Sheepdog training a lifeline for ‘bored’ working dogs living in the big smoke

A growing urban Australian love affair with herding dogs has spawned a new line of work for one of the country’s top sheepdog trainers – helping city dwellers understand how their country working dogs think.

Simon Leaning has built a career breeding, training and judging sheepdogs, but the former policeman never thought he’d spend most of his weekends fixing behavioral issues in working dogs locked up.

“[We get] the local border collies and kelpies and the working breeds, to come and spend their day on the farm, so to speak,” said the former police officer turned dog trainer.

“Instead of chasing the ball in the park, they come here and work the sheep, and they learn a lot of things that a lot of problem owners have at home, like rappels, seats, and stays.”

Zeus, the 11-year-old hunting sheepdog, kept barking in his town garden.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

Dogs bred to work on city backyard farms

The nation’s fascination with intelligent working dogs has led to an exponential increase in kelpies, koolies and border collies, bred to herd and herd livestock around the country, living in the backyards of cities and suburbs.

Left alone when their owners go to work, many highly intelligent creatures get bored, and that’s where the trouble begins.

The subsequent destructive or neurotic behavior of their precious pooches has prompted thousands of owners to take their dogs to Simon Leaning’s Mount Helena estate in the hills on the outskirts of Perth.

Every Saturday morning, a dozen owners come to discover what makes their animal vibrate.

Man in a pen with sheep, a broom with a lying dog.
Standing by a steel fenced circle about 15 meters in diameter containing four sheep, the owners bring their dogs into the ring to see how they react to the cattle.(Provided: Leaning Simon)

“The instinct to round up and bring sheep to their owners exists in well-behaved dogs,” Mr Leaning said.

“The relationship between owner and dog develops because of their work with livestock.”

Some owners become addicted to sessions.

Mr. Penché pointed towards a woman standing with a small female border collie, whose gaze is fixed on the sheep waiting in the round ring.

“Sue there, with Daisy, she’s been here every week for many, many months now training her little dog,” he said.

“Then we have other guys who are just interested in giving the dogs a bit of mental stimulation by learning a bit about the breed, by learning a bit about how to handle them.

“They are very different from what would be considered a normal house dog.”

Sheep work gives respite to “bored” working dogs

Her vet recommended Sue Drake-Brockman bring Daisy, a three-and-a-half-year-old border collie, to training after she showed signs of boredom by sticking her nose in the sand and lifting it up in the air .

“She has a very strong herding instinct,” she said.

“Daisy’s father is an Australian Champion. It’s very strong in her, and I guess I had some behavioral issues. I was recommended to bring her into breeding, which helped a lot. aid.

“The flickering has definitely gone down. It’s only when she’s been over-stimulated, and that’s often when I take her to the beach, but otherwise it’s stopped that behavior pretty well.

“She’s learned a few tricks, and I take her out a few times a day for a few hours, and we throw the ball around and interact with other dogs. The practice sessions here have really calmed her down.”

A variety of dogs in a dusty yard.
Many of Simon Leaning’s students are suburban residents who want to better understand dogs bred to work on farms.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

For old and young

Not all dogs are young.

Steve Johnson rescued an old hunter named Zeus who had never seen a sheep in his 11 years of living in the backyards. However, when Steve brought him to the sessions to find a way to quell his instinct to bark at anything that moved, Zeus was an instant star student.

“It was a complete natural,” he said.

“I was going the wrong way and tripping over sheep and all that stuff, but he knew exactly what to do and how to do it.”

“It’s my second time with him. So it’s a bit of a treat for him, but he really loves it.

“He’s watching another dog do the work, and he just wants to get in there, and he just wants to do it.”

Brody Kosh and Renee Hanley live in the northern suburbs of Perth.

The young couple own a very excited little black kelpie named Nika.

They found Mr. Leaning’s calm approach to harnessing the kelpie’s instincts and energy a complete relief.

“Nika would be a terrible working dog,” Ms Hanley said.

“Simon’s degree of control and the dogs ability to read body language is probably the main thing I noticed during these sessions.

Two smiling people with a happy-looking little black dog.
When Perth couple Renee Hanley and Brody Kosh started noticing behavioral issues in their energetic young black kelpie, Nika, they called in the experts.(ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)

Mr Learning said many owners were surprised at how quickly their suburban companions transformed into working dogs once in the ring.

“[You’d] be surprised how fit dogs become very tired from this mental challenge. Then there will be other dogs who love the old pros and look like they’ve done it their whole life.

“We are truly fortunate to have a facility like the one we have here so these city dogs have the opportunity to do what they were truly bred to do.”

They keep their owners and, perhaps, their urban neighborhoods a little quieter.

Want to know more about the instincts of working dogs?

The new ABC TV series Muster Dogs follows five breeders from across Australia who take on the challenge of training a kelpie puppy from the same litter.

Each breeder must pass progressive evaluations over a period of 12 months to compete for the title of “Champion Muster Dog”.

Watch Muster Dogs, Sundays at 7:40 p.m., starting Sunday, January 23 on ABC TV and iview.

Bette C. Alvarado