Beginner's FAQ

Beginners FAQ



QUESTIONS ABOUT GETTING STARTED


I'm not completely sure a border collie is the right breed for me--how can I learn more about them?

In my totally impartial opinion, the best site on the web for general information about border collies is the United States Border Collie Club's
All About Border Collies web site. For specific information for those considering the breed, check out their BC Basics page.

I'm physically challenged in some way--can I still compete in trials?

In general, yes! (If you're blind, probably not, but that's the only physical limitation that I can think of that would be a complete show-stopper.) Several people well into their eighties compete successfully in sheepdog trials. One of the things that I love most about this sport is the fact that even a completely unathletic, out-of-shape person like me can compete on a field along with real athletes. In a trial, the dogs do the running, and (except while penning and shedding) the handlers mostly stand at the post and tell them what to do. Good handling requires all the reflexes demanded of athletes, without the actual physical exertion that sports require. If you're physically challenged in any way, you'd do well to consider a trained dog, rather than trying to train a puppy yourself. (Training a puppy does require lots of agility and moving around, whereas working with an already-trained dog requires much less.)


I have an older adult border collie and I know nothing about sheep--is it too late for me and for my dog?

There's no question that it's easier to start a dog at eight months than at eight years, both for physical reasons and because young dogs are more ready to soak up new information than older dogs. But all dogs are capable of learning, and you can certainly learn much from your older border collie. Just be prepared for slower progress than you might have with a younger dog and enjoy the journey for the journey's sake.

I have no experience with sheep but lots of experience with other dog activities. Will that help?

Yes and no. It's certainly a help if you've trained a dog before, because a large part of any kind of dog training is learning to read a dog for signs of stress or understanding. But training a herding dog is not like training an obedience dog: you're attempting to shape an instinct that the dog already has and get him to understand the big picture much more than you're trying to get him to react to a series of commands with absolute, unthinking obedience. You'll need to acquire the wisdom to learn what is transferable from obedience and agility and what you'll need judiciously to forget. No matter how successful you were in other dog sports, you'll need to have the humility here to realize that you're a novice in this one.

Where can I find some good magazines and books about herding to help me get started?

Check out the
Resources page on LittleHats--it contains direct links to many interesting books as well as links to the major sheepdog magazines.

I need to talk to people! Are there any good discussion forums and email lists that I should know about?

You've come to the right place! All About Border Collies (our sister site) has an
active forum on all issues relating to border collies, including sheepdog training and trialing. Sheepdog-L is a US-based sheepdog list that has been around for years; although discussion on this list goes in spurts, most running orders and trial results are posted here--you'll need to subscribe if you want to trial.

Should I join a sheepdog club?

Not necessarily, and not right away. But you probably won't be trialing for too long before you end up belonging to a club or two. For more information about clubs, check out our
clubs page.

Do I need my own sheep to do this?

Frankly, it helps. I know a few people who have managed to get to Open by taking lessons and bumming sheep use off of friends, but such people are very few and far between. It's hard to ask people to use their sheep if you don't have any return invitations to offer them back--people tend to be very protective of their flocks, and the more those flocks get worked, the faster they become useless for training purposes. Constantly taking lessons is also much more expensive than supporting a small training flock, and if you're serious about the sport the time will come when you'll want to have the flexibility of being able to work at your own convenience. It's probably a good idea to find out whether you and your dog really enjoy herding before plunging into sheep ownership, but you'll almost certainly end up with sheep if you want to become an Open handler.

Just how expensive is this sport?

Very expensive if you import three trained Open-level trial dogs, buy a motor home, buy a farm and a large flock of sheep, sign up for weekly lessons, go to every clinic that you can find, and enter every trial within a 500-mile radius of your home. Pretty inexpensive if you go it alone with a puppy, use of your neighbor's flock, and a few borrowed books from helpful clubs and friends. For most of us, the truth lies somewhere in between: this hobby isn't as prohibitive as, say, showing horses, but it's not exactly a game of pickup basketball on Sunday in the park, either.


QUESTIONS ABOUT FINDING A DOG


Where can I find a puppy who will be a good herding candidate?

The short version is to go to trials, watch dogs work, talk to breeders, and try to get a puppy from parents who work in a manner that you find pleasing. You should only purchase from breeders who register their dogs with the American Border Collie Association (ABCA) or one of the other working border collie registries, and not those who register with the American Kennel Club (AKC). At this point, the AKC stud books are still open, which means that some working-bred border collies are registered with AKC and the distinction between AKC and non-AKC is a little murkier than it ultimately will be. But for now, stay away from breeders who talk about "titles," since USBCHA trials don't have them. For more detailed help, check out the
Breeders on this site.


Aren't you being a little snobbish toward AKC border collies? Aren't all border collies capable of herding sheep?

No, they're not, not even all working-bred border collies. But working sheepdogs have been selected strictly for their working ability, and AKC border collies have been bred to a conformation standard, often with show parents in their background. Breeding for conformation has ruined many a breed, and I'd like it not to ruin this one. Since I believe that, I'm going to discourage people from buying dogs from people who support AKC, both for political reasons (because I think AKC is bad for border collies) and for practical ones (because I think you're much more likely to get a good working dog from a non-AKC breeder than you are from an AKC one.) So if you have an AKC border collie that you love, I apologize in advance if you're offended by anything on this site; it's nothing personal, but that's just the way it's got to be. For what it's worth, I truly hope that you and your dog are the herding exception that proves the rule. (If you want to learn more about the so-called "dog wars" in order to understand some of the underlying passion behind all this, you can check out the USBCC's
short history of the border collie and AKC.)


I'm told that some people buy a trained dog, but that sounds weird to me. Isn't the point of this to train your own dog?

It does sound weird to people who are used to other canine performance sports like obedience and agility in which the training experience is paramount. I started in obedience, and for a long time I really didn't get the concept of purchasing a dog trained by someone else. But what I, like many obedience and agility people, failed to understand is that handling is an art in and of itself, quite apart from training. It's possible to be an excellent handler and a poor trainer, and it's probably even possible to be a good trainer and a not-so-good competition handler. But unless you know the basics of handling, you'll never be able to train a sheepdog. (Imagine trying to teach a dog to heel if you had no idea yourself what the proper heel position was!) Someone explained it once to me with an analogy that made a lot of sense: some singers write their own music and lyrics, and other singers just sing other people's songs. Even though the former is the better all-round musician, you wouldn't disdain the latter if she had a terrific voice. Bottom line: it's no small accomplishment if a novice manages not to ruin a trained dog, and starting with one may well be the best way for you to get started in sheepdogging.


You've convinced me--but how do I go about finding a trained dog?

It's not hard to find a trained dog for sale, but it's hard for a novice to find the contacts to get a good one. I list a few people who are willing to help novices find imported trained dogs
here. Beyond that, go to trials and talk to people who have purchased trained dogs, and let it be known that you're interested in buying a trained dog yourself. Dogs are bought and sold all the time in this business, and you'll definitely find opportunities to purchase one yourself. Finding the right dog, however, is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and having good advice.



QUESTIONS ABOUT TRAINING


How do I locate a good trainer to help me?

Glad you asked! Check out our
trainers page for more information.

I don't have money for a lot of fancy lessons--can I try to train my own dog without them?

Sure you can! Lots of people have gone it alone, and many of them are successful Open handlers now. Many people only take occasional lessons, or attend a few clinics during the year. It's certainly possible to train your own dog using only books and videos, but it might take you longer and be somewhat more frustrating. If you don't have your own sheep, however, training a dog without lessons probably isn't very realistic: for many people, formal lessons are a gateway to livestock, at least at first. You can train a sheep dog without lessons, but you really can't train a sheep dog without sheep!

What are "clinics," anyway?

A clinic is sort of like a nineteenth-century Chautauqua: some Big Hats occasionally travel around the country giving short-term classes (usually ranging from one day to as many as four or five days) to interested participants and their sheep dogs. You may attend a clinic either as a spectator (and watch the Big Hat work with other handlers and their dogs) or sign up with your dog yourself. For more information about clinics, visit the LittleHats
clinics page. (Note: it's been pointed out to me that "sort of like a nineteenth-century Chautauqua" is not a very helpful description, since few people know what a Chautauqua is, and that I ought to delete the reference or risk sounding like a pompous ex-academic. Nope, won't do it--I'm interested in the Chautauqua Movement, and you should be too.)


What's up with these whistles?

Although sheepdog whistles appear to have been fiendishly designed by a sadist for the sole purpose of confounding, it actually is possible to get a sound out of them--even a whole range of sounds. I'd love to be able to write something explaining in clear, logical language how to learn to blow one, but it's really something that you'll need to fool around with for yourself. My best advice is to surrender yourself to the whistle and not think too hard about it: just let your mind drift while your mouth moves it around, and eventually (seemingly out of nowhere) a sound will come, followed by another and then another. Sheepdogging can be a very Zen-like sport, and one of the first Zen lessons you can learn lies in your whistle. The sound of one hand clapping is nothing compared to the sound of one note tooting! I suggest you beg, borrow, or steal (or even buy!) a plastic whistle and start practicing while you're driving your car (preferably without dogs!). I started practicing with my whistle long before I ever got a border collie, and it paid off in spades when I did. When you can whistle along with the Beatles, you'll know that you have it mastered.



QUESTIONS ABOUT TRIALS


Why don't you have information about cattle dog trials on this site?

I don't know anything about cattle, and I don't want to know anything about cattle. They're big! And scary! But if you're interested, visit the
USBCHA cattledog page.

What's the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS)?

The ISDS is the big enchilada, the United Kingdom's registry for working sheep dogs. Unlike the USBCHA, the ISDS both registers dogs and puts on trials. (Imagine a combination of the
ABCA and the USBCHA in the United States, add about fifty more years of history, sprinkle in some UK flavor, and you'll have the ISDS). The ISDS is responsible for the four national trials held every year in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as the great International Sheepdog Trial, rotated every year throughout those four countries. The International is considered the premier dog trialing event in the world. For more information about the ISDS, check out their web site.

Why do you only have information about USBCHA-style trials on this site?

Primarily because I believe from the top of my head to the tips of my toes that the other sorts of trials are bad for the breed. No, you're not going to kill off the working border collie if you choose to fool around with your dog in an AKC or AHBA trial. But if everyone did that, breeders would cease to have reasonable criteria for selecting breeding stock. I don't want to help support that potential situation with my time or my entry dollars, and I don't want to encourage anyone else to do that, either. USBCHA-style trials are certainly a lot more difficult for novices, and success will come a lot more slowly to you if you start out in them. But USBCHA-style trials have made the working border collie the magnificent breed that it is today, and these trials are also better for your development as a sheepdog handler. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you ought to start out on the easier AKC and AHBA trials before plunging into USBCHA courses. It's sort of like learning to drive on a stick shift: if you don't do it from the very beginning, if you promise yourself that you'll learn to drive a stick after you learn on an automatic, chances are you'll never get around to it. It's much better to jump into USBCHA trials first thing, and never think about the easier world of AKC and AHBA trials.


How are USBCHA trials different from American Kennel Club (AKC) and American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA) trials?

For one thing, AKC and AHBA trials are explicitly designed so that many different herding breeds can participate in them. USBCHA/ISDS trials, although technically open to all breeds of dogs, are so demanding at the highest levels that few non-border collies would be able to complete a course. But possibly the primary difference is that USBCHA/ISDS trials are strictly competitive events: dogs who compete in them are not attempting to earn titles, as they are in both AKC and AHBA events. If you participate in a trial that gives qualifying legs toward a title, you have the right to expect that the conditions of trial A are pretty much like the conditions of trial B: it wouldn't be fair if your leg was much more difficult to achieve than someone else's leg. And that means that title-granting trial organizations need to minimize the differences between the sheep and the different courses as much as possible. Inevitably, this situation leads to trials on sheep that are very used to dogs, strict judging rules, and firm regulations about the size of a course. USBCHA trials, on the other hand, are designed to expose dogs and handlers to many different kinds of livestock (from the very dogged to the wild range ewe) and many different courses. The difference from one trial course to another doesn't matter: the challenges are roughly the same for every dog competing in a particular class on a particular day, which is all that is necessary to come up with placements. As a result of this non-title, competition emphasis, USBCHA/ISDS-style trials are much more demanding than anything you'll find in AKC and AHBA. And demanding trials help us determine what we should use as breeding stock in order to ensure that the border collie remains the premier herding dog in the world.


Actually, now that you mention it, AKC and AHBCA trials sound more my speed--I like the easy path. Where can I find out more about them?

Sorry to hear that; I hope you'll change your mind. Most of us think that it's fun to be beaten down by despair regularly. But if you really want quick satisfaction without having to work too hard, you can visit the
Border Collie Society of America for information about AKC herding and the American Herding Breeds Association for information about their club. But really, don't do it--if you go slither over to the dark side of the Force, you might well be lost forever. You don't want to limit what you and your dog can become before you even start.



QUESTIONS ABOUT LITTLEHATS


Just who are you anyway? Who died and left you webmaster?

My name is Heather Nadelman, and I've fooled around as a hobbyist web designer for almost twenty years now (wow!)--among other sites, I'm the technical web master for All About Border Collies. By day I'm a test developer for the Educational Testing Service--I'm one of the people personally responsible for the downfall of the college education system and the failure of affirmative action, or so ETS's critics would lead us to believe. I have four working border collies: Phyl, Kim, Joss, and Bo. I trial in Open, with very sporadic success. If you're really curious about me, my home page can be found
here.

So what's in it for you?

Well, it's fun to work on web pages. I really believe that everyone involved in sheepdog trials needs to do something to support the sport. Since I don't currently put on a trial, and since I'm basically lazy, this is my way of giving something back. If anyone has any suggestions on how I can make this site more effective, please let me know.

Do you accept advertising?

Not currently, and probably not ever--I'm an old-fashioned Internetter. I remember the days when the only people on the Net were a handful of scientists and Star Trek junkies, when nobody ever thought of zipping through cyberspace for a profit. Fundamentally, the purpose of the Internet is to share information: if I put up a good, free site on herding, someone else somewhere is going to put up another good, free site on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my work will be paid that way. It's a good system, and I hope to keep this site as non-commercial as possible. I don't believe in making people pay for information: my list of breeders and trainers is as complete as possible because I don't ask people to pay for the privilege of being listed there.

When Ordinary Humiliation
Just Isn't Enough