National Sheepdog Finals Blog

2013 National Sheepdog Finals - Watch an experienced dog handler team walk calmly to the post, begin their run with complete composure, manage their sheep quietly and competently, and close their work with a soft “that’ll do”. The road to that run ran through struggles and successes and more struggles, humble beginnings where managing stock could seem like trying to control birds in flight. The National Finals has a tradition of excellent blogs showcasing how top handlers train and prepare for the event, using their skills to come down the home stretch tuned for perfection. In recognition of the miles travelled to get to that final lap, of tenacity and hard work and the fact that our travails can be a source of inspiration, education and humor, we are dedicating the 2013 Finals blog to the beginnings and the lessons learned along the way.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ellen Skillings - Heppner Oregon 1986

The trial at that time, unlike now, is held in the rodeo arena in town. The high solid sides surrounded by bleachers certainly prevent the yearling range ewes from escaping back to the range, but the close and unfamiliar quarters readily elicit the ‘Fight or Flight’ response when faced with unfamiliar dogs. Caleb was not a ‘kind’ dog. He had a rough, big boned, Scottish ‘Herdsman’s Tommy’ build, with intense wolfish yellow eyes. He used them to great effect.

The Novice Class is an “outrun”, “fetch” and “pen”. Three sheep are let out of the chute gate at the far end of the arena where they stand pressed tightly together against the arena wall well under 100 yards away. Well under the distance at which Caleb’s predatory glare provokes a ‘fight or flight’ response from these Western White face yearlings the size of small ponies.

The handler’s post is set just in front of a horse trailer where the judge sits protected, a little, from the steady rain. The rain provides a gray wash reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands to all memories of that weekend.

I step to the post. I unclip the lead. I say, “Come Bye”. The words start the clock. Everything but the clock and the rain remain frozen. Sheep, dog, the expectant bedraggled crowd in the bandstand are still and quiet. We have three minutes to get the sheep to the post, around behind it, and into the pen.  Caleb is to go out and get them and bring them to my feet. We will negotiate the pen together.

I shush, I plead, I bark, ‘Come bye’ a little more firmly, words that should send my dog in a nice arc, clockwise, to the far side of the sheep. Caleb apparently forgets, or else considers optional, the expected response to the command.  He has the sheep under perfect control from his position at my feet. The sheep seem to know a move in any direction can have no good end; ‘Uhn uh’, ‘no siree’, not a muscle twitch among the three of them.

When I insist again he rises to his feet and begins marching straight up the center of the arena. Again this is not the expected response. He is marching straight into the statue-esque sheep faces. It’s a mutual eye thing. The sheep, trapped by the high wall, would flee to the hills if it were an option.  I continue my pleading for Caleb to cast.

Caleb seems to consider their position and demeanor perfectly satisfactory. My pleading is to no effect.

For the sheep the moment of decision arrives when Caleb is about fifteen feet in front of their noses. ‘Fight?’ or ‘Flight ?’ Flight wins. Some slight shift of a sheepy ear shoots a command straight to that Border collie brain ’ The instant the sheep twitch everything explodes- zero to sixty in under a second. Caleb loops around them in a flash, and now they waste no time on the clock, barreling down the arena’s length, wrapping themselves in the tongue of the horse trailer and unwrapping again before the judge can get his head out in the rain to see what’s going on. Then, as quickly as the storm erupted it stops.  All this occurs in the amount of time it takes me to yell, “Lie Down, Lie  Down, LIE DOWN, I SAID LIE DOWN.!”

Now the sheep and the dog are doing the mutual eye thing again and the sheep are at a dead standstill, refrozen and mesmerized at a good spot in front of the pen.
I step away from the post and pick up the pen rope, opening the gate carefully. My job; open the pen gate. Caleb’s job; put the sheep in the pen. Sheep’s job-figure out a way, at all costs, to avoid getting trapped in a little pen with a wolf outside salivating.

Pen, sheep, Caleb. Me off to the side holding the end of a six foot rope tied to the end of a six foot gate leading to a 6’x9’pen, trying to stay out of the way.

Usually getting sheep in the pen is a matter of gentling them a little, but in this case it is matter of convincing them that moving in any direction other than straight backwards is a bad idea.

I was chanting, a fairly constant mantra, “Lie down, LIE down, I said lie down, do you hear me? Lie Down…….”

A sheep-feeling trapped in this way- will sometimes tip her ears back, and, head still high, slowly turn her eyes from the dog’s gaze as if saying, ‘I think I’ll just tip-toe out to the ladies room for a moment.‘  Usually it’s just one in the group. Sometimes a sheep will raise one foot and slowly stamp as if to tell the dog, ‘I could tromp you into the ground if I wanted, but if you will just stay there I will slip away and you will hardly notice.’

Caleb isn’t buying any of it.  When a sheep head shifts so does Caleb’s. When one stomps his body still pressed to the ground seems to roll forward slightly into the pressure as if saying, ‘try me’.

I ask him up to shift the sheep.  He raises slowly, the sheep tense and all shift back a step. Every time they shift I tell Caleb to ‘lie down’ again. Afraid that if they move anywhere fast he will use every available tactic to stop them. Gripping is not allowed in Sheep Dog Trials. More than once, at home, I have stitched a sheep cheek or lip. When she has answered his ‘try me’ with ‘I wlll then’. Did I mention, Caleb is not a kind dog?

We continue on like this. If a sheep twitches an ear to check an escape route, Caleb twitches one or shifts his nose in reply. Get up. Lie down. Twitch, shift, and slowly as a unit the sheep back up, step-by-step, oblivious to the pen walls slowly encircling them.  As soon as they realize their predicament they spin as one to run, the only direction they think might be clear, straight into the pen. I rush to shut the gate.
It is five years before I step onto the trial field again. This time with a different dog.

The odd thing about a spectacularly bad run, at least if no one has to stitch up a wound or pull a sheep out of a pond, is that no one remembers any of it except the handler who ran it, and perhaps the dog. Perhaps the dog dreams about how great it was.

© Ellen Skillings (all rights reserved)


  1. Great story, beautifully told. I can picture every seemingly endless minute!

  2. Very nicely written. You did a great job of creating tension, and I loved the description of the ewe with her head up thinking she might just tip-toe out to the ladies' room! You should write more, you certainly have the talent for it.