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Sheepdog Terroir

Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,

Some years ago, when I extended how far I’d travel to a sheepdog trial I noticed that in each region, some locals were were very, very hard to beat - certainly I rarely managed it. What puzzled me was our National Finals where these strong handler/dog teams did okay but didn’t stand out as they had at home.

When I went to the Word Trial in Wales most of the finalists were Welsh and 10 of this year’s 16 european World Trial finalists were european.

We yanks have always believed British handlers are better than we are and when some of the best of the Brit best were invited to Soldier Hollow they signed up for Meeker too planning to follow one expected triumph with another. But the Brits wrecked at Soldier Hollow so badly they cancelled Meeker and went home.

Some years ago, we founded our flock with range ewes - those same spooky, tough sheep that often destroy eastern handlers upon first acquaintance.We hosted practice sessions for Virginians going out to the Oregon Finals the first year it was there.

Didn’t help. Our Virginia farm Utah Rambouillets had become very heavy and unwilling to split. They were different from their range sisters.

Another phenomenon many handlers have experienced when year after year WITHIN A REGION their dogs do better at some trials than others. ApparentlyTerrior must affect the handler as well as the dog.

Those few North American teams who compete anywhere in this country have become, I think, remarkably adaptive to sheepdog terriors which are far more complex than we credit.

At first glance, sheepdog skills are simple: an effective “down”, “flanks”, “walk up” and “look back”. But there’s a wild card:“effective”. We prefer square flanks but if sloppier flanks don’t disturb the sheep . . . Yes, an “off your feet” down, but if a “stand” is reliable . . . I’ve seen farm dogs working effectively on hand signals.

Recently,I said to a well known handler, “One of the virtues about our sport is we keep on learning . . .”

Her disagreement surprised me. She believed she’d acquired the knowledge she’d need - at least knowledge enough to win all the major trials. That she hasn’t and seemed nearer that goal years ago is probably just bad luck.

But presuming one can know everything about how to command a dog around a big trial course and read sheep as well as the person who has herded one flock for decades, even the best handler depends on his/her unconscious - and the dog’s unconscious - to read that big trial’s terrior.

I don’t know what combines as a sheepdog’s terrior. Scent perhaps. But it’s more than that: I’ve seen dogs trying to work sheep driven insane by AKC “herders” and very good dogs were suddenly perplexed. In the last decade of our trials we moved to a new field with an unfamiliar breed who’d ever been trialed before. Of 45 dogs, 8 who’d competed in lat year’s National Finals we had three number scores. Terrior.


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Donald, I believe you've got the spelling wrong ~ 'terrior' is a type of dog, 'terroir' is a French word meaning 'the combination of factors including soil, sunlight, etc that gives wine grapes their flavor'.


Had to look it up! And perhaps auto-correct is not always our friend. Anyways, I've no experience at all w/working sheep. And from this very disadvantaged viewpoint, I believe you're on to something.


The dogs and sheep are aware of, alert to, things that don't reach a human mind, no matter how experienced that human is. We live in a very different world than dogs/sheep (probably most animals) do. I'd not be surprised at all to find that terroir affects working dogs and livestock.


Ruth & Gibbs

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that is interesting. Our first trial here, on range ewes and yearlings- polypay/merino, and targhee was interesting.

They would hunt out the high places and the trial is held between two ridges, after you are about 1/4 up, blind really.


After three pairs whizzed by me doing other work, I saddled a horse and with Jake held one side.


Of course less dog is more in set out and I stayed way back....the set out crew was skilled and did a good job. Having a horse out there made it possible. And these sheep are worked on horse back.


I watched from horseback and I believe the cream rose. The sheep were also hard to exhaust however with the horse and jake, (I didn't want the sheep to get the idea they could get away, I did a lot of bringing sheep down to exhaust.


But my point is this- Friends of mine on FB asked me- UK friends- what makes them so hard, the range ewes.

I thought about it. This was the best I could come up with- what do you think about this- sheepdogging geezer.


These ewes knew big predators and they needed a powerful dog but one that oozed trust.



photo by Bonnie Block- Field and Farm Photograghy.


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