Sheepdog triallists will travel to Hall from across Australia for the National Sheepdog Trial Championships (NSDTC) in early March, camping at the showground with teams of four-legged workmates.
NSDTC president Sarah Sydrych, who will compete as well, described the scene to Canberra Weekly.
Most competitors arrive with a caravan and at least half a dozen highly trained sheepdogs, and there will be up to 300 dogs onsite for the multi-day heritage sport event, Tuesday 9 to Sunday 14 March.
“At night-time you may hear an occasional bark, but there’ll be hardly any noise,” she said.
“You’ll hear the dogs in town! But you won’t hear the dogs on the showground, and I always think that’s mind boggling.”
Ms Sydrych is still learning the complex art of competing in a trial, and she has a brilliant coach in former NSDTC president and eminent triallist, Charlie Cover.
“He’s patient! I don’t know how he can be so patient!
“He must tell us the same thing over and over again a thousand times, because there’s so much involved in a sheepdog trial.”
Mr Cover’s father taught him how to work with sheepdogs in the late 1940s, and he’s been involved in the sport most of his life.
He started taking on responsibility at his family’s farm when he was about eight years old, while his father was away shearing.
He recalled the day he realised just how clever the sheepdogs were.
“We had about 40 or 50 sheep and they were in a shed overnight because they were lambing,” he said.
Mr Cover’s father asked him to move the sheep around the property while he was away, to Paddock A for the first couple of days and then to Paddock B for the rest of the week.
“Then I go for this really good dog,” Mr Cover laughed.
“The first couple of mornings, putting them into Paddock A was no trouble at all, but when I went to put them in Paddock B, he [the dog] said ‘No, I know where these sheep are going!’ and he put them in Paddock A again.
“That’s just the intelligence of these dogs. He knew that I had no control over him, I was only there to open and shut the gates!”
Mr Cover explained the basics of sheepdog trials, things spectators might want to look out for during the upcoming event.
“I often say that the art of sheepdog trialling is to balance the sheep between fight and flight.”
Whoever is controlling the dog in the yard must do so in a way that creates a comfortable feeling within the sheep, and this is what allows dog and master to manoeuvre sheep through obstacles and into a pen.
“Sheepdog trials are judged, in the roughest form, on where sheep are as opposed to where they ought to be,” Mr Cover said.
“And if they’re in flight you can bet your life that they’re not going to be where they ought to for very long! And then points are going.”
Each dog starts with a perfect score of 100 and 15 minutes to herd three sheep into an enclosure, with points deducted for straying from the path, refusing obstacles, or failing to enter the pen in time.
Every handler has a different style, instructions to the dog can be many or few and can be communicated with gestures, whistles, shouts or gentle words.
Mr Cover has seen more than a few pups in his lifetime, and he takes great satisfaction in watching a dog grow into its ability.
“That affects me particularly, I love to take that pup and play with it at six, eight, 12 weeks old, and then gradually become the boss.
“Not in any harsh way, but you gradually become the boss, and then about six months old they’ll start to show their natural ability.
“And then you invariably think, ‘Oh, this is the one I’ve be looking for!’”
Sheepdog trialling is an elite sport, a lot of people follow it, and not every dog is cut out for competition.
But Mr Cover said dogs that don’t show strong potential for trials weren’t wasted.
“What we do then is, if the dog isn’t an elite, we pass it on to a farmer who has a job for that dog.”
Australia has around 100,000 livestock herding dogs, about the same number as there are people employed in Canberra’s workforce.
It’s estimated each working dog delivers more than $44,000 worth of labour over its career.
Entering its 78th year, Ms Sydrych said the Championships provided an occasion for farmers to get off their properties, head to the Bush Capital, socialise and share stories.
“You know, they can talk about things that are going on with the farm, the traumas they’ve had and the great things that have been happening.”
The event is also a COVID-safe opportunity for city folk – and their dogs – to experience an exciting spectator sport rich with history.
The National Sheepdog Trial Championships run from Tuesday 9 to Sunday 14 March at Hall Showground, a 20-minute drive from central Canberra.
A child-friendly morning tea on Friday 12 March will include tea, scones and the chance to meet a poddy lamb and sheepdog puppies.
His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) will present the Duke of Gloucester Sash to the 2021 National Sheepdog Trial Open Champion on Sunday 14 March.
Visit nationalsheepdogtrials.org.au to buy tickets.
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