Back in 1943, a group of dogs and their farmers got together on Manuka Oval to show city folk what they were made of – and to raise money for Legacy during World War II.
Today, descendants of both dogs and farmers still gather – come drought or flooding rain, to display the bond that only a special twosome can boast – but these days it’s at the Hall Showground and often before an audience of thousands.
The National Sheepdog Trials exemplifies the Aussie spirit by pitting human and dog, with, not against, sheep, to see how they can all best work together, over a series of obstacles in 15 minutes. Everyone starts with 100 points – the aim is to lose as few as possible.
The ultimate reward is cementing the relationship between human and dog – but winning the Duke of Gloucester sash, doesn’t hurt. First presented to the National Sheepdog Trial Association in 1945 by Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, while he was Governor-General of Australia from 1944 to 1947, the sash is the prize for all triallers.
About 25cm wide and 115cm long, the unique velvet piece features a hand-embroidered royal coat of arms – the House of Windsor. Royalty and its representative in Australia, the G-G have had a strong relationship with the trials over the years, including in 1970 when the Queen presented the sash to the winner of the open trial, a Mr Bob Ross and his dog Yulong Russ.
From 1964 till 1977, they were held at what was Canberra Showground, now Exhibition Park.
For Bungendore butcher Paul Darmody, it’s why he has 12 border collies, about eight of which he now has in work leading up to the 2023 National Sheepdog Trials, which are now underway.
“More people seem to be getting into the game since COVID,” he said. “Maybe they see it as a relief valve when COVID hit.”
Paul said starting out as a trialler just needed some common sense and more patience.
“You start by playing with them,” he said, building up a bond with the dog, a bond that can, and often does, last forever.
“If you don’t build that bond, you may as well give the dog to someone else. If you don’t have it, the dog won’t trust you.”
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.
Paul reckons he was lucky enough in his trialling career to have the best dog. His name was Digger and he was white, rare for a border collie. “He worked well with sheep,” Paul laughed, “because they thought he was one of them.”
Paul and his dogs, who have represented Australia four times in overseas sheepdog trials with three wins, attributes his success in the field to Canberra trialling legend Laurie Slater. “He is just one of the best stockmen there is,” he said.
Paul’s successful dogs overseas have all had a genetic connection to Digger. “It was great to beat the Kiwis with their own because Digger had Kiwi blood in him,” Paul said. “You say you’re not in it to win it, but against the Kiwis, well … ”
With legends like Laurie Slater finding it harder to compete, Paul, 66, said it was sad to see the industry losing so many stockmen over recent years.
“It’s good to see so many women enter now, and young people, but it’s sad to see so many of the old stockmen gone.”
How does he rate his prospects for the 2023 event?
“Depends on what happens on the day,” he said. “I’ve got two dogs competing later in the week with Digger’s bloodlines. If we get the right sheep, we’ll be OK. If not, I’ll be back to making sausages.”
Staging the event is a huge logistical effort, with 1000 sheep needed for the week-long event. More than 100 sheep are needed daily so each trialler gets to work with fresh animals.
The 2023 National Sheepdog Trials, which this year marks 80 years of trialling in the national capital, are held at the Hall Showground and run until 19 March with the open finals.
Visitors are welcome daily from 9 pm to 4 pm – and if it’s going to be your first visit, there’s an important rule – only clap and cheer, etc, when the sheep pen is shut.
More information about the 2023 National Sheepdog Trials is available on the website.