Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: January 22, 2024

When he’s not trying to breed some of the best border collie working dogs in Australia, Mick Hudson is a passionate competitor at sheepdog trials.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Mick, a star of ABC’s Muster Dogs, has been racking up titles and trophies.

It might be hard to imagine, but sheepdog trials were once so popular in Australia that they were broadcast on TV each weekend.

But if you’re new to the world of sheepdog trials, let’s take a few steps back and revisit the basics.

What exactly is a sheepdog trial?

A sheepdog trial is a competition that tests a dog’s ability to round up and manoeuvre sheep through an obstacle course.

The sheep have never seen the course before, so it’s all on the dog and its trainer.

A handler needs their dog to put three sheep through a marked corridor and obstacles — including a race, a bridge and a pen — within a set time period that’s anywhere between 12 and 15 minutes.

Each contestant starts their run with 100 points, and if time expires, they lose points for the obstacles they haven’t completed.

Points are also deducted if sheep go outside the corridor or around the obstacles.

According to Mick, the trial rules are strict.

“Any time a dog passes between the sheep and the handler during the course, it’s a cross, and he’s disqualified,” he says.

“And if the dog bites and hangs onto the livestock you’re disqualified … [although] dogs are allowed to nip in self-defence or to move stubborn livestock.”

So, it’s just like herding sheep on a farm?

It’s not quite that straightforward.

While all of Mick’s trial dogs earn their keep as farm dogs, trials are a very different experience.

“There’s a bit of a fallacy surrounding trial dogs that they are just trial dogs and can’t achieve the work on farms,” he says, adding that’s a misunderstanding he wants cleared up.

Mick says trials are particularly tough because the sheep aren’t in a “mob” and don’t stick together.

“You’ve got to have a very smart, well-educated dog to be able to keep three sheep together.

“You educate them to block and cover and control the distance [between the sheep].”

Complicating matters, sheep have their own personalities, just like the dogs.

“The dog’s got to be smart to handle ‘runny’ sheep or really quiet sheep or really stubborn sheep,” Mick says.

“Sometimes we get sheep that have never been handled by dogs, and that’s very difficult.

“You need a really smart dog then to stay out wider, to introduce himself to them, and teach them that he’s in control.

“Because if he comes in close, they just run and bolt and split up.”

What skills do dog handlers need?

Mick says dog owners who know the ropes of handling stock “have a very good base” for training trial dogs.

“You need to learn how to read livestock and understand them,” he says.

Mick passes that knowledge onto his dogs, training them to read livestock’s body language:

  • Head held high: The sheep is alarmed
  • Head held low: The sheep is relaxed
  • Twitching ears: The sheep is scared, and the dog is getting too close

Interested? Get training early! 

Mick says, as well as fostering a strong bond with your pup, you need to switch on their instinct to work stock.

While this usually happens by the time they’re 12 weeks old, it can take two years of training before a dog is ready to compete in trials.

In that time, Mick sets up obstacles at home for training, but not before the dogs have shown their skills working livestock on the farm.

“A one-year-old could be trained, but he’s not going to be a champion,” Mick says.

“But by the time he’s three years old, he’s got some experience. He’s starting to step up the ladder.”

But it’s not an easy hobby for those who decide to commit.

Mick says at least 150 to 200 hours of work goes into training a dog.

“Put that down at $100 an hour, and it makes them very valuable,” he says.

“The value of these dogs is really only just getting recognised.”