This May in South Dakota, Berhow fell asleep at the wheel and totaled his pickup. Remarkably, Nick and Jen weren't hurt, nor was Berhow. Two days later, they jumped out of Berhow's replacement pickup, and Nick won first overall at the Blue Ridge Trial in White Post, Va., an event Berhow has taken four times.
The Blue Ridge, along with Seclusival and Oatlands, form The Virginia Triple Crown. Handlers come from as far away as Maine and Texas, Canada and Montana, to run against the cleverest dogs in North America. In the dawn fog, before each trial starts, dozens of dogs dash around, renewing old acquaintances, observing important dog rituals.
Sheepdog trialing is a three-species sport, and the best human and dog cannot win if they've drawn the worst sheep. Trial organizers try to ensure that sheep come out even, but sheep that were quicksilver in the morning may be sulky at noon. Sometimes a handler draws a crazy sheep, one who never heard of "the sheep-flocking instinct," who takes off for the tall timber. Sometimes a sheep will fight the dog and need to be backed around the course, one reluctant hoof at a time.
"Bill's very cool," says handler Bev Lambert. "He doesn't run to place. If you're going to win, you can't play the odds. The coolest thing I ever saw Bill do was at a trial when he had only seven seconds to get his shed [separate the sheep]. He took time to settle the sheep before he called his dog in. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself and your dog to do that."
Nick, a seven-year-old, has won more than 50 trials. He is a stocky, hearty, mostly black dog with a white blaze, tail tip, paws and spot on his neck. "Nick's got a happy attitude," says Berhow. "If he was a person, he'd always have a new joke. He'd say 'Good morning' if there was nothing but thunder and lightning."
Near the close of last season, Jen, who's an eight-year-old bitch, became sick of the endless trialing and traveling and developed a serious case of the sulks. Berhow took her home and did nothing. "You just have to leave her until she comes back to it," he says. Jen came back to win the overall title at this year's Seclusival trial; she was more than ready for Oatlands.
Oatlands is held at a National Trust plantation, outside Washington. Thousands of urban spectators come for a quiet day in the country, or to wonder at dogs doing things they never dreamed dogs could do. On the course, Lambert whistled her dog through the run with signals: "Go right," "Stop," "Right," "More right," "Stop," "Walk up," "Stop," "Lark, lie down." The commands were as quick as birdcalls, as fast as one per second.
Berhow awaited his turn with Jen. As they walked out to the handler's post, side by side, other handlers leaned forward in their lawn chairs and stopped talking. Berhow stood calmly at the post, conversing with Jen. Suddenly, she was away.
There was a great mob of spectators, kids kicking up a ruckus, a piper playing Highland folk tunes, but Berhow was deaf to all that as Jen went out 100 yards, 200, 300, behind the sheep. They came off nicely, and Berhow whistled Jen left, right, balancing the herd. The sheep came to Berhow's feet and moved around him, Jen's feet thudding on the hard ground as she raced around on the outside of the herd to start the drive to the first set of gates. The sheep were through one set, and it looked as if Berhow had waited too long to tell Jen to hook back in so that she could catch the sheep at the second set of gates. But no, Jen was dead right, and the sheep trotted through these gates, too, and into the shedding ring, where the dog had to cut out two sheep. She did it perfectly.
The sheep balked at the pen. Sheep may not be brilliant, but they know that sheep in pen is stage number one of lamb chops. One sly ewe tried to sneak around the pen, but Jen headed her off. She tried again, time ticking away, and suddenly the sheep gave up and went into the pen.