By TIM ALEXANDER
CHILLICOTHE, Ill. — Around 200 border collies and their handlers descended on sprawling Three Sisters Park in northern Peoria County for a three-day time trial competition that was open to the public. The July 7-9 event, hosted by the Land of Lincoln Border Collies Association (LLBCA), showcased some of the nation’s fastest and most agile sheepdogs in front of scores of curious locals and their families.
In addition to an open classification, time trials were recorded in several competitive classes leading up to the National Sheepdog Finals in Carbondale, Colorado in late September. Points earned for winning or placing high in either the nursery or open classes of the U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Society (USBCHA)-sanctioned event helped to determine which teams of dogs and handlers would be allowed to advance to the national competition.
“Teams from all over the United States are here including Virginia, Oklahoma, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Maryland,” said Catherine Price, a volunteer and trial secretary with the LLBCA who provided information to onlookers during the first day of the sheepdog trials.
“We’ve got campers all over the place, and we’re also staying in local motels.”
Price, of Big Bend, Wisconsin by way of England, is a competitive sheepdog handler who called the opportunity to participate in the 30th Annual LLBCA Sheepdog Trial a “lifetime dream” come true. “Though I’ve done this for quite a few years I still consider myself a novice handler. I’m not a farmer and my husband does not want sheep, so this is a hobby and a sport to me,” she said.
Asked what the top attributes of a border collie might be, Price did not hesitate to cite the animal’s innate instincts and intelligence. “Border collies are extremely intelligent. But be careful —you see them and they are gorgeous with nice coloring, so people want to take them as pets. And you can take them for pets but you have to make sure they have something to do. If you don’t find a border collie something to do, it will find something to do itself and you may not like the results,” she advised, laughing.
With proper handling, border collies can make wonderful pets and will behave much like any other variety of pooch, according to Price. However, their greatest value is found on a sheep farm. While there have been mention of shepherd’s dogs going back as far as the 1500s, the working border collie was “refined” in the border country of England and Scotland in the 1700s and 1800s. The moniker “border collie” was not assigned to the dogs until the 1900s, according to an information sheet handed out by Price.
While watching handlers put their dogs through the time trials, Price took a moment to explain what the judges who assign scores to each “run” are looking for. “These are essentially line courses, so there are lines that run from one area to another. The handler sends the dog out to do an outrun, which has to be in a nice shape and the dog must treat the sheep with respect. You want them to pick up the sheep and bring them down the field in good shape,” she said.
“It basically simulates what you would be doing in a sheep field; bringing them in to go to market. But you don’t want to run the meat off the sheep, so it has to be at an even pace.”
In addition to the outrun, which is usually pear-shaped, judges are watching how dogs react to what they refer to as the “lift,’ or the moment the sheep become aware of the dog’s presence and begin moving forward. During the “fetch,” dogs must bring sheep through a panel to the handler in a straight line. The “drive” consists of two parts; the drive-away from the handler through the first panel and the cross-drive during which sheep are driven across a field parallel to the handler and through a second gate or set of gates.
To achieve higher scores, judges must observe sheep walking directly into their pen on the first attempt. Sheep must also walk straight into a “shedding ring” and separate into two groups as decided by the course director. Dogs must swiftly separate the sheep and take control of one group, which is considered the most difficult aspect of the trial.
“Every part of the trial is pointed, and straight lines are very important,” Price said, adding that sheepdog trials in Scotland, England and Wales can differ from those in the U.S. due to the hillier terrain.
The LLBCA plans to return to Three Sisters Park, located in Chillicothe, Illinois, in July 2024 for their 31st Annual Sheepdog Trials, Price said.