A portion of the vast park, some three-quarters of a mile long and about half as wide, remote from the show ground where the exhibits are localized, is divided off by a rope fence; this constitutes the course, of which thousands can obtain a full and uninterrupted view. The competitor takes up his stand near the center with his dog or dogs, for there are prizes for two dogs working together as well as for single dog trials. The number of sheep that have to be driven round the course is three only; this small number greatly increases the difficulties of the subsequent maneuvers. Fresh sheep are provided for each competitor, usually those of the wild, hardy mountain variety.
When "Penning," the Man Is Allowed to Assist the Dog.
At a given signal the animals are released from a cart that is out of sight in a clump of trees on a hill some half a mile distant. The dog must then locate the sheep, the master remaining in the center of the course guiding and directing him by voice or whistle as he chooses. The obstacles consist of, first, what is termed "a false fence"; that is to say, two short lines of hurdles so placed as to leave a wide gap through which the dog must drive the sheep; should he allow them to run round the end of one of the lines instead of through the center, the sheep must be driven back and another attempt made. The second obstacle is a flag-post, round which the sheep must be driven in a circle before being conducted through a V-shaped gap made with two hurdles.
If the dog has negotiated these obstacles successfully he will have brought his charges to within about a hundred yards of his master. Having been successful in bringing the sheep so far, a very different task awaits both dog and master at the "Maltese Cross." At this, and the final "penning up" of the sheep, the master is permitted by the rules of the trials, to assist his dog personally. The "Maltese Cross" consists of two lanes intersecting at right angles, each passage being only just sufficiently wide to permit the sheep to pass in single file. It must not be imagined that the wild mountain sheep, terrified at their unwonted surroundings and the presence of a strange dog, submit tamely to being thus driven past alternative openings without strenuous efforts to break away and bolt in whichever direction their erratic fancy dictates. The master must be on the alert for these attempts, and be quick and decisive in giving his dog instruction as to how to frustrate these sudden rushes. It is upon the promptitude and correctness with which the dog responds to the signals that success or failure depends. It is at the cross that the innate perversity of the sheep's nature asserts itself, with the result that the first animal very frequently turns down one or other of the cross lanes instead of going straight through. When this occurs the other two naturally follow, and all three must be induced to negotiate the passage again. Having driven the sheep through straight in one direction, the dog and his master must then bring them back and run them through the other lane at right angles to the original course. Finally, the even more difficult task of "penning up" awaits the competitors. The final pen is formed of four hurdles with a space just sufficient to admit one sheep at a time left open. The slightest over-anxiety on the part of the dog or his master is fatal at this stage of the trial. The difficulty of exercising the necessary self-restraint will be the more readily realized when one considers that it is often a matter of working against time, as should a dog have been a little slow or unfortunate in his previous maneuvers he is extremely liable to exceed the time limit set for the competition, and thus lose the points awarded for penning.
The Sheep Being Driven Through the Maltese Cross.
It cannot be laid down as an infallible rule that the best dog for actual field work will always win a competition, so much relies on the master and other incidental details which affect the judge's decision.
The most important consideration from the competitor's point of view is the invididuality of the three sheep which the dog is called upon to work. Some, when released, are found to be extremely wild, and cause the dog a lot of trouble by frantic efforts to escape. Others often adopt an aggressive attitude towards the dog, and persist in facing round and charging at him instead of allowing themselves to be driven. This type of sheep is most exasperating, both to dog and man. Again, many dogs, more especially young ones, are excitable by the applause of the spectators.
To see sheep dogs work to perfection one should watch them, as the writer has been privileged to do, being practiced and trained upon their own home ground, where one can realize more fully the practical utility of a well-trained dog and the amount of labor which he saves his owner. The north of England and some parts of Scotland have always been noted for good dogs, the original strain being a cross between the smooth collie and the old Scotch bearded collie. These animals are naturally hardy, fleet-footed and sagacious, and for real skill in working sheep will hold their own against any dogs in the world.
One of the most prominent and successful trainers is Mr. J. Moses, of Oswestry, who is manager of Lord Harlech's Home Farm at Brogyntyn, and the accompanying photographs show some of his famous dogs at work on the farm. Mr. Moses is a great advocate of teaching a dog to work entirely by whistle, instead of giving commands in ordinary language. The great advantage of this system is that the dog can hear and recognize the signals at a much greater distance, and when once accustomed to them is much less liable to misinterpret his master's meaning than is the case when the command is given vocally. Many people seem to find a difficulty in training their dogs to work by whistle, but if the system is started at the commencement of a young dog's training he will soon learn to appreciate the distinctions of sounds and obey them more readily.
In order to demonstrate the perfect command that my friend had over the actions of his dog, even at a great distance, for it must have been over three-quarters of a mile, Mr. Moses made "Trim" execute a series of maneuvers, instructing the dog to drive the sheep round a telegraph post, in and out of two trees, take them hack again to the original spot in which they were first located, and finally drive them straight up to within reach of his master's stick. Each and every one of these evolutions was carried out with such skill, intelligence and obedience on the part of the dog that it seemed hard at first to realize that "Trim" was actually obeying implicitly his master's command, and not just driving the sheep about for his own pleasure.
The maneuvering of sheep at a distance is a feature in sheep-dog trials for which more points than are now granted should be given, as it demonstrates unmistakably the excellence of the training and also the actual utility of a dog for field work. Many dogs are under perfect control as long as they are within reach of their master's stick, but cannot be relied upon implicitly when far away; such a dog is obviously improperly trained.
Patience and firmness are the keynotes of success in training a sheep dog, though everything relies, in the first instance, upon the suitability of the dog taken in hand, for good sheep dogs are born as well as made, and a well-bred puppy will have a natural instinct for the work, which will reveal itself at an early age.
In the next chapter will be found some useful hints on the training of the working sheep dog. _________________