VIRGIL — Four sheep stood side-by-side at the top of a hill, with a border collie about a yard away from them, laying in the lawn grass, eyes locked on the four livestock.
A whistle blew from the bottom of the hill. The dog looked at the whistler and the sheep looked at the dog.
The person called out “Walk Up” and the dog ascended, casually making its way to the sheep. The sheep followed suit and walked away from the border collie, shadowing the dog’s movement, going in whichever direction the dog took.
Several other commands were called out to have the dog move the sheep in unison through gates stationed around the hill, with the ultimate goal to have all of the sheep end up in a pen, or shed.
It was all part of Fetch Gate Farm’s 11th annual Sheep Dog Trials event. Over the four-day competition from Friday to Sunday, more than 80 dogs — all border collies — and more than 100 handlers, from across the country, competed, said Roger Millen, owner of the farm at 1804 Babcock Hollow Road, along with his wife, Heather.
The two bought the farm in 1998, specifically for sheep dog trials and training. The couple have 10 border collies, Roger Millen said. Border collies are natural herders and all it took for the Millens to launch a life of sheep dog competitions was playing with their first border collie.
“You start playing Frisbee with them and then you say, ‘Well lets try this,’” Heather Millen said about trying out sheep herding competitions. “Then you say, let’s buy a camper. And then let’s buy a farm. It snowballs.”
To have a dog fully trained to compete at the top of its level could take six years, not including everything a novice handler needs to learn, according to handler Natalie Labelle, from Ontario, Canada. But to Katy Ratcliff, from Sunbury, Ohio, who has been training for about35 years, that is the most fun aspect of working with the dogs.
“It (training) is more challenging for people,” Ratcliff said. “You have to think like the dog and the sheep. That is a big part of the challenge.”
The competitions are sanctioned by the North East Border Collie Association, which covers the northern states and Canada. People travel from one trial to another, collecting points from their results for an overall championship.
Roger Millen said the trial will give away $6,000 in prizes to the top 10 winners in each class.
The four-day trials were divided between two groups of dogs — novice and open. Novice is for inexperienced handlers and, or, dogs, while open is for advanced competitors.
Merry Klimek, from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was competing in both classes with her dogs Wren, a 6-year-old rescue dog, competing in the open class, and newcomer Grace, who is just over 1 year old, competing in the novice class.
She said she really enjoys working with the dogs and thinks the border collie is a fascinating breed because of their herding instincts. She was also very impressed with the Millens’ farm and sheep they have.
Roger Millen said he and Heather are happy to be ableto provide a large trial farm, with about 100 to 150 sheep on site, because not many can provide that. And he said, in allinstances, the sheep come before the dogs. He does not tolerate any aggression or biting from the dogs. The safety and care of the sheep is a top priority, he said.
Sheep dog trials have gone on since 1873, when a farmer said to another, “My dog is better than your dog,” according to Heather Millen. Even since then, the sheep, dog and handler have had a unique relationship where the dogs rely on their handler for direction, as the sheep rely on the dog for guidance.