Border Collies – Attending a Herding Trial

by Terri Clingerman

This article first appeared in the "About the Breed Columns" section of the December 2009 AKC Gazette and is reprinted with permission. Subscribe to the Gazette.

If you’re curious about herding and are interested in watching a trial, you can find information on one near you by searching the Events section of the AKC web site.

Herding trials can have different kinds of classes and livestock. The A course is held in a fenced indoor or outdoor arena. You often see a variety of breeds competing on the A course, including Border Collies. The B course is held in a large field, and entries are dominated by Border Collies. The B course is a smaller version of the large, open-field trials that Border Collies have traditionally been tested on since the early 1900s, and they excel at it. The C course is designed to mimic a tending shepherd’s day. German Shepherd Dogs are among the breeds considered to be tending dogs. Sheep, duck, and cattle classes may be offered at AKC herding trials. Most trials offer sheep classes. Many offer ducks as well, and there are a few cattle-herding trials held across the country. Border Collies were developed as sheepdogs, although many work ducks and cattle as well.

You probably will hear some unusual terms at a herding trial, such as Away to me, Come bye, and That’ll do. These are traditional herding terms used by generations of herders. Away to me means that the dog should circle the sheep counterclockwise. It doesn’t matter where the handler is relative to the dog or the sheep; the dog should move counterclockwise relative to the sheep. Come bye means to circle clockwise. That’ll do tells the dog that he’s done.

Other terms include Walk up, which means exactly that, to walk up toward the sheep; Steady, which means to slow down a bit; and There, which usually means that the dog has moved to where the handler wanted him to and can now fetch or drive the sheep. Stock refers to whatever livestock the dog is working (sheep, ducks, or cattle).

But there’s one term that quite often doesn’t mean what it says, and that can be very confusing when you first learn about herding. Lie down sounds very simple! But it is not always used with the intention of having the dog actually lie down. Sometimes the handler using it truly does want the dog to lie down. However, he might want the dog to briefly stand still and then move again without another command, in order to control the stock.

Maybe the dog should stop, stand, and wait for another command. Or maybe the handler just wants the dog to briefly pause but keep the sheep moving. Usually the dog knows what the handler wants by the context and tone of the command. With training, the dog and handler develop this kind of teamwork. It’s fascinating to watch dogs do the work they were originally bred to do. You see a side of them that you may have never seen before. If you’ve never watched a herding trial, give it a try. You’ll gain a new perspective on Border Collies.

–Terri Clingerman, North Rose, N.Y.; tacdogs@redsuspenders.com