Driving alone, you can make 800 miles a day. When there are two of you, you can push through. Bill Berhow and Ralph Pulfer, a pair of sheepdog handlers, did just that for a couple of years in the late 1980s. When their socks got rank, they would tie them to the outside mirror of the pickup to dry.
The sheepdog circuit begins in Texas in January with the "winter Olympics" sheepdog trials. From there, it's on to Florida for the Penn Y Caerau, to Alabama for The Heart of Dixie, out to Arizona for the S.A.I.L.A., back to Texas for the Shootout, all the way to Porterville, Calif., for the Spring Driving Championship, and on to Marcus, S.Dak., for that trial and The Virginia Triple Crown. "I don't mind it so much," says Berhow, "but it's hard on the dogs—never being in their own kennels at night."
In 1983, while running a tree-improvement facility for the U.S. Forest Service in Ocala, Fla., Berhow, who earlier had seen a sheepdog trial, entered his first event, The Heart of Dixie at Birmingham. He finished a surprising second, and after that he was hooked. He had worked his way through the University of Florida to get a degree in forestry, and he had acquired some sheep and a Border collie named Scarlett, with whom he worked The Heart of Dixie competition.
But because of the demands of his work, Berhow took part in only a few events each year until the mid-'80s. Then he decided to enter trials full-time, and for two years he drove the circuit with Pulfer. When Pulfer got started in the sport, sheepdog trials were few and far apart, and if you won, you got a nice trophy, but rarely cash. By the early '80s, however, things were picking up. There were hundreds of trials, and sponsors had gotten interested. In 1983, Pulfer's dogs Shep and Nan were the finest working tandem in America.
Berhow found work as a shepherd and dog trainer not far from Pulfer's farm in Quincy, Ohio, and he would bring Scarlett and a dog named Jaff to Pulfer's place to train. Pretty soon a tough, laconic veteran was making the trials circuit with a stocky, blond-bearded beginner who wanted, it seemed, to know everything. Dogs, that's what they talked about: how to handle them, how to get them around a trial course, how a good run should be judged. "Bill could be stubborn sometimes," says Pulfer. "Oh, yes, he could be stubborn."
Berhow remembers the time he critiqued Pulfer's run at a trial in Fort Assiniboine, Alberta, and they drove the 30 hours back home without exchanging a single word. "That's one thing Ralph and I never do now," Berhow says. "We can talk about anything, but we never discuss each other's runs."
Dogs have been bred for 500 years to herd livestock, and the Border collie is a star when it comes to herding sheep and other livestock. Some are big, some little; some have prick ears, some flop ears; some are long-coated, some short. Most are black and white, but there are red ones, white ones, tricolors and merles. Nobody cares what they look like. These dogs are what they do.
Forty-five national-level sheepdog trials will be held this year in America. During a run, the dog goes out several hundred yards, gathers anywhere from three to 30 sheep and fetches them for his handler. At the handler's command, the dog then drives the sheep away, through obstacles, over easy ground and also ground that sheep don't like to travel—in short, anywhere. With the handler's help, the dog pens the sheep and runs them through squeeze chutes when the sheep would much rather not, thank you. The dog sorts a sheep from the flock and holds it for the handler. The judge deducts points for every fault: sheep off line, dog out of touch, overcommanding, under-commanding, failing to pen. There is a time limit.
In Britain, where the sport originated, most trial competitors are farmers and working shepherds. In the U.S., perhaps a third are. At this year's Virginia Triple Crown, which took place at three sites over nine days in the middle of May, veterinarians competed against librarians, and a county treasurer ran against a woman who does CAT scans. The circuit also includes machinists, sheepshearers, a racehorse orthodontist. A judge from Scotland once said, "In my country we keep dogs for our sheep. Over here, you keep sheep so you can work your dogs."
In either case, trialing won't make you rich. So far this year Berhow, who's 38 and now lives in Lavinia, Mont., has taken home less than $20,000 in winnings. To do it he has had to put 35,000 miles on the odometer, with another 15,000 or so to come. He's on pace to better his recent achievements; in 1989 and '90 his dog Nick won the Purina Sheep Herding Dog award (another of his dogs, Jen, came in third in '90), and last year Berhow also won the national handler's finals. In the summer of '90, Berhow had to put old Scarlett down. It was, he says, the hardest thing he has ever done.