INTRINSIC to Australia’s culture and heart is the working dog, and the National Sheep Dog Trial Championships held in Canberra puts the abilities of these loyal, fast and intelligent animals to the ultimate test.
Dog and master must communicate in an extraordinary example of team work to guide three sheep through a series of difficult obstacles and into a pen to finish, all within 15 minutes.
Every handler has their own technique, a system of instruction revealing the bond between them and their canine companion. Some shout, some speak gently, some whistle. Some use only gestures.
“The art of sheep dog trialling is balancing those sheep between fight or flight,” says Charlie Cover, a sheep dog handler since he was 10 years of age and this year a competitor with his dog Brack.
“There’s a relationship that the dog and sheep form in about a split second. It must be a dominant relationship, but one that doesn’t make the sheep panic.
“Each competitor starts on a perfect score. If the sheep stray too far from the path, refuse obstacles or fail to be penned in time, points are lost.”
However handlers tackle the challenge, all compete for the prestigious Duke of Gloucester sash, an historic, velvet embroidery of the Royal House of Windsor’s coat of arms, this year presented to the winner by Governor-General David Hurley.
The sash, much like the championships themselves, is steeped in history.
The trials, which began 78 years ago, in 1943, and held throughout a single day at Manuka Oval, served as a fundraiser for Legacy during World War II.
In 1945 Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of King George VI and uncle of the Queen, presented the National Sheep Dog Trial Association with the sash that would become iconic to the competition.
In 1970 the Queen presented the sash to the winner of the national open trial, Mr Bob Ross and his dog Yulong Russ.
By then the event was being held at the Canberra Showground, what’s now Exhibition Park in Mitchell. By 1978 it moved to the Hall Village Showground where they’re still held, this year taking place over six days from March 9-14.
“It’s the Melbourne Cup of sheep dog trialling,” says president of the Championships Sarah Sydrych.
“The amount of preparation that goes in is extraordinary. Some handlers will train for two hours a day, some will go all afternoon and well into the night.”
The handlers work hard to perfect a delicate equilibrium, one described as the “application and release of pressure”, where a dog’s movements are carefully placed closer and further away from the sheep in accordance with their obedience.
“It’s a nail-biting spectator experience and one that brings in people from all over the country,” says Sarah.
This year the championships are all about celebrating the contribution of working dogs to Australia.
“There’s around 270,000 dogs that contribute to the economy of rural Australia,” says Sarah.
“It’s an immense contribution, with the average working dog delivering more than $44,000 worth of work over its career.”
It’s not only the stock working dogs the event wants to highlight, but also the countless dogs who make the lives of Australians easier every day.
“It’s the guide and assistance dogs, who enable people to live more independent and productive lives, the dogs that help maintain law and order, and bio detector dogs who help protect Australia from exotic pests and disease,” she says.
Of course, any dog is also welcome to come enjoy the championships too, as long as they’re leashed.
“It’s exciting and unique to see a sport like this played out right here in a capital city,” says Sarah.
“The championships provide an important, enduring link between the bush capital and rural Australia.”