My family and I attended the Twenty-sixth Annual Australian Shepherd Dog Trials on a lark. At the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds, the morning was breezy and sunny, perfect for watching dogs perform. The beautifully brushed black-and-white dogs were calm and well mannered. Held on close leashes, they frequently checked their owners’ faces for commands. If only children behaved like this. Our three kids, ages three, seven, and ten, grumbled when they saw the setup for the trials. Simple pole barns for dog shows on rocky ground hid a few pens out back for the trials. Swallows and small airplanes swooped overhead. The only refreshments were from vending machines. My husband and I exchanged glances but decided to give it a try. After all, it was free.

We sat on bleachers to watch the trials, the only spectators who didn’t seem to be participants. Everyone seemed to be just waking up at 9 a.m. Judges sat in a white building overlooking the field. A dog owner led his dog into the pen and told the dog to begin. Then five sheep came out of a gate into the field. The dog suddenly got to work, attempting to direct the flustered sheep through three panels, including a chute, without barking. The first dog, named Shadow, was not obeying his owner, and the

sheep ran wild. The interactions among trainer, dog, and sheep were fascinating — part of the fun was trying to understand the meaning of the commands, such as “Go by,” “Away,” and “Lie down.” By the fourth trial, our kids were authorities on the Aussie breed, making comments like “That one was really well trained” and “If that was my dog, I’d name him Caramel.”

Our favorite dog was Quick, otherwise known as Caramel, a five-year-old Red Merle variety with luscious red-and-white fur. He hailed from Imagine Farm in Manchester. Listening attentively to his owner, Becky Bailie, he took a few elegant steps to herd the sheep exactly through their paces. After all the contestants herded sheep, they switched to herding ducks in a smaller pen. We stayed to watch Quick guide five mallards around a course. With a few Aussie shepherd steps in the right direction, the ducks miraculously flapped around the route in the correct order.

We plan to go back to watch the cattle herding at the Twenty-seventh Annual Trials, which run Saturday through Monday, May 26-28, at a new location, Imagine Farm. It will be hard to beat the duck trials for generating awe in the power of a human relationship with a dog that makes a flock of birds move in a coordinated way.

[Review published May 2007]