392 Dogs from Down Under

by   David Hancock

 Anyone who has read Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore (Pan Books, 1988) will retain a lifelong admiration for those who went to Australia in its earliest years of development by Europeans. This admiration must be extended too to the dogs which accompanied the earliest settlers. Certainly, on the long arduous journey out there, dogs would have suffered as much as any human, if not more. It is worth remembering that when considering the surviving breeds of Australian, and indeed New Zealand, dogs. It is hardly surprising that breeds like the Australian Cattle Dog, the Kelpie and the Huntaway of New Zealand are among the toughest of breeds of dog in the world.

 It is hardly likely that ornamental dogs would have accompanied the early transport ships to Australia and New Zealand; it is certain that dogs valuable enough to have merited passage in this way would be workers: herding dogs, hounds or terriers. Dogs in these three latter categories would have gone on this long hazardous voyage because they would bring benefits at the far end to their owners. It is not good sense however to link them with contemporary breeds because breeds were not valued in the 18th and early 19th centuries; function ruled. It is of value however to link them with the common dogs of England at that time.

 Sheep and cattle being taken to the Antipodes would have been accompanied by herding dogs. Terriers and hounds would have been valued as vermin-controllers and pot-fillers. Big strapping mastiff-type dogs would have been valued as guard-dogs and seizing-dogs. Later on, sportsmen would take gundogs and packhounds. This, I believe, is the background for considering the development of breeds from down-under. The Australian Cattle Dog is said to have come from a mixture of smooth merle collies, dingo, Dalmatian and black and tan Kelpie. The dingo blood is stated in one Australian publication to have introduced silent working, the red coat colour and the heeling instinct. The latter being covered by these words: "A dingo trait is to silently creep up behind an animal and bite, and these cross pups followed this style of heeling."

 A reasonable response to this, to me, incredible statement would be: British working sheepdogs work silently; red merle is in the collie gene pool--it doesn't need an infusion of dingo blood; and the heeling instinct was present in British herding dogs before any Europeans reached Australia, ask any corgi or Lancashire Heeler breed historian. As for the infusion of Dalmatian blood, can you truly imagine any hard-bitten weather-beaten cattle farmer introducing the blood of a spotted coach-dog to, as the Australian publication puts it: "give the progeny a love of horses and a sense of responsibility for guarding their master's possessions."  My working sheepdogs loved horses and were naturally protective of me, my family and our 'possessions'. Why did no English farmer find it necessary to infuse his working pastoral dogs with Dalmatian blood?

 I suspect that the multi-coloured coat of this quite admirable Australian breed has given rise to such weird conclusions. It is not unusual too to find the Australian Shepherd linked with Basque shepherds emigrating to Australia in the 19th century. But this attractive breed displays the range of coat colours found in our working sheepdog gene pool, as is the naturally bobbed tail. Why on earth would colonist-farmers, living in a tough climate in a new land, rush to use Spanish dogs when their own were so proficient, it makes no sense at all. An Australian fancier of the Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog told me a comparable calumny, that this breed developed from the Smithfield Sheepdog, brought out from England, hence the bob tail.

 Firstly, the Smithfield Sheepdog was like a leggy Beardie and sported a full tail; secondly the naturally bobbed tail occurs in working sheepdogs, as those on farms on the Black Mountain on the Welsh/Herefordshire border indicate to this day. To claim a false provenance for any modern breed degrades that breed; to restate a false origin demeans the fanciers of that breed; to record for posterity a false compilation for a breed in defiance of historical facts is simply deceitful. The Kennel Club's Illustrated Breed Standards (Ebury Press, 1998) repeats these fantasies, giving them, sadly, credibility for some. This publication also credits the origin of the plucky little Australian Terrier with the blood of  'Scottish and North of England terriers taken out by early settlers'.

 I suspect this accreditation is accorded due to claims by breeders in Australia that the Dandie Dinmont and the Yorkshire Terriers are behind this breed. There are two factors to qualify any certainty behind these claims: one is that the common terrier of England, north and south, at the time the early settlers set out for Australia, was the broken-coated black and tan terrier. The second is that at the Melbourne Dog Show from 1872 to 1890, black and tan or blue and tan broken-coated terriers were shown as such. Yet one modern Australian publication claims that the Australian Terrier and its Silky Toy companion breed came from a mixture of breeds: 'Skye Terrier for colour and length of coat, shortness of leg, length of body; Scotch Terrier (Aberdeen) for harshness of coat, shortness of leg; Dandie Dinmont for topknot.'

 But if you examine paintings of the common terrier of England two centuries ago, you can soon establish that this prototypal dog possessed all these features before the terrier breeds mentioned as ancestors were stabilized and then registered as such. For me, the admirable Australian Terrier is the contemporary equivalent of the broken-coated black and tan common terrier of 18th and 19th century England. Why should it even need to be a mixture of Scottish breeds? Terriers with short legs, long backs and a mixture of coats have never been hard to find right across the British Isles for many centuries. In the closed gene pool of today's breeds, ancestry matters; when inheritable defects crop up in ancestor breeds, it is worth noting by breeders of descendant breeds. False claims for ancestry lay false trails.

 Of course when the Australian Silky Terrier was evolving and the soft silky coat became a desired feature, with a silky top-knot over the eyes, outcrosses to other terrier breeds occured.

Dandie Dinmont blood was allegedly used by one particular breeder, Macarthur Little, but our Yorkshire Terrier would have provided a more rational choice. The Silky is a compact dog of medium length; the Dandie is long-bodied and hardly compact. The Yorkshire Terrier is very compact. When a breeder is seeking a compact dog, as Silky breeders were, why use the blood of a long-bodied breed, which is not compact?  In his The New Book of the Dog of 1912, Robert Leighton wrote: "There has lately been an endeavour in Australia to establish a new breed to which has been given the name of the Sydney Silky Terrier; but the type does not appear yet to be fixed, and I hesitate to give a description which may not be accurate, merely surmising that the Yorkshire Terrier has been largely instrumental in justifying the name." I believe he surmised correctly.

 I am surprised that the Australian Terrier hasn't made greater headway in Britain; around 50 being registered annually, with the Silky being even less successful (only 17 being registered in 2001). The former, the 'Aussie', is hardy, spirited, active and alert, under a foot at the shoulder and under a stone in weight, with a harsh coat demanding little attention. I very much like the look of them, in particular the spark in their eye. If I were seeking a small companion terrier I would look hard at this attractive little fellow. At the risk of offending Australians I would view the Australian Terrier as a re-creation of the old black and tan broken-coated terrier of England and that alone would have value for me.

 One Australian breed to do well here is the Cattle Dog, already supported by a devoted collection of fanciers, with as many being registered annually as our own Smooth Collie. When I told my Australian colleagues some twenty years ago that a British breeder had imported a pregnant ACD bitch, the response was 'Oh no! These dogs are not pets!' And I could understand such a reaction. But this bitch was imported by John and Mary Holmes, who had a greater knowledge of dogs, especially working dogs, than most. Sadly deafness appeared in the litter born to this bitch, a red speckle from the Landmaster Kennels in Adelaide. But this problem was tackled by breeders here and in its native country; honesty and openness always helps to reduce inheritable defects in any breed.   

 I have recently benefitted from studying a CD Rom, kindly sent to me by ACD-expert Noreen Clark of Wallacia, New South Wales, which portrays specimens of the breed, whelped before 1950 and going right back to Hall's Heelers of around 1890. Each of the dogs depicted could have been described as a working sheepdog from here. There was no detectable sign, in dogs spanning sixty years of the breed's development, of dingo, Bull Terrier or Dalmatian influence. Most of these dogs were leggier than the contemporary breed. I do hope the requirement for the breed to be slightly longer from the point of shoulder to the buttocks than the dog's height at the withers isn't being overdone. This is a working breed par excellence and one deservedly admired by all who come into contact with it.           

 The Australian Shepherd, perhaps better named the American Shepherd--for that is where it was promoted and developed, is very much an active, alert, eager to work breed. It has an attractive and remarkably wide range of coat colours, but no more so than our own native equivalent. It has a naturally bobbed tail, just as some of our native working sheepdogs do. It is becoming popular here, with 87 registered in 2001 against not one ten years ago. When I was in Northern Spain a few decades ago, returning home from a year in Gibraltar, I recalled the alleged link between this breed and Basque dogs. I was mainly researching a breed called the Euskal Artzain Txakurra, but I enquired about merle sheepdogs being used by Basque shepherds. No livestock breeder, archivist or dog historian there could provide substance to the claim that such dogs had gone to Australia with sheep in a previous century.

 In my car, I had my own working sheepdog. A Spanish farmer looked at him and said: "Remember, our dogs have never worked as your dogs do!" If that is so why would hard-pressed Australian sheep farmers, working in a harsh climate for sheep and dogs, wish to weaken the blood of their highly competent sheepdogs, even if such Basque dogs existed at all? But the Kennel Club's official history of this breed presents this claim as proven. Their evidence would be of more than passing interest! Accurate breed histories are so undervalued; when throwbacks occur or inheritable conditions rear their ugly heads, ancestry really does matter. So often when mismarked pups crop up a misalliance is blamed when it is merely the extended dormant gene pool manifesting itself.

 The Australian Kelpie is alleged to have a diverse gene pool, with strange claims of 'Russian Collie' origin and an Eve-like ancestry from one bitch called 'Kelpie'. I prefer to link them with the old fox-collies of Scotland. As Iris Combe points out in her 'Herding Dogs' of 1987, the crofters on the Western Isles in the 19th century used Kelpies (called just that) to work cattle and which were determined enough to make the cattle swim at low tide from one island to another. These dogs were described as bear-like, with similarities to Scandinavian herding dogs and a hint of Viking introduction. Who needs 'Russian Collies'? whatever they are!

 These dogs of Australia are matched in toughness by the Huntaway of New Zealand, a 'bark-collie' for want of a better description. Strongly-made black or black and tan dogs, they have been accredited with Labrador blood, but if you were a sheep farmer would you introduce retriever blood? What herding qualities does it bring? When sheep are jammed by sheer numbers, the Huntaway will 'mount' the flock, or run over the backs of the sheep, just as the old English sheepdogs of Sussex once did. Brian Davies, a sheep farmer in Sennybridge, now uses this breed, having seen them working in New Zealand. He finds they make the sheep less nervous; the Huntaway's barking seeming less of a menace than the silent stalking threat of a collie. Bark-power can be more useful than eye-power in some herding situations. These Antipodean herding dogs were developed in testing conditions; their ancestors survived the voyage and the demands of opening up a new country. Prize them!