Meet the Yorkshire sheepdog trainer who gave up a career in the fashion industry for border collies

Sheepdog trials are often seen as the ultimate challenge of man or woman and animal working together in the countryside and this time of year sees much activity as the best sheepdog handlers and their dogs jostle for qualification to the national nursery finals.

John Atkinson of Escrick, near York, has bred and trained many successful dogs in a long career.

He has won big trials, trained dogs right across the United States and organises the annual Escrick Park Estate sheepdog trials, but he is particularly pleased that this year two of his dogs, Cae and Jess, are going forward to the English National Nursery Finals.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

John said he’s never achieved the feat before because he normally sells his dogs to other handlers and farmers beforehand.

John Atkinson with dog Cae

“We’ve just finished the nursery season in the Ryedale Sheepdog Society and the top three dogs go through, with the fourth place going along as reserve. Cae, which means field in Welsh, finished second and Jess was fourth.

“I’ve never had dogs go through in the nursery class before as I generally sell them. I sold two of my eight dogs just last weekend.”

John said the key to training a dog is in taking things steady and that he believes the greater number of women involved in training dogs all around the world today is down to their attitude.

“I’ve had three Scottish national champions, an International champion, an American national champion and a One Man & His Dog winner. I trained all of them but sold them on to those who won with them.

John looks after a flock of Hebridean sheep on the Escrick Park Estate near York

“I was obsessed with dogs and able to train them when I was a child of no more than four to five years old. At that time, it was just about giving a paw or to sit, but I would also teach Rex, my grandma’s dog, by putting a biscuit on its nose and using army terms of ‘on trust’ and ‘paid for’ for when it could catch it.

“That was when I was growing up in Headingley. When I married we had German Shepherd dogs and I became the first civilian to win a police dog trial with my dog Carl who went on to win a number of awards.

“To train any dog you need patience and most of all to be kind to the dog and have a positive firm attitude.

“It’s your voice, the way you act with them, body language, and repetition, that’s where the patience comes in.

“There are more women trainers and handlers involved now and more coming forward all the time. They have a great attitude that I think is helped because of their knowledge of raising a child. It’s the same principle.”

John said his move to sheepdogs came when he had moved to Colton near Temple Newsam and he had decided he would take on some sheep.

Read More

Read More
How sheepdog 'experience days' near Baildon Moor are proving popular with dog lo...

“I had a successful career in the rag trade, the fashion world. The sheep and sheepdogs were my hobby. I’d helped a few local farmers and had enjoyed sheep, so I bought half a dozen Suffolks with the idea of producing rams.

“The flock grew to around 50 ewes and that’s when I needed a sheepdog.

“The German Shepherd I had at the time called Danny was useless. They have no instinct. I bought my first Collie puppy called Beth from a man called Mick Davy.

“Beth took around 18 months to train and seeing she was a good ’un someone suggested I should run her in sheepdog trials.

“I won a big open trial with her over at Hornsea where John Templeton, who had won the Scottish National numerous times, was judging.”

John’s ears were pricked when he began realising that Beth was now worth something. He said it was a moment when his business brain clicked.

“People wanted to buy her and I picked up that I could make a few bob. I bred her and started producing my own sheepdogs.

“From her first litter I kept a bitch called Meg that I trained up and took for her first time out at Littleborough.

“I hadn’t realised just how keen people were to buy good dogs until I was stood next to two fellows.

“One was a sheepdog dealer. He said: ‘That young dog you’ve just run. Will you sell me it?’

“The man on my other side said: ‘Ask him £500’. I did as he’d said and the dealer gave me £450 in cash. Meg never went home with me.

“I was training sheepdogs for trials from that moment on and always with the mind that I would sell them.

“I would either buy from others, dogs that were about six months old and what they call showing an interest, train them up or I would breed myself. I’ve never bred a lot, just enough.John carried on competing but said that training had become his obsession.

“In any game you’ve to serve an apprenticeship and you kind of know that with all these old fellows competing and you’re much younger, you’re not going to get many prizes.

“I’d found that people would come up to me as soon as I ran a new dog and say: ‘You’ve had a good run lad, will you sell me your dog?’

“I’d sell and then wouldn’t be around for a while as I bred, bought and trained up the next one.”

John was with Escrick Park Estate looking after Charles Forbes Adam’s Hebridean flock for 16 years and still lives in the gamekeeper’s cottage that he came to nearly 20 years ago after having lived in Thorpe Willoughby, Bellerby, near Leyburn, and Lumby.

“I received a call completely out of the blue to come and gather sheep on Skipwith Common and I’ve been here ever since.

“I’m currently organising the Escrick Park Estate Sheepdog Trial that takes place over May 8-9 this year.”