Most industries are reeling from an acute labour crunch, but there’s no shortage of keen and loyal workers giving WA’s sheep producers a much-needed hand on their farms. Farmers say their canine helpers — who help muster and direct sheep — have never been more important given the current labour shortages sweeping across the economy. Meat & Livestock Australia released research In 2013 showing a working dog delivered about $40,000 worth of work during their typical lifespan. Gordon Curtis, president of the Australian Federation of Livestock Working Dogs, said with labour costs since rising the value of working dogs would be even higher now. Mr Curtis, who farms at Kellerberrin, 200km east of Perth, said most sheep dogs were kelpies, border collies or huntaways or crosses between these breeds. A trait in common is they have a natural instinct to herd other animals. Some are more capable than others — which is largely down to training — but a good dog could save a huge amount of time and labour, Mr Curtis said. “It’s bred into them to muster and herd sheep. Some are better at paddock work and some are better at yard work and then there are those in the middle. “I need human help for shearing and lamb marking, otherwise, with the help of my dogs I can do sheep work on my own.” Mr Curtis pointed to a regular demonstration at the Perth Royal Show where a dog and a handler go head-to-head with 11 Denmark agricultural students. The students are directed to see who can best round up three sheep. The single dog and handler often wins. Also testimony to their value is the record prices paid for working dogs in the Eastern States. A kelpie from western Victoria called Eulooka Hoover sold for $35,200 to an undisclosed buyer at a working dog auction in June, smashing a previous record of $25,000 in 2019. In WA, dogs change hands for less, but are worth thousands of dollars nonetheless. Mr Curtis said a well bred pup was generally worth $1000-$1200. If some training has started on a 16-18 month old pup, that could be $2000-$5000. A well training young adult dog would be up to $8000. “Big auctions have never got off the ground here,” he said. ‘There’s not the number of breeders and number of dogs as in the Eastern States. “Our dogs in the west are just as good, but there’s just not the quantities.” Mr Curtis has four kelpies on his working team, along with three now-retired dogs and three pups who will be trained up over 18 months. How many he uses on any given day would depend on the number of sheep being worked. As a general rule, one dog would work 200 sheep, so a 600-strong flock would require three dogs. Mr Curtis breeds less than one litter a year, and is breathing a sigh of relief that WA farmers received an exemption to sterilisation rules within the new Puppy Farming legislation which WA Parliament passed this month. Under that legislation, unless exempt, dogs must be sterilised by two years age. Sterilisation would be a problem for farmers because good working traits — that farmers would typically look to breed from — don’t show up until after that age. Farmers who breed even a single litter of pups will still have to register themselves as breeders under the new rules. It’s not just breeding that makes a good work dog. Good training is also vital and best results are achieved if the owner is involved. “It as much about the people understanding how to work the dogs than where the dogs are at,” Mr Curtis said. There’s plenty of help with training available. “Through the WA Working Sheep Dog Association there are people spread around the State who are happy to assist if anyone needs help with training,” he said.