FRENCH-STYLE TRIALS IN
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

by Linda Rorem



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In the early 1990’s Terrie Van Alen, President of the Northern California Shetland Sheepdog Herding Club, began corresponding with a Sheltie owner in France. I had also had some contact with France due to my interest in herding practices in different countries. As a result of further correspondence, a plan developed to hold an all-breed trial based on the French traditional large-flock trials, to be sponsored by the NCSSHC and the American Herding Breed Association.

Herding trials in France began over 100 years ago. The traditional trials use large flocks and reflect the practices needed for taking sheep out during the day to be tended as they graze in unfenced fields. In the plains regions, where sheep were grazed in compact groups so they would thoroughly mow down the field a section at a time and the dogs also had to keep the sheep from straying into any neighboring crops. In the mountain regions, where the vegetation would not support intense grazing, the sheep were allowed to scatter more and the dogs might have to go out at a distance to gather them up. Originally the trials only had one level, advanced, but later three levels were developed, I II and III, for started, intermediate and advanced. Flocks used at the traditional trials in France may number from 50 to 80 to well over one hundred. The shepherd accompanies the flock through the course, walking ahead, behind or beside the sheep, changing position as required by the situation. Likewise the dog may work at the back, along the side or at the front depending on the situation. The set-up of the course is based on the characteristics of the location, so the actual layout and sequences of exercises will vary from place to place and time to time, within overall set requirements. (See Herding Trials in France).

This general type of work has also been done in many other areas of Europe, and in Great Britain and the U.S. as well, where dogs had to handle sheep and other types of stock in the open, either grazing in unfenced areas or being taken to market. This type of course by its nature accommodates a range of practical herding tasks that have been performed by a variety of herding breeds.

After obtaining and translating rules from France, further correspondence, and much discussion and planning, a course was designed and the NCSSHC's first "parcours a la francaise" or French-style herding trial was held in Santa Rosa, California in 1995, judged by AHBA judges. The course was laid out in as natural a fashion as possible, for the most part using the existing fencing and terrain. Only part of the holding pen, a “road,” and a bridge over a small gully were constructed for the course. Turns and overall direction were marked by stakes, as is the practice in France. The course was approximately 1,000 years in length, with a time limit of 30 minutes. Two flocks of 40 sheep were used for alternate runs, with the trial taking place over consecutive days and entries limited to six per day so that each flock was used only three times per day.

The event was so interesting and enjoyable that it was decided to make it an annual event. In September 1996 the trial was held in Pescadero at a lovely old dairy farm, in a 20-acre field with ills and a large pond (or small lake). As before, a wide variety of breeds took part.

1997’s trial, again in Pescadero, was especially enjoyable, because that year Mr. Paul LeGoff, the Secretary of the Herding Commission of France, came to judge and to give a clinic on judging and course design. He was accompanied by Mrs. LeGoff, who served as his trial secretary. To provide a better overview of our Northern California French-style trials, a more detailed description of this trial follows.

On the Friday before the trial Mr. LeGoff helped finish the overall layout of the course, and explained how the trials were run and judged in France. The emphasis is on the dog's control of the flock. At the stops, for instance, Mr. LeGoff wanted to see the dog coming to the front of the moving flock and stopping it, rather than the handler leading the flock into a stop. At the obstacles and narrow passages, the dog likewise was to be actively guiding and controlling the flock. In order to clearly demonstrate this, the handler was not to lead the flock through the obstacles and narrow passages, but to drop back toward the rear of the flock as it approached the obstacle, whereupon the dog was to drive the flock through the obstacle, the handler passing through the obstacle last of all. On the course in general, handlers could lead or follow, and Mr. LeGoff said that in France about half of the handlers generally lead, half generally follow (other than at the obstacles and difficult passages, where having the flock following the handler through the obstacle is considered too easy). During the clinic there were four "practice" runs. With the assistance of a translator, Pierre Paquelier, who did a great job throughout the trial, Mr. LeGoff provided much helpful information and all participants enjoyed the clinic.

The trial began Saturday morning. The course at Pescadero was set out in a 20-acre field with hills, trees, a gully and a large pond (or small lake). There were two classes: Level II and Level III, with alternating groups of 40 sheep for Level II and 80 for Level III.

The course began with taking the flock from a pen; after exiting, the dog was to hold the sheep while the handler closed the gate. In this case, the sheep were drawn to a flock on the other side of a fence not too far away, and if the dog wasn't on its toes the sheep would escape up the small hill toward the other sheep.

After exiting the pen, the flock was taken down the field and through a panel obstacle designed with a side opening which gave the sheep an easy opportunity to take the wrong route. In addition, the flock had to be stopped in front of the obstacle before proceeding. This proved to be a tricky obstacle, as it was exactly in a location where the resident flock had regular paths of travel off to the left or right, with even the visiting flock wanting to follow these clear paths -- but the course lay straight ahead through the main panel opening.

This obstacle also was at the edge of the "road" marked out by two plowed strips, so the handler was to "check the road" as if there might be traffic, walking past the dog while it continued to hold the sheep in place. Then the dog was sent back around the flock to move it onto the road, the sheep going through (ideally) or around (as sometimes happened with a few or more of the flock) this obstacle as they came onto the road. The road was about 25 ft. across, and after a turn had a fence along one side. At this point, the Level III dogs had to squeeze the sheep against the fence so a slow-moving car could pass (great care was taken in driving the car, and it was stopped at the slightest sign of dog or sheep getting in the way). In Level II, the dogs took the sheep past the parked car.

At the end of the road was a sharp turn, then the sheep were taken back across the field to a culvert over a gully. At this narrow obstacle the handler was to come behind the flock again, the dog pushing the sheep across ahead of the handler. At this point there was a strong draw to the left and right which had to be guarded against.

After climbing a small rise, the flock reached the grazing areas. The graze area for Level II was on top of the rise, while the Level III flock had to go farther, to a graze area at the end of a long slope and near the pond. The graze areas were marked at the corners by four stakes. The sheep were to be settled to graze within the limits of the stakes, while the dog and handler remained outside the designated area. The sheep are to be settled in a fairly compact group. The sheep were not kept grazing for any length of time. After they had settled, at a signal from the judge the Level II handlers resumed the course, while the Level III handlers moved with their dogs to another stake about 75 ds. away to perform an outrun and fetch. In France the distance may be up to 250 to 300 yards.

The flock was then taken back toward the culvert, but this time they were turned just in front of the culvert -- the turn being marked by stakes -- and taken along a line of trees. The handler was required to stay at the back so that the dog could demonstrate its control of the flock, which was inclined to go back over the culvert rather than making the unfamiliar turn just in front of it; but if blocked from the culvert too soon, the flock would cut the corner of the turn. (I had noticed how, when walking the course on Friday, Mr. LeGoff immediately spotted the tricky draw points and incorporated them into the course to add challenges).

After completing the turn the flock was to travel on a narrow lane bordered by the trees on one side and a slight rise on the other, with the dog being required to keep the sheep out of the trees -- hich they weren't at all averse to entering -- and off of the bank on the opposite side. Next came another turn at a narrow gap in the trees through which the flock was to be taken. The flock was to be stopped momentarily in the gap -- again, the handler was to fall back to the rear while the dog drove the flock just ahead, then the dog was to swing around in front of the flock to stop it; the dog had to go over and under tangles of trunks and branches to get around the flock. The handler could then go the front and send the dog back around to bring the sheep on through the gap, or the handler could remain at the rear and call the dog back around to drive the sheep through; the sheep were not to be allowed to stray into the trees on either side of the gap.

Back in the open, the flock reached a stake designating the area where the flock was to be stopped and held in place. Here the handler was to catch and briefly hold a sheep, while the dog, working without command, was to cover the flock and keep it grouped around the handler. The dog was judged on its initiative in holding the flock to the handler while the handler concentrated on the captured sheep. In France, the handler might be required to actually trim a hoof, or in the sheep-milk-producing region, milk the sheep!

Level II dogs then returned the flock to the pen. On nearing the pen, the dog was to come to the front of the flock to hold it back from the gate while the handler opened the gate. Level III dogs had more work to do. In an adjacent 100 X 200 arena were two additional obstacles. The arena was accessed through a narrow open gate. When the flock reached this opening, the handler was to stand back while the dog worked the flock through it. The sheep could not be pressured or rushed or they would jam the opening. The gate was left open throughout the work in the arena, providing a temptation for escape.

The first obstacle was a free-standing chute with wings at the entrance and a narrow throat, the chute itself being one sheep wide. (We called this the Pez Dispenser because the sheep had to funnel through one at a time.) Care was required to bring the sheep to the mouth of the chute so that they would flow through the narrow chute without jamming the entrance or escaping around the sides. This was followed by a Z-chute against the fence; this was a standard AKC Z-chute but with a visibility screen on the sides so the sheep couldn't see through it. After the sheep had gone through the chute, the dog was to go through the chute behind them to make sure none remained behind, then the dog had to quickly cover the flock lest it go out through the narrow opening prematurely.

Returning to the main field, the sheep were taken to the final pen, the dog coming to the front to hold them away from the gate while it was opened, then being sent back around to guide the sheep into the pen while the handler stood at the gate. The run ended when the gate was closed.

Scoring totals for the two classes are 150 pts. for Level III and 100 pts. for Level II. In France, Level III scores above 112 are rated "excellent" and are required for eligibility for the National Championship; scores of 90 to 112 are rated "very good", scores of 75 to 89 are rated "good"; below 75 is non-qualifying. In Level II, scores above 75 are rated "excellent" and are required for entry into Level III and for the earning of the "brevet," or working certification; scores of 60 to 75 are rated "very good," scores of 50 to 60 are rated "good"; below 50 is non-qualifying.

In addition to the awards, ribbons and parcours pins awarded to qualifiers and participants, all participants in the trial and owners of the demonstration dogs at the clinic received plaques brought from France by Mr. LeGoff, featuring the logo of the Commission Troupeaux of the Societe Centrale Canine, which were much appreciated. Mr. LeGoff also presented organizers of the event with beautiful medallions in the shape of an outline of France with a red/white/blue ribbon.

In 1999 Mr. LeGoff returned to judge again, and in 2000 the NCSSHC’s trial was judged by Mr. Michel Pillard of Le Chatelet in central France, who raises cattle and sheep which he works with his Beaucerons. Mr. Pillard is also a long-time competitor in the traditional trials in France and has won the championship with his Beaucerons. He even brought along one of his Beaucerons, Milane de la Prahas, reserve National Champion of France in 1997, who provided some impressive demonstrations of her stock-handling skills.

The Northern California Shetland Sheepdog Herding Club has continued its “parcours a la francaise” every year, in varying locations with courses adapted to the particular facility, with a variety of breeds participating.  Recent trials have been held in Wilton, California, with French judges Jean-Michel Jolly in 2010 and Michel Pillard in 2011.

Due to logistics factors, large-flock trials have rarely been held in this country. The same number of sheep, used in groups of three or five at a herding trial, can accommodate many entries, while at a large-flock trial only a few entries can be accommodated. Therefore, trials using flocks of 40 to 80 will be rare. There are, however, ranch trials held by the Australian Shepherd Club of America and by the American Herding Breed Association which have some similarities to the parcours in that they are held in a "natural" ranch or farm setting, reflect a series of practical tasks and use a course that varies from place to place as to particulars although having required elements in common; these trials can accommodate larger numbers in a group, although usually only around 10 per group are used.

It has been amply demonstrated how suitable large-flock work is for a variety of breeds. Participating breeds in the NCSSHC’s trials have included the Belgian Sheepdog, Belgian Tervuren, Rough and Smooth Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Border Collie, Kelpie, Samoyed, Bouvier, German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Australian Shepherd, and, quite appropriately, Briard and Beauceron. Dogs and handlers alike enjoy working the large group and the task-oriented course.

 

 

 


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