There is a television program on at the moment on the ABC called Muster Dogs, in which five pedigree kelpie pups are sent to five farmers around Australia with the purpose for them to try and train the pups up to become top working dogs in just 12 months, a skill which would normally take around three years.
The four part series follows the journeys of the five pups and their owners in tough farming conditions all around Australia and gives an insight into the incredible skills and intelligence of these working dogs and their importance to Australian farmers.
The use of working dogs to muster stock is an ancient practice and its popularity is growing again with graziers seeing the benefits not only to the cattle or sheep, but also the environment and economics of running a farm or station using dogs as workers.
It’s been a wonderful series to watch and marvel at the incredible bond between the trainers and their dogs and to see the amazing control and bond they have to get mustering completed in a safe and controlled way.
We were sold on watching the series before knowing anything about it as we’ve had pet kelpies for more than 30 years, now having our third dog. The advice we always heard was that a kelpie will need a lot of exercise and stimulation to keep them happy, but we haven’t found ours in any more need of exercise than any other breed of dog and in fact ours have always been pretty happy to sleep a lot of the day. Having said that though, they have all jumped at any activity we’ve offered them and only usually stop when we tell them to!
What we have always loved about the breed is their size, (good to take in a car), their intelligence (making them easy to train) and their demeanor and tolerance which makes them excellent around children. They have been perfectly behaved dogs to take on caravan holidays too.
We’ve been fans of the breed ever since we bought our first dog in 1987. His name was Ned and he was a black kelpie with a dash of white on his chest. We bought him as a puppy from a back yard breeder, and he was our first baby.
Apart from working full time, all of our attention could go into training him and like most kelpies they are ready and willing to learn and please their owners, as long as you establish yourself as the boss from the very beginning.
Ned lived up to everything we expected and more, always friendly, always listened to commands and when our kids came along he was patient, tolerant and protective. He was mad for chasing a ball or anything in fact. If we hid his ball he would find something else and bring a leaf or a stick to leave at your feet wanting you to throw it.
A friend once thought he’d put him to the test and threw a tennis ball up a hill for hours thinking he would tire Ned out, but it wasn’t to be and his pitching arm gave in well before the dog’s willingness to keep up the chase. Ned lived into his fourteenth year before succumbing to cancer.
Our second kelpie was bought from a breeder. I had hoped to get a red kelpie but there weren’t any reds amongst those we could choose from, which were dogs that weren’t expected to be good for working purposes. So an exuberant, bouncy little black kelpie with a white blaze on his chest (looking very similar to our first dog) it was to be, and we named him Jack. (Jacky Boy)
By now we had two children and a busier household so Jack probably didn’t get as much attention and training in his early years as he should have, so it took a few years for him to get over his puppy stage and grow out of some destructive habits. Jack’s legacy was nipping the tops off every watering system riser in our garden and chewing the corners of our timber outdoor table and benches.
He was kept busy though with lots of play with our kids and he definitely learnt tolerance with children in the house who would dress him up at whim. He was a more active dog than Ned and loved amongst other things, to jump and chase sparks from a campfire, not a very clever thing to do.
His other traits were that he loved to howl along to the CFS siren which would sound every Monday night not far from where we lived in the Adelaide Hills. He would wind up and down howling along to the sound of the siren until it ended, so summer bushfire season was always tuneful.
There was also one song that would always come on the radio that set him off for some reason, take a listen to the song ‘Brother’ by Matt Corby and you can hear how the intro would set him off every time.
The funny thing is that he would start howling to that song no matter where we were or who we were with so we’d usually have to change the music or just laugh and put up with it. That song to this day reminds us of Jack, who also lived into his 14th year.
Sadly he contracted glaucoma in one eye in his later years and he had to have that eye removed, but that didn’t change his nature one bit and he happily continued on for a couple more years before succumbing to a stroke and seizures.
It’s always so hard when you have to farewell these fur family members and their loss is felt forever really, no dog is the same and they all have their distinct personalities. We missed not having a dog around so it was only about 6 months later that we looked at getting another but this time I thought that choosing a rescue kelpie would be ideal for us, and we could get an older dog not a puppy again.
Through Australian Working Dog Rescue (AWDRI) we found and adopted our current boy Neo. He was estimated to be a 1 year old and it was the first time we’d ever seen a cream kelpie. We fell in love with his dingo like appearance, although we didn’t anticipate the almost daily question we get asked now even 8 years later, ‘Is that a dingo’?
Like most rescue dogs, Neo came with issues, he has a physical disability and walks with a completely wonky hind end. He came with vet reports when we adopted him and we took him to a specialist to see if there was any way to improve his mobility but unfortunately not.
His weird gait doesn’t affect his day to day life but we must control his enthusiasm to chase a ball (like a typical kelpie) and he can’t jump up, so needs a hand to get into the car, but he is the happiest, sookiest, most lovable dog we’ve ever owned. I think dogs that have been rescued have an added appreciation and love for their owners, especially if they are impounded like our boy was.
As with all kelpies you have to establish yourself (or yourselves) as the alpha in the pack and then when they respect you, they are perfect for training and are willing to do anything for you.
We often say that Neo came preloaded as he just had some absolute smarts about him, he could sit and stay on command and wouldn’t come into the house unless invited. Over the years he has learnt to shake, speak (out loud and quietly), drop, roll over and much more including charm his way into the hearts of many who know him. He absolutely loves children even though he’s not surrounded by them except on holidays, where he seems to draw them like a magnet.
Neo is now 9 years old and loves nothing more than joining us at the beach and on holidays, living it up in the caravan or boat and often drawing comment that he has a better life than a lot of humans. We can’t dispute that.
We have noticed a few typical kelpie traits over the years and these have been,
- The head tilt – when you’re speaking to them they know full well and listen with interest, not necessarily obeying but definitely listening.
- The kelpie lean – they must either be leaning against your leg or sitting on your foot often when resting, that way they seem to know the minute you move and they are with you.
- Ours have always hated baths but love the beach and happily swim as enthusiastically as they run.
- No matter how comfortable the bed they all have loved laying in the dirt and usually when wet, the muddier the better.
- Their tolerance is amazing, never snappy and always putting up with whatever they are put through especially at the hands of children.
- They are the biggest sooks and are happy resting their head on your leg and being close to you.
We are huge fans of the Muster Dogs series which you can see via streaming services, and wholeheartedly vouch for this highly intelligent and loveable breed of dog as a pet too.
I follow a lot of kelpie accounts on Instagram, one of which just happens to be one of the graziers in the program, @pilbaraworkingdogs which I only found out about shortly before the series started.
If you follow my Instagram account @caravancorrespondent you’ll also see photos and videos of Neo popping up in the feed occasionally too.