It’s Monday morning on the June long weekend.
School children are enjoying a sleep-in and a break from the books.
But not every classroom has closed its doors.
At the Boonaroo sheep yards, nestled in the rolling hills near Casterton in western Victoria, school is in and the classroom is packed with eager eyes and wagging tails.
It’s working dog school where farmers, handlers, and muster dog lovers unite to learn the finer arts of building a bond with their kelpie companions.
Kathy Brown travelled six hours with her three “kelpie kids” to attend the class, led by multi-award-winning trainer and studmaster of GoGetta Kelpies, Joe Spicer.
“We downsized about 10 years ago to a hobby farm, but I’ve had working dogs forever and just love the breed. I’ve done everything from agility to ANKC herding and trialling … but there’s always more to learn,” she says.
Ms Brown says she brought all three of her kelpie and koolie dogs to the working dog school to learn “how to get the best connections with them”.
“I brought Kim, an 11-year-old koolie bitch — and Blake, an eight-year-old male koolie who’s been my inspiration to learn more because Kim was easy to train and he was really hard,” she says.
“Blake learns differently; you’ve got to be in exactly the right spot, you’ve got to be on the ball and know exactly what you’re doing … and if it all gets too much for him, he just signs off.”
“And I also brought my six-month-old kelpie pup, Sache.”
It’s not the first working dog school Ms Brown has attended, and it “won’t be the last”, she laughs.
“You learn something new every time.”
School’s in – but not as you know it
With a set of undercover sheep yards for a classroom courtesy of local Casterton farmers Shane and Jodie Foster at Boonaroo, a dozen handlers, and their eager-eyed pupils are put through their paces on mobs of quiet but willing sheep.
Black-and-tan, red, brown-and-tan, and every colour kelpie in between await their turn on centre stage, tied quietly to the side.
Mr Spicer doesn’t like barking dogs — “noisy classmates” — during class.
Rakes line the rails. “Arm extensions to help the handler get their position right and send the correct signal to the dog,” Mr Spicer explains.
Notebooks are marked with “position, position, position”… “pressure and relief”… “go in with a plan” and “HAVE FUN!”
One by one, handlers and their working dogs take to the round yard to work their dog on tailored exercises designed to build the basics of real-world mustering work on small mobs of quiet sheep.
It’s a formula that has seen thousands of successful graduates improve their handling skills, learn to be skilled stockmen and women and, perhaps most importantly, understand the psychology of working dogs.
The working dog schools travel around the country courtesy of Daniel Ball and his aptly-named Ewe, Me and The Dog training business.
Over the past eight years, he’s run hundreds of schools but, since the ABC television runaway hit series Muster Dogs, demand is on the up.
“We’re also finding we’re getting a greater mix of attendees including people from suburbia who want to get their kelpie or kelpie-cross out and see what they can do … as well as farmers wanting to improve their handling skills and understand their dogs better.”
He says while most attendees come along “just to see what their dogs can do”, some are hopeful of finding the “Frank and Annie” connection.
“At our schools, every dog will improve. But if we all thought we could turn our dogs into Annies we’d probably be kidding ourselves,” he laughs.
Mr Ball says the popularity of kelpies is also on the rise – but he cautioned prospective owners on the complex needs of the breed.
“What we don’t want to see happen is another ‘Red Dog phenomenon’, which saw people rush out and buy red kelpies after the popularity of the film of the same name,” he says.
But for those still undecided about enrolling in a working dog school, Mr Ball issues the challenge.
“You can’t get any better if you stay at home dreaming about it,” he says.
“For all the hours that go into training, even on shows like Muster Dogs, you see that it doesn’t always go to plan, but it sure is a lot of fun anyway.”
Better, calmer, happier stock
Joe Spicer cuts a well-known figure in the working dog world.
He’s an award-winning trainer who has claimed top gongs at national level working dog trials, and runs a leading stud — GoGetta Kelpies — at Glenthompson, Victoria, where the waitlists for his kelpie pups are longer than the lines at the Boxing Day Test Match.
But he’s quietly humbled by the success of Muster Dogs, on which he was recruited as the expert breeder-trainer.
“Probably the biggest thing that came across was actually the connection that we saw between landowners and their stock and of course their dogs,” Mr Spicer says.
“I also thought it brought a lot of different types of people together — from poodle owners to ‘townies’ to those on the land — it seemed to strike a chord in the hearts of so many Australians.
“I think the basic obedience and dog psychology elements really resonated with people, no matter what breed of dog they have.”
Mr Spicer says the demand for knowledge has never been greater in the working dog industry.
“People are seeing the results of how much more they’re getting out of their dogs and how much easier it’s making stock work, but also how much better their stock are when their dogs are working well,” he says.
He says he never tires of seeing kelpie owners and their pups building a bond over stock work.
“Probably the biggest lesson for people after a dog school is the understanding they gain about their dogs,” he says.
Mr Spicer says the schools teach the importance of handler positioning, and help owners understand the working dog’s instincts around livestock.
“Obedience doesn’t come just from training; it comes from gaining respect from your dog and that comes down to showing your dog that you make good decisions,” he says.
And for the dozen handlers gathered around the campfire at the end of class, conversations land upon a point to which all agree: it’s really not about teaching the dogs, it’s about teaching the humans.