Dog trials take off across regional Australia, driven by community spirit and ‘love of dogs’

When Andrew Jansen’s wife, Kathryn, came home with a $1,200 puppy, he was amazed.

“I felt like you could get a good dog for a carton of beer,” he said.

“So obviously after spending so much on him, we called him Cash.”

But it turned out that Cash was worth every penny.

Mr Jansen noticed that the border collie had a natural ability to herd cattle as a young puppy.

After two years of patient training, Cash is now among the competitors who weave between obstacles and move cattle for the chance to be crowned “top dog” at the Queensland Working Dog Trials Championships.

Mr Jansen says the growth of canine trials is stimulated by the community environment and a “love of dogs”.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

“Usually it’s just a simple ‘good dog’, a pat on the head, and then they get addicted to work,” Mr Jansen said.

“Once they’re like that, you can sort of control the instinct, and then you start working together.

“It was the dog [Cash] it got me addicted.”

Dog trials simulate herding a crowd of cattle in a pen, but a former president of the Australian Working Stock Dog Association, Wendy Moxon, says trial dogs are more than just your animal typical pet.

“The quality of the dogs and what they can do is just amazing,” she said.

“There are incredibly good handlers and dogs these days.”

Ms Moxon said the sport had tripled in size over the past decade, growing faster than she could have ever imagined.

“When we started about 12 years ago there were about 10 trials a year and now there’s one almost every weekend,” she said.

“There are probably 150 in Queensland and New South Wales alone.”

A tan colored dog walking in the mud.
The competitions take place whatever the weather conditions.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

Mr Jansen said the sport was particularly popular in the Queensland region, thanks to its affordability and family atmosphere.

He oversaw Comet’s recent competition, which had a record number of entries and attracted competitors from across the state.

“The numbers speak for themselves, you know, the guy who started out with one dog now has four or five more,” he said.

“It’s growing, and fast, that’s for sure.”

Although he and Cash have yet to win a Dog of the Year title, Mr Jansen said they have their eyes set on the prize.

“There’s still a long way to go but a win would be really nice,” he said.

“You have to be in it to earn it.”

A black and brown kelpie dog watches black cattle in a pen.
Competitors must move cattle through a series of obstacles as quickly as possible, avoiding mistakes along the way.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

How do you become a ‘top dog’?

Using only whistles and verbal commands, handlers must use their dogs to move three cattle through a series of obstacles and out of the ring in less than six minutes.

Competitors start each race with 100 points, which are deducted for faults in dog behavior or failure to clear an obstacle.

Queensland Working Dog Trial Association Vice President Paul Wroe has judged dog trials for many years.

A man, wearing a hat and a blue shirt, smiling.
Paul Wroe says the sport has “progressed by leaps and bounds” since its beginnings 20 years ago.(ABC Capricorn: Inga Stunzner)

“Dog can’t turn tail, bites too much, doesn’t bark; all points lost at judge’s discretion,” he said.

“But every round changes, so I’m not too blown away with one score.”

Mr Jansen said competition for the top spot has intensified as the sport has grown.

“There’s a bit of a circuit now, so to speak,” he said.

“You can travel and chase points; we’re all trying to get dog of the year.”

A dog watches cattle in a muddy yard.
Mr Wroe says border collies and kelpies are the most effective dogs for trials.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

“Anyone can try”

Competitor Jamie Sturrock says the industry has transformed since he joined, with more youngsters trying their hand at dog trials.

“When I started it was probably seen a bit more as an older people sport with a lot of semi-retired people and things like that, but now that has changed,” he said.

“It’s family-run; I have my wife and two boys here and they run here, ride bikes, kick football.

“It’s just a lot of like-minded people; a little good socialization and good competition go hand in hand.”

A dog stands in the mud in a yard while watching cattle.
Jamie Sturrock says dog trials are a great sport because they also provide practical benefits when mustering at home.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

Mr Jansen said the social aspect and the community encouraged the growth of the sport.

“It’s definitely a social event; there’s always a cold beer hanging around and someone to chat with,” he said.

“It’s just good for the soul, I think, to get out and forget about work for the weekend – just come and enjoy yourself.”

Ms Moxon said the sport was incredibly inclusive with many events hosting an additional division, the ‘bush handler’, to encourage new competitors.

A man, dressed in a blue shirt and hat, watches and pats his dog.
Mr Jansen says that even though they haven’t arrived yet, he is targeting Cash to become Australia’s ‘top dog’.(ABC Capricorn: Pat Heagney)

“It’s basically for beginners to try out,” she said.

“We have a young guy, he just turned 15 I think, and he’s trying on his own now.”

Ms Moxon said the community atmosphere and inclusivity were the true hallmarks of the sport.

“Anyone can try,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, how big you are, male or female, all that matters is the effort you put on your dog.”