Dogs go into Neil McDonald’s working-dog training school as ‘a waste of fur’ and come out saving stations a lot of time and money.

Story By Kerry Sharp

Henry Townsend’s dogs have made an art form out of lounging around the homestead veranda when they should be out rounding up cattle. Henry, from East Mathison Station, 90 kilometres west of Katherine, NT, calls them “a moronic waste of fur” – but he says it with a glint in his eye and he’s not about to give up on them just yet.
With attitude adjustment in mind for his kelpie-collie cross mutts, Henry and daughter Zoe have come to town to see what tips they can pick up from South Australian Neil McDonald’s latest working-dog and stock-handling school at Katherine Research Station.
Dozens of pastoral people have turned up from all over the Northern Territory and across the Queensland and West Australian borders – but dogs far outnumber the two-legged students at this school. There’s 120 mostly kelpies and border collies here, all dozing in their trailers or tied up near their owners in the shade around Neil’s open-air ‘classroom’. Lots are first-timers but they learn quickly and will go home ready to mature into confident cattle herders. There’s no shortage of good teachers on hand. Many of the dogs are already skilled workers earning their keep by travelling the country with contractor owners, such as Katherine’s ‘Spud’ Thomas and ‘outback gypsy’ Estelle Taylor – managing cattle herds for paying station clients.
Neil and wife Helen run Sherwood Kelpies at Keith, SA, and Neil is one of a handful of Australian specialists now training dogs for stock-handling work. He’s regarded as a pioneer in his special methods of honing the natural herding instincts of kelpies and border collies and using them to achieve quiet and confident herd control. His main focus is to show station people how to create cooperative livestock, using dogs. Many of a growing band of north Australian cattle producers now using dogs for station work are graduates of these hands-on schools or workshops.
Neil ran his first school in 1989 and now spends more than half of every year travelling northern Australia’s rural backblocks with a head full of knowledge and a trailer full of four-legged demo models, including the ever-alert ‘Butter’, ‘Sam ’, ‘Mud’ and ‘Snap’.
The expert dog breeder and trainer sees a growing role for dogs in cattle work as station owners look for efficient ways to counteract rising fuel costs, global warming, time constraints and a critical shortage of station manpower. He and others have proven the theory that the right kind of dog works extremely well with cattle – and it isn’t going to pack up and leave when it gets homesick!
“Using a well-trained dog team as an alternative to choppers, quad bikes and big mobs of people dramatically cuts a station’s labour and mustering costs and provides quieter cattle – and there are big advantages in that,” he says. “When the cattle are less stressed, they don’t get agitated during loading and unloading and they don’t lose condition, which means they fetch a better price in the market place. Happy, contented stock don’t run back and forth trampling pastures and they perform better – but this process only works if you get the psychology of the mob right. It’s about teaching cattle manners and patience.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #68

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010