A Sheepdog trial (or simply dog trial) is a competitive dog sport in which herding dog breeds move sheep around a field, fences, gates, or enclosures as directed by their handlers. Such events are particularly associated with hill farming areas, where sheep range widely on largely unfenced land.
Some venues allow only dogs of known herding breeds to compete; others allow any dog that has been trained to herd.
Sheep dog trials of some sort or another have probably occurred at agricultural fairs and shows for centuries. The present form is thought to have developed originally in the "Borders" area between England and Scotland, from which the Border Collie also comes. However, the sport's organising bodies regard the first recorded sheepdog trials as those held in Bala, Wales, in 1873.
The sport was no doubt devised by shepherds keen to impress their friends with the skills of their sheepdogs. A well-trained dog can fetch a high price, as can its puppies, and can perform amazing feats of stockmanship.
There are several events, but the key element is the control of three to six sheep by one or two highly trained dogs under the control of a single shepherd. Both time and obedience play a part, as competitors are penalised if a sheep strays from the prescribed course.
One event consists of having the dog send three sheep up a steep hill through three or more gates. The shepherd must stand at the bottom of the hill and direct the dog by whistling. The huntaway dog barks loudly to push the sheep ahead up the hill.
Another popular event involves having the dog split six sheep into two groups of three and conducting each group in turn to small pens through a defined course by heading dogs. The group not being led is guarded by one of the two dogs, an eye-dog (from its ability to keep the sheep still by head movement alone). This is more difficult than it sounds because the two groups of sheep invariably try to stay together.