The art of sheep dog training, for on-farm working and for competition, was taught in early December at the Maungakaramea farm of Murray and Kathy Child.
It was the Northland training day of the nationwide Purina Pro Plan training series, hosted on this occasion by the Maungakaramea Sheep Dog Trial Club.
Murray does up to 12 of these training days around the North Island every year in his role as a Purina Pro Plan ambassador.
Murray and his brother Neville, who lives nearby in Northland, are two of the keenest and most successful competitors in the country, giving back to younger generations the skills they learned from forefathers.
Their father Ellis was a former president of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association, and their grandfather was also a keen dog trialist.
Murray and Neville have both represented NZ in the trans-Tasman test series, here and in Australia, but that event has been cancelled the past two years because of covid-19.
Murray won five NZ championships between 2005 and 2019 and five Island championships between 2000 and 2016.
His best dogs were Dice, with four long head wins and four second placings in both NZ and Island championships, and Frank, the huntaway, with zigzag wins in both the NZ and South Island championships in Geraldine in 2014 and a NZ win in his home Northland centre in 2019.
That same year, almost on home territory, Neville won the third of his NZ championships with Harry in the short head and yard at the Ohaeawai trial grounds, near Kaikohe.
Harry also won the NZ championship in the long head held at Blenheim in 2018, and Neville and Deal won the NZ long head at Omarama in 2006.
Curiously, Neville has never won an Island championship, although he has come close on several occasions with both Harry and Deal.
To emphasise how hard it is to win the top honours, Murray’s best competition dogs have had 38 top-five placings in NZ and Island run-offs in addition to nine first placings.
Neville’s dogs have made NZ or Island run-offs 26 times.
The 38 dog owners who registered for the Maungakaramea training day ranged in age from teenagers to retirees, with both heading dogs and huntaways.
For many dogs it was the first time off the home farm and as Neville remarked, those dogs were as nervous in the training pen as their owners.
Murray had each owner get the dog to approach and engage with a group of five ewes, using the basic left and right and stop commands.
The movements of the handler are almost as important as putting the dog in the right places, as heading dogs will naturally take up “balance” positions behind sheep.
Younger dogs often had to trail a rope to slow them down and assist in corrections for snapping or failing to disengage.
“Unacceptable behaviour has to be corrected immediately and the dog left tied up before repeating the exercise the following day,” Murray said.
“These dogs are renowned for the information they will absorb and my advice to young farmers is buy the best you can afford from reputable dog breeders.
“Breeders that keep pedigrees and performance records and have worked on getting rid of faults.”
Neville’s advice to handlers just starting out is to work their dogs little and often, perhaps three times a day to ensure they also get adequate exercise.
“But you do have to be careful not to flatten or ‘sour’ them; when they lose interest and pick up bad habits,” Neville said.
The welfare of working dogs is very much in the minds of all good sheep dog owners, with warm kennels, good food (well-balanced nutritionally) and preventative animal health.
Murray recalled being asked by a dog enthusiast what treats he gave for good behaviour and/or good performances.
“I said that for my dogs a pat is a treat,” Murray said.
Murray is also a member of the judges’ selection panels for centre events, doing much to standardise and define.
One of the biggest eye-openers on the day was 14-year-old Texan Suckling, of Dargaville, and his 30-month heading dog Tess.
Tess repeatedly showed the best “stop” of all dogs that ran, drawing high praise from Murray.
While Tess needed wider casts, her responses to Texan were a thing of beauty, showing ambition and skills well beyond their years.
Mum Krissy Suckling says Texan and Tess already work for local farmers after school and during weekends, getting paid for time.
They have been receiving coaching from veteran Allen Nisbet, of Whatatiri, a winner of four Island championships with heading dogs and runner-up three times in NZ championships.
He is a life member of NZ Sheep Dog Trial Association, a member of the Mangakahia club and has been competing for more than 50 years.
Two other youngsters attending were Trinity Bower and Stacey Lawrence, in the 2021 intake of the farm intern programme run by Whangarei A&P Society.
There are 24 on the course, the majority female, and most have working dogs where they are allowed by their employers.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not clearly specify that Murray Child works a Purina Pro Plan ambassador.