HE DOES more work than any man, without breaking sweat. He sleeps on a lavender bush, accrues no annual leave and asks only for a cup of biscuits and a few sandwich crusts each day.
When a kelpie called Ted fetched $9000 at auction last year, it broke the Australian record and cemented the status of working dogs as a critical plank of the rural workforce.
The pastoral livestock industry faces serious labour shortages as its workers age or move into mining and services. Four in 10 farms in the sector report problems finding staff.
The deficit has driven a tenfold rise in the average price of working dogs at auction over the past 15 years, and prompted a University of Sydney study to determine the most desirable traits and how to breed them to create farm ''super dogs''.
Ted's owner, Nigel Kerin, who runs a sheep stud at Yeoval, said the two-year-old kelpie was worth every cent. The record was smashed again this year when a dog sold for $12,000.
''There is absolutely nothing he can't do by himself. Anything from three-sheep mustering to 3000 in a mob, he can bring them in, draft them, drench them … he's like the Cadel Evans of the kelpie world,'' Mr Kerin said.
''Most blokes wouldn't pay $300 for a dog. People would scratch their head and say, 'How could anyone pay that much?' But if they knew the labour efficiencies we had on this farm, they'd soon work out why.''
Paul McGreevy, the study leader, said it would help sheep and cattle graziers make the best the use of dogs and eventually increase productivity. Researchers will develop a breeding program after identifying DNA sequences associated with traits that make the best farm dogs.
A litter could be swabbed to reveal which puppies had the most promising genes, and findings used to match dog personality types to individual farmers, Professor McGreevy said.
Initial surveys of farmers suggested boldness, optimism, perseverance and mustering behaviour such as eye contact, stalking and caution were among the most prized traits.
Mr Kerin spotted Ted's potential the moment he saw him at auction, and predicts he will produce seven good years of work.
''I knew this dog had the personality, he had that larrikinism, and that absolute mongrel in him to make a good, all-round station dog,'' he said. ''He absolutely loves it, he'd do it 24 hours a day if you let him. His concentration just never breaks.
''He's an exceptional worker with exceptional ability - one of those blokes you sort of look up to.''
The story Breeding the mongrel that makes top dog worth top dollar first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.