Koroit Football Ground is no longer an ordinary park after being transformed into an obstacle course to test some of Australia’s best sheepdogs.
As the owners stand on a stake near the goals, their dog from 70 yards away deftly chases three sheep following specific commands down an eight-yard lane.
It’s the Australian Sheepdog Championships in Koroit, Victoria, and unlike a dog park, there’s no pranks in this arena.
Owners stand ankle-straight beside them and are not allowed to flap or wave their arms for their dog’s attention.
This year Australia celebrates 150 years of herding dog trials.
“The records are a little sketchy but it was around the 1870s [when it began]“, said Marion Whalon from the window of her canteen in the football stand, where she calls the championships.
“But then they realized the other thing this competition does is promote really good breeding.
“Usually a dog will win Australian, Commonwealth next week at Port Fairy, they will win at Hall in Canberra.”
Ms Whalon said the constant work is being noticed within the farming community and can lead to high demand for the offspring of the champion dog.
“The price of puppies may well go up,” she said.
Balancing commands and instincts
Despite high COVID-19 numbers, this year’s event attracted around 300 dogs, whose owners traveled from all over Australia to compete.
One of the larger convoys, including three women, 15 dogs and plenty of dog food, traveled for two days from Canberra to enjoy the event.
National Sheepdog Trial Association president Sarah Sydrych said a good sheepdog can follow commands from a great distance and has a combination of traits.
“It’s a balance between following orders and doing what’s instinctive,” she said.
Ms. Sydrych particularly enjoys the human-dog relationship that this sport, and the work together in which it is rooted, requires and fosters.
“It’s that partnership, the teamwork with the dog and you, it’s a pretty unique sport,” she said.
Competition is the reward
Between announcements at the Koroit Sheepdog Championships, Mrs. Whalon enters the competition with her two dogs, Louie and Muddy.
She said that, like most competitors, she was nervous before the game, but took deep breaths to calm herself and her dogs down.
“It’s not just about controlling your own nerves, dogs realize that,” she said.
“But it’s amazing, once you go out and get on your ankle, you don’t even realize there’s someone watching you.
“It’s just you and your dog and you watch the sheep.”
Ms Whalon said her sheepdogs do not receive special breakfasts or treats on competition day because the competition itself is the reward.
“They know they’re on trial, they feel it. That’s how smart they are,” she said.
“And they can’t wait to go.”