every major sheep producing country of the world. In the United Kingdom alone, there are over 400 trials a year. Since 1922, national trials have been run each year in Wales, Scotland and England, with the twelve highest scoring dogs from each country competing in the International trial. In 1967, Ireland took part in the competition for the first time. There is also a BBC television program called ‘One Man and His Dog’ that is viewed by over a million people.

The first recorded sheep dog trial in the U.S. was part of Philadelphia’s centennial year celebration in 1880. Apparently, this trial was an isolated event because when 1,500 people gathered in Bennington, Vermont on August 16, 1928 to witness a competition between 7 dogs, it was referred to as “the first sheep dog trial held in the U.S.”

Our country’s vastness requires competitors to travel great distances, therefore, trialing in the U.S. has grown slowly. The sport of trialing evolved from the agricultural roots much as the sport of rodeo in America. The purpose of a sheep dog trial is to test and demonstrate the dog and handler’s ability to move sheep over a prescribed course made up of practical obstacles found in everyday work.

In the book, ‘Sheepdogs: My Faithful Friends’ by Eric Halsall, he writes about watching a sheep dog work: “It is magic of the hills which few people other than shepherds and farmers are privileged to see, though thousands of town and city dwellers now thrill to the cleverness of the collie dog at sheep dog trials.”