Man’s Best Friend Down Under: A Mixed Lexical Bag

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Although it was Plato’s opinion that a dog has the soul of a philosopher, a view that might possibly find favour in some of our umbrageous suburbs, there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that it was widely held in early rural New Zealand. A New Zealand sheepdog was something to be worked. But dogs have not just left their mark on farming: a considerable number of words have been generated around them in our language.

The first rural dogs were actually an impediment to pastoralism, killing and maiming sheep. Originating from Polynesian exploration vessels and, later, whaling ships, the kuri, also known as the bush dog, Maori dog, native dog or pa dog, roamed widely once mutton was available to the Maori, and kuri ceased to be the delicacy it had been. Newspapers reports from the 1850s and 1860s record the nuisance status of the kuri to early pastoralists, and to distinguish their dogs from kuri, the early sheep kings referred to sheepdogs as colonial dogs.

Dog tax has been controversial since its inception. In 1898 a potential major conflict known as the Dog Tax Rebellion occurred in Northland, when local Maori refused to pay a dog registration fee and declared an attack on the settlement at Rawene, resulting in Government forces being sent to enforce the law. Fortunately, the confrontation was settled as troops drew their weapons, just one shot being fired by Maori. Nonetheless, fourteen Maori were found guilty of treason in the bloodless last clash between Maori and Government troops.

For some years, Kiwi sheepdogs were awarded little privacy for the most basic of their bodily functions. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, most rural localities had dosing-strips along roadside fencelines where dogs were purged and a sample of faeces for hydatids testing collected. The ‘dog-dosing strip at Dunsandel’ was incorporated into a national song. Dog-dosing, like other rules and regulations relating to dogs, was controversial. The dog-doser or hydatids man was regarded as a nuisance in a busy farming schedule, and was widely known as the hydatids hinderer.

The first heroes in the New Zealand canine scene were were boundary dogs or dog shepherds that patrolled station boundaries, living frustrated lives of isolation tethered to a pole and being fed once a week by an itinerant shepherd. Once stations and farms were fenced, in lieu of gates, gate dogs were tethered at fence openings traversed by roads, to prevent sheep crossing boundaries, but allowing traffic to pass. Here again, the unfortunate lone dog was fed only infrequently by passing station staff.

The rural sheepdog hierarchy reflects topography, a high-altitude shingle dog, high country dog, hill dog or mountain dog earning more respect than a paddock dog, used for mustering or shepherding on easier country. A cocky’s dog or a carpet grass with even more tender paws earns contempt amongst the high country fraternity, and the powder puff or townie dog is almost beyond contempt, being soft and not a real man’s dog.

Work performance is the genesis of many colloquial terms. From as early as 1917 we find terms for sheepdogs that did not meet expectations—the half-day dog and the show dog. The half-day dog lacked stamina, its more modern equivalent being the ten o’clock dog that refuses to work after the cooler part of the morning is over. The show dog, like the powder puff or poser, is full of attitude and pose, but its performance leaves a lot to be desired. The Sunday dog is the ultimate in laziness, regarding each day as the Sabbath, and refusing to work. The gravel-scraper or shingle-scratcher, another poser, makes a great fuss and barks wildly, but makes little impact on the sheep s/he is supposed to be moving. The bludger, flea taxi, fly-flicker, freeboarder, freeloader, passenger, and sundowner are each part of the lazy dog contingent, along with the sooner, who would sooner be lying in the shade than confronting the sheep, and would sooner the master or other dogs got on with shifting the mob. A meat-converter or turner is the lazy dog with a prodigious appetite that turns good food into something less desirable. Looked upon more favourably, however, is the backdoor pensioner, the old dog that, in retirement, is retained and permitted to hang about the station compound or homestead back door, or, if s/he can be trusted, the dog-tucker tree, where the carcase for the next canine meal swings.

Dogs that ‘worry’, injure or kill sheep are shown little lexical mercy, being known as chisellers, hotchoppers, meat graders, meatmanglers, meatmunchers, wool-classers, wool-sorters, or euphemistically, worriers. Those that ‘nudge’ sheep in the correct direction from the rear are known as hock-hunters, rump-munchers or sparrowhawks; nosers being those that ‘encourage’ from the head of a sheep (or cattle beast). The hooler creates a noisy fuss in order to successfully coax reluctant animals. Other recalcitrant dogs are the dividers, slewers or splitters that, in a surplus of enthusiasm, scatter a mob of stock being gathered together.

Specificity is a notable characteristic of the canine lexicon, with sheepdogs having a range of distinct roles and responsibilities. In droving and mustering, the wing dog or wing leader works at the side of the mob as it moves forward, with the lead dog, leader or leading dog working at the front. The tail-ender or tail shepherd follows a mob of sheep as it is driven. In the paddock or on the run, the artful shedding dog separates sheep into two or three separate mobs. The huntaway, New Zealand’s own breed, uses its bark to gather, hunt and drive sheep towards gateways or yards. (Also known as a hunter, an example of the breed is sculpted in bronze at Hunterville, the service town of a rugged farming area in the North Island.) The near-at-hand huntaway is a specialist that works in close proximity to its master and quarry. The heading dog, header, driving dog or eye dog specialises in surrounding or heading off sheep and bringing them towards a shepherd or handler. The specialist eye dog that will control a sheep with hypnotising eye contact is often known as a thistle-peeper, while a blocker, gathering dog, stopper or stopping dog is a heading dog that specifically gathers in single potential ‘escapees’ from mobs of sheep, and is often seen circling a mob. A shandygaff or handy dog, also known as a head-and-hunt, is one that heads, hunts and often backs as well. A New Zealand Journal of Agriculture columnist, in lighter spirit, offers an alternative view of the head and hunt term: a low-class dog that heads for home and hunts for tucker.

The holding dog or minding dog has a specific task of holding a mob of stock together on a roadside, or in a mustering situation where waiting is required. (Holding dog is a term also applied to a pig-dog that contains a pig once it is bailed.)

Those that specialise at sheepyards and saleyards are known as yard dogs, with a different function from the yard dog in other nations, which usually guards a section. A type of huntaway, the forcer or forcing dog doubles as a yard dog, and will persevere in moving individual sheep. The backer or backing dog, also known as a wool-walker, is trained to run along the backs of sheep to clear congestion or lead sheep reluctant to enter loading banks, pens, races, ramps, stock crates or trucks. The penning up dog is also used in yarding, penning and drafting work at sheepyards or saleyards, often being known as a trucking dog, if he is used to load and unload sheep from crates or trucks. A shaker or shaking dog, indispensable in a large mustering or shepherding team, is the disciplinarian, keeping order amongst the individual dogs.

The world’s first sheepdog trials were held in Central Otago in 1867, and a host of New Zealandisms evolved from this activity, which quickly became a national pastime.

On dog-trial circuits, a beautiful dog is not an aesthetically pleasing or wellbred animal, but a sheepdog that does its job well. It may be a sooler, a bread-and-butter dog, or an all-rounder—all canine Jacks of all trades. The trial dog that is heavy is one that is slowly and steadily in command of his sheep, while the light dog succeeds with speed, luck and a softer touch.

And dogs’ masters and mistresses? Drovers, musterers and shepherds are variously referred to as dog­bludgers, dog-drivers, dog-floggers and dog-wallopers. New Zealand shepherds and musterers with a reliable team of dogs are said to be well-dogged. Although musterers and shepherds are known as horse and dog men, dog men is usually applied to dog-trialists. A cultural message is enshrined in a real dog man, who is probably known nationally for working sheepdogs at an exceptionally high and exemplary standard.

Sheepdogs can be full-tongued (a useful attribute in a blind gully, rather than in the suburbs), or well-noised; they can be strong-eyed, or even over-eyed. They can be chain-crazed, when given insufÞcient exercise, and whip-shy (an utter disgrace). Although there does not appear to be much neurosis in the modern sheepdog, particularly since the 1960s when s/he has been housed in dog-motels, the Kiwi woof will often become highly frenzied or bike-happy when the farmbike starts up. A little instability can also creep in when s/he has become used to competing in dog trials, becoming trial-happy, to the profound distress of its owner.

Roles are also specific for dogs in the pig-hunting game, with finders, bailers and holders all taking part in the chase and capture. One of the quaintest of monikers in this team is that of the bonnet Þnder that sits on the bonnet of a hunting vehicle in order to sniff the trail of pigs.

Lowly or useless objects and worn, bankrupt citizens are known as dog-tucker in the Antipodes. Boiled dog, in early twentieth century New Zealand, was the term used for affectation. US English introduced ‘in the dog-house’ for those in trouble, while errant New Zealanders are in the dog-box. Any machine, activity or person that operates slowly is dog-slow. New Zealand journalists have been moved to use lapdoggery to describe the nation’s foreign policy and as recently as April this year, one of Auckland’s oldest pubs was referred to as an old dog.

A business journalist in a recent daily could not resist citing business leader, ex-Fonterra CEO, Craig Norgate, who commented “Wrightson’s rural services division was ‘an absolute dog’ but its seeds business could be described as ‘a jewel’.” A recent editorial page in a farming newspaper sported two dog-related references in ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog business making a living out of the meat industry’ (!) and ‘Landcorp’s a dog – get private farmers into it’.

The rural dog has left its mark on the tourist industry with organi­sations such as Kiwi Experience offering nationwide tours with the names of Stray Dog, Sheep Dog, and Dog Leg. (The shape of a dog’s back leg was applied to dog-leg fences, early rural New Zealand and Australian fences made of bent scrub and tree branches.)

In the twenty-first century, the national sheep population has dropped from its twentieth century high of seventy million to fewer than 40 million. The lexis that has developed around the New Zealand sheepdog has nevertheless made a worthy contribution to our cultural storehouse, and many of these terms will certainly be part of the linguistic landscape for years to come.

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