In 2014, Kay Stephens competed with two of her border collies, Gala and Storm, at the United States Border Collie Handlers National Finals Trial in Carbondale, Colorado. To qualify for this trial, dogs compete over the course of a year in trials to accumulate points. Only the top 150 pointed dogs in the United States are able to compete in the Finals Trial.
The Finals trial consists of a course with the following elements. An outrun in which the dog runs from the handler’s feet to the sheep for approximately 500 yards, then the dog must fetch the sheep 500 yards through an obstacle to the handler. Then the dog must turn and drive (take the sheep away from the handler) the sheep through a 600 yard course. The Drive is judged on the straightness of the line the sheep are on and the ability of the dog to direct the sheep through series of obstacles. Then handler controls the dog using whistle and voice commands. The sheep are then brought to the handler and the dog and handler together perform a shed (splitting of the sheep into two groups) and pen the sheep in an 8 ft. sized pen. The sheep used at the Finals Trial are wool sheep brought from the mountain range in Colorado and are quite wild, having never been worked by dogs or people until the trial.
The finals trial consists of three rounds. All 150 eligible dogs compete in the first round. Only the top 40 dogs proceed to the next round. In the second round the course is even larger and more complicated, and only the top 20 dogs are allowed to continue to the final round. In the final round, the course is enlarged and the dog must perform what is called a “double lift” in which the dog must bring one group of sheep back to the handler then turn back to bring a second group of sheep. Then the dog and handler must separate or shed 5 marked sheep away from 15 unmarked sheep and pen the 5 marked sheep.
In the initial round in 2014, Kay’s dogs placed 11th and 27th out of 150 dogs. In the semifinals round, Storm placed 17th and in the Final Double Lift Round, Storm placed 8th. Most handlers at this level make a living training and trialing sheep dogs professionally, and it’s unusual for a nonprofessional handler to compete successfully at this level.
Training dogs for this level of obedience takes years and many hours of training and practice. The dogs must learn to instantly respond to commands at a distance of 500 yards or more while keeping control of wild unbroken sheep. Few dogs have the intensity, intelligence, herding instinct, and athletic ability to excel at this difficult level of competition. Both of Kay’s dog are from her own breeding program and were bred, raised and trained by her.