Source: The Guardian (Extract)
Posted: January 13, 2024

You could say the internet has been built off the back of cute puppy videos – so a reality TV show following the journey of five working dogs on farms across Australia is a recipe for success.

But the acclaim of ABC series Muster Dogs goes far beyond just being cute – although there’s enough puppy sweetness to satisfy even the most rabid of dog lovers. Much of the appeal of the show comes from the fascinating training process; considering many of us struggle to kick our dogs out of our beds, it’s enthralling to watch puppies learn how to round up sheep, cattle, even feral goats.

Where season one of Muster Dogs followed the training of five kelpies, season two sees five border collie pups trained to herd livestock – and it’s astonishing to see their instinctive desire to do so, apparent even when they are only a few weeks old.

The highly anticipated second season opens on Debbie, a heavily pregnant Australian border collie whose litter will be sent around Australia to five different graziers tasked with training her puppies over a year. It’s hoped that she’ll give birth to at least seven: she exceeds expectations by giving birth to 10.

Genetics play a large part in determining their suitability as working dogs, as much as the training. Season two’s pups were bred by the dog trialling champion and dog educator Mick Hudson and their bloodlines come from more than 100 years of Australian dog trial champions.

“Trainability is very important,” Hudson says. “And it’s even more important as a farmer – because you don’t want to be screaming ‘come in’ 50 times before they come back to you. It all goes back to genetics – I certainly don’t want to breed dogs that are biting or harming livestock, or are easily spooked and hard to train. We’ve put a lot of time into breeding these animals, and we really can predict what we’re going to get because of their generations of pedigrees.”

In the first episode we see 13-week-old puppies delivered to five graziers across Australia, all with different types of farms and needs. We get to see the connection grow between the dogs and their new owners – and even watch them try to think of names, such as Snow for a pure white pup and Ash for another, in honour of sports star Ash Barty.

The expert dog trainers Neil and Helen McDonald are back again. They explain to Guardian Australia that working dogs are still incredibly useful for farmers, even with the advent of new technologies. Much of the benefit of using working dogs instead of vehicles to round up livestock is that a correctly trained dog can keep cattle and sheep calm.

“Over a longer period of time you change the psyche of the mob of cattle and sheep, and then don’t cause as much grief, as they become cooperative when trying to shift them to any designated direction or obstacles,” Neil explains.

Working dogs are increasingly valuable due to huge staff shortages facing rural farmers in Australia, Helen says.

“If you’ve got reliable dogs to replace staff members where you can’t get staff members, that’s hugely important at the moment,” she adds.

I think of my own dog, who is scared of everything, including sheep. What qualities would Helen and Neil look for that could make a puppy unsuitable for working dog conditions?

“Sometimes a dog’s interest in farm work doesn’t register until they’re around 12 months of age – which would have been an absolute nightmare for the show,” said Neil. “But I think from what I can see, all these pups have started young enough in life. I think people were fortunate enough to get good dogs and they’ve handled them well.”

Much of the excitement of the show comes from the reality format. Each dog must be trained within 12 months, with several stages of training that must be met at certain intervals over the year. It has a similar appeal to shows like Physical 100 or Squid Game: The Challenge, but much cuter. Obviously, if a puppy took too long to start rounding up cattle that would make bad television.

There aren’t many differences between the first season and the second – if it isn’t broken, then why fix it? But there’s one choice that is sure to cause some controversy in working dog circles: the decision to go with Australian border collies instead of the kelpies used in the original season.

“It’s a topic that can occupy a fair bit of time,” Neil says. “But it’s a bit like comparing Holdens to Fords, you know. You can sit people down and that discussion will go on forever.”