Handsome, hard-working huntaways

A New Zealand Huntaway at work. The big-hearted breed is used on farms around the country.
Robert Charles/Fairfax NZ

A New Zealand Huntaway at work. The big-hearted breed is used on farms around the country.

When you're a townie like me, you don't see many Huntaway dogs. Their usual home, after all, is in the farmyard or paddock, herding stock.

Huntaways belong on the land, and they belong to the land, as New Zealand's sole homegrown breed of dog*. They're intended for a job of work, not to look a certain way or to be someone's house pet or to strut around a show ring.

They're a symbol of energy and resilience, a vertebra in the country's backbone. But they're also dogs who can melt a dog lover's heart.

Two weeks ago, when on a farm-stay holiday with family, I met my first huntaways up close.

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Lloyd Duffy and his Huntaway Nell take part in a Taranaki dog trial.
Mike Scott/Fairfax NZ

Lloyd Duffy and his Huntaway Nell take part in a Taranaki dog trial.

I'd heard them earlier that day – their baritone bellowings echoing among the hills as they guided the farm's cattle and sheep from one place to another.

Then they appeared in a paddock right next to the holiday house we were in. Five tall, slender dogs rolling on the ground or jinking around the farmer, who'd dismounted his ATV. Two of them were playing with each other, bowing and chasing.

It was as though they were all on smoko.

Willy the Huntaway takes a mandated work break.

Willy the Huntaway takes a mandated work break.

I went out to get a closer look. Two dogs rushed over and plopped their front paws on the fence that separated us. They looked me up and down with intelligent eyes. They sniffed my clothes, licked my hands and neck, and grinned as I patted and tickled them.

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Then two more joined in, and finally the shy one of the five. "They love all the pats," the famer said. "They don't get too many of them around here, most days!"

He talked to me about the dogs: the eldest, whose head was brindle and almost Staffy-like; the youngest, wiggly and wire-coated; the rudest, who thrust his head between the fence posts to check us out. "Get out of it, Max," the farmer growled.

Two participants get into the spirit of the Hunterville Huntaway Festival. Events at the yearly event include dog ...

Two participants get into the spirit of the Hunterville Huntaway Festival. Events at the yearly event include dog barking competitions and obstacle races.

Then the farmer was back on his ATV and driving away. The dogs bounded after him, hungry for a new job to do.

I was smiling for the next couple of hours, awash with a dog-lover's endorphins. The energy of these dogs had got into me.

And I was intrigued. No two of the dogs looked much like each other. Their colouring was mostly brown and white, but the coats were of differing lengths and textures. One dog was jet black.

Huntaways wait calmly for their next task.
John Hawkins/Fairfax NZ

Huntaways wait calmly for their next task.

So how were they all huntaways?

Well, it's easy to think of a "breed" as being a description of how a dog looks. But for Huntaways, things are a little different.

All recognised breeds have a standard that describes the ideal appearance, temperament and characteristics of a breed. The New Zealand Kennel Club's breed standard for huntaways does have guidelines on a dog's head, muzzle and mouth, eyes, feet and other features, but on looks, it's a loose rule:

"A Huntaway's colour, coat and size are totally irrelevant as compared to their working ability," the breed standard says, "although it is accepted that a high percentage fit into the mid-size, black and tan, smooth-haired range."

As for coat type, it "may be smooth, medium, long, grizzly, bearded or rough, with or without undercoat". That's a very flexible dress code.

Say it again: the huntaway is there to work. Even its name springs from the tasks that it's given. In dog trials, which test a shepherd's skills and which have become part of New Zealand's fabric, the huntaway class of competition calls on the dog to guide a group of sheep up a hill, away from the master, just as would often happen in real life.

But to perform this job the dog had better have a strong bark, unlike the silent style of traditional sheepdogs such as Border Collies. So in decades past, some other breeds were bred into the bloodlines to create the type of dog needed: big-barked, short-coated and with a lot of stamina.

Hence the huntaway. And hence the breed standard's note on temperament: "A huntaway's nature should be robust and not easily offended while still retaining a high degree of trainability as their requirement to do a big percentage of the work under command may be high."

So can a huntaway be a pet? The New Zealand Sheepdog Trial Association says a huntaway "should not be kept solely as a pet". And it believes that the breed should never appear in dog shows – the show ring, it says, is no place to prove a huntaway's sole task of working sheep and cattle.

But yes, some huntaways are pets. Some are rescue dogs, and I know of two families that adopted huntaways that had been found abandoned. There's a Retired Working Dog Adoption group that tries to find homes for dogs too old to work. And there are lots of hybrid dogs around with huntaway heritage.

What is life with a huntaway like at home as opposed to on the farm? By all accounts they're extraordinary dogs, if challenging. But this post is long enough, for today.

Check back with Four Legs Good tomorrow for "huntaway tales" from people who love them – and of course a lot of glorious photos.

* The huntaway is a recognised breed in New Zealand. The NZ Kennel Club has an application pending with world canine authorities for international recognition of the breed.

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 - Stuff


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