Think of sheepdog handlers, and you’d probably think of the broad accents, tweed jackets and deep-lined faces of generational farmers, crook in-hand, whistling their collies through the Welsh valleys and over the Scottish Highlands. You might not think of Israelis.
That could be set to change, however, after a flat-cap raising first Israeli entry into the triennial World Sheep Dog Trials, held on Sunday in the Netherlands.
Among the 243 competitors from 30 countries were Adi Etrog with her dog Daisy and Itai Yatzkan with his dog Munch, performing the outrun, the lift, the fetch, the driving, the shed, the pen and the single, watched closely by English team coach Charles Bowen-Perkins.
To paraphrase the surprised presenter of BBC Radio 4’s On Your Farm who followed the team’s travails, these Israelis bring to mind the Jamaican bobsleigh team immortalised in the film Cool Runnings.
“It’s not very popular in Israel, it’s a small thing,” says Adi, who got into it by accident. “I was given a border collie as a present. I started to train her, just the usual stuff, then when she was a little above two years old we bred her and found a farmer who wanted to buy the pups, but he had one condition – that I had to train them to sheepdog working.”
Not having done it before, Adi started looking for someone to teach her. “There was no system, so I went on the internet and bought Andy Nichols’ DVD, because he said he can teach anyone to train a border collie.”
Adi’s pepper farm was just in its first year, so she bought Indian Runner ducks for her dogs to practise on. “It was so enjoyable. After six weeks, I was hooked.”
Like Daisy, Itai’s dog Munch is less than two years old, so young that when the team decided to enter Israel in the World Trials, she was a tiny puppy whose eyes hadn’t yet opened. And like Adi, Itai – a former IDF soldier in the elite Givati Brigade – came to sheepdog trialling in a less-than-orthodox way.
“I really like animals, so as soon as I left the army I got me a new dog on the first day, even before I had a bed,” he says. “I put a mattress on the floor and I slept with my dog.” On sheepdog handling, he says: “I really wanted to try it, even before I knew what it was. It was something that was like magic to me.”
Now living just outside Jerusalem, Itai says: “My terrain is very rocky, with a lot of small mountains and forests. We don’t really have flat places that you can see the dog and sheep. So I had to hunt these places. I took my sheep in my car and drove around. Eventually I found a soccer field, where I started to train my dog.”
Like Adi’s Indian Runner ducks, Itai says he first bought pygmy goats for his dog to learn the ropes, but soon realised goats and sheep behave differently. So he bought ten sheep, and keeps both sets of animals on a nearby site.
Bowen-Perkins says sheepdogs actually perform crucial roles in Israel’s north, around the Golan Heights. “There are some cowboys up there whose areas are surrounded by minefields,” he says. “The mines can be set off by people and by cows but not by dogs, because they’re too light. So when cows stray into the minefields, the dogs bring them out safely.”
Back in the safety of the Netherlands, neither Itai nor Adi made it through qualifying. In the event, Munch decided to go after some cows in the neighbouring field, ignoring the sheep, leaving Itai opining that “he did exactly what he was supposed to do, just not on the right animal”.
The Trials were eventually won by Norwegian Jaran Knive and his dog Gin, but for the Israelis, attending the prestigious event was simply a brilliant experience. For their first time here, it was never really about winning.
“Our goal for this was just to show everybody that we’re here and that we can do it,” says Bowen-Perkins. “We’re going to come back in three years with a bigger team, more experience, maybe a few new dogs and really go for it. If we were to get someone through to the semi-finals it would be incredible.”
Itai regrets that neither he nor Adi made it through this year, but adds: “We have learned a lot about the sheepdog world.
“The other experienced competitors were very nice to us and liked to see that there was an Israeli team at the Worlds.”