Saturday, September 16, 2006


We’ve come a long way since those tough old drovers and stockmen would give their dogs a ‘touch up’ before a trial… to keep their minds on the job, they would say, but really to scare the dog into obedience. Sometimes they would give them another afterwards, if the first one hadn’t worked. Poor dogs. Most were used on very big mobs of wild station sheep, and it was quite a different matter manoeuvring three silly animals around a course of unlikely obstacles. They were bred to work in atrocious conditions for very long hours and without a balanced diet, it was long before the days of Pal and Chum. The dogs were lucky if a sheep died, because by the end of the day their boss was often too tired to kill one for them. Or he made the last one last a lot longer than it should have. The one thing those men share with today’s handlers is the intense satisfaction of working a well trained, clever dog. There is no feeling that matches the satisfaction of grasping the pen gate, pulling it closed as your dog follows it around close to your leg, and the relief of that gate finally locking in those three sheep.

Watching a trial recently, it was obvious that many handlers enjoyed having total control over their dog and were unwilling to let the dog show much initiative. Although you often got the distinct impression that the dog was a fraction ahead of their orders, which arrived just after the dog had already ‘obeyed’ them. The tone of voice always interests me, too, it tells much about the relationship and what goes on at home. The handler basks in reflected glory when the dog works well, and it often seems he takes most of the credit. Some female handlers appear to have a different attitude, and are more prepared to form a co operative partnership with their dog. Years ago I watched an experienced old dog complete an informal yard trial for his young owner, who was very much under the weather. In fact, he had a can in one hand (which proved somewhat of a handicap when opening and shutting gates). The old dog completely ignored the constant stream of beer-lubricated instructions and abuse and completed the trial on his own. He backed the final recalcitrant sheep at least ten meters through the last gate towards its mates, who were waiting beside the put-away gate. A memorable performance.

Townspeople find a dog trial a source of wonder. Maybe they are wondering why they can’t get their pet poodle or labrador to obey them so effortlessly. The herding instinct has been nurtured in these working dogs, and that primitive instinct to go out and catch prey by hunting it toward the pack leader is paramount. The work they do controlling sheep is only an extension of this primal urge, and of course the handler is the pack leader. It is well known in dog training circles that success is dependent on the handler establishing this relationship. Most problem dogs think they are the pack leader, and simply need to be convinced otherwise. A well bred herding dog, usually a Border Collie or Working Kelpie in Australia, needs only a few commands to harness this instinct and make it an invaluable helper. It is very sad that show standards set by the K.C.C. ignored this working instinct and focused on physical attributes. Over the years, the dogs bred for show have changed enormously from their hard working country cousins. It seems rather strange that there are now two separate types of Kelpies, bench and working, and that the later are not accepted in the show ring despite their common ancestry. Similarly, the show Border Collies now have such magnificently long, flowing coats that they are unsuited to work in grass seeds and summer heat, even if they still retain any instinct to do so. Buyer beware! If you want a working dog, don’t buy one that has been bred for the show ring.

It is only a matter of time before some well meaning animal rights group decides that it’s cruel to make dogs run around chasing stock unless they rest for at least half the day, have access to shade and water at all times, and travel only a few k’s a day. Their owners would like similar working conditions! Of course, they would be totally ignoring the fact that the dog is doing what it has been bred to do for very many generations. It is happier working hard in hot, dusty conditions than living a life of frustration in a suburban back yard. Ethical breeders will not sell working dogs as pets unless they know the dogs will have unusually large amounts of exercise with their new owner; training endurance horses, for example. I was approached at a recent trial by a well meaning young man who was worried about a dog tied up on the back of a ute. He said the chain was too short and it was in the sun. The owner lengthened the chain so it could sit under the ute, but the dog jumped back up and sat in the same position where it could see the sheep being shorn nearby. I hope he returned to check it out. Incidentally, it was a cool day and we explained that the chain was short to prevent the dog hanging itself. But these are things dog owners need to watch when out in public.

At the same trial, the judge decided not to add sheep to the race to make it harder for the dogs in the final, as is the usual custom. The race was already very easy to fill, and even weak, inexperienced dogs had had little trouble. He was worried that the spectators might be concerned that the sheep were being mistreated, and was quite justified in his decision. Unfortunately, this favoured a certain type of dog and penalised the more practical, forceful dog. It was a ‘farm dog’ trial, and set up to demonstrate this type of dog, so it was quite a ‘Catch22’ situation. Should we allow a small, uninformed section of society dictate to us? Should we alter our rules to accommodate their demands? Should we rethink the way trials are set up at present? Should backing be banned and races filled from outside? Questions that will need to be answered quite soon.

On the other hand we have the ‘three sheep’ or arena trials, now usually the province of older, retired people. These are unlikely to attract as much criticism because handlers are loathe to enter under-trained dogs that can’t control the sheep. There isn’t the need to pressure sheep at close quarters, either, as when drafting or filling races in a yard trial.

These trials have presented another problem, though. The same course has been retained in Australia for a long time, only refined by shortening and narrowing the paths the sheep are allowed take without incurring loss of points. There are no new obstacles and no unexpected challenges. More dogs are being bred solely for trial work, and many are quite unsuitable for the hurly burly of the real world where more action is needed. The latest fashion of favouring white dogs is also a worry; supposedly the colour helps the sheep to settle, and they often ‘draw’ towards the dog instead of running away in fear. But this can also lead to skin cancer and eye problems. More food for thought.


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