Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Pearse Ward was a city kid, as he was when, as a teenager, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and as he remains today, residing in St. Paul.
But in many ways his mind-set is rural — especially when he is herding sheep on a grassy hill or in a pastoral dale.
Ward, 57, the information technology director for Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute, will be doing just that this weekend near Hudson, Wis., as a competitor in the 34th Midwest Championship Sheepdog Trial.
The event will attract a hundred or more herding-dog owners who by voice and whistle commands will handle their dogs as they gather, drive and pen sheep at distances of 400 yards or more.
Blanket- and lawn-chair toting spectators are encouraged to attend — similar events elsewhere in the U.S. have attracted more than 20,000 onlookers.
“Originally in the United Kingdom, sheepdog competitors were full-time shepherds or ranchers,” Ward said. “Now there are fewer ranchers who participate, and the herding competitions have become more of a recreational activity or sport.”
All dog breeds are welcome at herding trials. But border collies are by far the preferred choice of serious competitors. Intelligent with well-honed herding skills, border collies, some handlers say, naturally know more about moving sheep (or cattle and other livestock) than their handlers ever will.
But to compete in trials, border collies’ native skills must be developed through extensive training, said Susane Hoffman, 60, a retired business analyst who with her husband lives on a small hobby farm in the south metro and who this week was a double winner in State Fair sheepdog competitions.
“Border collies have been intensively bred over many generations to gather livestock and bring them to someone, whether to a handler, a rancher or a shepherd,” Hoffman said. “But each dog is different. Their foundation training might be the same. But beyond that they can differ, and their training must accommodate those differences.”
Sheepdog trials are fun for participants and onlookers, Ward and Hoffman say. But their primary benefits accrue to the competing dogs, whose working instincts developed through selective breeding might otherwise be lost in an increasingly urbanized society.
“As breeders, we don’t care what an individual border collie looks like, or what color they are,” Ward said. “We do pay particular attention to the health of these dogs. Beyond that, the purpose of trials is to assess dogs of every generation to see which are the superior working animals.”
Trials begin with a gathering test in which a dog is sent from a handler’s side toward a distant flock of sheep. Usually the dog’s path will form an arc that leads him or her toward the rear of the flock, from which point the sheep can be returned to the handler.
During this and subsequent tests, a dog must sense how close he can come to a flock (or portion thereof) without scattering it. Individual sheep or flocks might spook more easily than others, depending on their previous handling — whether, for example, they’ve been moved by a quiet rancher on foot or a speedier one on an ATV.
Intuiting these differences, a competing dog must approach cautiously.
At this weekend’s Friday-through-Monday trial, entered dogs’ ability to drive sheep away from their handlers also will be tested, a skill that runs counter to a herding-dog’s instinct to bring sheep “in.”
Handlers’ voice commands to their dogs include “Come bye,” meaning to move the sheep, “Walk up,” signaling a dog to move toward the sheep, and “Lie down,” which tells the dogs to stop.
Each voice instruction has a corresponding whistle command.
Sheepdog trials attract a cross-section of human participants, including farmers and ranchers. Others, like Hoffman, own 10 or so acres, on which they keep small numbers of sheep for training. And some, like Ward, are city dwellers who travel with their dogs to outlying areas where sheep are available for training.
Claudia Mahon, 59, a longtime Bloomington resident, now lives on 2½ acres outside of Hudson, Wis. An office manager, she and her husband buy as many as five sheep in the spring for training before selling them in the fall.
“Often for training I and a friend will take our dogs and the sheep to a neighbor farmer’s large field,” she said. “The field isn’t fenced. But our dogs are good enough and fast enough that they could gather the sheep if they ran off and get them back into our trailer.”
Competing dogs also must sort sheep and drive sheep into pens.
“Sheep are prey animals, so they are wary about being put into enclosures,” Ward said. “So the handler and dog must work together. But it’s a handy skill to have. Many times, I’ve had to load sheep in the middle of a field.”
Monday’s trial finale will feature the top 12 open-class teams competing in a “Double Lift” championship during which a dog must return one flock to his handler, then seek, find and return a distant second flock.
Ward, Hoffman and Mahon caution that border collies and certain other herding breeds can make wonderful working animals. But they often pose challenges when kept only as pets.
“I try to steer people away from border collies if all they want is a pet,” Hoffman said. “They are really, really smart. But they need to have activities that keep their brains and their bodies engaged.”
“Border collies are working dogs,” he said. “If they don’t have something do to, they’ll find something to do. And it might not be something you want them to do.”