Dog trialing is addictive, fiercely competitive and there is no retirement age, so it is hardly surprising that national championships are getting bigger and bigger every year.
“It’s a bit like golf or fishing really. You get hooked,” says Graham White, of Mosgiel, president of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trials Association.
This week the Warepa Collie Club, one of 157 clubs in New Zealand, is hosting the South Island Dog Trial Championships near Balclutha and the North Island and New Zealand championships will be hosted by the Poverty Bay Centre at Whangara near Gisborne later this month.
Between 200 and 230 competitors with close to 400 dogs have entered in the South Island championships this week and 273 competitors with 480 dogs will line up for the national championships starting on May 31.
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Despite the sport’s growing popularity, White says numbers are down slightly for both events because of major flooding in the North Island and an extra day’s travel to bypass slips on State Highway 1 around Kaikoura.
Four Northland trials were cancelled because of flooding so the qualifying points from those events were lost, which has affected entry numbers.
“Some people who have qualified have had to withdraw because they have had such a mess to clean up at home,” he says.
White says dog trialing is very strong throughout the country with 157 clubs in 13 provincial centres and 4500 regular competitors ranging from youngsters still at high school to some competitors in their 90s.
One qualifier for the South Island championships this week is the legendary 93-year-old Les Roughan, of Mandeville.
“I think he has only missed qualifying for three New Zealand championships in all the years he’s been going,” White says.
The association noticed a slight drop in membership in line with a national decline in sheep numbers as farms were converted to dairying, but that trend has now reversed and numbers are increasing.
“We have dairy farmers and builders and we’re even seeing people coming into the sport who have no farm connections at all,” he says.
There are a lot more young women competing who were introduced to the sport through shepherding on farms and are working their way into managerial roles, which is a good sign for the sport’s future.
“It’s hard to put a number on it but it is quite noticeable as a trend and they are tough competitors too,” he says.
This year is the 49th year the association has had the sponsorship of the Nestle/Purina/Tux group, which White says is understood to be the longest running sports sponsorship in New Zealand.
White has been competing in dog trials for at least 40 years, won a national title at Omarama in 1996 and is the manager and one of the selectors of the New Zealand dog trials team for the annual trans-Tasman test series against Australia.
A panel of four selectors will watch the top finalists competing in the heading events at the interisland and national championships this month to select a test team to compete against Australia in Taupo between November 15 and 18.
New Zealand is the current holder of the Wayleggo Cup, a trophy it has held for the last three years.
“We take it pretty seriously,” White says. “Even competitors who have won four or five national championships say when you step out into the ring with a New Zealand blazer on you go up another level. The pressure is just immense representing the team and your country.”
White has a busy month ahead. On top of his duties as national president, he has qualified with two heading dogs for both the South Island championships and the New Zealand championships.
“It’s very competitive. When you step out into the ring you’re out there to win,” he says. “You get hooked on it, but the sport is also a great leveler.”
“From when I started in dog trials, the competition now is pretty tough I tell you. You’ve really got to be on your game to get into a New Zealand or interisland run-off.”
It is quite a balancing act for competitors to have dogs fit, sharp and keen to work without them peaking too soon before the championships.
“You really want your dogs to peak about this time of year so they will give a top performance,” he says.
With so many national champions qualifying for the interisland and national championships every year, competitors can’t afford to get too cocky because there is always someone capable of knocking them off the leaders’ board.
“We have a saying in dog trialing that one day you’re a cock rooster and the next day a feather duster,” he says.
“Some people get so nervous they won’t look at the leaders’ board for the whole week of competition. Others are so proud of getting their name on the board they get a photo of it before it disappears.”
“It’s all part of the addiction,” he says.