Tim Dowling presents sheepdog trials in all their exhilarating, exasperating glory

One Man and His Dog is back with Matt Baker and Michaela Strachan - in preparation, here's all you need to know about TV sheepdog handling

My dogs pay me no heed. By that I mean that they do not respond to my commands. It’s not that they aren’t paying attention – they stare at my back all day, waiting for me to say something. They just don’t understand what I’m asking. Or maybe it’s because they don’t care.

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In fact, if there were just one command I could get both my dogs to obey, it would be “Stand Down”. Roughly translated, this would mean, “stop looking at me with an air of pointless expectancy; nothing is about to happen. There are no meals on the immediate horizon, no one is at the door, and we’re not about to go out for a walk. Please find a way to amuse yourselves elsewhere, but stay off the beds”.

Unfortunately Bridey, the one that obeys, is 13 and almost completely deaf, and the one that can hear – Nellie, three – doesn’t listen. In any case, it is not in their nature to Stand Down. Ever.

Occasionally, however, I do fantasise about another life, a life in which I am able to work my brace of dogs like a well-oiled machine, employing only a series of cryptic shouts and whistles. I’m not sure what I’d use them for – perhaps I’d just send them out to get milk, or hold parking spaces – but I’m sure I could find something. I owe this fond wish to repeated viewings of One Man and His Dog.

Perhaps you don’t even know what I’m talking about, for there exists in the UK a lost generation – those who were born too late, and consequently know very little about how to herd sheep with dogs, or how to discuss the craft intelligently at an office water cooler. They have never seen a single episode of the long-running series. At its peak in the early 1980s the programme attracted audiences in excess of eight million, and people spoke of little else. But by the late 90s ratings had slipped, and by 2000 the series had been axed. The show continued in the form of annual specials, but if you were busy at tea-time on the Saturday before Christmas, well, you may just have missed it.

Now One Man and His Dog is back, earlier in the year and live. Matt Baker and Michaela Strachan are presenting, with commentary from Gus Dermody. It promises to be more exciting than ever, but for anyone born after a certain date, its intricacies will be as impenetrable as an episode of Beavis and Butt-head. We therefore present below, for those who have missed out, a primer in TV sheepdog handling.

As far as this man and his dogs are concerned, my investigation into the strategies of the “Drive” and the “Fetch” has amounted to nothing. I can’t get even my dogs to fetch a stick: they chase it, and fight over it, until nothing remains but splinters. It turns out that when I am commandingly dressed as a shepherd – in boots and smock – they will follow at my heels. But that’s only because they want my crook.

The name of the programme, while redolent of simpler times both in animal husbandry and popular entertainment, is slightly misleading. It’s not just about one man – there are several involved, and even some women – and quite a number of dogs. For accuracy’s sake it should really be called Some Men, Not Quite So Many Women, Their Dogs and a Bunch of Sheep.

It’s never been away
The first sheepdog trails were held in New Zealand in 1867. The sport first came to the UK in 1873. According to OMAHD producer Victoria Simpson, some time in the mid-1970s a BBC commissioning editor who found himself looking out the window at a sheepdog trial thought, “Do you know what? That would work on telly”. It launched in 1976 and ran for 24 years. The Christmas specials carried on where the series left off, so as Simpson says, “It’s never been away”.

Let battle commence
The contest is between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The contest is broken down into three sections: the Young Handlers, the Brace (one man, two dogs) and the Singles (one man, one dog). The challenges are designed to mimic typical tasks faced by sheep farmers in real life, much as the modern pentathlon (shooting, fencing, swimming, running and show jumping) is designed to reflect the average commuter’s daily journey to work. In sheepdog trials a flock is herded round a field by a human handler issuing a series of commands. It’s a bit like a video game, but you use border collies instead of your thumbs.

The rules of the game
Everybody begins with full marks for each round, and then points are deducted for mistakes, imperfections and technical faults. In the Outrun, for example, competitors start with 20 points. The handler is meant to send his or her dog round a flock of sheep to a point directly behind them. The judges can deduct points if the dog gets too close to the sheep, runs too far wide of them, or ends up in the wrong place. A dog can even be penalised for giving the sheep “too much eye”. That’s right: you can lose points because your dog looked at some sheep the wrong way.

Fetch, Drive and Singling…
In the Fetch section, the dog or dogs must turn the sheep back towards the handler. The dog(s) must take care not to upset, scatter or eat the sheep. In the Drive, the sheep are herded away from the handler at an angle and through some gates. In the Shed portion, the dog is required to separate a number of sheep from a flock held inside a ring – or, in a variation known as Singling, to single out one sheep. Finally, in the Pen, sheep are herded into an enclosure, with points deducted for escapees.

“Come by!”
Handlers use both whistle and voice commands to order their dogs about, but the whistling carries over a greater distance. When whistling, you’re allowed to use an actual metal whistle. There are four basic commands: Come-by, which means go clockwise; Away (anti-clockwise), Stand and Walk-On. It’s up to the judges to work out which whistles mean what, so they can deduct points if the dog isn’t listening. To complicate matters, it’s not unusual for a handler in the Brace competition to have separate commands for each dog. Some Welsh handlers even speak Welsh to one dog and English to the other. It’s unclear why this isn’t considered cheating.

Going live
“I’ve been campaigning for years to turn it live,” says Simpson, “because it’s a sport, isn’t it? The rounds are timed – they don’t compete against the clock, but there is a limit – which means the pace is manageable for live telly. The weather will be less predictable, but sheepdog trials take place all year round in all conditions.”

So that’s sheepdog trials in all their exhilarating, exasperating glory. If you’re still confused, just watch. It will all start to make sense.


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One Man and His Dog – Live! starts tonight at 5:00pm on BBC2