Well-schooled dogs set to take over teaching farm


Sixty sheepdogs will compete this weekend in the Cyclone Acres Sheepdog Trial at the Sheep Teaching Farm. Dogs and their handlers from across the Midwest are trying to earn points for a trip to nationals. Photo by Rachel Ritland.

If every dog has its day, 60 sheepdogs are about to have a weekend to remember at the Sheep Teaching Farm. Sixty competitive pooches will take part in the Cyclone Acres Sheepdog Trial Nov. 12-13 (8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), looking to successfully corral sheep during their runs and maybe make a friend or two along the way.

Mac Cassas, graduate student manager of the ISU sheep farm, helped organize the trial because competitors at United States Border Collie Handlers Association-sanctioned events earn points. Earn enough points and handlers and it's off to nationals.

"We really need more trials to allow competitors to earn more points," said Cassas, who will compete with her border collie. "Most of the dogs that will compete are finished dogs that have been training for at least four years."

Cassas hopes the event will raise awareness of sheepdog trials and convince people to try it. Experience will range from novice to pro, but an experienced sheepdog can easily move a flock of 80 sheep, Cassas said.

Competition will commence rain or shine. Teams of handlers and their dogs are coming from across the Midwest and each duo will have two runs daily. Spectators are welcome at the farm (3601 520th Ave.) at no charge. Concessions will be available.

How it works

The Cyclone trial is an open-field trial -- conducted outside, not in an arena. At one end is the handler and their dog and at the other is four sheep. A trial setup represents the traditional work a sheep farmer needs from a dog.

The dog is scored by a judge on multiple elements:

  • Outrun: When the dog leaves the handler and heads toward the sheep. Ideally, the dog ends up about 20 yards directly behind the sheep without disturbing them. The perfect route is shaped like a lightbulb.
  • Lift: When the dog makes contact with the sheep and they begin moving toward the handler's post.
  • Fetch: When the dog brings the sheep to the handler, ideally in a straight line. It needs to be as stress free as possible for the sheep. When the dog successfully moves the sheep around the handler's post, the fetch is complete.

The dog then will drive the sheep away from the handler through a set of panels, turn and drive the sheep across the field through the last set of panels. The last two elements of the course are the shed and the pen, where dog and handler work together to split the sheep and put them in a holding pen. Points are deducted by the judge and the highest score wins.

Host school duty

The farm is supplying 90 Polypay ewes for the event, which allows them to rotate into the competition.

"Polypay is a white-faced heavier breed, which means your dog may have to apply more pressure to move them," Cassas said. "Different breeds move differently when it comes to working your dog."