Up until the late 1950’s Australia rode on the sheep’s back and today, as the Eastern Market Indicator continues to climb, our sheep farmers are again rejoicing. However, one component of successful sheep farming always seems to fly under the radar. The sheep get all the glory and the contribution of the working dog largely goes unnoticed. It’s no secret that we are passionate about kelpies and working dogs here at Rural Room so we thought it was fitting to hero them in our very first interview.
Eddie sat down with their biggest champion, Ian O’Connell, to learn how his fierce opposition to animal cruelty and unconditional respect for the dog has set him on a lifelong mission to get working dogs the credit they deserve.
Ian, how would you describe yourself?
I have been a shearer slash stock contractor, now a sheep farmer slash working dog trainer, though I more train their trainers. I guess I’d say I’m a conductor of working dog schools.
Where did you grow up?
I come from a place over near the South Australian border, Casterton. I grew up on a small farm there. I grew up with horses and working dogs and did a lot of stock work.
What was the name of your first dog?
My first dog would have been Tip. He was a kelpie; border collie cross- he had a white tip on the tail.
When did you realise you wanted to take your passion for working dogs further?
Right from when I was a child. I used to spend a lot of time on horseback working stock and droving stock with my father in pretty rugged country and we used to rely on our working dogs so much. I had a huge appreciation of them, even as a kid. Every spare chance I got I’d spend time with them and even my old man’s dogs got to like me a lot. It got to the point that if we were droving I’d look around and all his dogs would be following my horse not his horse, which annoyed him no end! He had sort of come from the old school- the old bash and crash ‘em and he was pretty tough on everything, including kids. Right back then I thought there was a better way of doing it all. I used to think, how would I like to be treated? Then I would treat the dogs exactly that way.
Describe your early years-
I left school young and travelled around Australia shearing. I always had working dogs with me and the places I worked at would want me to bring my dogs so they could use them for penning up the sheep. I was probably known more for my working dogs than I was for my shearing! In my travels, if I wasn’t shearing I was doing contract work somewhere and I was always looking out for people’s dogs. I seen some dogs would work very well and I seen some dogs wouldn’t work very well and I’d wanna know why so I would watch how they were being handled. It pretty much comes down to this- the good dogs were being worked by very good people and the dogs that weren’t working very well were usually being worked by someone that didn’t understand them.
In about 1996 I come to this place called Casterton. I was fairly active in the community there- I’m just a ‘yes’ person you know. I’ll say ‘yes’ and then worry about the consequences later. Casterton was a small rural town that was really struggling through the nineties- the reserve price scheme for the wool had collapsed and it was very difficult. All the export markets for our wethers had collapsed because of the wars in the Middle East and things were very crook in Rural Australia. All these small rural towns were looking at anything they could do to give themselves an identity. Someone in Casterton rediscovered the fact that the kelpie originated just North of Casterton in 1870 by this fella called Jack Gleeson. I just loved the story. A couple of us thought it was a great opportunity for Casterton to brand itself and more than anything give the people that lived there a sense of identity and a sense of purpose – a sense of belonging.
How did the kelpie originate?
There was this little pup traded for a stock horse and the little pup was called kelpie- that was the guts of it. I had this idea to have a modern day trade of kelpies or working dogs – where someone would train them up and rather than swap them for a stock horse you might sell them. You see, there wasn’t a value put on working dogs back then- people would buy them for 50 dollars and because they weren’t paying that much for them they weren’t valued and then they didn’t get treated very well. I thought the dogs needed to have a value put on them so I come up with this idea of an auction. Everyone thought it wouldn’t work because no-ones heard of auctioning working dogs but I stuck with it.
How did you get it to eventuate?
I went to Tasmania, I heard about a young rural author there called Rachael Treasure and she had just finished her first book Jillaroo. I went to meet her and I talked her into the story about Jack Gleeson with the kelpie, it’s such a terrific story. I managed to coax her into coming back over to Casterton to work for us and she stayed with us for a while. I think in amongst red wine and standing on a table at about two o’clock one morning reciting a poem about the kelpie she agreed to write a novel on it and it was called The Rouseabout. It was a runaway bestseller sold in seven languages overseas and stuff. That was eighteen years ago (to this year) and now we have the Australian Kelpie Muster that grew on that back of that. It started as a simple dog auction and now it’s a big event every June long weekend over here- thousands of people come to it.
How did it get to be so popular?
The media played a big part in that – the city media just love anything to do with working dogs. City people want to touch base with their heritage. So many people that live in the city now have no connection with Regional Australia even though they know that’s where their roots come from. Back fifty years ago they all had an uncle or an aunty or grandparents or some one out in the country and they’d go visit them. That’s not the case anymore but city people still have this yearning, subconsciously they know there is a link with Regional Australia.
So the media hooked onto this kelpie thing, they got behind it and Casterton became known everywhere because of the kelpie.
You’ve also had a lot of success with dog trialling, can you tell us about that?
I went dog trialling at about the same time because I wanted to find out who was breeding kelpies and talk them into this festival thing. I found myself doing very well in trialling – I won a few state championships and finished in National levels. When I got the festival off the ground in Casterton I thought I’d sell a dog every year to support it. I’ve topped it nine times and got second highest price five times I think. Then I started doing all these schools and then it just got a bit out of control really!
More than anything though, I just feel like working dogs haven’t got a voice and have been treated badly in the past. This country wouldn’t have the prosperity and standard of living it’s got with out the working dog. Australia grew on the back of a sheep for one and half centuries and that wouldn’t have been possible without thousands and thousands of working dogs. It just wouldn’t have been possible. I think we owe them a huge debt and so much gratitude. With the schools I run, I just try to get across to people that there’s no place for pain and fear. It’s all about understanding what’s going on in the little guys heads and working with that.
Have you ever had a favourite dog?
Oh, I wouldn’t really say that I’ve got one that I like more than others. When I was shearing and young I got this thing in my head that I wanted to have a farm, I didn’t inherit one or anything like that. I started buying land young and ended up with a heap of debt and a lot of shit country – bush land and rough country. I’d be shearing in the day so in the nighttime and on the weekends I’d be trying to do stock work and I had these dogs that really knew what we were up against. I’d be working stock in the dark and I couldn’t even see the stock or the dog but they supported me. There was this big dog I had then called Jet – he was just amazing. I think he’d probably be my number one simply because of his tenacity and courage. He would have just died for me you know, he would never ever give up.
What about your favourite dog anecdote from over the years?
When I was a kid growing up I had this neighbour- he was a horse dealer, dog dealer, a bit of a rogue really. I remember he had this dog and he sold it. Some farmer rang him up and said, “ I’ve just lost my good dog and I haven’t got one, have you got any?” My neighbour said, “Yeah I’ve got one I’ll sell you.” So he sold him this dog and the farmer took it home but he couldn’t get it to work or do anything so he rang my neighbour back up. The farmer said, “That dog I bought off you, shit – I can’t get it to do anything. It just won’t do anything!” My neighbour, the dog dealer, said, ‘Well why don’t you do what I did?” So, the farmer said, “well I will, what did you do?” and my neighbour said, “I sold it.”
Why is that breeding working dogs is so underplayed?
I don’t understand that. I’m a farmer now and since I’ve stopped shearing I’ve done a lot of courses to be the best that I can be at what I do. I’ve learnt all these things about growing the best pasture, having the right genetics in my stock, you know-high fertility, high growth rates- there’s so much you can learn. I have all these educating resources available to become very efficient in my enterprise and also very profitable. But, there is absolutely no mention in all this learning and education for livestock and farming to do with dogs, working dogs.
A year or so ago the Department of Agriculture in Victoria held this big lamb symposium and they had about 20 presenters, presenting different things in half hour presentations. They asked me to go up there with some dogs and some sheep and give a half hour talk so I did. They videoed them all and did a YouTube clip of each of the presentations and put them up on their website. The one they did of mine had 8,500 hits and the most that any of the others had was about 53. That to me just spells out the huge hunger there is out there for people to learn how to train and work with their dogs. It’s just not out there and available- it’s a lost art, it really is.
What do you love about the country life?
I don’t mind the city either to be honest, but I like the country. It’s the dogs, and the stock, the soil- those three things. It becomes a part of you and I could never do anything else.
So, you really have your perfect job?
Yeah and it’s not finished yet- I know it isn’t, there is so much more I can do. You know you don’t just have to be old with grey hair to work dogs. I judged the Australian Yard Dog Championships a couple of years ago over in South Australia and there were probably 50 competitors from all over Australia, all at the top of their field. They were all over 40 with these big hats on and as I was giving my judges brief I looked around and here was this young woman amongst them. She was probably about 22 or 23 and she just blew them apart. I judged for three days and every time she come out, she just cleaned up. She ended up winning the Australian Yard Dog Championships. I’d really love to handball what I do to the next generation. I must say though, the one thing I can’t stand is the use of electric collars for so called ‘training’. Some of the younger generations think that to train a working dog you need to go out and buy a shock collar and put it on the dog’s neck. Cruelty is not on. I’m sort of a lone ranger trying to get on top of it- it’s just one thing in the world that I want to stop- the use of electric collars on dogs. There is no place for them in training working dogs. There is no place, no place for cruelty ever.
What do you think is the perception of Regional Australia?
Well, I think if anything is going to come to the forefront in the near future it’s the importance of Regional Australia as far as food and fibre production goes given the ever increasing populations around the world and diminishing land available for food production. People aren’t taking much notice of it yet but they will just suddenly realise, shit, Regional Australia – God bless you and what can we do for you because you guys are our livelihood.
I think it’s a very exciting time for young people to be entering agriculture simply because of that. I got into it late sixties, early seventies and it was a tough slog right through to 2006. It’s much better now and I think it will keep getting better. I think people will finally acknowledge that their food comes from Regional Australia- it doesn’t come out of supermarkets. Working dogs will play a bigger part than ever going forward because people will be trying to run more livestock with less labor units.
What’s your inner secret?
One thing is, that I really want to get a movie made about Jack Gleeson, the young Irish stockman who started the kelpie breed. His story is amazing. He died when he was about 38 and his old kelpie- it died the same day even though they were kilometres apart. His wife was expecting their first child and he died before he seen it. I just think it would be a blockbuster if we could get that story out there. It would be the best movie ever.
What do you like to do at the end of a day?
I like to have a beer. I’ll sit down and chill out while my dogs are running around playing and I’ll have a beer.
Yeah well, I just like the good things in life- a good laugh and a good beer.
It certainly sounds like you’ve got a great life out there –
I’m so lucky. I’ve met thousands of people because of dogs- people of all ages. They just want to learn how to work with their dogs- so many people have a passion for their dogs. Yeah, I just want to always do what I’m doing. I’ve got the ground, the solitude, the animals, the working dogs- what else could you want? I’m the luckiest man alive.
Author: Eddie Tahnell
Photos: Ian O’Connell
Video: The Victorian Department of Agriculture