IT is part of the national narrative that Australia was built on the sheep's back. But not a single grazing property in this country would have been viable for the first 100 years without the productivity of working dogs.
It would be closer to the truth of this nation if it were not an emu on the coat of arms, holding up the shield with a kangaroo, but a border collie or kelpie.
Even today, more than 80,000 working dogs are out in Australia's farmlands, getting the mustering done at remarkably low cost. They will be ready for work today. They don't need penalty rates.
Dogs are so integral to our cultural DNA that they seem to be inserted into every second advertisement on TV. So many households have dogs – about 40 per cent – that they appear in ads for products that have nothing to with them. Cars, toilet paper and insurance immediately spring to mind. The list is endless.
Advertisers follow the money. Australia has one of the highest rates of animal ownership in the world, with two-thirds of Australian households having at least one animal.
There are more animals in households, 25 million, than there are people, 23.7 million, according to a 2013 survey by the Animal Health Alliance. Average household expenditure on animals is higher than the amount spent on electricity, restaurants, alcohol and public transport.
Dogs are king of this category, and to encapsulate why we have not just a bond with them but a debt to the dogs that helped build this country, I offer a passage from a book entitled Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men (1991), by American writer, Donald McCaig, who is also a sheepdog trainer:
"Before I got in the car, I spoke to the judge. She said, 'Yesterday, when that dog of yours seemed to be stopping short on the outrun, he wasn't short. He was correct. The sheep were facing him, and if you hadn't shouted him on, they would have lifted nice and easy'.
"It was raining pretty hard by the time we hit the interstate. Rain drummed on the roof of the car, and Pip lay on the front seat, his head turned to the door."
"Better luck next time," I said.
"Pip was so mad he wouldn't look at me. He wouldn't meet my eyes for three days."
If you're going to have a dog, you have to be all in. Not neurotically so, not obsessively, but seriously. A dog is a member of the family. It sees itself as an integral part of the unit.
When you pack your bags, a dog never knows if you're ever coming back. When you go out the front door, dogs can only guess if and when you will return. They do guess, and at a certain hour they are usually positioned, waiting, expectant.
I would vote for a border collie on the coat of arms. The greatest dog I ever met was Clyde, a border collie, like Pip. He won multiple sheep dog trial championships, one of the finest working dogs this country has produced. Clyde was raised and trained by Greg Prince, Australia's most successful working dog trainer and breeder.
Greg and Clyde won their first national championship as a team in 1995, in dramatic style, when the sheep charged the dog on the bridge obstacle. Clyde did not flinch. He chested the first Merino, then 'snouted' her – bit the big ewe on the nose. He lost no points for that.
At British trials dogs are not allowed to bite, but in Australia Merinos are bigger than European sheep and may not see a dog for weeks. So tougher measures are needed, and allowed, at trials.
"An Australian dog is allowed to stand up for itself," Prince told me. In 1998, at the national trials, I saw Clyde become the first and only dog to complete the treble of the New South Wales, Queensland and national championships. I wrote at the time:
"Clyde was the most wolf-like of the final eight dogs, but also the most relaxed. Greg likes what he calls 'kind dogs' and Clyde was a mixture of kindness and presence. His great strength is his eye, which allows him to keep his distance from the sheep but lift them with his gaze ...
"With the championship on the line, and the sheep immobile outside the final obstacle, Clyde sat down and waited ... (then) he pushed them back by simply raising his body."
After Clyde won the championship I walked back to Greg's camp with him. Clyde was still panting from the effort. He gulped water from his bowl, then boarded the truck for the long drive home to Dubbo. The next morning, the national champion would be ready to work.
It is not all rainbows, as every dog owner knows. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) has published data which shows there are over 80,000 dogs working on Australian farms, but their productivity is partly offset by a 2008-09 study by the Queensland Government in 2008 which estimated that wild dogs cost the State's grazing industries about $67 million a year.
This indicates that, nationwide, wild dogs are causing economic damage in excess of a $1 billion a decade.
Feral cats are even worse. They have a devastating effect on the ecology, decimating birdlife and small marsupials.
It is not all rainbows because animals are not merely 'pets'. They are not just loveable accessories. My wife and I love dogs but don't have a dog because we travel a lot and work long hours. We take dogs too seriously to be part-time about them. Dogs don't do part-time. They are all in.