“It’s like calling a dog with no legs, nothing’s happening.”
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Steve’s difficulty calling his three-month-old pup, Indi, to him sums up a lot of the frustrations the new Muster Dog teams are having as they get down to business in episode two.
Everyone is having some teething problems as they bond with their border collie pups and work on getting them ready for their five-month assessment.
And mostly, those early issues are ironed out by the time training guru Neil McDonald sits down with his tablet and puts the puppies through their paces from afar (they won’t all be together in the same place until they are 12 months old).
Neil is looking for a good bond between trainer and pup, and the dog understanding who’s the boss. He wants to see an eager pup who wants to work and who is learning to follow the rules.
“I want to see some spark in them,” Neil said.
Floods in NSW and the Northern Territory and unseasonal late snow in Tasmania have made life difficult for several of the trainers.
“The handlers all have life issues; they really have to dig deep and make sure they train these dogs, even if there are disruptions in their own lives,” Neil said.
Zoe and Buddy
Flooding in the NT meant less work for Zoe, which gave her more time with Buddy.
“I’m building an addiction to him wanting to work with stock,” she explained.
By watching her kelpies working, Zoe was “loading his spring” to make Buddy leap into working.
But despite his strong instincts, Buddy was struggling with the NT heat and humidity, and Zoe feared his lack of stamina would derail his training.
She needn’t have worried. Buddy passed all eight tasks in his first assessment with flying colours.
“Buddy and Zoe are off to a cracking start,” Neil said.
“They’ve ticked all the boxes. They’re racing ahead.”
Steve and Indi
This pair’s initial clash of wills has turned into mutual adoration by the time the first assessment rolls around.
“At the start we had a personality clash, I reckon, but we worked through it and, yes, she’s a pretty special little dog,” Steve said.
“I think Indi’s progress has gone really fast. Most dogs can only concentrate for so long when they’re young and it gets longer and longer. But because she’s got confidence, she works extra longer than most dogs her age.”
As expected, Indi passed the assessment with full marks.
Russ and Molly
The late snow in Tasmania, in November, has made life tough on the farm – Russ is scrambling to catch up, as he’s three to four weeks behind his normal season. And that means less training time with Molly.
“Late in the evening, generally when the kids start crying, that’s the perfect time I might go train Molly,” he laughs.
“It’s been a learning curve putting into practice Neil’s approach to training,” Russ said, as it’s different to his normal training routine. He usually lets them learn on the job.
Molly also had a perfect score for assessment one.
“She’s got a lot of talent there. So I just had to point her in the right direction,” Russ said.
Lily and Snow
Snow was the first pup to wobble in the assessment.
But he only failed one task – being called when he’s distracted.
Flooding had made things difficult for Lily, having to access her home by boat.
But it also meant her usual work had dried up, and had more time to focus on training.
Snow has an extra handicap– being all-white, he needs to be extra strong because sheep don’t know what he is because he’s white.
Cilla and Ash
Cilla and Ash aren’t doing quite as well as the others. But Cilla has plenty of handicaps of her own.
Her husband works off-farm, so not only is she running the farm, she’s caring for her three young children and training Ash.
Plus the distraction of little white house dog Minty, who doesn’t know she’s not a working stock dog and shows up at all the worst times.
“I’m cautiously concerned for Cilla early on because of her lack of experience,” Neil said before the assessment, and he is also worried about all her other commitments.
Just before the assessment, Cilla takes the plunge and introduces Ash to stock – much later than the other four.
“It’s amazing to see her click into that zone. This is her transition from beautiful, polite little puppy to a really strong and intelligent muster dog,” she said.
“Ash is absolutely sailing through this. She’s got this in the bag.”
No, she didn’t. She had two fails, and Cilla got a big fail from Neil for the way she was restraining her dogs on the back of the ATV.
Luckily, Ash got enough passes to go through to the next stage.
“Cilla’s got a little bit of work to do,” Neil said in the understatement of the series so far.
Who’s going to win? My money is on Buddy or Indi at this stage.