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Farm dogs NZ’s hidden heroes

John Harvey and his dog team. PHOTO/SUPPLIED


New Zealand farms wouldn’t be the same without man’s best friend, says Martinborough farmer and competitive sheep dog trainer and judge, John Harvey.

Harvey runs a team of about five or six working dogs on his 700-hectare family farm near Martinborough.

He mostly works with heading dogs because of the nature of the farm but has a few huntaways to bring sheep down from deep valleys and help in the yards.

A third-generation sheep and beef farmer, working dogs have played a vital role on the farm and been a part of his life for as long as he could remember.

“I’ve been farming all my life. I ran my first dog when I was 11 at the local dog trial – an old heading dog.”

It was his love of working stock and working dogs which saw Harvey get involved competitively.

“I just love doing it.

“The vast majority of people don’t appreciate what sheep dogs mean to our economy.”

Harvey is a life member of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association and has judged three national competitions in addition to winning several Wairarapa centre events.

There are four standard competing events, two for heading dog breeds and two for huntaway dogs.

Dogs are tasked with moving three sheep across different courses – heading dogs move sheep down from the hills on the long head and short head courses, while huntaways compete in the straight hunt and zigzag hunt.

Harvey said while there was some control over the dog through thorough training, the most difficult part of the competition was not knowing how the sheep would respond.

Navigating difficult weather conditions and the course across farm land can also be challenging at times he said.

Sheep dog trials in New Zealand are unique and differ greatly from international competitions based on the English competition model.

New Zealand trials are more tailored to the landscape and better reflect everyday stock working practices seen on the farm, which has helped lead to better breeding lines.

“[Dog trialling] has got the advantage that you can practice it while you’re working,” he said.

“All the skills you need are the same skills you need on the farm.”

Harvey said sheep dog competitions had not changed much over the years, but the standard of work and quality of competing dogs – particularly huntaways – had increased significantly.

Huntaways are a breed which originated in New Zealand.

Harvey said the unique nature of New Zealand trials, which enables farmers to train up their dogs while they’re working on the farm, had contributed to a higher quality of competitors.

“It was set up that way. The standards have gotten higher and higher.”

He also attributed the increased quality and uptake of people training their own dogs to courses taught at agricultural institutions such as Smedley and Taratahi, focusing on stock work.

Harvey said it takes him about one to two years to train a dog up and get it confident enough to work on the farm but honing their instincts takes time and most weren’t ready until they hit their third birthday.

Harvey estimates he’s trained anywhere between 30 to 50 dogs over his lifetime.

Despite talk in recent years of drones being used to herd sheep, he said sheep dogs still play a vital role on New Zealand farms.

“It’s hard to see anything replacing dogs.

“It isn’t an exaggeration to say without sheep dogs we wouldn’t have a sheep and beef industry.

“A good dog is worth its weight in gold.”


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