Their intelligence, skill and athleticism in the stockyards have long been recognised, but the talents of the humble working dog are beginning to extend beyond the farm gate. With twinkling eyes, wagging tails and paw pads that barely seem to touch the ground, canine farmhands are winning over an increasingly urban crowd. At a working dog school north of Boggabri, participants agree that the trend is becoming apparent across northwest NSW.
Veteran trainer Rob Cox is running a workshop on a sheep and cattle property north of Boggabri, in the foothills of the Nandewar Ranges. Rob has been working with dogs since he left school over 30 years ago and has watched the ‘urban herding’ trend with interest. He is convinced that working dogs are slowly breaking down the city country divide.
“Just about everybody has a connection to the land in some way and learning how to work your dog is a way of getting back to the bush,” he explains. “For someone in an urban environment it’s a way to get close to nature, it feels real. The last few years there’s been a really strong semi-rural and urban contingent coming along to workshops, they want to use a working dog for what he’s meant to do.”
As he chats he’s keeping one eye on his student handler and her dog. The pair are mobbing up sheep in a set of stockyards on Ed Wall’s picturesque property ‘Penryn’, a scenic spot for one of his many workshops. Rob pauses mid-sentence to observe a tense stand off, with the small, fine featured kelpie waiting for the signal to move up on the sheep. With a few words of encouragement from Rob, work begins to flow again.
“To be able to understand how the mind of a dog operates, people need a greater understanding of their own personal attributes and deficiencies,” he says. “Learning about yourself is a journey that everyone must go through and some people, even those from the city, choose to travel it with a sheep dog.”
The students at Rob’s workshop agree that working dog trials are growing in popularity and that many of the new competitors aren’t necessarily from a farm. Kathy Law runs a miniature pony stud near Boggabri and has no need for a working dog, yet she started trialling two years ago. “It’s something I always wanted to do and a lot more people have picked it up since I started two years ago,” she explains. Her short haired border collie puppy Gypsy is looking up expectantly, keen for her turn in the yards. “I’m really enjoying it, it’s such a rush and it’s really rewarding when the dog works for you.”
Rohan Clarke from Barraba adds that the trialling community has welcomed interest from their city cousins. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your ability is, it’s about learning and everyone having a go,” he says. “There is such a good atmosphere at trialling competitions. It is a competition but people are really encouraging, especially with the younger ones.”
The apparent desire to work with herding dogs has seen a number of working dog schools and events crop up in larger city centres.
Dale Formosa from Shaundah Herding School south-west of Brisbane has also witnessed the trend first hand. He has been training dogs and handlers for over 40 years and was one of the first to open an urban herding dog school. He estimates there has been a 400 per cent increase in clients over the years, with the vast majority of those coming from the city.
“It’s helping people understand the role of the dogs in the bush, and how special and important they can be around livestock,” he says. “People are also starting to realise that if you want a happy working dog, let him do what he was bred to do. The dog is so much easier to live with when he isn’t so frustrated.”
Melbourne dog trainer Charlie Brincat has lived in the city all his life, but fell into trialling by accident when he came to own first kelpie. He explains how, through the dog, he made his way into what is traditionally a bush practice. “The dog seemed to say to me, ‘I’m a working dog, I want to chase the sheep,’ and once I got involved and saw what he was capable of I was hooked,” he says.
Charlie now helps other city siders who either own a dog with behavioural issues or who spot their pet border collie herding chooks in the backyard. He keeps livestock on an eight-acre block in the Melbourne suburb of Kilsyth purely for the purpose of allowing working dogs, and their owners, let off some steam.
While urban herders are getting an education in bush practice, the benefits flow both ways. Dale Formosa believes his city students have changed his perception of the role of the dog. “I used to think my dogs were purely for working, but I guess I’ve learned that they should be treated more as part of the family,” he explains.
Dale also notes that the urban contingent is essential to keeping the sport of trialling alive. Those who compete in working dog trials as a hobby now make up a significant number of entries in working dog trials and encouragement events around the country.
While interest from city siders is on the rise, farmers are also rediscovering the value of four legged workers, which is in turn putting upward pressure on the price of good working dogs. The average price for a dog at the National Working Dog Auction in Scone last year reached $3,239, over $1000 higher than the previous year.
The top price paid at the auction has increased from $5,800 in 2011 to $7,750 this year, but the return on investment remains solid. A study from the University of NSW estimates a working dog has a median value of $40,000 over the course of its working life, while the median cost involved in owning the dog amounts to just $7,763.
Organisers of the National Working Dog auction believe buoyancy in the cattle market and improving seasons is behind the rise in interest in working dogs, but Rohan Clarke believes working dogs are providing a solution for farmers in an increasingly tough economic environment. “The staff just aren’t there at the moment so the dog can replace the men,” he explains. “Input costs are increasing and with a motorbike and three dogs, one man can do what you used to need three people to do. You pay $3,000 for a really good dog, and it replaces a man worth $30,000 or $40,000 per year, so they’re a pretty cheap investment when you think about it. And you don’t have to find work for your dog every day, but if you’ve got a man working for you you need to have jobs for him every day to be getting value for money.”
Despite the cultural divide between country and city communities, an appreciation of working dogs appears to be universal. As city populations continue to explode and numbers in country towns dwindle, perhaps communication lines can be kept open through a trip to the stock yards.
STORY & PHOTOS Virginia Tapp