In ruggedly beautiful countryside about an hour north of Gisborne, Jo Waugh directs her team of trusty canines with a series of piercing whistles and instructions.
Using a combination of guile and athletic ability, the pack of six huntaway and heading sheepdogs do her bidding, stealthily manoeuvring stock across the hilly terrain.
"I've always been interested in dogs and it was one of the things that drew me into shepherding," the stock woman tells the Weekly.
"My dad had a dairy farm and he sold it when I was quite young. Then he went into business making stock feed for farmers, so I wasn't directly off a farm but I always wanted to be a shepherd.
"When I was growing up, I had a pet dog and I just loved her. I guess that's how it all started, really. Her name was Patch and she was a Dalmatian. She was my friend and a pretty loyal, good little dog."
It's a dream occupation for Jo, who grew up at Kimbolton in the shadow of the Ruahine Range in northern Manawatu with her parents and five siblings.
Her expertise, which was honed on the job, won her the prestigious South Island dog trials – and she was the first female champion in the event's history.
"It's quite crazy!" admits Jo, who poses with her canine team for our photographer on the jaw-droppingly picturesque Matawai farm.
"The way I look at it, it was pretty inevitable that a girl was going to win. There were three girls in it and it could have been any of us. Back in the day, it would have been really hard."
What made Jo's trailblazing win extra-special was the three-year-old dog she teamed up with to score a near-perfect run in the zigzag discipline. The rookie huntaway Guy has only been competing in trials since February.
"This season's been pretty unbelievable, really. For this young dog to come out and win two open competitions and then the South Island trials... It was pretty huge and definitely not expected."
Jo, who splits her working week between two farms, credits a large part of her success to a former boss, Jake Roche, who showed her how to break in dogs for farm work.
"He taught me heaps and he was really into dog trials, so naturally I wanted to get into it."
The 30-year-old admits dog trialling is addictive, but can be an emotional rollercoaster.
"Every weekend, you're trying to go out there to put up a good run, and sometimes things go to plan. When you start getting open placings, it's awesome. Being up there with all the real good guys, that's huge because it's so hard to do it! But then you might go out the next weekend and your dog might do something ridiculously stupid, or the sheep aren't there... It's got huge highs and then such deep lows, and you never know what's going to happen!
"Everyone has moments. Some weekends you go out there and end up leaving Saturday night asking yourself, 'Why am I doing this?' But then you find yourself getting up at 4am the next weekend, and going back to another trial and doing the whole thing again. It's bizarre!"
Jo's been competing in trials for several years, but this is the first time she's had a dog at the top of its game.
"I've spent a lot of time breaking him in and there are certain things that I didn't like about my other dog that I really wanted to work on and not let happen again.
"He just seems to get on with sheep. They like the way he moves. He's not too swift and he doesn't startle them. He just gets in underneath them and hunts them."
Despite Guy being a working dog, we eventually tease out a concession that she may have a soft spot for the new champion.
"It's frowned on a little, but you secretly do have favourites, I reckon. There's nothing more satisfying than having a dog as a pup and breaking it in. To have one that you enjoy coming to work with you every day, that's hugely satisfying."
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