Working Dog Whisperer

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WORDS Kristin Lee  PHOTOGRAPHS Adele Van Es

When renowned kelpie breeder and working dog trainer Paul Macphail is asked what he loves most about kelpies, his response could almost be a reflection of himself.

“They are like a mirror effect to the Aussie farmer,” said Paul, who has been running his Beloka Kelpie Stud at his sheep and cattle property at Welshpool for the last two decades. “They are like, have you done it yet? I don’t want to be told how to do it, I just want to go out and get the job done. And they are a little bit strong-minded but they are very good at getting things done.”

Growing up on a dairy and beef farm at nearby Hedley, where kelpies were virtually tied up under every tree, Paul has more or less been surrounded by dogs and pups all his life. And while he’s always loved them, it was really out of necessity that Paul’s interest in kelpies grew.

Drawn to the land, after working as a jackaroo on a cattle station in outback Queensland during the ’80s (educating weaner cattle on horseback so they were easier to muster is something Paul regards as an invaluable experience), a few years after returning to Gippsland, he purchased his 230-acre grazing property at Welshpool. Encompassing the steep hills of the Strzelecki Ranges, and being inaccessible by ute, Paul needed top-notch working dogs to move his stock and so embarked on some rather hands-on and in-depth research to find and breed his own.

“I started my Beloka Kelpie Stud up in about ’92,” Paul recalled. “And I went out and started to do some (sheep) dog-trialling because I wanted to meet people who were breeding dogs and I wanted to see what was available. I wanted to find this type of dog that suited me … they had to be farm dogs.”

But while Paul studied dog bloodlines and learnt a lot about stock handling, his dog-trialling skills did take some time to master. “I wasn’t always a very good dog-trialler. It took me a few years to work that out before I could actually become competitive,” he laughed. “It was a bit frustrating in the early days but once I got it, I was right.”

His foundation dog, Beloka Max, helped kick things off. Describing him as an exceptional farm dog, Max was used for breeding and also won some trials. And although he has since passed, Max’s bloodlines are retained with dogs that descend from him.

Breeding between 40 and 50 kelpie puppies annually, which mostly go on to become invaluable workers and loyal mates to farmers Australia-wide as well as overseas, over the years, Paul has also gained a reputation as a dog whisperer. Training and retraining working dogs, plus running regular working dog education courses, Paul attributes his ‘whisperer’ title to a keen understanding of dogs and people (“dogs and people are emotionally quite different”), plus being able to speak the right dog language: effectively communicating in an affable yet firm manner.

It’s this finely tuned understanding that Paul conveys to people in a simple form and teaches them how to understand their dogs better “so that we can all be dog whisperers”. “Some just whisper better than others,” he added with a laugh.

And while his highly intelligent, athletic and friendly kelpies can attempt to outsmart him every day, Paul said rewards also form a basis for his training techniques. Starting off with food as a motivating tool then comes verbal praise, followed by allowing these instinctive herding canines to actually work – something they totally thrive on.

Paul said that Luke Hura, a leading film and TV dog trainer who worked on the hit Aussie movie Red Dog, has also been influential with using food rewards plus teaching his dogs new tricks and obedience training. In fact, one of Paul’s kelpies, appropriately named Red, played the old dog at the end of the film.

Meanwhile, running sheep dog trials and judging them, plus teaching people how to work their dogs, has also enhanced his training techniques. (Paul holds two large annual sheep dog trials at the lower, flatter and purposefully set up section of his property, where some of the best dogs in the country come to perform. One is run at Easter, and the State Cattle, Sheep and Duck Dog Championships are held in November.)

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And with his three children, Matthew, 15, Jacob, 14, and Chloe, 12, now living full-time on the farm with Paul and partner Anneke, and having their own dogs to work, he’s found his kelpies have helped with their development by opening up their emotional sides. It’s what led him to start his Kids ’n’ Kelpies program a couple of years ago.

Currently helping students completing animal handling courses at TAFE, and working with children from the Berry Street charity, Paul has seen emotional barriers being broken down pretty quickly.  “We found that very rewarding for the children: to have a (half-trained) dog; to bond with the dog; and to actually go out and do something with the dog – a working job,” he said.

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But Paul’s work doesn’t end there. Having retrained anywhere from 20 to 30 rescued working dogs of various breeds over the years, in the last 18 months he’s also been supporting Australian Working Dog Rescue by retraining and reselling working dogs. Having a fairly high success rate, it essentially comes down to developing their working ability or herding instinct. The minority that don’t cut it usually become well-loved, active urban family additions.

“Traditionally those dogs would get put down because they weren’t good enough workers,” Paul said. “And it still happens. But that’s why I endorse Australian Working Dog Rescue; because they do a very good job.”

With his gorgeous kelpies forming an integral and enjoyable part of his farming life, looking ahead, Paul would like his super smart canines to become involved with kids with disabilities. He’d also love to have a TV program with working dogs. For more information, visit www.belokakelpies

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