On the dog’s back?

Everyone thinks they have the best dog. None of them are wrong.
On the dogs back

Should we think about South Australia being founded on the sheep’s back or the dog’s back?

By 1874 when the University of Adelaide was created, warehouses storing wool for export in Port Adelaide were booming. Farmers needed working dogs to help them manage the increasing numbers of sheep. The benefits of working dogs were being recognised at this time. In Australia the first recorded sheepdog trial was on 5 September 1868, at the Wangaratta Spring Show.

Working dogs were highly valued, and the prize for the best sheepdog in the yard was 20 pounds (around $3,250 today). But working dogs from other countries were not well suited to tougher Australian conditions. Enter stage left the Kelpie.

In 1864, George and Mary Ann Robertson imported two Sutherland or Highland Smooth collies from Scotland. A female, who became the foundation female for the Kelpie breed, was given to Robertson’s 18-year-old nephew.

Although he initially missed the dog’s potential, Jack Gleeson, an Irish-born stockman later recognised an opportunity when he saw it and acquired the pup by swapping it for a stock horse. Gleeson named it Kelpie, a Scottish name for a water sprite, and mated Kelpie with a collie called Moss. The resulting pups were highly prized and began the Kelpie bloodline. This provided working dogs better suited to hot and rugged outback environments than those brought in from cooler climates.

Other working dogs have also played their part. Border Collies are not an Australian breed but have been used here for herding livestock for longer than any other country outside the UK.

Australia’s cattle dog, the Blue Heeler, was the first successful Australian dog breed, when Thomas Simpson Hall crossed an English drover’s cur (cross bred dog) with a dingo in 1825. Hall had a team of drovers and provided them with his new breed of dogs (Hall’s heelers) and by 1832 they were a very useful cattle dog. It was believed they had the toughness and stamina of the dingo.

More recent scientific research has expanded our knowledge. To find out what makes a working Kelpie tick, scientists performed genetic analysis of the Australian Kelpie (a non-working dog) versus the Australian Working Kelpie.

This showed a unique region on chromosome 3 in the Australian Working Kelpie which contains genes related to fear-memory formation and pain perception. These genes likely help the working Kelpie to thrive in tough Australian conditions through dense scrub and searing heat.

Dr Liz Arnott, a veterinarian who conducted the study as part of her PhD, believes the best Kelpies have boldness, intelligence, anticipation, and initiative.

It is estimated the median cost of owning a herding dog is $7,763 over their working life, while the value of their work is estimated at $40,000 - a 5.2-fold return on investment. The worth of a good working dog is seen by how much farmers are prepared to pay for them.

A dog in the Lucindale working dog auctions in 2019 sold for $29,000, while in 2022 the Australian record price for a Kelpie was set at $49,000.

Of course, not all dogs bred to be working dogs make the cut. The working dogs that don’t make it are adopted as pet dogs. But are they suited for a suburban backyard? In an online Reddit discussion @staticwatermelon gave advice to a person considering getting a Kelpie: We are so attentive with our Kelpie and he has still torn through four 'unchewable' beds, torn up our floorboard and mats, and our backyard is full of holes. And this is a dog that has another high energy dog companion to play with all day and gets two hours of full pelt running in a huge park a day.

A close friend of mine has a Kelpie that was no good at farm work, but he thrives in the foothills of Adelaide in a large yard with minimal walks. Other Kelpies struggle to contain their physical and mental energy, but so do dogs of different breeds.

Our own young Labrador Ziggy has only chewed up one bed so far, would keep running after a ball long after my arm is too tired to keep throwing it, and chews on so much wood around the garden that I swear he’s crossed with a termite.

Whether working or companion, dogs will continue to play integral roles in our lives. As W.R. Purche wrote: “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. None of them are wrong.”

Susan Hazel is Associate Professor at the School of Animal and Veterinary Science, Roseworthy campus. Illustration: Stock image.

Tagged in Lumen Autumn 2024, 150th