“I just do it to pay the dogs back for what they have given me in a lifetime,” said Ian O’Connell, legendary dog trainer as he sat atop the sheep yard fence at John Lolicato’s Tullakool property Whymoul.
Lamenting the 17 degree weather Ian had left behind at his Portland property, now scorching in the 40 degree weather training the owners of sheep dogs on how to communicate more effectively.
Far from swearing or cursing this seven State Championships trialling champion and judge, farmer and former shearer demonstrates how to work with his four-legged companions with nothing but love and admiration.
“I cannot stand, and I absolutely detest anyone who knocks dogs around, mistreats, abuses or uses fear or pain to try to train them. They deserve better than that, and I think I’ve proven over the last 50 years you can get a better result.”
Ian’s skills were honed in the bush country South West of Casterton. The difficult terrain and limited fencing made the working dog essential to delivering the mobs of stock to the railhead to get loaded onto trains to be taken to market.
“As a kid I would muck around with dogs and seen how awesome they were, how clever they were.
“We would be lost without them.”
Attendees for the day hosted by Western Murray Land Improvement Group were guided and coached over two days on how to make the most of the special relationship with the indispensable working dog.
Dave Wilson of Yarabah North, Wakool was one of the attendees who braved the heat and yard dust to upskill his operation
“It’s been really good, it’s been very informative,” said Dave.
Dave saw building these skills as a real benefit not only to the dogs but also to the business
“Just to get a bit smarter about it, dogs are expensive, and sheep are expensive and so you need to do it the best you can.”
His take away lessons from day one were: “Encouragement for the dog. Continual encouragement and using the guide.”
The guide Dave refers to is a prop that is used as an extension of the arm to show the dog what to do.
Ian believes everyone could benefit from a better communication and understanding on how to train and work their dog,
“All farmers out there are great people, fantastic people, and there is great dogs, but there is this great gap, a lack of communication between the two, that’s what we have to cut through”
“I think the biggest problem is you have people all over the countryside working dogs, but I think 90% of people have never had any training on how to work the dogs or train them”
“It’s something (traditional training) that has been passed down through the generations and it’s about breaking dogs in, or breaking horses in and if it’s not doing what you want, you bring some pressure to bear, we’ve just gotta change the ways, it started to come through the horses decades ago with horse whisperers but that still hasn’t flowed through to the dogs.”
Ian’s skill with dogs and teaching is evident as he guided the students through practical exercises in the yards in a calm and understanding fashion.
Dog selection to suit the business is high on Ian’s priority list.
“I think for people to have good results with their dogs, they have to have the right genetics to suit their enterprise, work out what they are doing with their dog, are they loading trucks, are they filling woolsheds, mustering big paddocks, mustering sheep or cattle.
“Work out the enterprise and then go and find the genetics to suit that enterprise.”
When asked what the biggest mistake people make with their dogs Ian hinted that there are a few but expectation is a big one.
“They have too big an expectation of too young of a dog, they have a six-month-old dog that looks like a dog, barks like a dog and smells like a dog.
“So they think right, muster this paddock, load this truck, fill the drench race, but that is like expecting a two and half-year-old child to learn how to be a neurosurgeon.
“You have to let them grow up, to mature so they have the capacity to learn.
“I have this saying let your dog grow into its work, don’t force it.
“Pretty much I don’t have any expectations of a dog until it’s over two years old, then you are starting to get a hint of maturity.
“You’re looking at a 14, 15 year old kid then, they are starting to learn right from wrong, be able to put a bit of work together, they will still make mistakes and push your buttons.
“Get them through that stage, from pups zero to two year old I generally just let them have a fun time.”
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 13 January 2022.