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Climax to a canine career

By TIM DUB | October 5 — almost mid-spring, which in most places in Australia would mean T-shirt weather but this is Scottsdale in Tasmania’s north-east and it’s still only 6°C on its way to a miserly high of just 8°C. The public address system crackles, the voice is leisurely and reassuring, the voice of a man whose seen it all before and learnt that the sometimes heavy burden of country living is lightened by a teasing sense of humour.

“These sheep have got that look about them. You know they’re not going to do what you want. Sometimes you see that look, first thing, when you wake up in the morning.”

The Supreme Australian Sheep Dog Championships 2003 are on their last of six days in a hard fought competition, but this early morning slot is the final of the concurrent Interstate Challenge and the voice belongs to Malcolm Taylor, a semi-retired local farmer, thoroughbred horse breeder and competitor. The Interstate Challenge is contested by two representatives from each of the six Australian States over three rounds, one ‘Supreme’ and two ‘Trans-Tasman’.

The Supreme course is ‘Australian Rules’. In this the worker directs the dog but must not help it with movements or gestures in any way as the sheep are shepherded through, between, and over the various obstacles until either they are penned at the end or run out of the allotted time of 15 minutes.

The other two rounds, following ‘Trans-Tasman’ rules, seem to be truer to a working situation because in this style of competition the worker can move around more freely and help the dog to shepherd the sheep with gestures and noises.

Depending on your point of view, these sheep can be described as ‘spirited’, or less generously, as ‘feral’

As Malcolm’s commentary confirms, these sheep are uncooperative. Because every trial has to start with fresh animals, it takes 1100 of them for 48 competitors over a six-day tournament like this and these merino wethers have been provided by a big property (by Tasmanian standards) called ‘Barnbougle’. They have only ever been worked by quad bikes, are accustomed to the company of a flock of some thousand sheep and are not used to people. Depending on your point of view, these sheep can be described as ‘spirited’, or less generously, as ‘feral’.

Over the course of the six days, a fair number of handlers score zero even though they are acknowledged to be highly skilled. This is unusual. Indeed some of the sheep are declared unworkable as they hurl themselves kamikaze style into the fence and have to be replaced with a fresh trio. The variable behaviour of the sheep prompts the question, how much is success or failure in this sport dependent on luck?

the ultimate accolade goes to the handler, though the majority will readily give credit to their dogs

Malcolm’s answer is complex. A successful round depends on a good instinctive dog who responds to directions from the handler and can anticipate the moves of the sheep, and has the speed, strength and temperament to impose his will on the animals.

The handler has selected or bred the dog and then trained it, as well as instructed it throughout the course. Therefore, the ultimate accolade goes to the handler, though the majority will readily give credit to their dogs. So what are the ingredients for success — is it the handler, or the dog or does it depend on the luck of the draw with the sheep?

Usually the answer is all three, though there are consistent winners in Sheep Dog Trialling, with Greg Prince of Dubbo recognised amongst his peers as the king of kings. Greg even offers training courses to other aspiring competitors. Of the several competitions with names that suggest that winning them would represent the pinnacle of Sheep Dog Trialling National, World, Supreme, Champion of Champions as well as countless local or regional competitions, Greg Prince has won all the big ones, some of them repeatedly, eg, the National an unprecedented nine times out of 13 entries. Malcolm Taylor, too, has an impressive list of achievements which include winning Consistency awards, representing Australia and culminating in becoming the World Champion in 2001.

In the UK there is a popular TV show, ‘One Man and his Dog’, devoted to the sport. It is relatively unknown though its popularity is growing, even amongst city dwellers, some of whom now take their urban pups to training classes for sheep dogs.

It’s easy to see the attraction. Man and his best friend must have learnt in prehistoric times that both could benefit from inter-species cooperation for mutual security and hunting and this bond is wonderfully evident in the rapport between a good dog and his handler and in the way sheep are made to perform otherwise impossible feats. Chances are the dog will be a Border Collie and as likely, a bitch.

A word of caution when talking to sheep dog handlers. Their normally active sense of humour has a very clear cut-off point. Don’t mention the film ‘Babe’ — the one about the pig who wins a trial for his owner by asking the sheep to cooperate. It’s unclear why, but for whatever the reason, these real life dog handlers just don’t seem to find it funny. ¶