Visit to the National Sheepdog Finals, Part III

Here are links to the earlier posts in this series, parts III.

Like many sports, sheepdog trialing is rooted in native instincts and practices. The domestic dog Canis familiaris has been cooperating with human beings for at least 10,000 years. Given that their sole ancestors are the wolves—themselves cooperative hunters who often prey on herd animals—it’s easy to see why many dogs easily adapt to herding. For herding is a variation on the theme of cooperative hunting, with man playing the role of the alpha who coordinates the hunting-like activity.  In the description of the trial excerpted below, yet another unique characteristic is attributed to the Border collie:

The desire to cast out over a great distance and bring sheep in a controlled quiet manner to the  master’s feet is a quality unique to Border collies and so the dog is expected to do this without assistance from the handler.

That is a nuanced desire, to say the least! But the basic shape of the desire makes perfect sense, in light of their evolutionary history, and ours.  Here’s the program’s fine description of the course and the trial.

None of this is easy. The outrun is impressive in its own right, not just because the sheep are a long ways away—where exactly the dog doesn’t know until she’s run roughly half the perimeter of the field and comes up behind them—but also because, as we saw, it’s not obvious where the perimeter is.  We saw several dogs begin the outrun and go wildly astray, continuing beyond the field onto the hillside or heading over to the nursery field (where, of course, there were also sheep, but not the right ones).  This resulted in the dogs being disqualified.

After the Outrun and the Lift comes the Drive, which seemed to my amateur eye in some ways the hardest part of the event, and not just because getting the sheep to move, much less getting them to go where you want them to, is no easy task.  The gates themselves suggest a problem.  After all, it is one thing when a gate marks an actual boundary between inside and outside, as is the case with the gate of the pen. Since wariness about being trapped runs deep in the blood of many animals, including sheep and dogs, both will instinctively grasp the significance of fenced areas. That is to say, it’s as probable that dogs “get” why their handlers would want them to herd sheep into a pen, as it is that sheep would “get” that they should resist being herded into a pen.

But in contrast to the pen’s gate, the other gates through which the dog must persuade the sheep to pass are what I’d call “abstract.” They simply stand at various places in the field, but they bound nothing and lead nowhere.  I’m calling them “abstract”, then, because they are abstracted from their fuller purpose, which is to regulate passage between an inside and outside.  In the trials we watched it was rare that a dog got the sheep to pass through all the gates. More often, the sheep would come very near the gate, tantalizingly close, then pass to one side or the other. Points docked. Sigh.

Watching this led me to wonder whether it might be harder for the dogs to grasp the point—and thus to have any intrinsic drive to bring the sheep through these abstract gates. Obviously, they can learn to do it, as dogs can learn to do many artificial things. But how much harder is it when the gate is abstracted from the larger whole that makes sense of why it’s there? I’m betting experienced trialers have opinions about this.  (If any happen to read this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts.) Curiously, on the same reasoning one might speculate (always idly, of course) that even if it’s harder for dogs to “get” the point of this part of the exercise, it’s nevertheless easier to get the sheep to do it than it would be if the gates led them into enclosed areas, like the pen.

Penning the sheep is the last task, and many teams didn’t get to it before time on the clock ran out.  Twelve minutes seems like a long time, until you take into account the area to be covered and the tasks to be performed. For keep in mind that the field, especially for the open division, is big. The dog has to move the sheep over a large area.  Just  for the outrun alone, the sheep are set at a distance between 300 and 800 yards from the post. Needless to say, the sheep rarely can be persuaded to take the shortest distance between any two points.  First the dog has to get to the sheep, running out along the perimeter of the field and coming out above them, then herd them in as straight a line as possible a few hundred yards through the center gate to the handler at the post.  After the outrun and the lift comes the drive, which is an additional quarter mile or more, and requires herding the sheep through even more abstract gates than the first one—more abstract because at least the first one was directly on the way to the handler, whereas the rest, as I’ve said, lead nowhere.

It will be plain to anyone who read the description of the course and the trial that all of this is demanding enough, even if you’ve got a very good dog and cooperative, properly herd-like sheep.  Imagine the additional headache, then, of trying to persuade hungry sheep to keep moving when they’re standing on alfalfa: the very field itself could be a problem, especially if you happened to be taking your turn at the post before the sheep had been fed.

In the final post, here, about my visit to the sheepdog finals, I have more to say about the sheep.

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