Cobber Stories & Media

Aussie farm life 'pretty hard' without working dogs

18 July 2017

Rosalea Ryan

Gaining an insight into the effort put in by their dogs in the course of a normal working day was a highlight of the 2016 Cobber Challenge, according to many of the eight dog owners who took part last year.

At Woorndoo, Victoria, Larry gave Damien Clifford a whole new appreciation for the work done by his entire canine team. Although it was Larry alone that was crowned Cobber Champion for 2016, having covered more than 519km over 59.5 hours with an average speed of almost 9km/hour, Damien said he considered all five of his working Kelpies equal winners. “Winning was great but it made me proud of my whole team of dogs,” he said. “It was a pretty good experience – I learned a lot about how hard these dogs are working.” He said the high degree of interest shown by the media and the general public was encouraging. “I was surprised that people were talking, so the publicity was good,” Damien said.

Larry’s fellow Victorian, Rex, opened his own master’s eyes to Australian working dogs’ exceptional athleticism. “I was really happy to do the Cobber Challenge,” Jandre Slabbert, Grassdale, said. “I was intrigued to see how far Rex could run. We always talk about it but it was good to get factual data to look at how hard they do work – how much they contribute day-to-day. Without them, life on the farm would be pretty hard.” Jandre said he had not expected to find that Rex was covering distances of 40km in the course of a routine day’s stockwork. “That was huge – I didn’t think he would be running that far.” He said the activity monitored during the Challenge was “just an average day for Rex”.

Barely two years old last November, Rex was one of the youngest entrants in the 2016 Cobber Challenge and could well be lining up to compete again. “I’m keen to re-nominate,” Jandre said. “It would be interesting to see the difference between last year and this. “Rex will turn three in September so he still acts like a pup. He has a few years before he’ll mature into this work. It would be interesting to see whether he was running faster or further.”

Jandre said his best advice to intending nominees was on the technological front. “Sort out the technical things first so there aren’t any issues down the track,” he said.

Point of comparison

Matthew Ehsman, Delungra, New South Wales, said he also found the Challenge results “very, very interesting”. Matthew said he was fascinated to discover how much his dog, Minute, moved throughout the day and how much energy he used. “It’s pleasing to know how much these dogs put in for us,” he said. “It was really very interesting to see the data of dogs working and compare it to the other states. Every dog works differently.”

He said the one “grey area” was that “one dog might have a lot of presence (when working sheep or cattle) and another might not”. “I’ve spoken to friends about this,” Matthew said. “The biggest challenge for this competition is how to measure the work the dogs do, because the more efficiently a dog works, the less it runs.” He said in his case the aim lay not in trying to win the Challenge but in gathering data that showed what Minute did each day. “It’s hard for a dog owner or farmer to measure this.”

The veteran of the 2016 Challenge at seven years of age, Minute covered 46km in his biggest day and 186km overall.

Gender no issue

Nearby, at Armidale, NSW, Jeremy Grills said he also found participating beneficial. “It was good,” Jeremy said, adding that he was surprised by how far his Kelpie, Tammy, moved without looking any the worse for her exertions. “She still looked great at the end of it,” he said. “I gave her a couple of days off once it was over.”

Jeremy said the readings taken throughout the Challenge reinforced to him that he couldn’t get by on his farm without a dog like Tammy. His one suggestion for refinement of the scoring system is that dogs receive greater weighting in future for time spent in stockyards. “There could be more points awarded for duration rather than kilometres,” he said. “A dog working in the yard is working harder than a dog out in a paddock.” That said, Tammy was no slouch in the marathon department, racking up 464km over 81.5 working hours.

Two-year-old Tammy’s third placing showed that gender had no influence on endurance or speed.

Tammy was one of two female contestants in the Challenge. The other young bitch, fourth-placed Dixie, had one of the biggest home ranges of any Cobber Challenge working dog: the 8000ha Konetta Station at Greenways, between Kingston and Millicent in South Australia, where she works 45,000 sheep with her mistress, Ashlea Mabon.

Tropical hurdle

Soaring daytime temperatures during the Challenge period in late November and early December were a hindrance for competitors in Queensland, according to Matt Frankish, Middlemount, north-west of Rockhampton. “It was a struggle because of the time of year,” Matt said. “It was very hot in Queensland – 45°C, 46°C. Late in the arvo – about 7pm – I’d take the dogs for a run.” Matt said he was surprised by the pace achieved by his three-year-old Border Collie, Hank. “It was interesting to see these speeds – up to 57km/hour in short bursts,” he said.

Matt works cattle with his adult dogs but trains pups with sheep. He described the Challenge as “a good learning curve”. Mastering the technicalities took a while at first, he said, but once he had become comfortable using the tracker he was able to switch it off and back on to isolate individual blocks of activity.

The individual experiences of the eight handlers and their dogs notwithstanding, one thing is certain: all eight humans were highly impressed by the outstanding achievements of their hardest worker.

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