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The British Sheepdog

Article printed in 'The Field' magazine, February 20, 1937

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More trials needed in the South.

Sheepdogs the world over, probably have a greater reputation for sagacity and faithfulness than any other breed. Moreover, being like their masters, extremely self sufficient and resentful of outside opinions, they are by no means reliable in their tempers with strangers.

The long legged woolly Banjara sheepdog of India is best left to itself. Those who have been to Albania in search of sport have been well advised to look out for the local sheepdogs, and if attacked by them it is, in view of possible reprisals, better to shoot at the shepherd rather than at the dog.

A sheepdog has the advantage of being in use all the year round, compared with the sporting dog, which has little to do outside of the shooting season. For which reason it is probably cleverer at its work. But they vary. Probably no type of dog more so with the country in which they work, the breed of sheep with which they deal, and the type of shepherd who trains them.

In the North and in Wales the collie dog, of course, prevails. The word “collie” is, I am told, the Gaelic for sheep, and it is as incorrect to talk of a collie, meaning a collie dog, as its is to talk about a fox, meaning a foxhound. Collie dogs vary, but generally speaking they are light, smooth haired, long tailed and lithe in their movements compared with the grey-coated, woolly bob-tailed sheepdog of the South. Between these two main types there are many variations and crosses.

In the North and in Wales, sheepdog trials (originally started in the Vale of Llangollen) have evolved from the collie dog type, the perfect animal for exhibition purposes. They show the skill of the shepherd as much as that of the dog. But trials have now got to the stage of producing dogs for practically one purpose - trial dogs - and in the case of some of them, only entries of dog trial pedigree are eligible to compete.

The type most favoured for the purpose is what is known as the Border Collie dog, rather a light type, marked black and white.

But there is many a good dog which has never figured in trials, particularly in Wales and the North. A good puppy seems to yearn for association with sheep from the day it is born. Width apart of the eyes, they say, is a guide of a dog’s sagacity, and there is no doubt about the cleverness of the Welsh dogs. Watch one crawling towards a nervous flock of sheep which is ready to dash off at the slightest fault of the dog. A single word of command, a whistle, or even a sign, is enough for the dog to know what to do. Wild sheep and long distances are associated with mountains, and the men who work the dogs realise that a well-trained dog will save a shepherd much toil and time.

In the South conditions are different. The sheep, usually folded on arable land, are heavy, comparatively tame and sluggish. So too are some of the shepherds. The dog works much nearer its master, with the result that orders are wordy and noisy. Instead of the “stop,” “go on,” “round them,” or corresponding words of the North, we hear in the folds of the South: “liedownwilleeaforeIputastickacrastee” shouted in a gruff voice of displeasure, which only conveys to the dog that it has to do something different.

I do not believe that the bob-tailed dog of the South is any less intelligent than the collie dog of the North. I am quite certain that it is not so well trained. Compared with the Northern shepherds, those of the South are fools when it comes to the training of a dog, the will not take the trouble to teach. In fact I know of a bob-tailed dog that was taken up to Wales as a puppy for training by a good shepherd, who proved as good with the mountain sheep as the local collie dogs.

Another from the same litter was given to an officer at Whale Island, the naval school of gunnery, where a guard-like efficiency and discipline prevails under what is known as “the spirit of the island.” This bitch had an interesting time. She had the sheepdog instinct for rounding up uniform flocks; and found one on the island splendidly drilled. There were shouts, whistling, and mass movements in keeping with her natural instincts. All went well as long as the sailors maintained close order formation; but when they extended into open order, the bitch became worried; she wanted to round them up; and the sailor thought she had gone quite mad.

Of recent years there has been a movement for farmers in the South to get their dogs from shepherds of repute in the North. When they first come they are well trained and quite suitable for their purpose but often they are soon spoilt. It is not so much the fault of the dog as of the man.

The exhibitions of sheepdogs - for which mountain sheep have to be specially imported - ar some of our agricultural shows south of the Thames are probably responsible for this movement. I have often wondered why some public spirited person does not start sheepdog trials in the south of England. Once started there can be little doubt that they would lead to great improvements in our dogs and handling.

It would not, of course, be possible to run them on identical lines as those in the North, where much ground is covered and difficulties overcome by clever dogs driving half-wild sheep. But something in keeping with folding practices, or even road practices, applicable to everyday life of the shepherd and his dog, might be used.

At first there would be the usual difficulty of getting shepherds to compete, in fact, getting the entries would be the only real difficulty, as is so often the case with many agricultural competitions, but once got going, there is no reason why sheepdog trials in folding country should not be as successful as elsewhere.

Our dogs are clever enough. So are our shepherds, if they can only be made to understand that a dog, like a shepherd even, must be taught, and that a clever animal is often a highly sensitive one, which never improves with rough handling or too hard words.

J. W. Best

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