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‘Part of our Kiwi culture’: The tweed jackets are gone, but dog trials are still fiercely competitive

There’s an unwritten rule in Kiwi dog trials – if you have a bad run you’ve got a few minutes to sulk, before you get over it and pull up your socks.

Those are metaphorical socks of course – gone are the days of wearing long woolens, tweed jackets and ties on the course. These farmers are now out there in moleskins, boots, and tidy woolen jumpers.

Dog trialling is picking up in popularity, with more young people involved in dog trialling clubs, which are weaved through every rural nook and cranny.

Otago man Steve Wallace has been in the game for more than 50 years and the one rule that hasn’t changed is keeping your ego out on the course.

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“It’s very competitive, when you go on the mark you are competing like mad, the rest of the time you’re having fun.

“You’ve got five minutes to sulk after a crook run, and then you get back into it, and you are part of the crew again.”

This was the common theme at the South Island dog trials held this week on the outskirts of Alexandra, Central Otago. Every man, woman and their dogs were there for the mateship.

Otago man Steve Wallace has been competing in dog trials for 50 years and says it is more common to see young men and women on the course.

Olivia Caldwell/Stuff

Otago man Steve Wallace has been competing in dog trials for 50 years and says it is more common to see young men and women on the course.

“It is part of our rural Kiwi culture really and it just an extension of our work, that’s really what it is all about,” the 70-year-old said.

“It is somewhere you can go out and be social and carry on with your work. It is really about showing off your dog.”

Kiwi sheepdog trials date back to Wānaka in 1867. There are reports of trials at Waitangi and Te Aka in 1868, again in Wānaka in 1869 and Haldon Station in the Mackenzie Country in 1870. However, Wales had claimed – controversially – to have held the first ever trial in 1873.

Fast-forward to 2022 – the fashion and formality around the prestigious rural competition may have changed, but so had the demographic of competitor.

More women and younger farmers were now getting into the game.

Wallace said it wasn’t uncommon to see 20 to 30 women at a club competition. When he started there were none, unless they were there to cook, he said.

“There is a lot more women doing it and doing it well.”

Stock manager Sam Shaw, from Matawai, Gisborne, qualified this week in the top seven for the run-offs (finals). Her personal best of her is top seven at the nationals.

Sam Shaw's dog Rogue was a bargain price compared with many of the highly priced dogs out there.

Olivia Caldwell/Stuff

Sam Shaw’s dog Rogue was a bargain price compared with many of the highly priced dogs out there.

Shaw, who has been competing for about eight years and whose father also competed, said she loved the competitive element and the fact everyone started each day on an even playing field.

“You have to trust your dog, it is all up to you, your dog and the sheep, and they all have to combine. It is never going to be the same every time.

“How many sports can you have this age range of people, girls and boys competing on the same level?”

At the heart of the operation is her dog Rogue, a cheap buy at “mates rates” of $1000.

Heading dogs and Hunataways can cost between $5000 and $10,000. Some have been known to fetch a price of $16,000.

Ian Anderson, aka Ginger, is New Zealand's longest serving dog trialler and says the sport has gained in popularity in his 55 years.

Olivia Caldwell/Stuff

Ian Anderson, aka Ginger, is New Zealand’s longest serving dog trialler and says the sport has gained in popularity in his 55 years.

At 76, Ian Anderson has seen just about all there is to see in Kiwi dog trialling. He’s won five national titles, 11 island titles and has donned the tweed jacket.

Anderson has been to every national dog trial since he was 19, except for one.

“All that means is, I am growing old… The judges would judge in suits. We live in another age now.”

His favorite memory?

“Some of it I can’t repeat. Mostly just meeting wonderful people.”

He’s still pretty handy. Anderson won last year’s nationals, but dipped out of the race this week in Alexandra.

Born and bred in nearby Omararama where he farms 12,000 sheep on 21,000 acres, he said he loved it for the dog first, and mates second.

Kavinda Herath / Stuff

Greenvale Dog Trial Club president Garth Cross talks about the Tux New Zealand Dog Trial Championships. (video first published in 2021)

Winning was just a bonus, he said.

He will be competing at the Taramanui nationals on May 30, alongside heading dogs Jet, Boss and Dick.

“Oh it’s competition, it’s serious when we get out there. It is serious stuff.”

This week the dog trialling community also said goodbye to John Gordon, best known for his work on television programs Country Calendar and A Dog’s Show, for which he was presenter and commentator for 17 years, from 1977 to 94.

He died at his home in Southland, age 78.

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