Travel Kingston, ON: Kingston Sheep Dog Trials Festival. Yes, Sheep Herding.

National Sheep Dog Trials, Kingston, OntarioThanks to the 2018 Kingston Sheep Dog Trials, I know what a lift is. No, it’s not a skating move or part of a canal … at least not in this context. The lift is when a Border Collie runs down the side of the large open field (in this case the fenced-in Grass Creek dog park) to gather a group of sheep and herd them straight back down the field toward the handler.

With my dog Victor at my side, I got my first exposure to the sport of sheep dog herding at the Kingston, Sheep Dog Trials Festival August 10 to 12, 2018.

As some point, the dog must maneuver its crew through two gates and back eventually herding the sheep, with the help of the handler, into a gated pen. Points are deducted for faults at each obstacle along the course. All the while, the trainer is whistling – one sound means left, another right and another lie down.

The dogs’ energy is amazing as they literally run circles around the four–sheared sheep who – usually – stick together. When they don’t, it’s a challenge if not a forfeit. A run-away ewe will likely sabotage a dog’s herding efforts, but it doesn’t happen often because sheep instinctively feel safer in groups. This sport capitalizes on the sheep/wolf dynamic.

However, on Friday during the qualification trials a wayward ewe or two struck out on her own, and one particularly courageous lamb faced down her doggie dodger confusing both him and the audience.

Sheep herding as a spectator sport is oddly compelling and methodical, not high paced or heart pounding. The dog’s crafty creeping and ability to move the ewes with suggestion rather than pure intimidation is key.

At these trials, each team has nine minutes to complete the course, including the add-on ‘shedding’ option at the end for extra points (time permitting). Sheep, who did get corralled into the pen as the final task, are let out into a circle and the dog must separate them into pairs.

“What are the rules of sheep herding?” You might ask as a newbie (like me) to the event.

Well, if you attend the annual Kingston Sheep Dog Trials Festival you’ll learn it all, thanks to excellent commentary from Amanda Milliken, event chair and sheep dog enthusiast for four decades.

What is a sheep dog trial?

According to Milliken, “It’s a timed sheep-herding competition. Border Collies (primarily) herd sheep through an obstacle course with accuracy and efficiency, demonstrating the skills required to be working dogs.”

Participants at this event are from all over North America but the sheep are local – a different group used for each dog. And different breeds of sheep are used at different events. Pros and cons of sheep breeds is a whole other education.

Dogs are bred for this sport, many starting to train at eight months old. The United Kingdom is actually a supplier of many sheep herding canines.

After the three day competition, the winner was Grant and handler Barbara Ray of Big Bend Farms in Millboro, Virginia. (Read more here).

What else is fun about the Kingston Sheep Dog Trials Festival?

It’s entirely dog-friendly so non-competing dogs are welcome – though I did tell my little black cocker-cross Victor to watch the trials carefully because he’s up next. He didn’t believe me.

Instead, we walked around the vendors (many selling weaving – remember the sheep connection), met the visiting police horse, watched the dock diving competitions and horse handling seminar, but missed the K9 police dog demonstration. Food trucks provided some not so healthy sustenance.

Surprisingly, Victor didn’t like cheese curds, but he did love the grilled chicken breast he had at Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario the night before. But dog-friendly Kingston is a post for another day. (Read our dog-friendly Kingston article here)

Have you ever been to a sheep dog trial? Let us know in the comments below.




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  6. Maureen Walsh Lake · · Reply

    When we visited Ireland we watched a sheep dog in action. It’s amazing what they do and how disciplined they are!

    1. I met some in Wales that used to be working herding dogs – they are the lucky ones. Not all end up pets. These sport dogs, however, are pets.

  7. That sounds like an exciting and educational event! I love that the commentator explained the rules and the context- what a great way to welcome newbies to the sport! And that lam you stared down the do? Courageous is right!

    1. Yes. And the dog didn’t know what to do, which indicated they really won”t hurt the sheep. She called his bluff.

  8. When I first read Kingston, I thought, you are in my home city! But I’m in NY and you are in ON! I have never been to a sheep dog trial, however, my daughter’s best friend since childhood had a beautiful border collie – Sage – who helped her round up horses on a farm and also competed in agility shows. She was an amazing dog and watching her work was truly something special. (Sage was also an attendant in her hu-mom’s wedding)! Sage was at her happiest when she was busy working. She has since passed, but I miss that girl!

    1. Round up horses? That would be awesome …. and useful. (I told my nephew I was in Kingston and he said, ‘You went to Jamaica?’) Everyone has their own Kingston apparently.

  9. It would be quite interesting to see what Cookie would do with a herd of sheep. Technically, Rotties are herding dogs in their roots. Jasmine had some herding instinct; always wanting to make sure everybody is where they ought to be. Cookie is more of a hunter, though. If the sheep acted friendly, then she’d be more likely to want to play with them than herd them.

    1. My dog would likely sniff their poop then run around looking for me…

  10. What a cool event! It sounds like so much fun – I wish they had something like that around here.

    1. I haven’t found another one but I’m looking.

  11. Marjorie Dawson · · Reply

    Sheep dog trials are amazing and were hugely popular on British television. There was a programme called One Man and His Dog (although shepherdesses were featured too).

    1. Actually they said a lot of the dogs are from the UK – funny what’s unique here is common else where

  12. It’s amazing how smart they are and how good they are at their job. I would love to attend something like this.

    1. I don’t know how many there are around the country … I should research it … but if you can go, go.

  13. My family went to a sheep herding demo at a historical farm day once. It is pretty fun to watch – the dogs are really skilled.

    1. That would be a good context to see it.

  14. It looks like a lot of fun for the dogs, but I always wonder if the sheep enjoy it too? I totally understand the need for working dogs, but as a sport, I’m unsure if the sheep appreciate it.

    1. Well, they aren’t chased too quickly – that’s part of the skill – and the same sheep aren’t used over and over again. They do it once, then go back into their pen to eat. Apparently, you don’t want ‘food’ sheep to run too much.

  15. This sounds like a super fun event, and I love that it’s dog friendly! I’ve watched a couple of videos with extraordinary sheep herding dogs from Ireland. It really is mesmerizing how the dogs learn all the signals and can get those sheep moving.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    1. Only once did my dog even notice the sheep dog flying by on the other side of the fence. Then he lost interest. I was surprised more people didn’t bring dogs with them. It was mostly border collies there.

  16. Hindy Pearson · · Reply

    I’ve never been to sheep dog trials but I have seen dogs herding on tv, and it’s truly incredible to watch. I imagine it was a lot more interesting to see in person, sounds like an all round fun day for everyone.

    1. Because the field is so big, it is easy to see a lot. Like most sports, there was something about being there.

  17. So cool! I’ve watched sheep dogs in action before and it’s so amazing. I’d love to be owned by a border collie someday, when we have more space and a job for it to do. Such amazing dogs!

    1. The dogs were awesome but what energy … no wonder they are farm dogs. If you get one, be prepared to run… and run…

  18. I have never been to one but have seen videos of them and it just amazes me every time how well the dogs respond and do it, it is like WOW

    1. They really try … even in the heat. If you ever get a chance to see it live, go. It’s very zen.

  19. I have never been to a sheep dog trial, although I would love to as it looks like a ton of fun!

    1. The rules are fairly simple so it’s an easy sport to follow immediately … and oddly mesmerizing.

  20. I’ve never been to a sheep dog trial before, however, I have seen them on tv and find it mesmerizing. The talent and brains these dogs have is astonishing.

    1. It’s remarkable how the dogs respond to the whistle – and how stealth they are.

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