by Linda Rorem
Due to the logistics involved, it isn’t often that trials are available featuring groups of 50 or more sheep. But beginning in 1995, an annual trial has been held in Northern California that has provided such an opportunity. The California Shetland Sheepdog Herding Club sponsors a yearly French-style trial sanctioned by the American Herding Breed Association. The trials came about as a result of Terrie Van Alen, President of the NCSSHC, corresponding with a Sheltie owner in France, while at the same time I was in contact with people in France in the course of researching the use of stockdogs in various countries. From this contact, a plan was developed to hold an all-breed trial based on the French traditional large-flock trials.
The traditional trials in France, which began in an organized form over 100 years ago, use flocks numbering 50 to 80 or more. Trials on cattle are also held, although using much smaller numbers. The courses are based as much as possible on the practical day-to-day work of livestock owners. Each course is different depending on the location of the trial. The judge comes in shortly before the trial, examines the layout of the property, and sets the course based on the physical features of the particular farm and fields. Until recently, only professionals in the livestock industry could take part – shepherds, farmers, and other people making a living in the industry.
Beginning a few years ago, a program was established whereby “amateurs” can now also take part, after first taking a training course with an approved professional. Another development in recent years has been the increase in numbers of ISDS-type trials for Border Collies, but the traditional large-flock trials continue as before, open to all breeds. In the NCSSHC trials, the French scoring form is used, with AHBA scoring requirements figured by percentages of the total score. Total points available in each class are: Level III, 150 points; Level II, 100 points; Level I, 75 points.
In France, in addition to the class placements, dogs are rated according to the number of points acquired. In Level III, scores above 112 are rated "excellent" and are required for eligibility for the National Championship; scores of 90 to 112 are rated "very good", scores of 75 to 89 are rated "good"; below 75 is non-qualifying. In Level II, scores above 75 are rated "excellent" and are required for entry into Level III and for the earning of the "brevet," or working certification; scores of 60 to 75 are rated "very good," scores of 50 to 60 are rated "good"; below 50 is non-qualifying. In Level III, scores above 56 are excellent, 45 to 55 are very good, 37 to 44 are good, and below 44 non-qualifying.
The 2006 trial was held in Wilton, California, on September 30 and October 1, co-sponsored by Lehr's Lazy-L Ranch. Because the trial is held as an AHBA sanctioned trial, participants may earn legs toward the AHBA Herding Ranch Dog titles: HRD I, II and III. For the last couple of years I have been training and trialing an Aussie, Jaci (HTCh. Cu-D's Perpetual Motion, ATDsd, STDc, TD; HXAd, HIAs, TDX, NA, TT; HRDIIIs, HRDIIIge, HTADIIIs, HTADIIId, HTDIIIs), owned by a friend, Lois Allen-Byrd, and I looked forward to running Jaci in the Wilton trial. Jaci already has her advanced AHBA ranch trial title, but had not yet had the opportunity to run a large-flock course.
The sheep flock this year numbered approximately 65 head for Level III and 35 head for Levels II and I. The sheep course included what the French call "protection work," where the dog clears a path for the handler in a small pen well-packed with sheep; the passing of a motorized vehicle (advanced class only); stopping the flock; movement through two panel obstacles (including a drive), a brief settle and graze, and a gather. After the gather, in the advanced class 15 sheep were to be sorted off and put into a trailer. The larger group was then collected up into a compact group and held while a marked sheep was caught. Then the group in the trailer was released to rejoin the main flock, and after that the group was returned to the pen from which they started. Levels II and I didn’t include the sorting segment, but went from the gather to the hold and catch, and then the re-pen.
As is the usual practice, through a large part of the course the handler was free to take any position relative to the flock, but there were certain parts where the handler’s movement was restricted by the requirements of various elements. Following a precedent introduced in last year's trial, we included a goose class as well as the sheep class, alternating runs of sheep with runs of geese so that while the geese ran the sheep rested, and vice versa. The goose course, with a flock of 22 geese for all classes, was similar to the sheep class but shorter, with a little more room in the take-pen, a wheelbarrow standing in for the "car," and a covered chute. The sort for the advanced class was done toward the end of the course, by splitting the flock and taking one part through a separate gate and by a slightly different route to the re-pen.
Judging was handled by Terrie Van Alen for geese, while I judged the sheep runs (thus, while Jaci did get to run on the sheep, it was a noncompetitive run). Other participating breeds this year included Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and a German Shepherd. The sheep runs began with the “protection” work. The size of the pen is such that the sheep completely fill it up. The dog and handler enter the pen and the dog is to clear a path through the pen, showing that it can work calmly in tight quarters with a large group of sheep and move them out of the way if necessary. Some trials include the handler carrying a feed bucket, although that wasn’t a feature of this particular trial.
Jaci has done regular take pens before, but this variation was new to her. She looked a little startled as we entered and I closed the gate behind us. With 60 sheep in the small pen, there was little room for maneuver. But when I asked her forward, she braced herself and got to work. We made a circuit of the pen as she cleared the path for me, then we returned to the gate to perform a take-pen in the more familiar manner. Once outside the pen, with the gate closed behind them, the sheep were moved down the course to the first stop, before entering onto the “road.”
At the indicated place, the flock is to be halted in order for the handler to make sure all is clear before proceeding. The desired way of handling it is for the dog to bring the flock to a halt, rather than the handler leading the flock into a stop. If the handler has been walking toward the front of the flock, he or she should drop a little behind as the flock approaches the stop, and send the dog forward to stop the animals. While the dog holds the flock, the handler now steps forward a little, past the lead sheep, checks for “traffic,” and then sends the dog back around to get the sheep started again.
After the flock has been moved onto the road, the situation is set up for the passing of a vehicle. When available, an actual farm road is used, but in other cases, as in this one, a “road” will be marked out for purposes of the trial. Sometimes the vehicle may be a compact car or truck, but this year it was a small all-terrain vehicle. The flock needs to be elongated for the road work, with the dog moving alongside the flock between the animals and the (very slowly) approaching car. For full points, the flock is to be kept moving, but if need be, it can be halted while the vehicle passes, and in any situation where possible safety issues arise, the car will stop.
In this case, there was an extra complication because this particular vehicle is also used for carrying hay bales to the sheep, and they recognized it. Thus the dog had to work a little more carefully to keep the sheep from running over to the vehicle as it passed. Jaci’s free manner of moving proved particularly well-suited to the movement of the large group. She readily moved up alongside the flock and was in the right position, covering the pressure point, as the ATV went by. The route then led off the road and across the pasture.
This field is sometimes used for ISDS-type trials, and two sets of panels that were used in those trials were incorporated into this course. A second stop was performed in front of the first set of panels, and from there the sheep were driven through the second set of panels with the handler remaining next to the first set. Further along the course some hay had been set out which served as an attraction for the sheep, so the dog not only had to drive the sheep through the second set of panels, but take into account the pressure along the one side as the sheep became aware of the hay. At certain times of year and in certain fields, the graze portion of the trial will be held at a location that is simply marked with stakes.
Here, however, the field was very dry and grass sparse, so a small amount of hay had to be sprinkled around for the sheep to have something to eat. During the brief graze, the dog’s job is to calmly watch over the sheep, moving as needed if they try to leave the designated area. In the situation this year, the job was not too difficult as the rest of the field wasn’t too attractive. However, this advantage became a disadvantage on the next phase, as the graze was followed by the gather. Once settled, and having grazed for a minute (sometimes longer graze periods may be required), the sheep are left in place while the dog and handler move back some distance. The dog is then sent to gather the sheep and bring them to the handler. But even though the hay was only a few wisps, the sheep were happy where they were and didn’t want to leave until every last crumb was accounted for. The dog needed to be able to move into the pressure of the large group and set it into motion, moving back and forth to tuck in all the stragglers. Too much focus on a small portion of the group, or a tendency to stop upon approaching them, would shift only a few of them.
In general the looser-eyed, free-moving dogs had the greatest success in smoothly getting the group in motion again. Jaci moved well around them on her outrun, then came right up to set the group in motion, with some wearing to influence the whole group, and Jaci quickly had them headed toward me. Sorting required the large part of the flock to be put into an adjoining pen, leaving 15 out for the trailer.
At the trailer, how well things proceeded was affected by which sheep ended up being sorted out. Some groups had a leader who was willing to hop in and get things going, others had no such volunteers. In our group, most were happy to go in except one of the smallest, who could fit right under the wing provided by the open trailer door. This little one popped under the door a couple of times, requiring Jaci to go around to the back of the trailer to retrieve her, but after a couple of escape attempts she joined the group inside. The 15 sheep were left in the trailer while the dog collected the larger group from the side pen and brought them back out into the field.
There they were halted while a marked sheep was caught and held momentarily by the handler. A crook could be used as needed, or the sheep could be caught by a hind leg, but grabbing of wool or skin was not allowed. While the catch is taking place, the dog is to work on its own initiative, keeping the animals well-grouped around the handler while at the same time not disturbing them (or coming in to “assist” the handler with the caught one). This is to show that the dog would be capable of helping out in an open field if a sheep needed to be inspected or, in the dairy-sheep region, milked.
In France, the handler may be required to demonstrate a practice task while the sheep is being held, such as trimming a hoof. After the catch, the sheep were settled while the handler went to remove the 15 from the trailer. By positioning the larger group in such a way that it is held in view of the trailer door as it is opened, usually the 15 would hop out, although the handler could enter the trailer if need be. The trick was to position the dog so that the large group would not be tempted to run to the trailer (which some groups did), yet at the same time the sheep inside the trailer wouldn’t see the dog and thus be reluctant to come out. If the handler does need to go into the trailer, the dog must be reliable in holding its position. Once the two groups were reunited, the remainder of the course involved moving the sheep back down the field and returning them to pen they started from.
Again, the more the dog is able to work on its own initiative in keeping the animals grouped and moving calmly with few commands from the handler, the better. At the pen, the sheep were held back a little from the gate as it was opened, and then funneled into the pen.
Throughout the course, it was a treat to see Jaci’s smooth way of handling them and the way she related so well to the size of the group. While she can handle smaller groups on the ranch and in trials, it was plain to see that this was her forte. While she was not in competition and was running only for the experience, her score was the highest of the day, and she earned an “excellent” rating, with a 137 out of 150.
Jaci also had the opportunity to run in the goose class. The geese were fairly cooperative for the most part. They have strong opinions about how they should be handled and like a quiet, smooth, steady manner. During one run, about halfway through the course, they did decide to head home early and took off running with wings extended, but the dog was quick and got around them, bringing them to a halt before they could make their getaway.
The covered chute proved to be a challenge. Even after several runs through it, they were suspicious about it. They would go through after some patient work on the part of the dog and handler, but wanted to check it out carefully first. Jaci enjoys working ducks and geese as well as sheep, and this time was able to run as a competitor. The result for her was another score in the “excellent” range, and High in Trial on geese, with a 141 out of 150, and the prize basket filled with goodies for dogs and people.
Obviously, sheep used in groups of three or five can accommodate a great many more entries than the same number used for a large-flock trial. Yet when it is possible for large-flock trials to be held, due to the generosity of ranch owners, sponsors and judges, they are a rewarding experience for dogs and handlers alike. The large numbers provide a good scope for freedom of movement and initiative on the part of the dog.
In the traditional French trials, while there are a few aspects more specific to practices common in France, most of the elements of the course are reflective of stock-handling practices in many areas and are suitable to a wide range of breeds. As Jaci demonstrated, the tasks and the practical orientation fit naturally with dogs developed for performing a variety of ranch and farm tasks including handling large groups in variable situations, where adaptability and initiative are prized.
Linda Rorem is the owner/manager of Herding On the Web