Sheepdog trials are a competitive sport in which handlers direct their dogs to move sheep around a field and into fences and/or enclosures. Three sheep are always used in New Zealand, as this is the most challenging combination for the dog: the sheep form a two-and-one, with the single sheep always being unpredictable.
The popular television series A dog’s show and Wonder dogs have shown the skills of these dogs to a wider audience.
Dog trials are part of New Zealand farming history and probably date back to a trial in Wānaka in 1867. There are reports of trials at Waitangi and Te Aka in 1868, at Wānaka in 1869 and Haldon Station in the Mackenzie Country, in 1870 – all before an 1873 trial at Bala in North Wales, which is claimed to be the first ever. The first huntaway events were at Black Forest station near Lake Benmore, in 1870.
Dog trialling in New Zealand is controlled by the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association (NZSDTA), which started in 1940 and is made up of affiliated member clubs. The meetings start with the summer A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows and culminate in regional and national finals around June (winter). There are shepherds’ trials and maiden dog trials for less experienced handlers throughout the year.
There are four standard classes for trials run under the NZSDTA.
Class 1: Heading dogs – long head or long pull
The dog has to cast out, lift (move) and pull (drive) the sheep, usually held on a distant hill, in a straight line into a ring of 20–30 metres’ diameter on a flat area, towards the handler. Time allowed is 9–14 minutes.
Class 2: Heading dogs – short head and yard
The dog has to cast out, lift and pull the sheep, which are held much nearer than in the long head, towards a marked quadrangle. It then has to drive the sheep along a pegged lane, through hurdles and work them into a 2-metre-square yard or pen. The handler is restricted to holding the gate. Time allowed is 10–14 minutes.
Class 3: Huntaways – zigzag hunt
The sheep are released at the bottom of a steep hill, and the dog has to drive (hunt) them up a zigzag marked course. The dog must always ‘face-up’ and bark at the sheep and not the handler. Time allowed is 8–10 minutes.
Class 4: Huntaways – straight hunt
In this event the only markers are at the top of the course. The sheep have to be hunted directly up the centre of the course to the top markers, in as straight a line as possible. Time allowed is 8–10 minutes.
Although sheep dogs also work cattle, trials to demonstrate their skill with cattle alone have not been popular in New Zealand.
Acknowledgements to Maggie McCoward of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association