Training sheepdogs an evolution of learning for Wyoming woman |

Training sheepdogs an evolution of learning for Wyoming woman

The earliest recorded sheepdog trial was in 1873, in Wales. Today the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association serves as the sanctioning body for cattle dog and sheepdog trials in the U.S. and Canada. All photos by Tamara Choat

Sheepdogs have class

Levels of sheepdog trial classes are based on the dog, not the handler (the exception being a handler who has competed in an open class cannot enter the novice class). Classes include:

• Novice – the entry-level class for inexperienced dogs and handlers, with a less challenging course.

• Pro-Novice – a step above novice, for those who have moved up in skill and experience.

• Nursery – for any dog that is under three years of age, with a course similar to the Open, but smaller in size.

• Open/Ranch – same course as the Nursery for dogs that have aged out of Nursery but are not quite ready for the Open class.

• Open – the top-level course for seasoned dogs, with the most challenging course.

Starting with Sheepdogs

Sheepdog handlers are a close-knit group, many remarking they are more like a family. They have honed their skills over many years, yet welcome newcomers to the sport they love. Their advice to those interested in competing at trials?

1. Find a mentor

“Get with someone that knows the sport, someone you can get help from,” says LaBree. “You’ll reach your goal a lot faster and besides, it’s a lot more fun to work with someone than to try and figure it out on your own.”

2. Get a good dog

Competitive sheepdog handlers don’t evaluate Border collies on looks, and there are no physical or conformation standards. Dogs can be black and white, red and white, all black, smooth or long coated. Instead they are valued on their working pedigree and abilities. Many handlers recommend getting a dog that is already started, rather than starting a puppy as a first-time handler.

3. Use your resources

The USBCHA offers many resources and guidelines, and there are books, training videos, and websites available in addition to clinics from the masters. Don’t be scared, just start and learn as you go, is the advice of many of the veterans

Staying the Course

A sheepdog trial course normally consists of six scored components, all of which emulate the work of a sheepherder. Competitors start with full points (normally 100, with some courses made more challenging by adding additional components), and points are deducted along the course for errors. There is no point advantage for finishing quickly, but time limits are set (usually around 10-15 minutes). The components and scoring include:

1) Outrun (20 pts.) – The outrun is the dog’s pear-shaped approach to a group of sheep approximately 500 yards away. The dog must circle behind the sheep without disturbing them.

2) Lift (10 pts.) – The lift is when the dogs takes control of the sheep, causing them to move.

3) Fetch (20 pts.) – The dog brings the sheep in a straight line and with a smooth and steady motion through a set of fetch panels and to the handler stationed at the post.

4) Drive (30 pts.) – The dog drives the sheep around behind the handler and in a straight line, calmly and in control, through a set of drive panels.

5) Shed (10 pts.) – The dog is asked to separate one or two sheep from the rest of the flock and hold them momentarily.

6) Pen (10 pts.) – The dog and handler work together to pen the sheep in a 6’x9’ four-sided pen with a swinging gate. Upon penning, the run is complete.

A hard-working, kind-hearted, black and white dog looking for a tank of water to cool off in is a familiar sight on many ranches and sheep outfits. Border collies are one of the most common dogs on livestock operations, earning their keep by saving cowboys, herders and horses many miles. However, in the competitive world of sheepdog trials, the talent and precise training of these intelligent dogs are taken to a whole new level.

The border collie originated along the Anglo-Scottish border, likely contributing to their name. The breed was carefully honed to develop traits important to shepherds including herding, quietness, agility, speed and a sensitive but responsive temperament.

Sheepdog handlers joke that, like another noted sport of precision that came from the Scottish area, sheepdog competitions originated when a couple of farmers got together at a pub. After a few drinks, they invented sheepdog trials. Later — and many more drinks in — they invented golf.

The earliest recorded sheepdog trial was in 1873 in Wales. Today the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association serves as the sanctioning body for cattle dog and sheepdog trials in the U.S. and Canada. It maintains more than 800 members and showcases nearly 250 sheepdog trials in 42 states and provinces.

“I like to reference that line in Tin Cup — ‘Perfection is unattainable,’ because the capacity for Border collies to learn and improve is almost infinite.” Mike Merriman, Faith, S.D.

A typical sheepdog trial offers handlers a chance to get together and swap dog stories, share training techniques, as well as showcase the abilities of their dogs — whether it’s a new, young dog coming up or a well-seasoned open dog, according to Rene LaBree, a trainer and handler from Ismay, Mont.

LaBree has been working with Border collies since 1989, when she got her first puppy, Max. She said she fell in love immediately and was amazed at his intelligence and trainability. When Max tragically got ran over at only 10 months old, Labree was devastated.

“I cried for days,” she said. “My husband said, ‘I hope you miss me that much when I’m gone.’

“But instead of not wanting another dog, I knew I had to have that feeling again. That bond of connecting with a dog and working so in synch with it – it’s addicting.”

LaBree bought Badger, a registered puppy, in 1996 and began serious training two years later. She took him to their first trial in Gillette, Wyo., later that year.

“I thought I had a heck of a dog until I put him in a competition — and it was a big wreck,” she said. “So I realized I had to come home and do a lot more work.”

And work she has done, training and competing in USBCHA events with at least 10 different dogs, attending the national finals three times, hosting “The Big One” (named for its exceptionally long 800-yard outrun) in Bowman, N.D., for three years, and assisting with hosting the USBCHA National Sheepdog Finals when it was held in Sturgis, S.D., in 2003-2005 and 2008.

On June 24-25, LaBree hosted the first Sunday Creek Sheepdog Trial near Miles City – her first trial at her own place, and the only USBCHA event scheduled in Montana in 2016.

“I wanted to do a trial in the Miles City area to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” LaBree said. “I had a chance to offer very challenging sheep in an area that hadn’t seen a sheepdog trial for close to 20 years. I felt that as more and more people get border collies, they might be receptive to seeing some of the things that these great dogs are capable of.”

A well-recognized competitor at Sunday Creek was Bud Boudreau of Red Owl, S.D., one of the most veteran members of sheepdog trialing in the region. In his younger years, Boudreau said he worked as a blacksmith. Then he broke his back, he had to take a year of less-physical activities. It was then that he got into Border collies.

“I was working in Michigan and a neighbor who raised dairy cattle had imported some dogs from Scotland. They were just building I-94 in our area, and at night, after the crews went home, he would show off his dogs by having them herd dairy cows through the half-built interchange bridge posts.”

He decided his horseshoeing days were over.

“I gave up a really good job in the East to come out here and make a living with border collies.”

Today the 78-year-old is one of the most “life experienced” competitors in the Western sheepdog circle, and brings a deep understanding and authenticity to the sport.

“You have to enjoy training something,” Boudreau said. Many dog trainers also love working with horses, but “Border collies almost make training horses boring. These dogs are noted for their brains — they have so many instincts. Our job is to just keep elaborating on them, stretching it out. You begin to see how intricate their minds are.”

Mike Merriman of Faith, S.D., was also a competitor at the trial. A relative newcomer to the event, Merriman has only been competing for about three years. He had, however, worked as sheepherder on the Western slope in Colorado and been a stockman his entire life.

“I had the advantage of understanding sheep when I started doing trials,” he said, but started competing after getting a highly capable dog, Belle, and realiizing she was better at the sport than he was. He began attending clinics, and was encouraged to trial his dog. “I needed to learn how to get out of her way and let her work.”

Merriman notes training sheepdogs is a continuing evolution of learning and progress.

“I like to reference that line in Tin Cup,” Merriman said — ‘Perfection is unattainable,’ because the capacity for Border collies to learn and improve is almost infinite.” ❖

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