Dogs have their day at the National Sheep Dog Trials in Canberra

At 8am on Sunday morning, the Hall village showground still feels sleepy, though a dog and worker duo in the “improver” category of the National Sheep Dog Trials are working the circular central paddock.

On the course set up for the championships, a sheep dog has to work three sheep around a ground under the direction of its handler, who communicates with the dog using gestures and verbal cues.

Leigh Foster, one of two women competing in the top 20 finals (with her dog, Rockbarton Billie), explains that the track is designed to represent the features of a farm. There’s the “race” (a narrow, fenced straight), the “bridge” (a ramp akin to the entrance and exit of a shearing shed) and a pen for the sheep at the end. It’s important the dog doesn’t let the sheep stray far from a designated track.
Laurie Slater in the the top 20 final

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Laurie Slater in the the top 20 final. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Much of the competitors’ fate on the day will depend on the temperament of the sheep, whether they are skittish or docile – which can change depending on whether the sun is shining and whether there is wind.

The National Sheep Dog Trial Championships have been running in Canberra for 77 years. Set up in 1943 to raise funds for Legacy during the second world war, the event is a gathering point for the sport’s enthusiasts from the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wakes, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

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Ritchies Finn begins his run

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Ritchies Finn, owned by Mick Hudson, begins his run. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Eighty-six-year-old Laurie Slater has two dogs competing in the top 20. Slater, who has been trialling sheepdogs for 30 years and worked stock “all his life”, tells Guardian Australia that collies make the best trialling sheepdogs.

“Collies use their head a lot more,” he says. “They’re more interested in you. They watch you a lot of the time, and they’re fairly knowledgeable dogs. I’ve had them all my life.”

Leigh Forster watches Rockbarton Billie  the top 20 final.

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Leigh Forster watches Rockbarton Billie in the top 20 final. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Zeefree Marlon in action

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Zeefree Marlon in action. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
It is easy to see admirable qualities in the dogs as they race across the ground: their running is so fluid it looks water-like. There are brisk and attentive: Rockbarton Billie looks over quickly when Foster mentions the dog’s name in conversation. Ultimately it isn’t Rockbarton Billie’s year. Bill Davidson of NSW, with his dog Z.O.Z. Roger, emerges triumphant. Regardless of who wins, most participants are excited for the future of the event. More than one person at the trials, which many see as a bulwark of rural Australian life and a heritage sport for the country, mention that the competition has been reinvigorated this year under the leadership of Sarah Sydrych.

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Julie Birkett with Windeyer Gin

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Julie Birkett with Windeyer Gin. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Sydrych speaks of her enthusiasm for the competition and her plans to build it back up. “It used to be the most prestigious trial in Australia, and we’re just trying to get back that recognition,” she says. “I don’t know of any other capital city that has a heritage event like this going on right at their doorstep. I think it’s amazing.”