Few images are ingrained in the national psyche like that of the farmer and their loyal canine sidekick.
And with more than 270,000 stock-herding dogs working across rural Australia, they are far more than just a figment of our collective imagination.
Dog historian, behaviourist and author of The Dogs That Made Australia, Guy Hull, said working dogs were critical to the day-to-day running of farms.
“From managing stock to guarding stock and guarding properties … dogs can do it all,” he said.
Breeds like the kelpie and border collie had not just the ability to work, but an instinctive desire to do so, according to Paul McGreevy, a professor of animal behaviour and welfare science at the University of Sydney.
“The really, truly, wonderful thing is that they love their work,” he said.
“We have selected dogs that love to do this … they don’t see it as work, they see it as a source of joy.”
Creating a breed for Australian conditions
Large English bobtail dogs called Smithfields were the first working dogs to arrive in Australia during colonial times, Mr Hull said.
But stock managers, including a cattle farmer named Thomas Hall, soon found the breed unsuited to the conditions and set about creating a local dog.
Hall imported some of his family’s blue-speckled drover’s curs from Northumbria and crossed them with dingoes — creating the Hall’s heeler.
“That was in 1832 — we had our first locally produced working farm dog,” Mr Hull said.
Hall’s heelers were an early forebear of the Australian cattle dog, and by the 1880s the kelpie had also been developed.
Kelpies, along with border collies and Australian koolies, had since become our most popular working breeds, Mr Hull said.
A five-fold return on investment
Training a working dog is not a quick process, nor is it cheap, but experts agree the returns are more than worth it.
Mr Hull said trainers looked for dogs that instinctively took an interest in sheep, even at a young age.
“We’d generally take the puppy down around sheep when they’re three or four months old and let them have a walk and see how interested they are,” he said.
“From there it’s quite a long process to train a sheepdog, but once you get them started, most kelpies and border collies, if they’re from good stock, instinctively know what to do.
“It’s just a matter of refining their skills — they’re so good at their jobs, they’re quite easy to train.”
He said the price of a working dog, on average, was between $300 and $700, with $25,000 being the current record amount paid for a kelpie,
In 2013, Professor McGreevy and his colleagues crunched the numbers and found a roughly five-fold return on investment in working dogs.
They calculated the average cost of owning a herding dog to be just under $8,000 across its lifetime, with the value of its work to be $40,000.
“A sheepdog can jump onto the back of a quad bike, it can jump over fences, it can jump over the backs of sheep in a yard,” Professor McGreevy said.
“It can bark on command … it is such an extraordinary set of skills.”
‘Teaching them is biggest reward’
But that set of skills can be misinterpreted by handlers, leading to mistreatment — intentional or not.
Professor McGreevy said there was a misconception that working dogs were driven by a desire to please their handlers, when in fact their primary motivation was love of the job.
“The biggest reward for a sheepdog is teaching them to work with sheep — one of the biggest punishments is taking their work away.
“It takes a certain sort of handler to know they are getting joy from their work.
“There would be other people who imagine the dog has the work ethic to want to please the owner.
“That’s an unfortunate train of thought, because if the dog makes a mistake, people who hold that view will construe that the dog is trying to annoy them.
“If people think the dog is trying to annoy them or being defiant, they tend to escalate force.”
He said the concept of dogmanship — a person’s ability to interact with and train dogs — needed to be more highly valued.
“It would be wonderful if we had industry backing for courses in dogmanship that combine the need to read and train the dog correctly … and then take that better understood partnership into the field or paddock or into the yard.”
Mr Hull said while the partnership between farmer and dog was generally one of respect, there was also “a big falsity that working dogs need to be treated in a spartan manner”.
“That’s not right — the more they have a life at home with humans, the happier dog and the better worker they’re going to be,” he said.
Professor McGreevy said the fact dogs were living, sentient beings was a key reason they were so good at their jobs.
“It can often think for itself and do a better job, even when it’s not being guided and instructed by a human.”
He added: “We, and many of our respondents we’ve spoken to, don’t see the dogs as a tool.
“They see it as a companion and a work colleague; it’s quite an intimate, personal relationship people have with their animals.”