City dogs learn new tricks as hobby mustering trend on the rise

City dogs learn new tricks as hobby mustering trend on the rise

It’s a competition that’s steeped in Australian tradition, but sheep dog trials in rural Queensland are receiving increased interest from city dog owners.

Gary Hurtz, organiser of the 53rd annual Stanthorpe Sheep Trial, said he had taken more than 300 entries across the three-day event, which is underway as part of the town’s agricultural show. 

“I’ve never seen as big numbers,” he said. 

woman sitting with dog jumping up

Ellie Wong and her dog Bess enjoying the three-day Stanthorpe Show.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

A total of 145 dogs competed in the open trial, 112 in novice and 55 in the encourage trial for first-time dogs — that’s compared to the average 100 entrants for the open trial on previous years. 

Mr Hurtz said a large percentage of entrants were from Brisbane or other city areas. 

“There’s been names coming in I’ve never seen before. 

“Probably got a little house block, but they’re prepared to come out, get a good dog and have a go.

“They’ve just taken to it and they’re coming in droves.”

dog standing on legs with woman patting him

Tammy Preston’s dog Cloud gets some well deserved pats at the trials.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

Peta Mason from Toowoomba said her interest in sheep dog trials was sparked when she was given her kelpie puppy Emma.

This year saw Emma compete for the first time in the encouragement trial.

“I got into it through a friend who had kelpies. I was fortunate enough to be given a retired dog and so it just developed,” Ms Mason said. 

“I just love that bond that you create with your dog to move the shape around the course.

“I’m a teacher, so it’s very different and it’s such a release.”

woman holding dog

Toowoomba teacher Peta Mason trains her pup Emma with sheep in her backyard.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

Susan Leech from Brisbane began her sheep-dog trialling hobby with a German shepherd. 

“I was looking for different sports to calm her OCD,” Ms Leech said. 

“I met a hobby farmer who trains and works sheepdogs at Greenbank. I watched the sport and a few shows and fell in love with it.

“He gave me my first working border collie and she was one, and I still have her today. She’s my main dog.”

Ms Leech said the sport was inclusive as it had no age limit. 

“You can work a dog at eight or at 80. 

“Dogs are a calming influence. You can’t be stressed when you own a dog.”

dog with sheep

Susan Leech found a variety of properties with livestock that helped train her city dogs.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

‘There’s a lot in it’

Dogs are judged on their time and discipline to lead three sheep through an obstacle and into different rings within 12 minutes.

Sheep are guided through a nine-metre course with three obstacles. 

Each owner starts with 100 points which are detracted by both dogs and sheep going outside the course. 

“Your sheep will usually take most of your points, but your dog should be good enough to hold them,” Mr Hurtz said. 

man sitting on fence with sheep

Gary Hurtz would usually hope for 100 entries in the trials compared to this year’s big numbers.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

Despite good training, dogs from city areas had different skill levels to working canines, he said. 

“It’s a lot about stock sense, to be able to read the sheep, read the stock. 

“They might think, ‘That one [sheep] is sitting back a bit, that’s got to come up a little bit’. Ears will twitch.”

He said it was a dramatic change to who attended competitions more than a decade ago. 

“When I first started 18 to 20 years ago, 70 per cent of [entrants] would have been stockmen and stockwomen that worked the bush. 

“I suppose it is good for the show society.”

dog sitting politely in a park

Obedience and discipline are a virtue for sheep dogs and their owners.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

The Sunshine Coast’s John Borg trains 200 dogs per week. He said the majority were dogs from suburban areas in Toowoomba, Mackay and Brisbane. 

“All these people get quite excited when they see their city kelpie or border collie working,” he said. 

“It’s instinctive; like, we don’t teach a child how to walk.”

dog sitting with man

John Borg says mustering is as much about teaching the dog as it is teaching its owner.(ABC Southern Qld: Alys Marshall)

Mr Borg said there were several advantages to training city dogs mustering skills such as exercise as well as discipline and control.

It also gave confidence to new dog owners.

“The humans are always useless. The dogs are instinctive.” 

Watch episodes of the much-loved ABC TV series Muster Dogs on ABC iview.

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