BLUE ARRIVED AT OUR PLACE last spring from a farm in Maungaturoto. She was 10 weeks old and (although I’d never admit it publicly) pretty darn cute. Her markings were typical of New Zealand heading dogs – mostly black-&-white with some tan thrown in for good measure. One half of her face looked like something Rembrandt had painted, and the other Picasso. ‘Two-face’ was the name that first popped into my head when I saw her (like Batman’s nemesis), but that sounded lame. To be a true Kiwi working dog, her name needed to be short, sharp and a little bit sweet – something John Gordon* would be proud of. She was a cute bitch, after all …
Having worked on farms when I was younger (and kept a toe dipped ever since), I’ve always hugely admired working dogs. A well-trained huntaway or heading dog at work is a sight to behold, and in many ways they’re the unsung heroes of New Zealand farm-life – particularly sheep farming. To put it bluntly, we’d be stuffed without them. Watching a grown man trying to outrun a mob of heading-to-the-horizon sheep is not a pretty sight … although it is a funny one!
Shepherds have been using dogs since King David was a boy. And when New Zealand’s pioneering farmers first settled here, dogs very quickly became a vital part of their day-to-day operation. Today, little has changed. New Zealand’s approximately 200,000 working dogs routinely round up around 30 million sheep (down from a peak of 70 million in 1982) plus 10 million dairy and beef cattle, move them through gates, into pens and onto trucks as well as driving them across large areas of hill and high country – a job that’d be impossible without them. A good dog is, simply put, indispensable.
There are two main types of dogs used: the New Zealand heading (eye) dog, originating from the border collie, bred to ‘head’ sheep silently and eyeball them at close quarters – and the Huntaway, a large, usually black-&-tan dog, bred for its loud, deep bark. It’s used to ‘hunt’ stock away (get it?) and is real handy in the yards, often climbing on the backs of sheep to get across pens.
Now, a bit of history. Back in the day, shepherds would lean on each other’s fences, watching other shepherds work their dogs … and invariably, taunts would surface as to whose dog was best. This would incite (and rightfully so) some heated debate, which eventually led to the challenge: “Well, PROVE it then!”
So they did. And along came the first dog trial …
They reckon the first one took place in Wanaka in 1867, and by the beginning of the 20th century, dog trials were seen throughout the country – with a national championship held every year since 1936. But it didn’t truly grab the public’s attention until 1977 … when the creatively titled ‘A Dog’s Show’ hit TV One on Sunday evenings. Hugely popular, it introduced dog trials to city folk, and made *John Gordon (the show’s host) a household name. Sadly, in 1992 the show aired its final season, and with it, dog trials dropped off the public radar.
Thankfully, however, it’s far from a dying sport – in fact, interest has been steadily growing, with people from diverse backgrounds now getting involved. It’s not just shepherds and farmers competing – but owners of lifestyle blocks, retirees and even the odd city slicker have been seen whistling at a dog or two. And as someone associated with the sport recently stated, “Without sheepdogs there wouldn’t be a sheep and beef industry, and without sheep and beef there wouldn’t be a New Zealand economy” – so it’s not about to disappear in a hurry.
There are four standard classes run in a New Zealand sheep dog trial (see panel) where dogs and owners pit their skills against the fickle sheep. Moving sheep is one thing, but moving only three of them, while being closely scrutinised by judges and the quick-to-critique spectator, takes it to a new level – you might be able to throw stones, swear and have a good old tantrum while alone in the backblocks, but it’s not a good look during a dog trial!
Now, back to Blue. I’d mentioned to my mate Nigel, who owns a farm across the river from our place, that I was considering getting a dog to chase our cattle around. It seemed like good parenting to yell at a dog, rather than at my wife and kids, when rounding up our cows, but we already had one dog so I wasn’t totally convinced. Nigel’s a keen dog trialist, so when he rang a couple of weeks later saying his dad (also a keen trialist and breeder) had some pups for sale, I should’ve seen it coming … especially when he offered to help me train her!
Before I knew what was happening, I was helping a bunch of neighbours set up a Waikato round of dog trials, held on Nigel’s farm! Not only that, but I’d also somehow become a member of the Goldfields Coromandel Dog Trial Club!
Cunning plan Nigel … cunning plan!
Anyway, after spending a couple of days laying out courses and settling down sheep (around 500 Romney’s arrived from up the road), the competition proper started on a fine Saturday morning. I’d been given the job of ‘liberator’ on the long head. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded kinda cool – like I was going into battle to free a bunch of oppressed peasants from some evil warlord. (If I used Facebook, it would’ve been about now that I updated my status to ‘Liberator’. But I digress …)
I discovered that a ‘liberator’ was supposed to release three sheep for each run and hold them in place with their dog while the competitor sent out his (or her) dog to retrieve them. As it stands, the only thing Blue can hold in one place are our chickens … but, thankfully, I was paired up with someone who did know what he was doing – and had a dog that was of some use.
As I mentioned earlier, watching well-trained dogs work with sheep is pretty awesome, and during these trials I got to see some of New Zealand’s finest in action, up-close and personal: hunting … heading … penning … staring down stubborn sheep – all with a well-timed whistle. But we also saw some not-so-well-trained (or not-YET-well-trained!) dogs at work, with some hilarious results … well, funny for us! One young dog went through a fence into another paddock and started herding a mob of cows, while another was more interested in playing with the liberators.
There’s no doubt that a trial course can have a humbling effect on a dog-handler, so there’s definitely a serious component to it – but it’s also a lot of fun. You get to meet some great people, see some beautiful country and reconnect with our agricultural heritage.
At the end of the day, it’s the challenge that keeps people coming back for more. One of the country’s top shepherds described it best when he said, “The attraction of the sport is the glorious uncertainty of it all.”
So what’s the future hold for Blue? Just quietly, I’m hoping there’ll soon be a category for dog trialling chickens …
A beginners guide to Sheep Dog Trialling …
There are four standard classes:
Class 1: Heading dogs – long head.
The competitor starts his dog from a marked ring and the dog heads three sheep on a hill 300 to 600 metres away. The dog then pulls them into the ring in as straight a line as possible and holds them stationary to the judge’s satisfaction, all within 10-15 minutes.
Class 2: Heading dogs – short head and yard.
The competitor starts his dog from a marked quad and heads three sheep between 150 and 300 metres away and pulls them to the quad. They then move them along a pegged lane, through a pair of hurdles along another lane, before working them into a two-metre-square yard. The run is completed when the gate is shut on the sheep within the given time limit.
Class 3: Huntaway – zigzag hunt.
The competitor starts his dog from a marked quad. Three sheep are liberated and the dog then uses his bark to hunt them up a zigzag marked hill for 200 to 300 metres. The run is completed when the sheep pass between the top set of markers within the given time limit.
Class 4: Huntaway – straight hunt.
This event is the same as the zigzag hunt except there’s only one set of markers 20 metres apart at the top of the course. The dog aims to hunt the sheep from the starting point, in as straight a line as possible, through the markers.
All competitors start with 100 points, and as faults occur points are deducted.