Watching a dog bred to herd sheep, is like watching poetry in motion, according to Lewiston resident Helen Jasson, who has a passion for the unique sport.
Helen has been involved with the Herding Dog Club of South Australia for a couple of years and her kelpies, Tora and Charlie, are just starting out at competition level.
Helen has patiently spent many long hours of training and practice to develop a sense of understanding and communication with her dogs.
In the world of sheep herding this communication is so subtle that at times bystanders cannot fathom how human and dog work together so seamlessly.
Helen said a lot of it comes down to the dog’s inbred instincts.
“I love that the dogs have a natural instinct to work sheep and to watch them work and move is like poetry in motion,” she said.
Helen credits her growing skills to the help and advice of good friend, fellow herding enthusiast and Lewistonite, Pat Wake.
“I train most weekends with Pat, who comes over and trains her team on my sheep as well as giving me training tips and encouragement,” she said.
“I have been fortunate to be able to have help and guidance from a few SA Working Sheepdog competitors as well.”
It has only been in the last 12 months that Helen has been able to acquire her own sheep to help train her dogs.
This is an important factor, where the main aim of herding is for the dog to manoeuvre a small flock of sheep around a set course, including through gates and over ramps, in a set time.
It’s a highly technical and competitive field, with points deducted if the sheep go off course, if the dog fails to follow an instruction or the sheep split.
“The most important skill to have with your dog is a stop,” Helen explained.
“Generally that is a stop, and come to you, so you can be confident in the control of your dog but we all develop our own individual cues.
“Everything needs to be black and white for the dogs, there’s no grey area, and this is how I train my dogs.”
Travelling to Goowla and Murray Bridge to compete, Helen said all dogs must complete an instinct test and two pre-trial tests, with two passes, before they can participate at competition level.
“Tora has done both in 2019 and had her first trial on August 16 (this year) at Goolwa, where she competed in A Course Started,” she said.
“She had two runs in this class, gaining two passes and also 1 High in Trial Award for being the highest scoring dog for a trial run.
“Charlie did his instinct test in 2019 and pre-trial test at Goolwa on August 16, where he also had two runs and passed both tests.
“We have our last trial of the year at the end of September and I will have both dogs entered in A Course Started.
“Tora requires one more pass before she can move up to a higher level.”
Depending on how their training is progressing, Helen said she will also enter Tora in the B Course competition, which is more complicated than A Course and requires the dog to work in a larger area and take the sheep through tougher obstacles.
Helen’s love for the world of sheep herding comes from a childhood spent on her grandmother’s property in Hamilton, SA.
“I spent most school holidays there helping on the farm, especially at shearing time working in the sheds for grandma,” she said.
“We were city kids who would go out to the farm and I used to think how incredible her working dogs were bringing the sheep in from the paddocks and working in the yards.
“So, when I purchased my first kelpie I wanted to do what they were bred for, so I looked into the sport of sheep herding.”
Helen said teaching dogs new skills can be incredibly challenging but also a lot of fun and very rewarding.
“Herding intensifies the relationship between you and your dog,” she said.
“It is very complex and particularly challenging to learn, but well worth the effort.”
Training the dogs is usually undertaken a few times a week, mostly with sheep but sometimes “dry” or without sheep, particularly when a new skill or cue is being taught, and sessions are kept short to keep the dogs happy and interested.
Helen hopes to continue trialling her dogs and aims to take part in competitions for the SA Working Sheepdog Trials next year.
Best of luck with your herding dreams Helen.