Working Dogs

One ship, one captain

By Country News

Costerfield wool producer John (Jack) Harris knows his way around a mob of sheep, and has had plenty of good sheepdogs in his time.

Mr Harris can recall riding an old horse to school near the family’s Costerfield farm. These days he rides a quad bike mustering or droving on Pine Grove but one thing that’s remained a constant for this active 76-year-old is a well-trained working dog — or several. With about 4500 sheep on the property, he says, ‘‘it’s a must’’.

You have several dogs here but these two are ‘‘top dogs’’. What are their names?

Ralph is the red dog, he’s really my son Neil’s dog, and the black-and-tan is Bree.

Tell us their histories.

Neil was out wool-classing and this fellow bought a stud bitch in and said he’d had her mated up so Neil said we’d like a pup. He rang a couple of months later and she’d had two bitches and three dogs. We went and picked a bitch but unfortunately we were in the ute not long after with the grandkids holding her and she jumped out the window and was run over. I couldn’t believe it. We went back and asked for the other bitch the breeder had planned to keep; finally he agreed to sell her — he warned us not to let this one get run over.

Neil had Ralph at the time so I broke Bree in. She’s a very good yard dog, she was always a natural.

And Ralph?

He’s 11 now and she’d be 10. We bred Ralph: he was by one of (Nagambie-based) Frank Boyer’s kelpies out of Star, who came from Cobar.

How do they get on?

They get on well and we’d hoped to breed with them but it never seemed to happen. Then we were shearing in January and they finally got together. She only had one pup and we call her Ree.

You would have been pleased because you value the bloodline.

Yes. Ralph’s mother Star was a very good worker. She used to jump in the ute — I like them to travel on the floor in the front — and I could let her out and I’d drive along the fenceline and she’d bring the sheep in to me.

I came in one day and said to Neil, ‘‘I got that mob in without saying a word to her, she just jumped out and did it.’’

What are the best things about Ralph and Bree?

Bree’s a one-man dog; she’s like a shadow. She’ll tear in and work on command but she works close, always close.

(Neil answers) Ralph’s just a gem, he’s a good old worker. He never lets you down. He can work two or three sheep or a mob of 4000. He’s a heavy enough dog to hold a fly-struck sheep down (so it can be treated), and he has lots of force.

Does he have any bad habits?

Rabbits. That’s probably Ralph’s weakness — chasing rabbits, they’re more interesting than sheep.

With working dogs is it instinct or training?

(John continues) It’s training but it’s in the (dog’s) brain. I don’t often work two dogs together — one ship, one captain. My father was known for a good breed of dog and he rubbed a bit off on me. But he reckoned good dogs went out with horses and carts. I believe the more you use the dogs the more experienced you get.

What do they eat?

Cubes: Coprice or Pedigree, and cans.

Where do they sleep?

In their kennels. They’re in the shade at the moment but we move them in the winter when it gets too cold. They are tied up every night: they’re too valuable to lose.