Australian Working Kelpie

Fads in the pet world are a dangerous thing and at the moment the Australian working kelpie is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Australian papers are stating that, with the release of the feel-good film 'Red Dog', every man and his dog (so to speak) suddenly wants a kelpie. Red Dog has recently hit the screens in Australia on August 4th and has already grossed $5.45 million at the box office. It will open in over 300 cinemas in Britain in October and will be released in the USA after that. Red Dog tells the story of a red cloud kelpie that hitch-hikes his way around the Western Australian outback after the death of his master.

Too often a certain animal or breed of animal becomes 'flavour of the month' and everyone wants one. A film like 'Beethoven' will send sales of St Bernard's through the roof and unscrupulous breeders and backyard traders will go to great lengths to supply the market. Some months later, St Bernards will more than likely be scaling the ladder as one of the 'most dumped' breeds because their owners hadn't thought through the cost of maintaining such a large breed.

KelpieCredit: Wikimedia

Lovable and intelligent as the kelpie is, it is not a dog for a suburban yard. One breeder refuses to sell her pups unless the potential owner had a property of at least five acres and one pet store does not stock kelpies believing, and rightly so, that they are not suitable for suburban blocks or apartments. Such dogs are not happy sitting at home all day. They need 'stuff' to occupy their busy minds and are best allowed to be working dogs doing what they love best.

The Australian working kelpie was developed in Australia and bred as a sheep- and cattle-dog. It is medium in size, tough and wiry. Nowadays there are two distinct varieties – the bench or show type and the working kelpie. Obviously the show dog is selected on appearance and conformation while the working dog must 'work' and have the innate ability to control stock that has made the breed so popular.

The coat of the working kelpie may be smooth, short or rough. They can also be most colours from black through to light tan or even cream. Many are red and known as Red Cloud kelpies. Some have a white blaze on the chest and/or white on the feet. The coat may be double and will be shed in spring in temperate climates.

Australian Working KelpieCredit: Martin Pot (martybugs). Original uploader was Martybugs at en.wikipedia

Working kelpies are about 50cms tall with the males being generally taller than bitches. Weight ranges from 14 to 21kgs. They are compact, robust and tireless. They are an athletic dog with muscular shoulders and strong hindquarters. Generally the ears are pricked although one or both floppy ears are seen. The tail varies between smooth and bushy. The average lifespan is 12 to 15 years.

As long as conformation does not get in the way of performance, the appearance of a working kelpie is not of great importance. A competent dog can take the place of several men and pastoralists and graziers place high value on a good dog.

The herding instinct is inborn and pups will round up poultry and work them this way and that if they are permitted. Some trainers start their pups off herding geese as geese tend to keep together rather than scattering off all over the place. The agile kelpie will walk over the backs of sheep to break up a jam in a race or to force a group into a shed or truck. They will work out of sight of their master in broadacre areas and will bring a mob of killers into the yards without supervision after a simple command. Kelpies tend to be one-man dogs. They are easily trained and have a strong work orientation.

Show kelpies are generally heavier and shorter than working dogs although some excel at both. A dog that follows sheep for long hours over many days does not put on excess fat. Show kelpies should be a solid colour with a short double coat and pricked ears. Kelpies are loyal and friendly but need challenges and stimulation. A bored dog of any breed has the potential to become noisy and destructive. Generally they make good watch dogs. They are not aggressive but will be protective when the need arises. They need a dominant owner as they will quickly take advantage of any perceived weakness. They are a high maintenance dog if kept purely as a pet but working dogs are easily maintained.

Kelpies are generally healthy but like many breeds they are susceptible to cryptorchidism, hip dysplasia, cerebellar abiotrophy and luxating patella.

The kelpie came from 'colleys' or 'collies', black dogs imported into Australia in the early 19th century. Various breed mixes took place with the aim of breeding a dog that could work sheep without direct supervision. The jury is still out on whether or not dingo blood has contributed to the breed.

The first kelpie was a black and tan bitch with floppy ears. Jack Gleeson bought the pup about 1872 from George Robertson, a Scot from Warrock Station near Casterton. She was named after the mythical kelpie from Celtic folklore. This supernatural water horse was believed to haunt the rivers and lochs of Scotland and Ireland.

From 1900 to 1920, kelpies dominated the popular sheep-dog trials. Kelpies were first registered in Australia in 1902, four years before the Border Collie was registered as a breed in Britain.

Kelpies have been exported to many countries. They have good success rates as scent dogs and are widely used in Sweden for rescue and tracking work.

They do well in agility trials. A world record for dog jumping was set by Riley when he jumped 2.95 metres at the 15th Australian Kelpie Muster which was held on the Queen's Birthday long weekend in June, 2011. This annual event is held at Casterton, Victoria and takes the form of a festival. This year, Koko, the star of Red Dog, was at the event and attracted more attention than Nelson Woss, producer of the film and owner of Koko.

The Pedigree Working Dog Auction is part of the muster and a new record was set for the highest price dog with $9,000 being paid for a 17 month old kelpie. The average price was $3,174.

So see the movie, laugh and cry with Red Dog but think very carefully before rushing out to buy a kelpie.