It is generally agreed, that the first trial occurred in 1873 in Wales. A few Welsh shepherds gather to show how well their dogs could carry out the herding tasks expected of them on a daily basis. Gathering, fetching, driving, penning and splitting off one or more sheep were part of this initial, informal contest.
The working dog herding trials around the world have changed little since that first competition. Each phase of the trial reflects those tasks that they must do together daily. The difference between a daily chore and a trial is the degree of precision demanded and the time frame required to complete the tasks. These constraints add stress and pressure to both the dog and the handler. For this reason, excellent farm dogs may not do well in the high pressure situation on the trial field.
The dog and handler must work together as a team. A proficient handler must be able to “read” the sheep. He must observe the ears, heads, posture and actions of the livestock and anticipate what they will do before they do it.
Good dogs are instinctively sensitive to “pressures” that the handler may not perceive. Sheep, although often considered “dumb,” excel at detecting weak dogs and looking for escape routes. Keen dogs that sense these pressure points will sometimes ignore the handler’s commands and, to avoid losing control of the sheep, instinctively make adjustment in their approach.
While the layout of the course may vary from trial to trial, all sanctioned trials must contain at least the following elements:
OUTRUN: The handler and dog take their position at the post. The dog is sent to either the left or the right to run the length of the field to where the sheep are being held. The dog must stay to the side of the field he is sent from until he is behind the sheep. The ideal outrun is pear-shaped. During the outrun, each command from the handler will detract points, as will any deviation from the ideal shape. (Maximum points = 20)
LIFT: This is the end of the outrun when the dog makes his first ‘contact’ with the sheep. The dog should approach the sheep in a calm manner, without frightening them. The dogs should be well balanced on the sheep so that they start moving directly toward the handler. Any deviation will result in a loss of points. (Maximum points = 20)
FETCH: The fetch should be straight to the center of the fetch gates from wherever the sheep are located when the dog makes his LIFT, and then straight to the handler from the center of the gate. They should move at a steady pace. The fetch ends when the sheep are around or behind the handler. Any deviation from the straight line, or missing the gate entirely, will result in a loss of points. (Maximum points = 20)
DRIVE: The dog is required to drive the sheep away from the handler in a straight line through the left or right hand set of drive gates, then across the field in a straight line through the second set of drive gates, and then in a straight line directly to the pen. Any deviation will result in a loss of points. (Maximum points = 30)
PEN: As the sheep leave the second drive gate, the handler leaves the post and goes to the pen to open the gate. The handler holds one end of a 6’ rope tied to the gate and must confine his movements to the limit of the rope. All the sheep must be put in the pen directly and the gate closed. The handler may not touch the sheep with his hands, crook, or gate. (Maximum points = 10)
SHED: After completing the PEN, the handler proceeds to the shedding ring, leaving the dog to bring the sheep to the center of the ring. Typically one sheep must be separated from the others and driven away. Normally it is the last sheep tha twill be separated, and it is expected that the sheep will all be facing the same direction when the dog is called in by the handler. Ideally the handler calls his dog in only once and the dog must move directly and decisively on the one sheep to be split off. The judge will call loudly when the shed is accomplished. Any deviation from the ideal will result in a loss of points. (Maximum points = 10)
GRIPPING (Biting): No gripping is allowed. If it occurs without clear justification, a disqualification (DQ) is declared by the judge.
TIME LIMIT: All runs must be completed within a time-frame set by the judge. Open class runs are typically set between 6 and10 minutes.