Huntaway leads the way for working dogs

Five-year-old Klay, a typical black and tan modern huntaway, shows how it's done.
Five-year-old Klay, a typical black and tan modern huntaway, shows how it's done.

In the third of a series celebrating the humble Kiwi working dog, Mark Lourie and I this month eye the engine room of any shepherd's team

The huntaway is the engine room of any shepherd's team of dogs, equivalent to the forward pack of the All Blacks.

Getting the go forward, no number of heading or handy dogs could shift large mobs of sheep like the huntaway can. The combination of body movement (chasing) and barking (hunting) has the ability to move sheep or cattle on its own.

The origin of the huntaway is not well documented, but it is believed they originated by crossing collies with a tendency to bark, with other breeds with desirable traits such as size and stamina.

The modern huntaway is deep chested of medium to larger size, weighing between 25-50kg, and standing at 55-65cm at the shoulder.

"Holding a young dog back from the sheep is the first step in teaching them to hunt."

Their coats vary in colour but generally are predominantly black with tan markings on their points, muzzle, shoulder and legs, black and brindle, and straight black are less common making up less than 20 per cent.

The modern huntaway is mostly smooth coated, but can be loose or rough coated, known as beardies or grizzly.

The average working age of a modern huntaway is 10 years, although some are at the end of their working life at 8, while some will last as long as 12 with a lifespan of 12 to 14 years. They usually spend their retirement days at the back door or on a lifestyle block and most are not ready to be educated until they are 1-year-old and are ready to join the working team by the time they are 2.

Taught to hunt

The original huntaway was a lighter, handier version of today's hound that has been developed to have more grunt or hunting power. Today they are bigger, more powerfully built dogs with more aggression and louder more powerful and constant barks.

A well-bred modern huntaway that has been taught to hunt and not chase will use his noise to move the stock by directing that noise in the right direction to get the desired result.

It's a bit like throwing stones into a pond and creating ripples to move or direct a floating target - throw your stone too far away from the target and the result will be minimal, too close or hit the target and it will probably sink.

The same result will happen with stock movement, if the dog barks off or not directly at the stock the response will be minimal movement, direct the noise or stand in the wrong position and the stock will move in the wrong direction while too much noise with too much body movement (chasing) and the result will be a disaster.

A good mustering dog would have lots of noise and use it more liberally, spreading it over a greater area so as to move stock from a much larger area without having to physically cover all of the terrain. They are required to run to get into position but once in position a steady walk and more direct bark is required to move stock in a more controlled manner.

On occasion, when stock become sticky or hard to move, then a combination of chasing (body movement) and hunting (barking) may be required to get the desired result.

Few dogs are born to be natural at hunting but are more inclined to chase with noise, so the trick is to teach them to hunt with more noise and less chasing. To achieve this, quiet steady training sheep are a must in a controlled area and removing all other distractions will help a young dog concentrate on the task at hand. A rope around their stomach is the best way to start the training process.

Holding a young dog back from the sheep is the first step in teaching them to hunt, the rope around their stomach naturally faces them toward the sheep every time they hit the end of the rope. Around the neck would continually turn the dog around to face the man.

Once the dog is happy and confident hunting the sheep from a controlled distance, the rope can be removed and the next step in hunting starts. There are steps to follow to achieve a fully broken-in dog, skip or not complete any stage before moving onto the next and the final outcome will be compromised.

There are many different ways to achieve an outcome and everyone has their own, but all require consistency and the master to be always be in a position to enforce discipline. A young dog will drop his noise (stop barking) in response to discipline, but as he accepts command the noise will return.

A full training schedule may follow in a future article, but next month we will look at the heading or eye dog and their origin.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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