COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The sheep, some 400 yards away atop a grassy hillside, are but white dots to the naked eye. But
Finally the sheep see him closing in . . . and off they run! The chase is on, as Cato prods his little herd around an obstacle course of fence posts scattered across the pasture. At the finish line waits Maria Amodei, Cato's mistress, frantically whistling commands to control her border collie's every motion. One quick whistle: He trots toward the sheep. Two short toots: He quickens his pace. A long, loud blow: Charge!
This is a sheepdog trial, the X-Games of the dog world, where border collies (and an occasional off breed) put their instincts and training against pig-headed ewes, challenging obstacles, and an unforgiving time clock. The best dogs herd with flair, winning applause from the lawn-chair -toting crowd watching them. Then sometimes there is chaos, as a rookie pooch pushes too hard, scattering sheep in every direction.
``It's you reading the sheep. The dog reading the sheep. The sheep reading the dog, and for that matter you," said Denise Leonard, a sheepdog handler from Greenfield and president of the North East Border Collie Association. ``It's a three-way thing. It's pretty unique."
I took in my first sheepdog trial a few weeks ago in Cooperstown, but New England has four shows scheduled between now and Oct. 1, in West Springfield; Lincoln, N.H.; East Conway, N.H.; and Fryeburg, Maine.
A four-legged fringe sport? You might call it that. Then again, this fringe sport has been around for more than 100 years. It started in Wales in 1873 when sheep farmers decided to hold a contest to see whose dog had the best corralling skills. While I was among about 200 spectators in Cooperstown, an August sheepdog trial in Kingston, Ontario, attracted a crowd of 6,000. Sheepdog handlers can be found all over the United States, including about two dozen in New England.
``Being fortysomething, I knew I needed some energetic animal just to keep my own energy level up," said Chris Bowen, an insurance actuary from Swanzey, N.H., who bought his first sheepdog, Dot, about three years ago. ``Somebody gave me a book [about being a handler], and I just decided to take lessons to see what it was like. That was actually the first time since I'd been a kid at a petting zoo that I'd been that close to a sheep."
While courses vary -- some are indoor, some are hilly, others flat -- the basic rules are the same. The handler and his dog stand together at the starting line or the ``post." With a simple command, the dog takes off, running the entire length of the course until it reaches a set of three sheep. The dog ``fetches" the sheep by returning them on a straight line to the handler, then ``drives" the sheep back onto the course, running them through various obstacles before finally herding them into a pen.
Events are timed -- at Cooperstown, dogs had eight minutes to complete a heat -- and points are awarded for precision and form.
The sheep, of course, are the unpredictable part. A dominant mother ewe always leads the herd, and most of the ewes I saw were clearly unwilling participants, trying their hardest to escape into a swamp, the woods, or back over the hillside. ``Light" sheep, handlers told me, were easily frightened and quick to run, requiring an extra degree of cool on the part of the dog and owner. ``Heavy" sheep, on the other hand, required constant pressure tactics to move them along -- handlers yell, while dogs and ewes lock into staring contests to see who has the upper hand.
``There's a lot of strategy involved," said Amodei, who lives in Dunstable. ``You get the sheep started some way and then they keep traveling. If you wait until the sheep are exactly where you want them, then stop the dog, it's like pushing a car on a hill -- that little extra [push] gets them further than you wanted them to go. So you need to learn a little restraint and patience -- both you and the dog."
It's a doubly tough strategy to follow because border collies are not in the least bit patient. A hyperkinetic breed, they have trouble sitting still for even a few seconds, always ready for their next opportunity to chase after something.
A couple sitting next to me in the crowd, Massachusetts natives Gail and Scot Wentworth, told me the story of the border collie they adopted but were forced to give away to a local farm.
``She'd herd everything. Snowflakes. She'd herd deer -- we had deer across the street. People, kids," Scot Wentworth said. ``It just comes naturally. It's instinctive -- and we couldn't stop it."
Still, instinct alone doesn't make a dog a great herder. It takes about four years and hundreds of hours to train a sheepdog before it's ready for competition, and even longer for a dog to develop its own unique herding style. But the bond between handler and herder grows strong, and a dog's ability to instantly obey more than a dozen whistles and verbal commands is impressive to watch.
``When I give him a command, I'd say he obeys it 95 percent plus," of the time, said Amodei. ``I've run him on some trials where he's taken every single whistle. I don't think he missed a whistle today."
The dogs are focused, control freaks even. But their owners -- be they hobbyists or full-time farmers whose dogs work daily moving sheep from field to field -- are equally as passionate. Many spend their summers traveling the Northeast from one trial to the next, loading up their dogs like a family of kids for what are often three-day events. And while the competition is friendly, it is serious nonetheless.
Cato finished his run with 78 out of 100 points, putting him somewhere in the middle of the scoring pack. ``He did his job fine. I didn't do mine," Amodei said, berating herself for failing to properly guide the sheep through a final obstacle.
But clearly, aside from possibly the elite handlers -- who will compete in the 2007 National Sheepdog Finals in Gettysburg, Pa., next September -- most owners are in it for love.
As the competition neared its end, I met Betty Levin, 78, who has raised sheepdogs on her Lincoln farm for more than 40 years. The day's program said she was going to run Folly, but instead she decided to go with Maddie, her 13-year-old border collie.
``She's got cataracts. Doesn't matter," Levin said. ``She doesn't know that she's over the hill. As far as she knows she can do it."
They walked to the post and Maddie took off up the hill, finding the sheep and fetching them back in impressive fashion. But fatigue soon set in. The sheep became unruly, and Maddie, try as she might, could not circle quickly enough to keep them in line. The time clock expired and Levin called her tired but still eager dog to her, patting her on the head.
As the crowd politely applauded, Maddie ran straight for a small bathtub to cool off. ``I got a happy dog," Levin said, smiling as if they had made a perfect score.
Contact Peter DeMarco, a freelance writer in Somerville, at firstname.lastname@example.org.