Putting their stock in dogs

"Border collies are known to have a high IQ. They can be taught to do things that are unnatural to them. Their bidability is one of the strongest also. They have more natural ability to want to please their master," said Leeman, who has seven border collies: Roy, Sue, Paige, Meg, Lad, Katy and Jake, who was imported from Wales.

The public is invited to watch stock dogs at work with their handlers during the fifth annual Spring Creek Farms Stock Dog Trials, beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Spring Creek Farms in Lebanon. There will be four categories of competition: open, nursery, pro-novice, novice.

Last year’s event drew 45 dogs from across the Southeast in competition for $1,000 prize money and qualifying points for the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association Finals.

What happens at a stock dog trials?

"Dogs will go out and find three sheep in an open field and bring them back to the handler, going through a series of gates to complete a course," said Leeman.

"My job is to pick the best working dog that is there that day," said Leslie Scruggs of Starkville, Miss., who will serve as judge at the event.

She will be looking for a dog with a lot of natural ability and stock sense, but, she says, "He’s also got to be a dog that is very bidable and willing to take the commands from his handler."

Handlers direct their dogs with a series of commands communicated by voice and whistle. The dogs understand at least 15 different commands as the mechanical whistle that Leeman uses can makes sounds of different pitch so that she can relay instructions like walk forward, stop, go clockwise, slow down, hurry up and that’ll do, which means the job is finished.

Leeman has lived in Lebanon for 25 years and works as a bookkeeper at Edwards Feeds. Her husband, John Butler, assists in the training and has a stock dog of his own, Sam.

Leeman estimates there are 10 to 15 stock dog handlers in Wilson County. She began pursuing the vocation 15 years ago.

"I happened to be at the Wilson County Fairgrounds, and the Middle Tennessee Stock Dog Association was there working dogs out in a field. I sat down in the bleachers to watch and that was it. I was hooked," she said. "I was always a dog lover, but I was fascinated by what these dogs do. I became obsessed with it."

She spends about an hour every morning and an hour every afternoon training and caring for her border collies. On the farm she raises 120 white Dorper sheep for training her dogs.

"They do not make good pets for most people," Leeman advises about border collies. "Every moment she’s awake, she’s trying to herd something, and that’s not good if they have nothing to herd. Cars, butterflies, water hoses—they try to herd it.

"When they’re two weeks old and their eyes open, they begin to recognize one another and start herding each other around. They don’t know why they’re doing it."

Loyalty and perseverance are hallmarks of the border collie’s character says the stock dog handler.

"They’re dedicated to whomever they think is their master," said Leeman. "The bond between the handler and his dog is inspiring. It is so strong that the dog will work with no regard for his own safety or well being. The competition is designed to showcase the unique talents of the border collie."