Somewhere out in the New Zealand countryside (Lake Tekapo in Mackenzie Country) stands a testament to the working dog. (I have never seen the New Zealand countryside but my sister and brother-in-law have and I have no reason to doubt them, even though I am pretty sure that with a little dieting I could have easily fit into a suitcase and have firsthand knowledge.) The working dog of New Zealand is known as the New Zealand Heading Dog, a breed offshoot of the Border Collie bred for only one thing, handling stock. It’s origins stem from the Border Collie but differ by being bred to produce a lighter coat to combat the warmer climate of New Zealand and to be more active (hard to believe any breed needs to be more active than the Border). Another quality is their habit of not ‘downing’ when working their livestock as Borders. They are the true stockmen of the open grazing pastures of New Zealand. Also known as the New Zealand Eye Dog, this breed is a reflexive driver who is incredibly agile ‘when stock is in its line of sight’, hence it’s second name. The colors of the breed are generally black and white but black and white with tan and other colors as secondary are ‘fine’. No one cares how they look, apparently, only that they are quality stockmen. They must be intelligent enough to not need direction when working and must display the anticipatory agility that is the hallmark of the breed.
They are considered the only reason the ranchers of the area can raise their sheep in large swaths of open range and as a tribute to their worth have raised a monument proclaiming how indispensable they have been to the development of the country. However this keystone worker is not recognized by the country’s national kennel club, which I find interesting in light of those accomplishments. With what I have seen, limited though it is, the New Zealand Heading Dog is very uniform in size, coat, ear carriage and overall body type. The breed is offered in agility and other dog sports which are currently internationally popular but many fanciers tend to down play those areas in lieu of keeping the NZ Eye Dog’s main importance rooted in working stock. A studbook for the breed is kept, however, to be listed the dog must title in a national herding competition. The people protecting the breed are as serious as the breed itself were work is concerned.
There is no interest in making the breed popular or even marketable as anything other than a working dog and one can find ample evidence of fanciers portraying the Heading as a poor to less choice for anyone other than a rancher with acreage and sheep. The conformation ring is something that is not even given consideration, as is the possibility of joining one of the many national kennel clubs. The interest simply isn’t there.
It is a different stand from many US breeders and clubs, where we take a bit more capitalistic view; trying to fit our sometimes square pegs into the mainstream hole. They see the value of this particular breed of dog from a much different perspective. What is the quality of his work, how long will she work and can she pass those instincts on?
Clearly the Zealander’s value of the Heading Dog lies less in the beauty of the body and more in the beauty of the Spirit. A perspective worth emulating in all things.