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Mad River Valley Sheep Dog Trial

By Charlie Brown

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Saturday, July 15, 2006, dawned a hot, muggy day here in The Valley. However, the weather had little effect on the hearty troop of border collies and their handlers, as they gathered at Kenyon's Field.

There were more than a few campers set up at the back end of the field. People had come from as far away as Toronto, Canada, and as far south as New Jersey to attend this annual affair, which is hosted by Fayston residents Nancy Phillips and her husband Stephen Doherty, with support from Kenyon's farm, Lions Club and Kim Kathan, Warren.

The setting at Kenyon's Field is spectacular. In the background rise the Green Mountains of Vermont. Your eyes then take in the huge, green field that lies at the bottom of the mountains. Finally, there is a spectators section, which is shielded from the sun by canvas overhangs. This is where everyone sets up their chairs, coolers and various other accoutrements, which will take them through the day. Contestants sit among the attendees, some with their dogs resting comfortably at their feet. Cheryl Jagger Williams, who attends numerous events during the summer, cheerfully explained to me just what was happening out on the field.

A sheepdog trial is a test of a unique team made up of dog and handler to move stock (sheep) in a quick and efficient manner. The handler and his dog enter the field and take up their position. Approximately 300 or so yards, three sheep are placed in their starting position. At a given signal "the Outrun" begins.

The dog is sent to run the length of the field, where the sheep are being held. In the perfect outrun, the dog does not disturb the sheep until it turns in behind them. "The Lift" is next, where the sheep will remain settled and gently begin to move in a straight line toward the handler.

The dog then maneuvers the sheep through the Fetch Panels (gates) that have been set up on the field. Pace and a straight line are important here; the sheep must remain settled, and neither have time to graze nor run. The dog is being controlled by a series of whistles from his trainer, which tell the dog to move left, right or to "drop" where he is.

As the sheep approach the handler's post they must complete a turn past the post which places them in line for the next part of the course, "The Drive." During the drive the dog takes the sheep away from the handler through obstacles and eventually moves the sheep into the pen.

The last exercise is "The Shed." Here the dog and the handler must separate off one (or sometimes two) sheep from the group, and hold the animal(s) away from the others. The dog has seven minutes to accomplish this maneuver, which is not as easy as it sounds.
Various points are deducted along the way depending on how efficiently the dog does his work.

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The sheep are extremely skittish, so if the dog is not careful you end up with the sheep taking off, with the dog in hot pursuit. This is not what you want. The sheep should move at a very nonchalant pace, seemingly not affected by the dog but nonetheless being controlled by the border collie.

It's a wonderful way to spend either a few hours or a few days watching trainer and dog accomplish their task. The sheep are also quite interesting. At one point during the event, a sheep suddenly dropped to the ground, "Oh my God, he's dead I thought." Not so said Cheryl, he's just playing "possum."

Sure enough a few minutes later, after the dog backed off, the sheep came suddenly back to life and continued on his way. He just got tired of running and decided to play dead.

Local people who entered the event included Nancy Phillips, Kim Kathan and Joyce Westcott. The event is part of the Vermont Triple Crown, which is made up of Merck Forest SDT in Rupert, the Mad River Valley SDT and the Vermont State Championships held in Quechee.

All in all, it was a beautiful day out in the Vermont summer air chatting with friends and learning about an event that I will be sure to take in next summer.

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