July 2, 2012
Collies compete at Virgil farm
Sheep dog trials test breed’s instinct to herd animals
VIRGIL — A border collie, slung low to the ground, chased after a herd of four sheep Saturday at the prompting of its owner’s whistle.
The dog was one of many competing throughout the weekend in an open course contest, the highest competition of its kind among sheep dog trials.
The annual sheepdog competition in Virgil has been held at Fetch Gate Farm the past seven years. The event continues through Tuesday.
The dogs were scored on how effectively they guided the sheep around barricades, up and down sloping hills and into pens. The final test came when the dogs had to divide the sheep, separating the group into two pairs.
The test, known as shedding, proved to be the most challenging for many dogs.
One dog was disqualified after he nipped at the heels of a runaway sheep during the maneuver. Nipping is not permitted and the judges pay close attention to other areas where dogs can have points taken off, such as wide turns or requiring too much guidance from their owner on certain parts of the course, for example.
Saturday’s course was a qualifying trial for the national finals in September in Oregon.
Heather and Robert Millen, who own Fetch Gate Farm, have hosted the trials at their farm over the years and they also enter their own dogs in competitions throughout the four-day trial.
On Saturday, 94 dogs competed.
Millen said the trials replicate farm work, adding that most dogs that compete are also used to help on farms. The dogs, highly intelligent and eager to work, are invaluable on the farm, she said.
Millen’s 150 sheep require constant attention and the course replicates moving them to different paddocks or separating a sick sheep from the herd for medical attention, for example. The sheep are moved by the predator- prey relationship, associating the dog with a predator they must escape.
Dogs are judged on how efficiently they can maneuver the sheep.
The dogs are scored on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being a perfect score. By midday Saturday there were already two dogs who scored 97, and many other high scorers, Millen said.
The dogs, constantly running and alert or crouching low to the ground and listening for an owner’s command, are ever watchful.
“They love this,” Millen said. “They are meant to do it and they love it.”
Millen said the relationship she has with her dogs is “awesome” and that it is amazing how attuned to one another the owner and dog become from working so closely with each other.
Kathy Keats, another dog handler who came from Claremont, Ontario, to run her dog, Craig, said people underestimate the dogs.
Border collies are usually the breed found competing on open courses, said Millen, because of the high skill and precision involved. They are the breed most adept at handling the highly demanding herding work, she said.
Keats said she gets chills seeing her dog running a course well, responding to her commands and keeping the sheep on track. The dogs intuitively know what to do and an owner has to work with the dog’s natural skills and weaknesses, she said.
“As a handler you try to balance its instinct with its willingness to work with you,” Keats said. “Too much instinct and they won’t listen to you.”
Keats said the trust between dog and owner is remarkable.
One test on some open courses involves sending a dog 800 yards, out of eyesight of the owner, to find sheep that are out of the dog’s sight. The dogs rely merely on their owner’s commands and trust that they are going to find the sheep. When they find them, they have to bring them halfway down the course and leave them to get another group of sheep they cannot see.
The fact that dogs can be trained to do this, leave a herd of sheep, which is totally against its instincts, is remarkable, Keats said.
She said she already had enough points to compete in nationals and had competed in the world trial in England, representing Canada in September. She was competing Saturday to give her dog some practice, though she added there is always a competitive edge to the event.
Susan Welsh sat with her dog, a border collie mix named Morgan, who had no interest in competition.
Welsh said she was learning more about how the dogs are scored and what types of maneuvers they strive for with the sheep.
“I just enjoy watching it,” Welsh said, adding she would return Monday to see the novice dogs, the younger ones, compete.
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