Tasmania's journal of discovery

Dances with dogs

By RACHAEL TREASURE | On the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June one of Australia’s top stockwomen and Kelpie breeders, Nancy Withers, held up her bidders’ card until the selling price of a Kelpie reached a world-record, crowd-gasping price of $5,400 at the Casterton Dog Auction in Victoria.

She was bidding on behalf of Tasmanian farmer, Neil Monks of Bothwell, who bought Baghalla Mick sight unseen.

But if he had been at the auction, he would have witnessed the brilliant work of a handsome 20-month-old Kelpie with a glossy black coat and tan markings on his face and legs — paintwork flashier than any sportscar racing stripes you’ll see.

After I heard the news of Mick I went out to let our own dancing, grinning Kelpies from their pens for a run and as they bounded in front of me and twisted their athletic bodies in delight, I danced with them.

Amidst our canine pack, doing the Kelpie shuffle with a smile from ear to ear was our youngest and most prized dog, Connie … a full sister to $5,400 Mick.

Connie came into our lives when I was six months pregnant with our second child and I was launching my second novel, The Stockmen in Casterton. She was a gift to us from her breeder, Ian O’Connell, one of the most dynamic, funny and intelligent people I have ever met.

I wasn’t at all surprised that Ian had fetched that kind of money for his dog Mick! In my mind, over time Mick will be worth that ten times over for his new owner as he works tirelessly and with joy on the sheep run country of Bothwell.

I expect Nancy knew that too when she pushed the bids higher and higher … because any dog expert worth their salt knows, when you buy a trained dog, you also get with it, free of charge, a lot of the emotional and personality traits of the person who trained it.

Kids and dogs

Nancy has a theory about dogs and kids too. I remember she once told me that when a family turned up to her place to purchase a working dog, she could tell instantly how well her pups would be trained just by looking at the behaviour of the buyers’ children.

Naughty children equaled unbalanced, undisciplined dogs, no matter how flash the breeding in the pups. Parents of lively, yet polite kids would generate a similar outcome in the dogs.

Nancy knew Ian O’Connell and his wife Kay have raised great kids; full of life, confident, hardworking, imaginative, yet a little bit cheeky and fun to be around.

She knew Ian had fostered the same confidence for life in his dog, Mick. The pup, already had won a couple of yard dog trials in his very new career — exceptional for a dog of his age. But, his former owner is exceptional.

Ian was responsible for breathing life into the dwindling rural town of Casterton by kickstarting the Casterton Kelpie Muster and Working Dog Auction, based on a piece of history that linked the town with the Kelpie breed.

With his contagious zest, Ian lured my husband, John and me to the auction a few years ago, where we sold an eight month old pup for $2,000. After the sale, he plied me with red wine and around midnight placed a poem in front of me by a local poet.

The poem recalled a night in the 1800s when an Irish stockman, Jack Gleeson, swapped his stockhorse for a pup in a secret deal on the banks of the Glenelg River near Casterton. Gleeson named the pup Kelpie and the iconic history of the breed was born.

And because of that book and because of Ian, I now have a loyal Kelpie dog in Connie in our kennels back home in Tasmania.

She’s been the best I’ve trained. She has all the balance, spirit and heart in the world. She also has a wicked sense of humour, but come to think of it, so do my kids.

You can bet we’ll breed from her this year and the pick of her litter will travel with us to Casterton in June 2007 for the Kelpie Muster.

And there, John and I will dance at the Kelpie Black Tie Ball in celebration of stockmen, past and present and their wonderful working dogs, who are after all, priceless.

Rachael Treasure is the author of two bestsellers — Jillaroo and The Stockmen [both published by Penguin] — and is currently looking for ‘bum glue’ to finish her next book. In the meantime you can follow her adventures on her blog.

Photography by Matt Newton. See more of his fine work on his web site

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