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“Steady” is a vital command when working a Border Collie on sheep – and nowhere is it more useful than at a pen. There are two keys, I’ve found, to penning sheep:

First, do not try to force the sheep into the pen – they’ll squirt out like you’ve stomped on a ketchup package. Instead, the handler and the dog must work together to close off all other avenues the sheep might take, so that going into the pen looks like an escape route.

Second, one must let the sheep figure this out for themselves. They need time to look at the pen and decide it’s less of a danger than either the handler or dog.

Working sheep is exciting for a Border Collie, and penning is a task that requires a lot of restraint and subtle moves.

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It can be a nerve-wracking exercise for the dog, who either must remain still or make only minor adjustments to its position. This is where “steady” becomes important, because it’s a command to the dog to slow down or stop in its tracks. (Some handlers use “stand” or “take time”, or just “time”.)

The handler in these pictures is having a good run at Judge Farm: The sheep are checking out the pen – and they’re aimed at the hinge on the pen door, which is the best possible position to minimize their chance of either turning back (towards the handler) or squirting between the far side of the opening and the dog. The dog is on the hips of the sheep, ready to cut off escape to either side as commanded by the handler. And if the sheep do enter the pen as hoped, the handler is ready to follow along behind and swing the door shut.

But they’d better complete the pen soon. If a train goes by, all bets are off…

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For the Judge Farm module, I wanted to model something relevant to my other passion – working my Border Collie on sheep. I picked the penning task because it would give me the opportunity to model the pen itself – an interesting structure built from four panels, linked together by rods at the corners. It’s also a scene in which everybody is at rest, which also looks better on a model railway than modelling action frozen in time.

The railway now has more greenery on the right of way. I wrote about reducing the ballast slope in an earlier post. In the photos here, I’ve also added static grass, and installed (but not yet stained) RoW fence posts.

The sheep are from The Aspen Modeling Company. I painted them and added some weathering powder to muddy them up a bit.

The handler is a figure from Arttista. He started life as a “Man with Pry Bar” (Item 718). I tossed the pry bar, adjusted his hands, then bent up a shepherd’s crook from wire and put it in his right hand. It can be seen in the lead photo.

The dog is an HO scale wolf figure – I believe from Woodland Scenics. It’s the right size and general shape for a Border Collie. I bent down the tail further (Border Collies hold their tails down when they’re calm and “thinking”, while the tail tends to fly up when they’re excited). and then gave the wolf figure a repaint into classic Border Collie black and white. I used my dog, Mocean, as my model, checking things like how high the white fur goes on his legs and so on.

I think he got fed up with the attention…

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12 thoughts on ““Steady…”

  1. A great vignette, made totally convincing by your insider knowledge. I love the handler and the sheep are very good, too…they look a bit like Merinos? I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on sheep handling. My old dog Fly, a border Collie, responded to a “hold” call which took me a long time to pick up from the trainer I got her from, resulting in a few minor disasters! I always thought there was an invisible red line with sheep…stress them over that line and as you say, all bets are off!

  2. I think it’s great that you’ve been able to include another one of your interests on this module. And it’s made better, as Iain said, with your personal knowledge. Hopefully other people with shared interests will take note at the show and appreciate your effort in including this great mini-scene.

  3. Border collies are lovely dogs.

    We dogsat a border collie for a year while I was in graduate school. She tried to herd us, our car, and our cat.

    She was not successful with the cat.

    Sheep dog trials are a regular feature of Scottish television, but it seemed to be a bit excessive to watch the same trial repeated in Gaelic, but then I am not truly keen.

  4. Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone.

    A couple of you have picked up on a theme I’ve tried to illustrate with this post.

    There’s a maxim for authors: “Write about what you know”. The idea also applies, I think, to building model railways – particularly when it comes to structures and scenes. The most successful of these, I think, are the ones built from an understanding of the real world.

    While most readers may not appreciate this scene at the level that I do, I am happy with the arrangement of the various elements because I understand what is supposed to happen when penning sheep. If I did not, I might have placed the figures in a completely different arrangement.

    In fact, to create this scene I drilled and installed a fine wire under each figure so I could install them I’m the scene by poking them into the foam board terrain. I then spent about 20 minutes repositioning them around the pen until I came up with an arrangement that looked “correct” based on my (admittedly limited) experience working dogs on sheep.

    In this case, I’ve modelled something that I know. If I were to do a scene with which I’m not familiar – for example, a wharf scene – I would be completely at sea. I have sailed a little bit, and been on ferries and other watercraft, but I’m not an expert. I would therefore have to take even greater care to observe the prototype, in order to correctly model it.

    In such cases, one stands a greater chance of success if one finds a suitable prototype (or picture) and faithfully models what one sees. The more one deviates from the prototype scene, the more one needs to understand the fundamentals behind that scene to avoid creating something that doesn’t ring true.


  5. Hi Trevor,
    As I enjoyed reading your sheep herding mini scene,
    I thought of another “Slow Movement” idea,
    a bee keeper working with his hives ….
    FWIW John Green
    Vancouver BC

  6. What I enjoy the most about model railroading is the opportunity to learn or research a field that I have no background and knowledge about. Thanks for the short lesson on penning sheep. My wife ended up with a small flock of sheep on our ranch in California and frankly neither she, our foreman nor I had a clue about handling them. Our two Akita’s were at least able to keep the flock in our sheep pasture, but I suspect it was more because the Akitas were able to scare them into submission. Happiness was finding a buyer for the flock. We did learn that the sheep didn’t get along well with Llamas nor the goats.

  7. Hi Trevor, Neat scene penning the sheep, though I wonder how often a passing train crew has lamb chops with the location of that small competition sized pen near the tracks.

    We’ve had three border collies and and English shepherd (Misnomer – she’s an american herding breed), but different working styles and techniques.
    Ours are just pets, though our current border collie herds our English shepherd and the shepherd actually can herd our Siamese cat!

    We watched a high level competition a few years ago (one level below the nationals). The field was much bigger than we’d seen before 500-600 yds deep, ~100 yds wide, slightly rolling ground with many areas of tall grass. Some dogs got lost on initial outrun because they ran right past the sheep.

    The most interesting part was the second day, the finals. The routine was different than we’d ever heard or seen. They called it a “double lift”. A dog would make initial outrun to find five sheep and then bring them to the first gate. But then they had to leave those woolies there and go out again to find and bring back five more sheep. That was tough – many had never done that before and were back and forth, scattering the sheep.

    Once all ten together, they went around course as usual until the end. There was no pen, only a large circle (20-25 ft?) marked on the ground in lime. Five of the sheep had a red spot on back of neck. The handler had to get and keep those five in the circle while keeping the other five out. The handler and dog could be in or out of the circle, and the handler could assist a little by changing position or waving the crook, but could not make any physical contact with the sheep. 12 minute time limit from outrun start. Quite a show!

    Only one team made it and they’d been National champs 5-6 times. My wife grew up on a horse farm and made one cogent observation: all the handlers really knew their dogs…the winner also knew sheep.

    One interesting detail that fits your action at rest theme: off to the side was an old porcelain bathtub full of water. This was a hot July day and after each team was done the dog would go over to the tub, the dog in it would get out, the new one would climb in, submerged except for tip of nose resting along sloped back of the tub until next team finished. Bill Gill

    Quite a show!!!

    • Hi Bill:
      Ah yes – the “double lift”. I’ve been trying to teach Mocean the “look back” command so that we can do this. It’s not easy.
      I love the idea of the bathtub for cooling off hot dogs. I’ll have to look for a suitable tub in 1:64.

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