Story By Melanie Faith Dove

The Commonwealth Championship Sheepdog Trials have been held in the small coastal town of Port Fairy, Vic, for the past 35 years. Held in February, it’s the first of three main national events for the year, with the Nationals in Canberra in March and the Supremes in Cobar, NSW, in September.
It’s an annual migration dominated by Border Collies from around Australia, with only five Kelpies joining the competition this year out of 233 entries. Local Vin Stapleton was a Kelpie man all his life until he retired and got into breeding and trialling with Border Collies. He sums up the Border Collie’s more gentle, graceful nature: “A Kelpie wants the work done yesterday whereas a Border Collie is happy to do the work today.”
Handlers routinely glance at their watches as they give voice commands and whistles to motivate the right force and angle from the dogs as they drive sheep through the obstacle course, which consists of a gap, race, bridge and pen. Colourful commentary booms from the speakers around the grounds, updating and explaining the rules of conduct in a largely non-contact sport that displays perseverance, intelligence, skill and teamwork.
This year heralded the maiden run of the Australian Dog of the Year award initiated by Bill Paton, president of the Commonwealth Championship committee, which pits the top dog from each state against one another. It was won by Greg Prince of Dubbo, NSW, with eight-year-old ‘Princes Di’, adding to his list of wins including 14 National, nine Supreme and 27 State Championships.
Commonwealth Champion for 2013 was Laurie Slater, 79, of Murrumbateman, NSW, with ‘Wondara Sparkle’. “I’ve been into stock and sheep all my life; when I gave up work I took it up and I’ve been winning ever since,” he says. An exception to the majority of retired stockman participants is 20-year-old Jessica Kimpton of Kurrajong, NSW. “It’s taken me five years of trialling and I’m just getting into the finals now,” she says.
Another exception was Commonwealth Champion finalist Mick Hudson, 40, of Dubbo. “Dogs have always been a part of our life; they’ve helped me muster half a million goats,” he says. “You’ve gotta be a good stockman, have exceptional dogs and, of course, there’s an element of luck involved, but the top dogs always shine through.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #88

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2013