Wednesday, August 12, 2015

More dogs than you can shake a stick at.

Kane in the back seat, on our way to the Kingston Sheep Dog Trials. 

Every August there is a Sheep Dog Trial held just outside of Kingston at Grass Creek Park, and most years (even when we didn't have a dog), we've tried to make it there.

I've mentioned sheep dog trials before (I blogged about a small one at the Glengarry Highland Games). Here's a picture of one of those sheep dogs in action. These are border collies - bred with a strong herding instinct and then trained to follow precise commands from a handler.

From 2011: See how the dog crouches low, in predator stance, to compel the sheep to move where the handler wants them. 

The trials are like a country fair, with a focus on sheep and dogs and admission was only $15 for the one-day pass -- cheap entertainment. This past weekend was the first time we've brought a dog with us, and it was grand. There were dogs everywhere, and not just border collies.

Most were on-leash. The few who were off-leash were incredibly well-behaved. We didn't see a single altercation though there was plenty of butt-sniffing.

We only let Kane off his leash for one activity: an obstacle course!

Kane was not the swiftest dog who did the course (that would go to a spaniel who was ah-mazing), nor the most agile or brave (that would go to the three-legged dog that went through the tunnel, the only dog to do so), but he may have been the happiest and he was pretty impressive considering this was his first experience.

I think we may have some agility training in his future.

There was also a sheep-to-shawl competition at these games. Each team of spinners and weavers starts with an allotment of fleece on Saturday morning.

The team works at a furious pace to card, spin, dye and weave the wool into a shawl of specific measurements. (I don't know what those measurements were.)

These are the stragglers; the competition was actually done by the time we got there. 

I didn't get a picture of a finished shawl (my cell phone was dying and I had forgotten my camera), but they were beautiful. The shawls are auctioned off at a fundraiser; 50 percent goes to fund future trials, and 50 percent goes to the winning team.

But the main event, of course, is watching the dogs herd sheep.

It was late in the day and threatening rain, but there were still good crowds to cheer on the handlers and dogs.

The "gates" for the drive back to the shepherd were quite near us.

Kane maintained his 'down' without barking even though there was a great deal of excitement on
the other side of the fence. Sheep dogs, we noted, are not very big on barking. 
The shepherd-sheep dog teams are so impressive, and the commentator gave really helpful information as the dogs performed.

For example, the dog has to be really careful at the very outset of the trial, when he or she "lifts" the sheep out of their grazing place and onto the field. If the dog is too aggressive (as younger dogs are apt to be), the lead sheep will take offense and become extremely assertive -- and that temperament will last throughout the trial.

The dog has to herd a small flock of four sheep, and if that group splits up, its job because much more difficult. The challenge is not just a straight run down the field from holding area to shepherd. Rather, they take one run down to the shepherd (the 'fetch') then back up the field to cross laterally through some gates (the 'drive'), back to the pen. Finally, the sheep are released into a 'shredding ring' and the dog must separate out one sheep from the rest. (If luck is on the shepherd's side, one sheep might startle and dart away from the others; they call that a gift.)

All of this is conducted with a series of commands given to the dog:
  • walk up -- move toward the flock (inexperienced dogs tend to do this at a run)
  • steady -- slow down
  • come by -- move clockwise to the sheep
  • away to me -- move counter-clockwise to the sheep
  • lie down -- stop (Almost every dog we saw had a really hard time obeying this command, but most would at least crouch and creep.)
  • that'll do -- end of job (Anyone who has seen the movie Babe will recognize that command.)
As with any skill, watching a winning team perform made it look effortless. The shepherd issued commands using whistles and voice; the dog used both obedience and intuition to control the sheep.

The sheep, for their part, would immediately start grazing whenever they stopped. Seriously. It was amazing how they could go from startled to munching.

If you're interested, here is a twelve-minute video of the final run at the World trials in 2011. You will be able to hear the shepherd whistling commands to the dog. 

It's a marvellous experience, and I encourage dog-lovers to visit one if they can.

I almost forgot to share this picture!

Kane on the other side of the fence. 
We stopped for dinner in Gananoque and found a patio where Kane could (sort of) join us. The staff brought out a bowl of water for him. He was still pretty excited, so he didn't sleep until we got to the car, but it was fun to have him with us, and the other patrons commented on how well-behaved he was.


  1. my old stomping grounds!! ha
    my aunt raises sheep, so I grew up around her border collies and it's always, always an amazing thing to watch them work. Having grown up in Kingston, this event was always a highlight of the summer: just incredible communication between the human, the dog, and even the sheep. My aunt's dogs used to herd us as children. LOL

    1. Oh, you're so lucky!

      I had a friend whose dog used to herd us into a small bunch whenever we were just hanging out. It was especially awkward (as teenagers) when it was a mixed-gender group.


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