Thanks 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.