"It’s hard when farmers say they’re going to put down a dog because it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to or hasn’t got the right temperament.
For me, it’s all about working with a dog to build trust and being really clear about what you want them to do. You also need to set boundaries, be patient and consistent and, above all, stay calm.
My parents were sheep and beef farmers and I grew up on a farm in Northland, so farming is all I’ve ever wanted to do. When I left school I couldn’t get a farm job, so I did a painting and paper-hanging apprenticeship at the Marsden Power Station and ended up doing an interior design course at Whitecliffe College in Auckland.
But I dropped everything when I got a job as a shepherd and eventually worked my way up to managing a number of farms from the Wairarapa to Whanganui.
My partner Sarah and I bought a seven-hectare farm in Pohangina, about 25 minutes’ drive from Palmerston North, three years ago. Sarah works in town as an anaesthetic technician. I lease another 280 hectares from a neighbouring farmer and sole manage 1000 ewes and 75 cows.
I’ve always had dogs and can remember taking a retired dog out to the paddock as a child and pretending to work him with the sheep. My grandfather told me I wasn’t allowed a dog until I learned how to whistle – so I did and when I was seven, I got my first dog.
I taught myself how to train huntaways and heading dogs, mainly by talking to other trainers, reading books and watching videos about how dogs interact with each other and how to build a rapport with them.
I have a real passion for helping dogs. I’ve currently got a dog who was so nervous he wouldn’t come out of his kennel for three weeks. I sat there and waited for him to trust me enough to come out. I’ve worked with him and now he’s one of my best dogs.
Managing the farm is my main job, but the rest of my time is spent with dogs. I usually have between eight and 12 at any one time. I never advertise; somehow people just find me.
Once I’ve trained them, I try to re-home them. There’s usually a shortage of good working dogs around New Zealand so thankfully I don’t seem to have any problems finding them good homes.
There’s also some educational work to be done with the owners about consistency of training and setting boundaries. It’s no good yelling at a dog or beating it. Every dog, whether a domestic animal or a working dog, is looking for leadership, and being aggressive isn’t good leadership.
The biggest kick I get is seeing a dog who’s come to me with issues out there herding sheep and doing an amazing job, especially when there are six or seven dogs working together as a team.
I’m often asked if I would train domestic dogs, but at the moment I don’t have the time. I might do a bit of that when I give up the farming but for now, I’m happy training working dogs.
Sarah also comes from a farming background and it’s fortunate she loves animals because, as well as the dogs, we have a cat, horses and chickens. We also have a pet dog who’s allowed inside – a four-month-old fox terrier puppy. I could never get sick of dogs, they are amazing animals.”
What I love about rural life... Working in the great outdoors, the animals and the challenges of everyday life. No two days are the same on a farm.
What I do on a day off... What day off?! When I do have some time I like to go snowboarding in the winter and bush-walking in summer. I’m also currently planting natives on 20 hectares of wetlands on the farm which takes up a lot of time.
Three words that describe me...Passionate, happy and hard-working.
As told to Sharon Stephenson
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