Members Gather to Brainstorm No-Frills Trials

A group of members and friends of the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association met on Saturday, January 14 at John and Connie Seraphine's farm in Sycamore, Illinois, to share ideas about how to hold trials that are as free of stress and as full of fun and learning as possible.

The object was not to come up with a single formula for such trials, but to begin to gather and to organize various ideas that trial hosts can choose from, and to try to offer support for such trials. We hope to help make hosting less stressful, and competition less expensive, less stressful, and more of a genuine learning experience.

Attending the meeting were Kari Carney, Nancy Flynn, Tresa Laferty, Catherine Price, John Seraphine and Gordon Watt. Quite a few members of the WWSDA who desired to attend, but were prevented because of scheduling conflicts, sent along their ideas and encouragement.

The group agreed that the main purpose of promoting such trials was to offer more kinds of trialing experiences so that handlers and dogs of all levels of experience will be able to learn and improve, not only in their competitive abilities, but also in their competence to aid in putting on more dog trials through such things as judging, setting out sheep, working in pens, etc.

First, we reviewed the United States Border Collie Handlers' Association (USBCHA) regulations for the sanctioning of trials and noted that hosts have a great deal of freedom in the set up of trials. The handlers association sets standards for sanctioning and notification mainly to guarantee that all handlers have a fair and equal opportunity to enter, and stipulates that sheep and dogs are kept healthy and safe, and that all people are treated with respect and fairness. Beyond those things there is a great deal of flexibility allowed.

We agreed that hosts should always strive for the highest overall quality, fairness and safety of competition, but that they have many options in offering trials that are more relaxed, fun for all, and a genuine learning experience.

Here are some of the detailed suggestions that we recorded:


  • Providing healthy and uniform sheep, and managing them in such a way as to minimize stress is more important than large numbers. Unstressed sheep can be rotated more often. For instance, having three pens of sheep at the set out insures that sheep brought from the exhaust are not run again without adequate rest.
  • Also, set things up so that sheep do not have long to walk to be set out, and insure that set-out people handle them with a minimum of stress.
  • Limiting the number of runs and stopping runs when sheep are unduly stressed can also allow for fewer sheep in a trial.


  • We highly recommend the use of volunteer judges.
  • Many more people are capable of judging than we sometimes assume.
  • Every judge should be charged to be fair and unbiased, devoted to following the mandated rules of the USBCHA and the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS), and be familiar with the USBCHA guidelines for judges.
  • We should encourage judges to attend at least one judging clinic. We should work to offer such clinics. Clinics can involve discussion and debate of finer points of judging.
  • We should encourage participants at local and no-frills trials to take turns judging runs so that many may gain experience and no volunteer is over-taxed.
  • We should work at maintaining a listing of willing and able volunteer judges.
  • All competitors should be patient and respectful toward judges while they expect and allow for judges to improve as they gain experience.

Set Out:

  • Trial publicity and entry forms should indicate that participants will likely be asked to help with set out. Perhaps asking entrants to indicate on entry forms if they are so willing will allow organizers to choose and arrange some spots ahead of the trial.
  • Educate set out volunteers. We should work to offer hands-on lessons in setting out. Maintain a listing of those thus trained and willing to volunteer.
  • Don't have a set out marker visible from the handler's post. Have a marker visible to set out people, but make sure spotters know that sheep do not have to be exactly on that spot. If the sheep are flighty, yet come to settle somewhere near the marker, the set out person should leave them there. Judges should judge the gather from the spot where the sheep are picked up if the dog has not forced them away from their settled spot. Handlers should likewise be instructed not to wait till sheep settle at an exact set out spot.
  • Encourage competitors to be supportive and not over critical of volunteer set out people.
  • Have a good rotation of set out people so no volunteer is over-taxed.


  • Courses do not have to be huge to be challenging. Natural and man-made obstacles can make things interesting even on smaller courses.
  • There are no USBCHA rules regarding layout. Trials in Britain and Eire vary from huge hill trials to courses contained on soccer fields. They have drives of varying lengths. Fetch panels are not required on shorter gathers.

Gates and Other Equipment:

  • If you don't have gate panels use something as simple as straw bales, pallets, or rain barrels. Be inventive.
  • Look into organizing a lending ring for other equipment.

General Hospitality Considerations:

  • Smaller trials and one-day trials offer many ways of simplifying.
  • Encourage people to bring their own food, or bring food to share.
  • Consider not supplying any food service, or provide beverages only - free or for donations.
  • It is the host's option whether to supply food or beverages to volunteer workers. The judge, obviously, is the one person most tied down and in need of refreshment to be provided and delivered.
  • We noted a wide variance in porta-potty rental prices, from $85 to $125. Shop around. Or, if you are bold, allow the use of a home or another nearby facility.

Running Orders:

  • Consider drawing for the running order first thing at the start. Each competitor must pull their own number, and then any changes must be agreed upon between competitors and they exchange places.
  • Consider granting requests for earlier or later running if there is a genuine need, and as long as that privilege is not abused by a given handler.
  • Keep printing to a minimum by displaying and not printing out running orders. Score sheets must be recorded and held by the trial secretary till the National Finals of that year.

Prizes and Awards:

  • Remember, awards are optional.
  • Consider no cash awards, but rosettes, traveling trophies or affordable gift-like items.
  • Encourage all competitors to remain and take part in award ceremonies.
  • Consider various kinds of positive feedback and publicity as part of the recognition process. Make good use of Sheepdog-L, Facebook, Newsletter and web site for this.
  • Consider using two-part score sheets so that judges can add comments to a competitor's copy.
  • Find out who is a first-time competitor and give those people special recognition.
  • Consider setting up a "Professional's Corner" where novice handlers and spectators can hear someone give commentary.
  • Emphasize Year End Points program.

Other Organizational Concerns:

  • The WWSDA plays an important role.
  • But local organizations or circles of local trials may also want to organize.
  • The WWSDA can collate, organize and disseminate information that will aid in no-frills trials, such as detailed advice and check lists.
  • The WWSDA and/or others can make a printed or online directory of willing and able (interested and invested) people. Part of this might be a circle for lending equipment.
  • o The WWSDA and/or local circles may consider putting on a Novice Finals. In the Northeast they do this, and dogs who participate in the Novice Finals are then required to move up in class.


Our Next Steps:

  • Share these ideas and welcome constructive feedback. Comments may be forwarded to John Seraphine at
  • Support upcoming no-frills trials and use them as test cases. Merry Russell, Tresa Laferty and Victoria Kreiter are hoping to offer such trials this year.
  • Develop and support other no-frills trials. We formed a list of a dozen other very promising new venues and hosts for no-frills trials, both sanctioned open and nursery and novice levels, located in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.