The sign at the end of the road reads, “Sheep Dog Trials” and an arrow guides you down the long dirt road to the farm at the end. Here you find border collies, sheep, and spectators. The Sheep Dog Trial at Spring Valley Farm is in the quiet village of Strafford, Vermont. Handlers come from as far away as Canada to compete in the trials. Locals bring chairs and settle in for the day to watch the competition.
It does not take a person long to see that this day is all about the sheep dog and his relationship with his handler. Originating in Scotland and England, border collies have been used to help move and control livestock for hundreds of years. Through many generations of selective breeding, these dogs have developed astonishing herding instincts. Sheep dogs from working parents are obedient, eager to please, and form an amazing working relationship with their owners. Training begins the first day the pup goes to his new home, with basic obedience, trust, and respect. Around a year of age, serious training on sheep gets underway, as they begin to show an interest in livestock and a desire to learn and work. Dogs competing in the trial at Spring Valley Farm have developed advanced herding skills as the course is difficult, and reflective of the kind of work required on a hillside Vermont farm.
Though most dog trials are held in an open field, the trial at Spring Valley Farm, presents a challenging course for the dogs and their handlers. With the handler giving commands to his or her dog, the border collie must run past a sugar house, over a creek, up a hill, and into some woods to gather a small flock of sheep. The dog then must take the flock back down the hill, and across the stream to an open field. Here they are sent through a series of gates, and into a gathering pen. Judges evaluate each team for workmanship, skill, and speed.
Each dog has its own style of working with sheep. A well trained dog will not pressure his sheep, he knows how far he must stay back to keep his sheep moving and calm. If he comes in too close, he will frighten and panic his sheep. The working relationship between the handler and dog is critical. They work as a team, shepherd giving commands, and border collie listening, thinking, and obedient to respond to each call. At the end of the trial, one border collie and his/her owner take first place with the highest score. In a few weeks, these same dogs will gather again to compete in the third set of trials in Vermont at the Quechee Scottish Festival and Celtic Fair.