High on the hillside an outpost of sheep is standing four-square against the slinking form of a sheepdog. Now the dog has lowered its head, but the eyes stay fixed on one sheep that’s grown wary. The dog feeds its lean body forward in stealthy slow motion. The dog breaks its move into precision stop-go moments, where each time it freezes to feign preparation for a final rush attack.
At this herding competition one dog triallist at my elbow is kindly interpreting the action for me. Sheep, I learn from Howard Wilson, have a flight zone, and the dog is reading the likely geometry of this zone for each individual sheep. When he senses one sheep is ready to break in the desired direction, he will get ready to provoke the move. The aim is that the one sheep will carry the rest.
Since the sheep could break into a mad dash in any direction, the dog is now treading a delicate tightrope where he must exert a careful dominance. “He’s giving the sheep the power of his eye. He gets across the idea that if they don’t move something terrible will happen. If the sheep aren’t moving he will use all sorts of tricks. He’ll crouch, then suddenly rise to his feet. Or the dog might relax, look away as if he’s lost interest, and then snap his eye back to the sheep.”
Howard unexpectedly swivels his jowly face towards me with a sudden sharp snap of jaw and brow. He fixes his eyes into an unblinking glare. The manoeuvre takes me with a jolt back to school days to the most feared of teachers, the ones who managed to suggest unspeakable consequences by raising an eyebrow, but never a hand.
I feel for the sheep, for whom this is no charade. When they face down a dog it’s not because they don’t want to go into the little box in the next paddock. They’re protecting their very lives. To the sheep it’s a brutal old game being played in earnest.
Out on the paddock, the selected sheep can’t take the tension and turns away—it’s all been too much.
With the urging of a whistled command, the dog advances to set the flock on its course. From far below it seems as if a little woolly boat has been launched across the paddock. Here, the farmer, with a clearer view of progress, can order up adjustments to balance the inevitable straying. It’s like steering a boat across a river flowing fast every which way, with the dog as the rudder.
At this sheepdog trial we’re seeing a drama that’s scripted deep in the genetic code of all three species. It’s the predatory stalk of the wolf—that final, purposeful creep forward before it’s all fang—mixed with the elemental business of humans harnessing nature to our own advantage. While there are finer points to herding three sheep into a pen, the dog’s ability to read sheep is the critical skill.
It’s always seemed like magic, and in a way it is. How these unchanged rules of conduct between sheep and dog have become a foundation of New Zealand’s prosperity. There’d be no other way to manage the national flock of roughly 48 million sheep, for the most part spread over difficult high country.
For most farmers, though, the magic has long gone from running dogs. One former shepherd, Peter Morrison, explains. “On a farm, the thing is, when you are mustering sheep, you are mustering them toward some hideous end task, like three days of dagging or crutching, and if it’s work, it’s not pleasure. You use the dogs as tools.
“But trialling is different. There’s no real need to shift three sheep into a pen in the middle of a paddock. So it’s about turning work into pleasure. It’s something like rodeo, in that trialling is an expression of your skill, a distillation of the skills you use every day.”
I like this line of thinking. I think it explains why sheepdog trials have become a national pastime. Watching the alchemy of work being turned into pointless pleasure is something a chap can get used to.
Peter elaborates: “In the old days before there was video or television, you’d have nothing to do during the long summer twilight, so you’d walk the farm as a way to kill the evening. It was a common thing, walking the farm, to enjoy the farm.
“As part of that you might take your dogs out with you to the paddock and work a few sheep. It’s the pleasure of doing something when you don’t have to do it.
“The modern young shepherd couldn’t dog-trial to save his life, because television has taken the time away. They’ll say, when you’ve got thousands of sheep to shift, why muck around putting three into a pen.”
Since there are a good dozen commands—for farm or competition—training is another exercise in patience. In essence, it is about progressively introducing the pup to sheep as it masters each essential command, which is often communicated by both whistle and voice. The pup is taught to sit, and then put next to sheep and told to sit, and so on.
Left and right commands are taught at the end of a leash. When the pup is ready, usually at about 18 months, it is tied to an older dog, which helps teach the new dog old tricks.
While most dogs are still raised by their owners, many are bought partially trained. There is often a period of uncertainty while dog and farmer learn each other’s language. The dog comes with a tape recording, because unless the exact nuances of whistle are learned, the dog will do nothing. It will sit frozen and puzzled.
Heading dogs_ the ones that silently spook the sheep—are mostly a Border collie breed, originally from Britain. Here, with the hotter weather, they’ve been bred selectively to lose the long-haired coat. More common is the hunt away—a more solid breed selected for its ability to bark while working.
It is trained to face up to a flock, the point being that once a runaway flock has a decent momentum, the more subtle skills of the heading dog are no match. Something loud and aggressive is needed to halt them in their tracks.
Some dogs can do both—as well as bring the newspaper from the front gate, which can be a morning run of many kilo metres.
A sheepdog trial is a time when all these elements come together. It is an opportunity for the mainly elderly contestants to demonstrate a lifetime’s accumulation of herding knowledge.
Watching these farmers direct their dogs from the edge of the paddock, it’s like they’re fly-fishing. Instead of casting a line over a stream, though, they’re casting a dog out over an entire hillside. The skills involve the same patient mix of artistry and practicality. Any approach other than unhurried calm will tangle the lines.
During the day I learn the ropes. The initial cast, where the dog is sent up behind the sheep, is always made as a wide encircling movement. If the dog were sent directly to the sheep, they would be spooked in the opposite direction, away from the farmer. At the right moment the farmer will command a turn to position the dog, if possible at 12 o’clock, maybe 20 metres behind the sheep.
Now it is time to commence the lift, where the dog gently eases forward to shift the sheep.
Howard Wilson explains that this is a moment best left to the dog. “You can’t teach the dog how to put the fear in the sheep. It’s something the dog knows best. I mean, you’ll see the dog tiddle around up there, but it’s something you can’t hurry. It’s like the sheep and the dog have a little secret between them and nobody else.”
I wonder what’s stopping the dog from tearing into the sheep. “It’s all pack instinct, and I’m the pack leader. They’re bringing the sheep to me for the kill, for the ambush. Herding the sheep to me, as if to say, ‘You catch it and we’ll kill it together’.”
This is a genetic coding shared by the African hunting dog, for one, where the subordinate animals in the pack lead the hunt, but are the last to eat.
As we talk, there’s a sudden outbreak of furious whistling—like a chorus of demented bird song followed by a string of parade-ground oaths. We look up to see sheep scattered all over the place, and some dog hopelessly haring after them.
“That’s the beauty of this sport,” says Howard as we lean back over the bonnet of his truck. “No matter how good you think you are, with sheep you can always come a gutser.”
Among a modest group of cars parked at the back of a farm I overhear the wives having a lively talk about jam-making. For a full half hour they talk nothing else. I wonder to myself, what on earth, after 40 years of bottling, is there left to say about jam?
Back home I ask my wife the same question. She tells me it probably beats the hell out of listening to their husbands talk dogs.