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Talented mongrels draw in crowds

Mongrels like Johnny bring thousands of people to Hall - even the Queen.

A kelpie with a quarter of border collie in him, Johnny won the national sheep dog trials from 1946 through to 1952.

As well as upsetting the border collie breed's dominance of the trials, Johnny and handler Athol Butler left a lasting impression on Peter Welch, the sheep dog trials' former president who has watched each event since 1945, except the one in 1981.

''I have vivid pictures in my mind of him working. The handler whistled like a bird, he never stopped and he had those three sheep like they were three pet sheep.

''On the last run he had to score at least 96 to win and he got 100.''

Originally called the Canberra trials, when they began in 1942 at Manuka as a fund raiser during the war years, the annual event became too rowdy for the inner suburbs, moved to Canberra Showground, and from 1978 to Hall, where it has flourished.

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As well as putting Hall on the map for many people, it is recognised nationally as the best of its type and has an international reputation.

On a bitterly cold day in 1970, the Queen attended the trials. In a skirt above her knees which was the fashion of the day, she stayed for the trials, putting up with the icy conditions and presenting trophies.

Dogs are entered from every state except the Northern Territory. Up to 5000 people crowd into Hall Showground to watch novice and champion working dogs guide three sheep through the course, responding to their handler's whistles and commands.

Mr Welch said spectators didn't need a farming background to appreciate the close bond between handlers and their dogs.

''I think they can get an appreciation of the harnessed instincts, skill in training, getting the best out of the dogs.

''The essence is dogs doing what they were bred for. There are not many fields these days where dogs can do what they were bred for.''

A resident of Kaleen, Mr Welch doesn't compete too often these days. He has a small block at Crace where he trains his dogs.

He said a dog needed to be well bred, and should not begin training rained until six- or seven-months-old, when it could out-run the sheep.

''You load the dice in favour of the pup, you don't let him go in the middle of the paddock.

''You need quiet sheep, which I have, so you can control the situation.

''We don't use an older dog to train the pup.

''Most farmers do that, I've got to admit, we don't do that.

''We want them to be trained at a high level. If they just copy another dog, they are not going to get to a high level.''

Hall resident and former Sydney teacher Helen White was mightily impressed with the trials and with a couple of other women began organising wine tasting and a cup of tea for the visiting triallers.

This is fast becoming a part of the event.

Ten women now belong to the Hall Ladies Dog Social Group, which hosts a wine and cheese welcome, a Devonshire tea morning and a dinner during the week of events.

This year they will treat the wives of triallers to a fashion parade and tour of the national institutions, culminating with high tea at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra.

''Someone said it's like inviting them home. We like to make sure they feel at home,'' Mrs White said.

''One fellow said, 'Oh, you know, I don't really care much about the trials, but I'm just coming for the activities'.''