That’ll do, Fly – Sheep herding dogs

Review of sheep herding trial with Etienne Smit.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, August 2010

A dog of a day

Picture this. A week night, exhausted after a dog’s day at work (pun intended), and still on the road for one last assignment: meet with the Dutch national team for sheep herding, to watch them prepare for the European sheepdog championship  (19-22 August 2010). To compound my feelings of exhaustion, I am only vaguely aware of where I need to go as, typical for a dog sport event, the rendez-vous point is in the middle of a field.

But never fear: my mood and car instantly take a turn for the better as I leave the motorway. I feel more relaxed with every spin of the wheel as I begin to take in the Dutch countryside and the peaceful evening sky. Lost, but happy enough. So here I am, going back and forth on this country road trying to spot sheep, with an increasing queue of irate drivers at my tail. And once again, I am once saved by the tell-tale signs of all serious dog hobbyists: huge dog stickers on their vans.

The geeky bit

Border Collies belong to FCI group 01: Sheepdogs and Cattle Dogs. It is the FCI’s 297th breed.

Chilled out Border collies?

As I park, I am greeted by a couple of really laid back border collies. I introduce myself to them with my usual border collie precautions (no rushing, soft voice, and above all, no startling gestures). All the BCs I know have so much pent-up tension that they invariably come out in stereotypies like bouts of obsessive barking, compulsive retrieving or dog-dog aggression. But nope, not these guys. Intrigued, I started to wonder whether the old cliché that border collies absolutely need to work actually has some truth to it. All I know is that all the collies I came across that evening shared that calm drive.

A collie for everyone: a meddley of looks

Tri-colour brown

Now onto looks. Bear with me as my whole expertise in border collie prior to that evening was gathered from watching Babe (yes, and Babe 2, which was incredibly stressful to watch if you ask me, but I digress):

  • They come with blue eyes (and at times one blue, one brown). But OK, we all knew that.
  • They come in all sorts of coat colours and patterns: merle (blue or red), red or black tri-colour, red/white bi-colour, blonde/white bi-colour, mottled, etc. And to think I was convinced they only came in bi-colour black and white. Man, am I going to have a tough tough time telling them apart from Australian sheps?
  • Semi-prick ears

    The hair length and structure comes in the usual wavy mid-length coat, but some also have short hair, and some even display long, but very curly coats.

  • I was also struck by their variety in size: among the BC’s I saw that evening, the shoulder height of the smallest and tallest varied by a good 10cm.
  • They do not all have prick ears. Some of them have semi-prick ears (where the base is erect but the ear drops half-way up), mixed ears (where one ear is prick, and the other not), or even drop ears (where the ears are drooping at the base) .

Etienne Smit, sheepman extraoordinaire

Before the demonstration, I got to chat briefly with the Sheepdog Center‘s charismatic founder and manager, Etienne Smit. Soon after, Etienne got snatched by an actual TV crew. As journalists go, I was outclassed.

Etienne has been training sheepdogs for the last twelve years, and he now has his own flock of over 40 sheep (well, 41). He heads the Sheepdog Center where he teaches people to train their dog in the art of sheep herding.

Etienne has one dog in the National team this year. Nothing out of the ordinary for him when you consider that he has qualified every single year in the last seven years. One of his dogs, Joshua, even made it to the final.

Here’s a bit of useless trivia: every one of his dogs is called after some kind of a U2 reference. No prizes for guessing where the name ‘Joshua’ came from.

Etienne’s mom was also at the demo event, and she was beaming with pride when she told me that her entire family was bitten by the sheep herding bug. That includes Etienne’s mother herself, but also his sisters, and his kid nieces and nephews. Altogether, they have 38 sheepdogs who all live in as pet dogs. One of Etienne’s sister has, wait for it, fifteen sheepdogs! Now that’s dedication for you.

The actual event

The event was a public demonstration of the Dutch national sheepdog team.  The team is composed of seven handlers and eight dogs (all Border collies). All eight dogs had to pass the national qualifying trials to earn the right to represent the Netherlands at the European Championships.

All the training and hard work was obvious as the dogs seamlessly completed every assignment that was thrown at them. One of the fifteen minute exercise, perhaps the most well-known, consisted in driving the sheep into a pen until the handler could close the pen’s door. Another exercise consisted in separating a couple of sheep (designated by red marking on their humps) from the flock. What impressed me most was the distance work, when the dog has to work at great distances from its handlers, purely on the basis of whistled commands.

In order to carry out their duties, the dogs needed to grasp abstract concepts: like left or right, and same or different. You could not help but smile at their obvious genetic pre-disposition when they were indulging in the oh-so-typical eye-and-stalk (staring at the ‘targeted’ sheep, and crouching).

A particularly humane dog sport, from where I was standing

The sport seemed really quite humane in the way people were handling dogs (I didn’t see a single instance of rough treatment, not even shouting). But even the sheep are treated well, with each sheep ‘team’ (OK, flock), getting to rest after fifteen minutes, so as not to get stressed.

Why would they get stressed, you ask? The zoologist in me can’t help but speculate: the herding style of border collies is founded on a truncated wolf-based predatory sequence of behaviours: eye, stalk, and chase. The rest of the original wolf behaviour sequence was artificially “de-selected”, so the BCs do not indulge in grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect and consume.

But last I checked, sheep were not reading dog books and thinking: ‘s alright, Dolly, they’ll only display a TRUNCATED predatory sequence. Keep browsing‘.

Here’s another heartening fact about sheep herding (if you’re a sheep): the slightest, teeniest, trace of anything even resembling a bite would result in instant disqualification.

It’s all in the whistle

The cues are given by a series of whistle blows of varying lengths, repetition sequences and intensities. I got a little muddled at this stage. I had asked how the dogs that were standing by (off-leash) knew that the whistle cue was not directed at them. The answer is that each whistle is specific to each individual dog.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether that meant that a handler with fifteen dogs had to have fifteen different whistles (the object), or fifteen different patterns/sequences/intensities for each cue, to use on every specific dog, but just one whistle. Something else I have to find out about this fascinating sport. Anyone?

Sheep herding: something for you?

A few of the spectators were there with their own collies and collie mixes, to see if sheep herding was something for them. The club management was really welcoming of them, and it was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d anticipated it to be (after all, this was the national team).

I also did not get the feeling that dogs were being objectified as you often see in dog sports.

So, if you would like to find out more about sheep herding, and the possibility for you and your dog to join the club, check out the Sheepdog Center. The club is meeting in Bergschenhoek, on the outskirts of Rotterdam, but I am sure that Etienne can recommend a club closer by if you live further afield.

Any comments?

I always value your comments. So please, comment if you have anything at all, and I really mean anything, to say or ask about Border collies or sheep herding. It doesn’t matter how short or how off-the-wall.

I am particularly anxious to hear from you you:

  • have views on the Border collie temperament,
  • can shed some light on the whole whistle blowing system,
  • know the answer to this one: what breeds are allowed to participate, at what level of pedigree purity (are mixes and non-pedigreed dogs allowed?) and for what level (it could be that the breed rules are more relaxed for hobbyists than for formal championships).

Further reading

Dog breeds:

Dog sports:

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  1. Laura Wong
    Posted 19 August 2010 at 20:27 | Permalink

    Because Border Collies have historically been selected for working ability, and not looks, they vary widely in appearance. I was aware of the differences in colors, coats, ears and eyes but there was one that surprised me here and that is the CURLY coat!!! That was a new one for me 🙂 This write up is fantastic!!! It is so good to know there are some calm collies out there.

  2. Posted 24 August 2010 at 14:59 | Permalink

    Thanks, Laura!

    Yes, that was an amazing-looking dog, wasn’t it? Curly hair, who’d have thought it? I had no idea that they came in such varied forms.

    He he he, I was definitely very surprised at how chilled these guys were. There’s definitely something to working a working dog.

  3. Claudia Saiz
    Posted 9 September 2010 at 23:25 | Permalink

    You should check out GSD’s tending 300 sheep!
    I actually am learning both,

    Herding with my Border Colie
    Tending with my GSD

  4. Posted 12 September 2010 at 10:57 | Permalink

    German shepherds tending sheep? Ooooh, you’re whetted my appetite. I’d love to write about this if you’ll get in touch!

  5. Dave
    Posted 16 November 2011 at 18:36 | Permalink

    To answer your question, yes each dog has it´s own set of commands, either verbal or whistle,
    Outside of trialing it is quite normal to be working more than one dog at the same time, so they each need their own commands

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