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  The Working Border Collie -
The Working Border Collie

The Border Collie uses a direct stare at sheep, known as "the eye", to intimidate while herding.

Working border collies can take direction by voice and whistle at long distances when herding. Their great energy and herding instinct are still used to herd all kinds of animals, from the traditional sheep and cattle, free range poultry and pigs, and ostriches. They are also used to remove unwanted wild birds from airport runways, golf courses, and other public and private areas.

The use of dogs for herding sheep makes good economic sense. In a typical pasture environment each trained sheepdog will do the work that it would take about three human individuals to do if there were no dogs available. In vast arid areas like the Australian Outback or the Karoo Escarpment, the number increases to five or more. Attempts to replace them with mechanical approaches to herding have only achieved a limited amount of success. In general stock handlers find dogs more reliable and more economical.

Shepherds in the UK have taken the most critical elements of herding and incorporated them into a sheepdog trial. The first recorded sheepdog trials were held in Bala, North Wales, in 1873. These competitions enable farmers and shepherds to evaluate possible mates for their working dogs, but they have developed a sport aspect as well, with competitors from outside the farming community also taking part. In the USA, the national sanctioning body for these competitions is the USBCHA. In the UK it is the International Sheep Dog Society, in Canada the Canadian Border Collie Association (CBCA) and in South Africa it is the South African Sheepdog Association.

Sheepdog Trials -

The Border Collie uses a direct stare at sheep, known as "the eye", to intimidate while herding at a trial.

A Sheepdog trial (also herding test or simply dog trial) is a competitive dog sport in which herding breeds move sheep around a field, fences, gates, or enclosures as directed by their handlers. Such events are particularly associated with hill farming areas, where sheeprange widely on largely unfenced land.



A Border Collie at the sheepdog trials at Rural Hill Farm in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Sheep dog trials of some sort or another have probably occurred at agricultural fairs and shows for centuries. The present form is thought to have developed originally in the "Borders" area between England and Scotland from which the Border Collie also comes. However, the sport's organizing bodies regard the first recorded sheepdog trials as those held in Bala, Wales, in 1873.

Event types

An Australian Kelpie running over the backs of sheep during a yard dog trial, Walcha, NSW

There are several events, but the key element is the control of three to six sheep by one or two highly trained dogs under the control of a single handler. Both time and obedience play a part, as competitors are penalized if a sheep strays from the prescribed course.

Another popular event involves having the dog split six sheep into two groups of three and conducting each group in turn to small pens through a defined course by heading dogs. The group not being led is guarded by one of the two dogs, an eye-dog (from its ability to keep the sheep still by head movement alone). This is more difficult than it sounds because the two groups of sheep invariably try to stay together.

Yard Dog Trials are also gaining in popularity, too. In these competitions dogs have to move sheep through several yards, including a drafting race and sometimes into and out of a truck, with minimum assistance.

Cattle dog trials, similar to the standard sheep dog trials, are also popular in Australia and sheep dogs are usually used for this sport. Cattle dogs are not used in this sport.

The Trial Field

The exact layout of the trial field can vary significantly. Most experienced handlers agree that there are certain elements that are important to ensure that the challenge to the dog and handler is a fair and complete test. These elements include:

  • The dog must leave the handler and fetch sheep that are some distance away

  • The dog must take control of the sheep and bring them to the handler

  • It is against the dog's instinct to drive the sheep away from the handler so an away drive is a good test and should be included

  • The dog and handler should be able to combine to move the sheep into a confined space, typically a pen but in some trials they are asked to load them onto a vehicle.

Other popular test elements that are often added include:

  • The dog must separate the group into two groups in a controlled way in accordance with the instructions from the judge. This may involve some sheep being marked and the dog and handler working together to separate them from the rest or some variation of that. This is known as shedding and is almost always required to be done in a ring marked out on the ground.

  • Singling is another test in which the dog and handler combine to separate one sheep from the group.

  • Most trials include a cross drive where the dog is required to move the sheep in a controlled way in a straight line from one side of the field to the other in front of the handler but some distance away from them.

In addition there are various elements that may be added to increase the level of difficulty of a trial. One such example is the double lift where the dog is required to fetch one group of sheep, bring them to the handler, look back and find another group, somewhere else on the trial field some distance away. They must then leave the first group and do a second outrun to fetch the others and bring them to join the first group.

In most competitions the dog will be required to do the fetching and driving tests on their own. During these test elements the handler must remain at a stake positioned during the layout of the trial course. During the shedding, singling and penning the handler usually leaves the stake and works with the dog to achieve the task.

A popular version of a trial field


The most popular scoring system works as follows:

  • A judge watches each run and assigns a score based on their judgment.

  • Each test element is assigned a maximum score. For example there may be 10 points for the cast (outrun) and so on.

  • Each competitor is assigned the full amount for each element before they start.

  • As they negotiate each test element a judge deducts points for each fault. For example during a drive the judge may deduct points when the sheep move off line. During each element they can only lose as many points as are assigned to that element.

  • They must negotiate each element in sequence before proceeding to the next.

  • A set amount of time for the whole course, usually around 15 minutes, is decided on before the start of the trial.

  • There is no advantage in completing the course in a short amount of time but if the competitor runs out of time then they will lose all the points for the element they were in the process of completing and all those that they have yet to attempt.

  • The competitor's score is the sum of their score for all completed elements.

For most elements the judge focuses on the behavior of the sheep not the dog or handler. However if the dog rings the sheep (runs completely around them in a circle) they will usually be penalized. A dog that bites a sheep may be disqualified.

This points type of system has been in use since at least 1979 and may have been formalized at about that same time.


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