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Dog trials take off across regional Australia, driven by community spirit, ‘love for dogs’

When Andrew Jansen’s wife Kathryn came home with a $1,200 puppy, he was gobsmacked.

“I was under the impression you could get a good dog for a carton of beer,” he said.

“So obviously, having spent so much on him, we called him Cash.”

But as it turned out, Cash was worth every cent.

Mr Jansen noticed the border collie had a natural ability for herding cattle as a young pup.

After two years of patient training, Cash is now among the competitors weaving between obstacles and moving cattle for a chance to be crowned “top dog” at the Queensland Working Dog Trial Championships.

Mr Jansen says the growth in dog trialling is being driven by the community environment and a “love of dogs”.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

“Usually it’s just a simple ‘good dog’, a pat on the head, and then they get addicted to the work,” Mr Jansen said.

“Once they’re like that, you can kind of put a bit of command over the instinct, and then you start to work together.

“That was the dog [Cash] that got me hooked.”

Dog trialling simulates herding a mob of cattle in a paddock, but a former president of the Australian Working Stock Dog Association, Wendy Moxon, said trial dogs were far beyond your typical pet.

“The quality of dogs and what they can do is just unbelievable,” she said.

“There are some amazingly good handlers and dogs out there nowadays.”

Ms Moxon said the sport had tripled in size in the past decade, growing faster than she could have ever imagined.

“When we started about 12 years ago, there were about 10 trials a year and now there’s one nearly every weekend,” she said.

“There are probably 150 in Queensland and New South Wales alone.”

A tan-coloured dog walking in the mud.
Competitions go ahead regardless of the weather conditions.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

Mr Jansen said the sport was particularly popular in regional Queensland, thanks to its affordability and family-friendly atmosphere.

He oversaw the recent competition in Comet, which fielded a record number of entries and drew competitors from across the state.

“The numbers speak for themselves, you know, the bloke who started with one dog now has four or five more,” he said.

“It’s growing, and quickly, that’s for sure.”

Though he and Cash were yet to win any Dog of the Year titles, Mr Jansen said they had their eyes on the prize.

“It’s a long road yet but a win would be really good,” he said.

“You’ve got to be in it to win it.”

A black-and-brown kelpie dog looks at black cattle in a pen.
Competitors must move the cattle through a series of obstacles as quickly as possible, avoiding faults along the way.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

How do you become ‘top dog’?

Using only whistles and verbal commands, handlers must use their dogs to move three cattle through a series of obstacles and out of the ring in under six minutes.

Competitors start each run with 100 points, which are deducted for faults in the dog’s behavior or failure to complete an obstacle.

Queensland Working Dog Trial Association vice-president Paul Wroe has judged dog trials for many years.

A man, wearing a hat and a blue shirt, smiling.
Paul Wroe says the sport has “come along in leaps and bounds” since he started 20 years ago.(ABC Capricorn: Inga Stunzner)

“The dog can’t tail turn, bite too much, doesn’t bark; those are all points lost at the judge’s discretion,” he said.

“But every run changes, so I don’t get too blown away with just one score.”

Mr Jansen said competition for top spot had heated up as the sport had grown.

“There’s now a bit of a circuit, so to speak,” he said.

“You can travel around and chase the points; we’re all trying to get Dog of the Year.”

A dog looks at cattle in a muddy yard.
Mr Wroe says border collies and kelpies are the most effective dogs for trialling.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

‘Anyone can have a go’

Competitor Jamie Sturrock said the industry had transformed since he joined, with more young people trying their hand at dog trialling.

“When I first started, it was probably considered a little bit more of an older person’s sport with a lot of semi-retired people and things like that, but now it’s changed,” he said.

“It’s family-friendly; I’ve got my wife and two boys here and they’re running around here, riding bikes, kicking the footy.

“It’s just lots of like-minded people; a bit of good socializing and good competition go hand-in-hand.”

A dog lies in the mud in a yard while looking at cattle.
Jamie Sturrock says dog trialling is a great sport as it also provides practical benefits when mustering at home.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

Mr Jansen said the social aspect and community were encouraging growth in the sport.

“It’s definitely a social event; there’s always a cold beer lying around and someone to have a chat with,” he said.

“It’s just good for the soul, I think, to get out and just forget about working for the weekend — just come and enjoy yourself.”

Ms Moxon said the sport was incredibly inclusive with many events hosting an extra division, the “bush handler”, to encourage new competitors.

A man, wearing a blue shirt and a hat, looks at and pats his dog.
Mr Jansen says although they haven’t made it yet, he is gunning for Cash to become Australia’s “top dog”.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

“It’s basically for beginners to just have a try,” she said.

“We’ve got a young fella, he’s just turned 15 I think, and he’s trialling on his own now.”

Ms Moxon said the community atmosphere and inclusivity were the real features of the sport.

“Anyone can have a go,” she said.

“No matter your age, your build, male or female, it only matters the effort you put into your dog.”

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