Contrary to popular myth, early trials were gentry sponsored and therefore heavily freighted with elite values concerning the nature of the shepherds’ craft. Early trials accented speed, agility and obedience in the dog, as well as sheer entertainment value, arising often from debacles that might ensue in any given run. The trials, too, remained adjuncts to elite, Kennel-club style dog-shows, with their focus on conformation and the physical beauty of the animal.
– Professor Albion Urdank The Rationalisation of Rural Sport: British Sheepdog Trials, 1873-1946
Breed histories for almost all dogs are plagued by romantic fictions that are meant to reinforce the brand, distinguish the product from similar competitors, and manufacture an ethos of importance and continuity. Our dogs are valuable, unique, and special. Our dogs are not to be confused with those dogs. Our dogs have history behind them, we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way: time tested, a legacy, not to be changed or questioned. Border Collies are no exception.
The mythology of Border Collie origins is that they grew out of a pressing need for agricultural improvement, borne of Scottish eugenic engineering to create the perfect sheep dog through combat by trials. Ignorant farmers who just didn’t know or appreciate the value of a good dog could witness just how much more successful they could be in their toils if they only had a Champion’s offspring! This simply isn’t the truth.
Sheep dog trials began as pure entertainment for the rich and titled to watch as their underlings and their dogs battled the chaos of unruly sheep.
It has become commonplace among enthusiasts of sheepdog trials today that the sport of sheep herding with border collies must have originated with British shepherds wagering who among them owned the better working dog. As one local historian [Barbara Carpenter] recently observed, ‘I suspect that shepherds, though leading isolated lives, still found chances to prove the clever working abilities of their dogs to one another in local matches’. The ‘trial’ thus became in popular imagination not only a pure ‘test’ of canine working ability, but a sport initiated by working men for their own pleasure, independently of their ‘betters’, a pure artifact of plebeian culture. Evidence for shepherds’ matches remains scant, however, while the first recorded trial held at Bala, Wales in 1873, offered a contrary model for such competitions, rooted in the long tradition of gentry patronage, which soon became widely emulated. The Bala trial reproduced the traditional social hierarchy as a cultural event, and by doing so gave it a quality freighted with elite values and notions of what properly constituted the shepherds’ craft.
Professor Albion Urdank, who himself is an accomplished American sheep trialer, investigated the early years of sheep trialing and contrasted the historical trials with their modern counterparts. He makes it clear that the ISDS instituted changes over time which were to better reflect the work of the shepherd, but the most revelatory findings of his research reveal the surprising fact that trials were entertainments for the rich, not agricultural improvements for the industry of animal husbandry.
Both in its composition and assumptions about the nature of the shepherd’s craft, the first trial at Bala diverged notably from the characteristics and standards later adopted in ISDS trials. Bala was no mere local trial, but a regional event with ‘some colleys hailing even from the far north putting in an appearance’. Initiated by J. Lloyd Price, Esq., of Rhiwlas estate, it took place under the direct patronage of such worthies as the Viscount Combermere, the Marquis of Exeter, and Viscount Down of Yarmouth, to name but a few members of the trial’s organizing committee. ‘Ladies [too] were present on the ground’, while some two hundred farmers and shepherds, comprising two-thirds of the unpredictably large crowd of spectators, took their places as well. Such social mingling mirrored the persistence of ‘face-to-face’ relations characteristic of customary society; yet the hierarchical features of that society clearly revealed themselves with each stratum represented in its expected order: gentry-landlords, their farmers, and the shepherds the farmers employed as agricultural workers. The trial, too, was organised idiosyncratically, with only two elements of the shepherd’s work tested, and in a manner allowing a ramshackle quality to the event, even if due deference was paid to the idea of the dog’s virtuosity. Judges valued highly the speed and agility with which the dog negotiated obstacles, as if it were engaged in a race, and its obedience to commands in performing complex tasks, especially when runs went awry.
Today, the Border Collie war is most fiercely fought between those who preach for “work” against those who worship at the altar of “show.” The evaluation and rewarding of a dog based upon its looks is anathema to the modern trialists. They neither perceive their endeavor as sport, nor see any place for aesthetics to trump performance or even contribute to the final tally of a dog’s worth. Thus the fact that trials were born as conjoined twins with conformation shows is not a fond memory to preserve in the trial culture.
The trial was structured in two parts: a preliminary round with nine handler-dog teams selected to test their penning abilities, followed by a final round of the top four placings to test the gathering abilities of the dogs. The winner of the final round would be declared the overall winner of the trial. But curiously these series of tests began with a ‘beauty contest’, in which a show ring was formed and the competing dogs judged both for their good looks and how well they seemed ‘put together’ physically. James Thompson’s Tweed, ‘a small black and tan dog, with a white forefoot, very compactly built, with an intelligent foxy head and fair coat’, won both the beauty contest and the working trial, seeming to vindicate the view of gentry stock-breeders and middle class dog fanciers that the quality of the animal’s utility for which it was bred should flow naturally from its physical conformation and appearance. ‘The old saw of Handsome is as Handsome does was here fully exemplified’, the trial chronicler exulted.
And it’s not just the shallow nature of a beauty pageant that modern trialists rebel against. They have ample venom for mere entertainments that modern dog sports like agility, obedience, and others offer. They aren’t serious enough. They are entertainment, not work (folly, not feeding your family). But we can see that the same sort of criticisms we find against dog sports today apply to the foundational trials.
Indeed, this preliminary round of the Bala trial had something of a circus-like atmosphere, reminiscent of the rough and tumble of traditional popular sports.
The pen tended to be set up as an additional obstacle, typically ‘with an opening of 22 inches, or just wide enough to allow one sheep to enter one at a time’. Not approximating the kind of pen found on a farm, the trial pen bore only an indirect relation to work and more an affinity to the show ring, with its accent on entertainment.
The shape of the Wirral trial course, coupled with the trial’s accent on the dog’s speed, obedience, agility, and working style in moving the sheep, became prototypical of a type of sheepdog trial which, like the first Bala event, appealed to elite sensibilities. Indeed, its setting at a racetrack inspired allusions to ‘equine events’, presumably horse-racing and show jumping. The Wirral trial possessed antecedents not only in Bala, but in a competition staged in 1876 at the Alexandra Palace Park, under the curious auspices of the show-ring oriented Kennel Club. It would find successors in even more refined versions, in which flags would combine with physical hurdles to make obstacles more of a challenge.
Here’s a program from the Alexandra Palace inaugural Kennel Club “Colley Trials” where there are judges for both “WORK” and “APPEARANCE:”
In addition to reiterating a dozen times how the ISDS trials eventually would be changed to align with the work of sheepdogs, Professor Albion’s essay also covers the foundation of the ISDS at a time when socialist notions were growing in the UK leading to the formation of the Labour party: an interesting observation that I’ll discuss more in a future post.
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