13 March 2024

Dogs not sheepish about putting themselves and their humans on trial for the Nationals

| Sally Hopman
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Girl and man wearing hats in padock

Kaity Lucas knows she couldn’t have a better teacher when it comes to sheepdog trialling than Brian Clifford. Photo: Supplied.

When it comes to following in big footsteps, Kaity Lucas, 14, of Adaminaby, knows there are few larger than legendary sheepdog trialler Brian Clifford.

Brian, who runs sheep on the family farm at Shannon’s Flat on the Monaro, said he’d heard about Kaity’s passion for the sport when he went into Kaity’s family garage in Adaminaby.

“Her dad Dean told me she’d got this collie, and could I help her with it? The next week, I went back to the garage to get some tyres, and I saw this slip of a girl with a dog. She asked me whether I could help with her dog.”

And that was the start of a beautiful friendship – and the crucial connection needed for trialling – the bond between human and animal.

So how does it work?

The art of sheepdog trialling is for the dog, under the direction of its handler, to balance its three sheep between ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ – that is, where the sheep recognises the dog as being in control but not as a threat.

At given times, if sheep need to get through various obstacles, and if they don’t or are not where they’re supposed to be, points are deducted from their starting 100.

For Kaity, her interest in the skill started about three years ago, with Brian helping her establish her knowledge.

“The first dog I had I got from a friend,” she said.

“She was a really expensive dog. I think they were asking $2500 for her, but she wasn’t working out because she kept chasing and biting horses all the time, so they were going to get her put down.”

But Kaity was having none of it. She ended up buying the dog, Daisy, for $25 because “I saw something in her”. She took her to her grandparents’ property to start working with her – but she disappeared.

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“The next thing I knew, I saw her coming out of nowhere, bringing a whole mob of sheep over to me. She didn’t have any instructions. She must have just been going on instinct.

“She turned out really well.”

Brian, a champion sheepdog trialler with many years of experience and just as many ribbons, said he was happy to work with the young girl, who dreams of being just like him.

“The first time she came to the yard, she worked quite well,” Brian said. “There was something about her.

“She had a dog, but he wouldn’t work that well for her, so I gave her my dog Heidi to work with – she ended up coming 4th at Bredbo last year.”

Kaity said she was thrilled when Brian gave her Heidi, saying she was timid at first, but the two soon developed a bond.

“I got to know her a bit, and she was great. She was a lot calmer than my other dog and very intelligent.”

The duo have done a number of trials together, placing in a couple of them.

Brian, who started sheepdog trialling in 1965, says modestly that he’s won a few things, but it’s clear his passion is for helping young people like Kaity succeed in the field.

“When I first started, I remember thinking about how good the dogs were … and how silly we were,” he joked.

Young woman with ribbons and dog

Kaity Lucas with Heidi after winning the Junior Dog Handler title at the Delegate Sheep Dog trials. Photo: Supplied.

“It’s good to see young people get involved in this,” Brian said.

“Young ones like Kaity have the passion. I remember at the first trial she went to, people said, ‘Watch this little girl. She could go a long way.'”

Kaity, who boards at the Yanko Agricultural School, said her dream was to introduce sheepdog trialling at the agricultural high school.

“It would be the perfect place,” she said.

The National Sheepdog Trials return to the Hall Showground from 11 March for a week. Kaity won’t be able to compete because of her school commitments, but for Brian, it’s a highlight of his year.

Since its inception in 1943, the National Sheepdog Trials have become an important event in Australia’s agricultural calendar, bringing together the best working sheepdogs and their handlers from across the country.

The trials showcase the abilities of these highly trained dogs and their handlers, who work tirelessly to manage sheep across the vast landscapes of rural Australia.

In its 81st year, the 2024 Nationals will run classes ranging from Open to Improver and Maiden, which test the abilities of all standards of humans and dogs. It culminates in the Champion of Champions on Saturday, 16 March, with the National Open Championship Final on Sunday, 17 March.

The National Sheep Dog Trials are on at the Hall Showground from 11 March to 17 March. Tickets are available at the gate for $10 daily or $30 for a week pass or online.

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