The four sheep peacefully grazing on a hill near Rural Hill on Saturday, Nov. 13, never saw it coming.
But before they knew it, they were in the crosshairs of Nan, a 6-year-old border collie, who had only one thing on her mind: using more than 100 years of instinct to gather and herd those sheep through a complex series of movements.
The exercise was part of Rural Hill’s 15th annual Sheep Dog Trails sanctioned by the United States Border Collies Handlers Association. More than 100 dog handlers traveled to the historic Scottish farm on Neck Road to put their dogs through their paces.
Nan and her owner Marianna Schreeder were one of them.
As a crowd of two- and four-legged spectators watched, the sheep quickly forgot their feeding and broke into a trot. Nan followed closely behind with her head low to the ground, hindquarters high and tail tucked between her legs. The unique position exhibits the very traits inherited a century ago from Nan’s ancestors in England and Scotland.
Schreeder stood more than 100 yards away, with her back to the crowd, giving the dog commands through different whistles. Every herding dog has a different set of whistles that directs them which way to herd, Schreeder said.
“There’s even a whistle that tells the dog to look behind them for the sheep,” Schreeder, who traveled to Rural Hill from Atlanta, said.
As the crowd watched, the border collie guided the sheep through a series of gates and eventually into a circle where it split the four sheep into two pairs before unsuccessfully trying to herd them into a small pen.
“She (Nan) did mediocre,” Schreeder said. “We ran out of time at the end when we were trying to get the sheep in the pen but other than that she was very good.”
The competition was the fifth year Schreeder and her dog have attended at Rural Hill. Schreeder, who competes in about 15 sheep dog trials a year, has been competing in sheep dog trails since 2001. She said she enjoys using the dogs as they were meant to be used.
“I think using the dogs as they were bred to be bred is really the infatuation,” she said.
Nan and other border collies were bred to gather, not drive, sheep. They work calmly and swiftly without barking or nipping unlike some other herding breeds, according to the American Kennel Club. The dog’s intense gaze wills the sheep to obey. Bred to “clap” or face the sheep head-on with its belly close to the ground, the border collie controls by imitating the stance of a predator. The successful dog combines all these characteristics to elicit respect, not fear, from the sheep.
Nan’s performance wasn’t enough to place her in the finals held Sunday, Nov. 14. While Schreeder was slightly disappointed, Nan wasn’t. For her, it was a day of good fun.