John White talks about stockdogs.


Thanks very much to John White for permission to use this article, which appeared in the November 2007 edition of the Australian Working Kelpie Club Newsletter.


Part 1 of a Transcript of the talk given at the 2006 WKC Annual General Meeting.



I would like to thank the Working Kelpie Council for the opportunity to speak – I had deep scepticism as to whether I could talk for half an hour. I thought I would go through a bit of the history of Kelpies since the time I have been associated with them, and its trials and general conditions of working on farms and stations. I guess the real opportunity I had to work dogs for a living, was back in the early 50s when I was a jackaroo and became overseer for Canonbar Station, Nyngan which incidentally was one of the places where King and McLeod ‘s Kelpies were bred, although by that time they had all died out – everyone working there just had dogs which different people working stock had bred and you just got a pup from one of the fellows, which were pretty handy workers although the breeding was pretty haphazard.


We used to let them grow up to six to nine months. In those days it was all horse work, and we would let them run behind the horse. The fly problem was bad. We mustered up in each paddock to take the stock to the nearest water and hold them there maybe for three quarters of the day, catch them by hand, then sort the struck sheep using hand shears, and treat them. Now there are sprays used for the crutch which might last for twelve weeks; there is one which lasts for nearly six months so it makes it pretty easy compared to how it was.


In those days the dogs were very fit and hardy and did a lot of work holding mobs together, keeping going all day, then home at night – so the main thing we were looking for were pretty hardy dogs which could hold mobs together and take them in and out for crutching and shearing and all the other jobs they had to do. Today things have changed drastically with the use of motorbikes and four wheelers. Now dogs don’t get tested for their fitness – then, if they couldn’t keep up they were discarded. The emphasis doesn’t lie so much with that but I think with the breeding of dogs. You have to keep in mind that they need to be pretty sound in their build and their ability to stand up to a bit of work, but without the constant running they used to get.


I first became involved in trials because in the 1950s on they had the Australian Championships which at that time were only three sheep trials. They started in 1951 in Nyngan and went through to the late 70s. I didn’t get involved until the 60s and by that time I had moved out into different sort of country.

Canonbar was 78,000 acres, fine country and pretty easy to muster – sheep used to run together a lot and you didn’t need a very clever dog.  Then I got a manager’s job in undulating hilly country with timber that needed dogs with more ability. That was when I became interested in the trials.


You’d go to the trials and talk to all the old hands who’d had dogs for years, and you were told of all the backgrounds, what you should do with them, and what were the best breeds. So that was one of the big advantages of the trials - to go and see the dogs, and pick the type of dog you were looking for. In those days too it was pretty hard to get a lot of information out of anyone. They were very secretive and wouldn’t tell you much at all. I asked one old chap – “I’ve got a young dog here and it is full of running and I can’t steady it down.” He said “that’s easy fixed. You put a bit of lead behind its ear.” I said “How do you keep it there?” That was the sort of attitude. They didn’t come up with all the answers to your questions. The top workers there at the time didn’t let their blood lines go to anybody else. Today it is completely changed.

There are a terrific lot of really good handlers who give schools and give information to anyone who interested to learn. The thing which is most different today is the amount of training people put into their dogs. In the old days, as I said, they used to take a dog out when he was old enough and give him half a day or a day workout, and by the time he got out to where he was wanted to go, all the run was taken out of him and was starting to think a bit. You didn’t do any real pre-training of the dog.


Today nearly everyone has a small paddock with a few quiet sheep, and train their dogs on them – learn to get them under good control and go from there, which makes the job much easier. The dogs used to do a fair job the other way too. Things have changed – the speed in which you have to do all your work, the pace of living has its effect on everyone.


In those times there were only three sheep trials and they were looking for a dog which had a good cast and could think for himself, there was not so much the training side of it. You could take your dog which was very handy on farm and station work and enter trials, but those days are well past now. The main difference is that with training some of handlers tend to have such control that a lot of initiative is taken away from the dog. So it one of the things people should watch out for is that a little bit of initiative is left in the dog, instead of expecting them only to move on command - a fault that can happen.


The way I see it, the original Kelpies were developed to suit Australian conditions.

 Australian conditions in the early days, were very large numbers of sheep in very big and unfenced areas, and the man on the land looked for a dog that was very hardy, didn’t get affected by picking up too many burrs, and that sort of thing. The Kelpie was developed along those lines. An independent worker was wanted – a dog which could be left out with the sheep and think for himself. They didn’t select for ability to take command, whereas with the Border Collie, right from the early days in the Highlands of Scotland and England, they had to have good control of their dogs because of the rugged terrain. If the sheep were pushed too hard they could go over a big crevice or whatever, and so their dogs had to be selected for that trait. Even today the main reason why so many Border Collies are in trials is that they were selected over many years for the ability to be controlled by the handler.

So what has happened is that the Kelpie was developed to be more aloof and work without control, and do the job more on his own, and this influenced the breed, which were more straight forward in their work.


The Collie is a softer handler of stock generally speaking than the Kelpie is. So Yard trials developed.

The situation now in a lot of areas is that the men race around on a motorbike to get the sheep together - the dog didn’t have to go out and muster the sheep - they push them together, and only wanted the dog when they got to the gate or the yard to do the work. The Kelpie was so natural at yard work; they don’t show as much bite in yard work as Collies do. When I say this, a lot of Collies are good yard dogs too, but generally speaking the Kelpie is more suited to yard work than the Collie. So the tendency was for a lot of Kelpie breeders to go for yard dogs instead of dogs that could work in open country. To the detriment of the Kelpie in some ways was the loss of casting ability, now missing because so many breeders turn to breeding dogs mainly for yard work. I think to improve the breed there are a couple of traits which I mentioned that must be looked at and that is, firstly, if the dog is to be of any value anywhere it must be controllable. In other words a dog which is just doing his own thing all the time, half the time won’t be doing what you want him to do. You have to have that ability for the dog to work in with you as a team and take orders from you. That is why today in the different types of trials, the Collie which has been bred to be much more controlled is more suited to the finer type of work you do outside –the yard work, working inside a yard fence all the time where the sheep can’t really get away, and you don’t need that fine tuning of the dog when you are doing yard work compared with what you are doing, say, with three sheep work.


I make this point, you find that handlers who are doing all sorts of trials, you can see the difference in the way their dogs work and the ones which just do yard work for instance. I think if a lot more breeders consider the task and ability to anticipate what stock is going to do, and breed more for that type of dog it would improve the breed even further.


I think in yard trials they have gone a long way because when they first started the handlers were

selecting dogs that were very forceful and pushy and they didn’t worry if they split them a bit, and they weren’t looking for dogs that anticipate as long as they had a lot of force and bark and moved things around very quickly. But today you will find that a lot of top yard triallers are looking for dogs that do anticipate and respond to commands more, so part of it is done well. There is no doubt that many top yard triallers have good control of their dogs for their purposes as the top three sheep triallers have in theirs.


I am just making a bit of comparison. Today for three sheep trials it is about ninety eight percent Collies which is a pity because in the early days there were teams of Kelpies that were being very successful. I can remember Ted Rutland, Bert Bromham, Les Tarrant, Albert Meecham, to mention a few; also Jack Mills, Michael Doughty, John Body  and Peter Ward. In those days, and Barbara would remember, they were holding their own. I feel that when breeders swung over to yard trialling a lot of that ability was lost.


Another factor, there was a Border Collie called Cactus in the late 70s owned by Jeff Jolly. He was a very predominant sire and he threw a type of dog that was very suited to three sheep trialling. They had the ability to just float around their sheep, get into position, and weren’t aggressive.  Aggressive dogs make sheep face up to them. That type of dog suited the three sheep game, and a lot of the top handlers used the progeny of Cactus. It really improved the Collie bred for the three sheep trials. Together with that and the advent of yard dog trials, Kelpies to a large extent dropped out of the three sheep trialling.


One factor with the early dogs in the yard was that often the farmer was looking for an aggressive type of dog, but aggression only leads to trouble. Sheep get worried when a dog shows aggression, whereas a calm steady type of forceful dog that shows he is in charge of the situation, will handle the sheep better than an aggressive dog.  For the same reason, in three sheep trialling, the sheep won’t work for a dog which comes straight at them, glaring at them, and looking for a fight.  They worked for the dog that would move gently around and position them so that they have no where else to go but through the obstacle.

It is the same working situation in the paddock – if you come to a gateway you have to put the sheep to one side and roll them through it. It is no good trying to roll around the gateway, and bring the dog straight in and push them through because it doesn’t work. It is the same in trials. That is where the advantage of working in trials comes out – you learn how to handle stock much better. Talk to fellows who have been doing it all their lives they’ll tell you it improves ability of both handlers and dogs.


You see the types of dogs from all over the country and at that point you select the dog that is bred

for a similar type of country for the work you are doing yourself. In selection, the main characteristic I always look for is the temperament of the dog – if it is really shy or over-aggressive, or a dog that won’t respond to you, you have trouble from the start. I always select a dog which is friendly, wants to be with you, to work as a team with you. You can tell those characteristics at a fairly young age.

(This article will be concluded in December.)

Part two.

LECTURE BY JOHN WHITE - Vice President (Continued from November News Bulletin)

When I went to America in early the 90s, there weren’t a lot of Kelpies over there; I judged at a National Kelpie Trial at Harden Montana, on an Indian Reservation. Just an interesting thing - they had Maremmas (guard dogs) there and had to catch them and tie them up because if any other dogs came around they would attack them . Apparently they were very effective in keeping everything away, like Coyotes and that sort of thing, and it was common practice over there to have these guard dogs. Anyway, the sheep they had at that particular trial were a bit like Merinos, although a lot of sheep in America look more like goats than sheep.

It was very interesting because I thought there were probably five or six Kelpies that were very good dogs, and the standard dropped right away from those.. The difference in America was that there are a lot of hobby triallists.

Vern and Susan Thorp have a stockdog club at Iowa and I’d say two thirds of the ones that go, work their dogs for a hobby rather than for their living. They really love their dogs, and don’t worry if they are good dogs or bad dogs, as long as they were dogs. So consequently you don’t be too critical of the dogs when you do a school. It was very interesting to be there with them.


There is no doubt that when in America any knowledge they have they like to let everyone know; they have about four or five stockdog magazines – Border Collie ones, Australian Shepherd ones, and they all like to write articles.

So it is hard to write anything new. They all enjoy these days – social gatherings, and I think up to now since I’ve been there, about eight Australians have been invited to go over and do schools for them so I think their dogs would have improved a fair bit since I was there.

Questions & Answers:

Q. Do you think dogs have lost the ability to do a good cast.

A. I honestly do – tried some dogs just bred for yard work and their progeny do appear not to have a natural cast now. Quite a few South Australians rang me up and they told me that it was very hard to get a dog that would cast in that region. I do believe that genetics is part of their ability – if you don’t keep breeding for certain characteristics then you lose it. For instance, dogs bred just for show from original working dogs, it doesn’t take long for them to lose their working ability if you don’t keep using them for that purpose. It is a matter of testing everything to see what is actually happening.


At the National Kelpie Trial you will find a lot of dogs stop very short in their cast now and that is possibly another fault. For a period a lot of Kelpie breeders became too involved in strong eyed dogs – they liked the strong eye and if you get too much eye you get the stopping and staring, and soon as they get close to sheep, eye makes them pull up and they won’t complete a proper cast. Especially it happens in enclosed areas like football grounds - if there is a fence there you’ll find a dog which might go round pretty well in a paddock, will stop short in an enclosed ground and not complete the cast properly.


A lot of dogs are now trained to keep running in the cast – a lot of people have gone away from eye and are looking for a more free-eyed dog. But they have to have enough eye, or concentration to do the job.

Most Kelpie seems to be bred that way now, even very young Kelpies when the sheep are held tightly together they go up on their backs very freely, but it was not a natural trait but you’ll find if you tie the sheep up in an area the young Kelpie will tend to go up on their backs without being taught to do it. This is good – it just shows the effect of breeding to that characteristic and yet you couldn’t call it a natural thing.


Q. Will the Kelpie come back to three-sheep trials?

A. Not unless more breeders follow that line. I could count on one hand or less the number of breeders who bred for the outside dog, ninety five percent are bred for the yard.


Q. What to look for in breeding

A. Breeding comes down to experience and commonsense too as well as knowing the breed of dogs.

If you have been breeding a line of dogs for a number of years it is very easy to predict what traits are going to be there.

They keep coming out time and time again. You know from the parents what they did, and a lot of that comes out in the pups, and so from the background of the breed you know exactly what the parents and grandparents and all the descendants have been doing, and you get a good idea of what you are going to have in the future. It would be a good idea to concentrate more on that but if these instructors point out these characteristics at the schools that you should be looking for, it would make it easier for the breeders to select what they require.


 Q. Natural Abilities – Sydney people

A. Outstanding handlers have the ability to read what stock are going to do just as much as understanding the dog and seeing how to work with them. You just have to have the chance to do it. If you are in the suburbs or the city it is very hard to get that knowledge. There are quite a lot of ex Sydney people who are doing well now – but nearly all of them have Border Collies and are in three sheep trials; and if you come with a Kelpie they say “what are you doing here with a Kelpie? “Go and get a Border Collie!” And if you go to a Yard Trial with a Border Collie they say “Huh! You should be in the three sheep game.” It is very breed driven at the moment, unfortunately. I believe you should be able to see the good in any animal whether a Border Collie or a Kelpie, or anything else. In Americathey have a breed called The Australian Shepherd which is just like the German Koolie and they called it the Australian Shepherd because they imported sheep and the dogs came with them from Australia. A lot of people think that is incorrect and their breed is more like the German Koolie - we call it the German Koolie here. They are pretty handy in forcing situations – they would be the second biggest breed in America apart from Border Collies. Kelpie numbers over there are not great even yet.


Q. Re 3-sheep trials

A. Utility trials are the best test of the dog as they have to do both types of work. There is enough scope in the Field work and the cast and draw to test the dog for that side of it, and I think if you can get your dog to do both that is the good all round dog, but I think, myself, you are on the right track there but you have to balance things out. For instance in Queensland they tend to swing to outside work, and all the other States it is yard work is the main thing. If you have the right balance it would make it probably a bit better as they do in Western Australia.


Q. Length of cast?

A. It is more or less the length of a football field but in Victorian Championships, which are field trials, they have 400 metres. They do have others down there with longer casts. There are no trials in NSW where it is any more than 200 metres.

There is one Kelpie which won the Victorian Championships. Mainly they are Border Collies - and getting back to that, in England, or theBritish Isles generally, all their trials are long casts. They go to 800 yards; even with younger dogs it might be 500 yards. They send them outside and train them to go out – same in New Zealand, quite a lot are blind casts, and they have to be able to direct them all the way with whistles. They have to have a command to send them out wide to pick up their sheep, another to bring them in closer, and another to keep running on till they find them.

Most are taught when very young to go fairly deep off them. Even if you have a natural casting pup you only start him off close to the sheep, and gradually increase the distance so you are in a position to make him go deep because if a dog just goes zoom and hits the sheep from behind they will go everywhere. They have to learn to go around and do it in an even and quiet fashion. The only way you can do that is to start them off on short distances and gradually lengthen them.

You teach your dog to stop on a whistle. Once the dog is regimented on that it is only a matter being firm and consistent and making them do that and get more used to running longer distances. They still will go deep and stop further back instead of just charging in on them.

Today you will see in trials that if a dog looks as if he is going to cross the handler will stop the dog and recast him out. If you don’t the dog would be over the line and disqualified. The tendency however is to over-control.The really top handlers try to work their commands at the same time with the dog’s naturally doing it. If you want to make the dog do something that is against his natural instinct, you have to be able to do that too. Say, for instance, he wants to go one way and you can see it is going to cause trouble, you have to stop him and make him go the other way. That is where trainability comes in – the dogs have to listen to you and take notice of what you want. Headstrong dogs, are tough, and usually tough handlers have them too. They bully the dog and often that type of handler only has one good dog, if he has that.


Especially today the standard of training through young handlers going to schools is that they have learnt so much more in the correct way of teaching their dogs things and responses to command and so on, and the dog is put on the right track at the start. A lot of fellows, like Greg Prince, who is an outstanding handler, who started off with Kelpies but being mainly in three-sheep trials went in for Border Collies. In my opinion he has an absolute sixth sense with dogs and sheep. He leaves enough instinct in the dog that it anticipates every command he gives, and can put a dog anywhere he likes at a given time. I guarantee he could put it within two or three millimetres of where he wanted it.  

It is uncanny and it is shown by the ability by what he has won – twelve or thirteen Nationals, every State championship five or six times - in the 400 yard cast trial in Victoria, he ran 1st, 2nd , 4th, 7th and 8th. He goes to a trial with eight dogs and any of them could win. That is outstanding ability. I mention him because to my mind he is the most outstanding dog handler I have ever seen.


Q. Trials as a sport?

A. That is a big point. The way a lot of Three sheep trials today is that when you go out on the Trial

ground and you have to work three touchy sheep, you will find that the dog which is quiet and doesn’t upset his sheep in any way, gets into the right position, will run a very high scoring trial. But the weak or semi-weak dogs – they get these dogs and they build them up in strength, it is confidence really. A dog which doesn’t have a lot of confidence, tends not to frighten sheep so much and that type of dog can be built up in confidence by a good trainer to the extent they can make them walk up, hit them on the nose and stay there in front of the sheep that doesn’t want to go. That is the sort of dog they win a lot of trials with but that leads to the degeneration of ability of the dog’s general work. In the old days, with three sheep trialling, everyone used to look for what they saw in strong dogs, strong with walk up strength, come in on command and be very confident. Today they look for a dog which is very soft on the sheep, that they can train to come in. So it is getting away from what you want for general work – there is no doubt about that. The thing they will have to do before very long is to get away from that because there are not too many of the good breed Collies that are naturally strong. That is one thing that the yard dogs – a strong dog is kept for that but it has to be a calm strong dog rather than an aggressive dog. Ideas on that have changed – there are definitely a lot of dogs in three-sheep trials that couldn’t handle a mob of sheep now.

With the Kelpie, I found myself that for general station work the Kelpie suited me, although I had some good Border Collies, but generally speaking the Kelpie suited me for my work rather than the Border Collie in an average situation.

They adapt very quickly but that is why people wanting to buy dogs go to someone who is working in a similar situation and similar country to where they are, because those dogs have been bred for it. There is no doubt they will adapt very quickly. For instance in New Zealandthey tell me that if you are applying for a job to work with sheep over there, if your dog is not fully under control you won’t get a job. They have to be spot on because of the rugged terrain they work in. Forcing too much in that steep country you can put a mob over a big cliff, or anything. Their standard of training is so far ahead of anything in Australia.

 Mixing of breeds – you get a big mixture in the progeny if you do that. I think one of the drawbacks is that sires get very popular at times and are used extensively and if there are any bad traits that can be carried on, because they are used so much by people who breed and think how good this dog is and take bitches to him, and they keep on doing this. Over the past twenty years there have been some dogs that have dominated in the breeding line and these lines are just about all through the Kelpies now. If all the characteristics were good it probably would be a good thing, but there are some bad ones showing up too. Even with this Ataxia problem a lot of that comes from very good dogs – had very good records behind them with ability etc. and it gets perpetuated. There are so many other good characteristics that breeders aren’t going to stop using it because of that. And it doesn’t always show up.


Q. Showing Pups Sheep

A. I like to show them at about twelve weeks and some show a tendency to want to work then. You can get them up to eight or nine months before they show any interest. I don’t think it makes any difference. I have seen cases where ones that started at eight or nine months are much more mature and they don’t tend to develop so many faults, and they handle the job a lot better, and they go ahead of the ones that were early starters.

Once they start you know you’ve got something - but don’t start them too early because the later ones often end up being better dogs – more mature in the brain when they start, don’t go through stages where they learn bad habits like the younger ones do. You just have to be patient. You can’t force them to start – you have to wait for when the penny drops and once that happens, go from there. I know a lot of breeders prefer early starters because people that get pups are happier when they see the pup working, rather than waiting for six or eight months.

Finally -

I would like to congratulate the Working Kelpie Council on what they have done in getting the Stud Books together and keeping the Breed going. There is no doubt there was a time before the Kelpie Council was founded there was no forward progress with the Kelpies. This has definitely kept the breed going and all the background of all the dogs is still there to be seen today, and that is a great tribute to the work of all the people here in Sydney who have done so much work to get that under control, and I congratulate them on what they have done for the Kelpie Breed.



John White on Workdogs