The Australian working dog comes in many breeds, shapes and sizes, with the Border Collie and Kelpie being two of the most well-known and considered synonymous with sheep farming. These dogs are clever, loyal and just love doing what they do and, for them, life is ruff. And nowhere is that more evident than when working dog trials are held, as they were this month at the 10th Annual Berryden Sheep Dog Trials on Jean Moir’s property just south of Mirboo North. The event draws in competitors (including 120 or so dogs) from all over Victoria, as well as interstate, with attendees this year travelling from as far afield as South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. The event is run by the South Gippsland Working Dog Group in affiliation with the Victorian Sheep Dog Association.
And if you simply love dogs, then such an event is the perfect place to get a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Like many such country activities, these trials arose from healthy competition between farmers and their dogs (much like Campdrafting etc) and, over time, have become national events. The purpose of the sheepdog trials is to demonstrate the skill of the handler in positioning the dog to where it’s required and guiding the dog’s natural instincts while it’s herding three sheep around a course consisting of a gap, race, bridge and pen. The course is intended to represent the typical working environment for a sheep dog. The handler and dog have 15 mins to complete the course, starting on 100 points, with points being deducted through loss of efficiency and effectiveness of both the handler and dog in moving the sheep through the course.
The trial has four sections for different skill levels: Encourage (young beginner dogs), Novice (dogs that have not won an event), Improver (dogs that have won in the Novice class) and Open (older, experienced dogs who are previous winners). The first two days of the event are the elimination trials and the last day sets the finalists up against each other. Now some may wonder why anyone would want to go and see dogs rounding up sheep; however, it’s actually a very interesting and captivating activity to observe. Watching these dogs working the sheep and listening to the commands of their handler, often from some significant distance, is quite amazing. I wish our two hounds were a quarter as talented and, even more so, as obedient.
And it’s not something for just older farmers and the like, even the much younger are getting involved and showing what they can do. With a few more years of competing under their belt, the old hands will be given more than a run for their money.
But in a way, the dogs really are the stars of the show at these events. While some seemingly look alike, each one is a character unto their own and it shows as they contend with the often completely uncooperative sheep.
This year’s event saw two contenders in the Open category score a dead heat, so a ‘sheep off’ was called to determine the final winner and, as the last sheep was herded off, the final winner was Barry McKenzie and his dog Roseneath Flo. Mind you, I think everyone was a winner in this year’s event by just staying the distance, considering the conditions that we had from heat waves to freezing rain and wind over the weekend.
If you ever get a chance to visit one of these trials and you’ve never done so, do give it a go, I don’t think that you’ll regret it. It’s events like these that allow you to see a part of country life, represented in a sport/competition, that you may never realise existed. And if you were ever a fan of Footrot Flats, then it’s even more reason to see some of it first-hand and don’t forget the song (kudos to our NZ friends).
Update: For those who attended the trials and know the people and dogs, my apologies for getting some of the names wrong. After getting the final results, I saw where I went wrong and corrected the errors (I hope). This was almost as hard as keeping up with the changing names of players at a cricket match (almost).
This story also appeared in the Mirboo North Times and the Victorian Working Dog Association News Publication.