The Collection

Dogs – Folklore & History in Australia

Dogs, small ones, big ones, snapping ones and barkers, have played an important role in Australia’s bush culture. The image of frisky cattle dogs, leaping like gymnasts across the backs of confused sheep, yelping at the hooves of a mob of determinately angry cattle, or sitting, silent, scratching fleas, eyes ever alert, as they wait by campfire, on pub verandah, or, more likely than not, in the back of a ute, waiting for their workmate. The first dog in Australia was the native dog. It probably came across with the Macassan traders who ventured here some 700 or 800 years ago.

The Aboriginal people of the Kimberleyís tell of this dog in their tradition and it has appeared in rock paintings, dreamtime stories and corroboree dances. The dogs of the Cadigal people were barking as the crew of the First Fleet’s ‘Sirius’ came ashore. Down through the decades, dogs, especially dingoes, get a bad rap as thieves, sneaky sheep murderers and, more recently, as baby stealers.

This collection will look at dogs, domesticated and wild, in the Australian story and the folklore associated with them. We do know from the First Fleet inventory that puppies were included, however there are no other details showing number, breed or age. More dogs came with each new ship arrival.


The colony of New South Wales had more than its fair share of problems what with rowdy convicts, sometimes even rowdier soldiers, erratic food supply and pesky mosquitoes. You can add the dog problem to that list.  Apparently the streets of early Sydney were continually fouled by dogs, goats and horses, and, mixed with the mud, must have stank to high heaven and made for rather treacherous traveling. The same problem existed in other penal settlements.


Men betraying their companions or accepting authority over them, are often called “dogs”, and sometimes have their noses bitten off – that tasty morsel being termed “a mouthful of a dog’s nose.”

The expression ‘Dog must not rob dog’ was popular amongst convicts and equates to honour amongst thieves. In Australia silent composure under suffering was strictly prescribed by convict etiquette. By 1826 it had become apparent that dogs in Hobart Town had become a major problem. The so called ‘kangaroo dogs’ had turned wild and had commenced attacking flocks and herds, and, it was feared that they would breed with the Aborigine’s native dogs. By 1830 regulations to restrain dogs were put in place. Dogs roaming the streets often bit passers-by, innumerable hoards of them infested the town day and night — by 1839 it was recommended that they be taken out, a dozen at a time and sunk in the river – many dog corpses were seen floating down river soon after.

One successful Van Diemen’s Land escapee was a convict named Cripps. Cripps was employed as a dog-handler for a while before being taken back to Port Arthur to join a timber-cutting gang. His other job was to prepare the dog food and, being an entrepreneur, he stole flour from the recipe (they didn’t have Pal) to sell on the black market. He was caught and, facing the lash, took off. He made his way to Eaglehawk Neck dog pound and, because the dogs knew him, he was welcome. He stole two of the dogs (who were also more than happy to have some freedom) and took them into the bush.

Cripps built a large, comfortable, bark hut and lived contentedly for 18 months or so, hunting game with the dogs, and occasionally nipping back to Port Arthur to abscond with some flour, sugar, soap, salt and cabbages. He was discovered by chance when an officer (coincidentally the one who had previously owned the two dogs) stumbled on his hut. Apart from Cripps, he also found more than 1800 kangaroo and wallaby skins, neatly tied in bundles.

Cripps was packed off to Port Arthur again, for an extended stay and 100 lashes, but lived out his final years as a free man.


There were many dogs on the goldfields too. Mostly nasty buggers used to scare off would-be thieves. British bulldogs and mastiffs were chained to the stumps of miner’s tents as a brutal warning.

The gold townships also had plenty of dogs sniffing around. They lived off scraps, fought in the muddy streets and generally behaved badly. They were tolerated because everyone was so consumed by the rush for gold that they simply ignored most things around them.

The police, particularly on the Victorian gold settlements, carried out their duties, especially in checking gold licenses, with dogs. One can picture the image of the petrified diggers avoiding the license by hiding down their mineshaft, or even up a tree, with the hunting dogs barking, scratching and howling, to alert their masters of the find. It is probably no coincidence that one of the most popular tunes of the day was called ‘Bow Bow Bow’.

There were also arranged dogfights on the goldfields reflecting the male-dominated society, general desperation, and, of course, the desire for entertainment and gasmbling.

Miners often relied on watchdogs to guard them on their travels and to stop robbers stealing gold or belongings from their huts or tents:

“Many a time the barking of a dog chases thieves and bushrangers away, wakes up the miner and warns him about approaching danger. Everyone in Australia knows that he is not allowed to enter a tent without first calling out to the owner and that the owner can shoot at anyone approaching too closely or entering a tent at night without announcing himself beforehand. Without the dog many a crime would have been committed, because a miner sleeps soundly after heavy work. Yes, a good dog is a priceless treasure on the goldfields. A criminal approaching a tent and confronted with loud barking turns back, convinced that the prospective victim, already aroused, may give him a very warm reception … Dogs are a great treasure in Australia. They saved the life of many a miner and prevented many mishaps, due to their warnings. The average price for a pup was one pound more for a grown dog. Good dogs fetched even ten pounds” (Korlinski’s Life on the Goldfields, Memoirs of a Polish Migrant, )


A Dog’s Mistake (A.B.Paterson)

One of the best-known bushranging stories is of Tasmania’s Martin Cash, who became a legend for twice thwarting the dreaded ‘Dog Line’ at Eaglehawk Neck. A detachment of military guards with a line of ferocious dogs was used to guard the narrow isthmus of the Port Arthur convict goal to prevent escapes. By all accounts Port Arthur was a place of continuing horror and well worth the escape attempt.

There is no list of the type of dogs used however they would have most probably of the bulldog and mastiff family.

One suspects that dogs in general were seen as odd members of the penal settlement community. In Sydney, like Port Arthur they were used as a means of controlling convicts, however they were also used for gambling and organized dogfights were common. There would also have been dogs retained as ‘pets’, especially for children and women. Dogs of particular breeds would have reminded many of England.

Dogs were considered a valuable warning system for many early Australians and, for some, they still serve this ‘watch dog’ purpose. There’s a good first hand report about the dogs on John Kelly’s property warning the Kelly family about the approaching troopers. Senior Constable Charles Hales Police Report Dated 15th May 1865, Yass Courier dated 17th May 1865, reported:

“Senior Constable Hale immediately gathered Constables John Bright and Michael King and headed out to watch Kelly’s house. They watched most of the night and saw no one enter Kelly’s place and returned to the police station about half a mile away.

The next morning at 8 a.m., John Kelly (who was under the influence of grog) informed Senior Constable Hales that Gilbert and Dunn were at his hut. Hales immediately gathered Constables John Bright, Michael King and Henry Hall and headed to Kelly’s place. Two parties were formed, Bright and Hall went to the back of the hut and were stationed in the creek. Hales and King were stationed at the front of the hut.

The troopers watched for about an hour in the rain. At some stage Kelly’s son Thomas approached the stockyard, Hales called him over to ask if there were any stranger’s in the house to which he said “No”. Hales and King approached the house, the dogs started barking, John Kelly and his wife came to the door of the hut, upon seeing Trooper Hales, Kelly called out “Look Out, the hut is surrounded by bloody troopers”. As Hales entered the hut two shots were fired, Hales looked through the slabs of the bedroom wall to see the shadows of two men. Hales immediately fired and retired to the front room of the hut. He then called out “Men surround the hut, the bushrangers are inside”. Hales warned Kelly if he did not immediately turn out, they would burn the hut.”

The following reference to Bushranger Harry Power also points to dogs as trusty guards:

“From this point Harry (Henry Johnstone) became a full time bushranger, who was responsible for numerous hold-ups and robberies, for stealing horses, and bailing up mail coaches. He was not only an excellent bushman and horseman, but also a great showman who boasted about his exploits, and liked to sing a popular Bushranger ballad:

“We might sing of young Gilbert, Dan Morgan, Ben Hall,
But the bold, reckless robber surpasses them all.
The pluck that’s in Power is past all belief.

Daring highwayman! Professional thief!”

“Although he never committed a murder, and he very seldom took money from the poor, he possessed an extremely violent temper. Ned Kelly (who was barely fifteen when Power introduced him to the life of crime) described how much he had been frightened of him. Ellen Kelly, who despised Power, called him a “brown-paper bushranger”, but he was indeed the most notorious bushranger in Victoria’s colonial history, and he taught Ned Kelly how to survive and elude the police!

Harry Power eventually dropped Ned (so he said), calling him a coward, and pursued his “career” alone. Ned said that he left Power after he lost his temper, because he was frightened of him. Ned’s was probably the more accurate account but his actions did not save him from being arrested in May 1870 for assisting Power, and despite his feelings he didn’t betray his “teacher” – someone else did….

Harry felt safe in his hideout above Quinn’s homestead, because they had several dogs and a noisy peacock, who would notify them of any strangers in the area. Finally, the Quinns had had enough of Power and with a £500 reward on offer, it didn’t take much persuasion of “Jack” Lloyd to lead the police to Power’s hideout…..”

Then, of course, there is the reference to Dan Morgan, the most frightening-looking, bloodthirslty and manic bushrangers, who carried two braces of pistols plus various blunderbusses. He was known as ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan who killed two civilians and a police officer in cold blood?

John Fuller was the illegitimate son of George Fuller and Mary Owen (called “the Gipsy Woman”), born in Campbelltown (NSW.) in 1830. He was shot dead by troopers in 1865.


The first dog show held in Australia was at Moore’s Horse Bazaar in Liverpool Street, Hobart, Tasmania on 12th November 1862.


(From Wood’s Natural History Mammalia volume by the Rev. J.G Woods, circa 1862.) This exceptionally detailed account offers the best insight into the history of the working dog in Australia.


– The most useful variety of the canine species is that sagacious creature on whose talent and energy depends the chief safety of the flock.

This animal seems to be, as far as can be judges from appearances, the original ancestor of the true British Dogs, and preserves its peculiar aspect in almost every country in Europe. It is a rather large Dog, as is necessary, in order to enable the animal to undergo the incessant labor which it is called on to perform, and is possessed of limbs sufficiently large and powerful to enable it to outrun the truant members of the flock, who, if bred on the mountain-side, are so swift and agile that they would readily baffle the efforts of any Dog less admirably fitted by nature for the task of keeping them together.

As the sheep-dog is constantly exposed to the weather, it needs the protection of very thick and closely-set fur, which, in this Dog, is rather woolly in its character, and is especially heavy about the neck and breast. The tail of the Sheep-dog is naturally long and bushy, but is generally removed in early youth, on account of the now obsolete laws, which refused to acknowledge any Dog as a Sheep-dog, or to exempt it from payment of a tax, unless it were deprived of its tail. This law, however, often defeated its own object, for many persons who liked the sport of coursing, and cared little for appearances, used to cut off the tails of their greyhounds, and evade the tax by describing them as Sheep-dogs.

The muzzle of this Dog is sharp, its head is of moderate size, its eyes are very bright and intelligent, as might be expected in an animal of so much sagacity and ready resource in time of need. Its feet are strongly made, and sufficiently well protected to endure severe work among the harsh stems of the heather on the hills, or the sharply-cutting stones of the high-road. Probably on account of its constant exercise in the open air, and the hardy manner in which it is brought up, the Sheep-dog is perhaps the most untiring of our domesticated animals.

There are many breeds of this animal, differing from each other in color and aspect, and deriving their varied forms from the Dog with which the family has been crossed. Nearly all the sporting Dogs are used for this purpose, so that some Sheep-dogs have something of the pointer nature in them, others of the foxhound, and others of the setter. This last cross is the most common. Together with the outward form the creature inherits much of the sporting predilections of its ancestry, and is capable of being trained into a capital sporting Dog.

Many of these animals are sad double-dealers in their characters, being by day most respectable Sheep-dogs, and by night most disreputable poachers. The mixed offspring of a Sheep-dog and a setter is as silently successful in discovering and marking game by night as he is openly useful in managing the flocks by day. As he spends the whole of his time in the society of his master, and learns from long companionship to comprehend the least gesture of hand or tone of voice, he is far better adapted for nocturnal poaching than the more legitimate setter or retriever, and causes far more deadly havoc among the furred and feathered game. Moreover, he often escapes the suspicion of the gamekeeper by his quiet and honorable demeanor during the daytime, and his devotion to his arduous task of guarding the fold, and reclaiming its wandering members. It seems hardly possible that an animal which works so hard during the day should be able to pass the night in beating for game.

Sometimes there is an infusion of the bull-dog blood into the Sheep-dog, but this mixture is thought to be unadvisable, as such Dogs are too apt to bite their charge, and so to alienate from themselves the confidence of the helpless creatures whom they are intended to protect, and not to injure. Unless the sheep can feel that the Dog is, next to the shepherd, their best friend, the chief value of the animal is lost.

It is well observed by Mr. Youatt, in his valuable work on these Dogs, that if the sheep do not crowd round the Dog when they are alarmed, and place themselves under his protection, there is something radically wrong in the management of the flock. He remarks that the Dog will seldom, if ever, bite a sheep, unless to do so by its master, and suggests that the shepherd should be liable to a certain fine for every tooth-mark upon his flock. Very great injury is done to the weakly sheep and tender lambs by the crowding and racing that takes place when a cruel Dog begins to run among the flock. However, the fault also lies more with the shepherd than with Dog, for as the man is, so will his Dog be. The reader must bear in mind that the barbarous treatment to which travelling flocks are so often subjected is caused by drovers and not shepherds, who, in almost every instance, know each sheep by its name, and are as careful of its well-being as if it were a member of their own family. The Dogs which so persecute the poor sheep in their bewilderments among cross-roads and the perplexity of crowded streets, are in turn treated by their masters quite as cruelly as they treat the sheep. In this, as in other instances, it is “like man and like Dog”.

As a general rule, the Sheep-dog cares little for any one but his master, and so far from courting the notice or caresses of a stranger will coldly withdraw from them, and keep his distance. Even with other Dogs he rarely makes companionship, contenting himself with the society of his master alone.


Bush work was unbelievably hard work and lonely. Dogs became soul mates to many bush workers as they traveled endless boundary fences, drove cattle over countless plains, penned sheep, or just hit the road and looked for work. They were offsiders to itinerant workers, swag carriers and also to so many women left behind to tend the homestead. They were mates to kids too, often joining them as they walked several miles to school, and then, back again for the return journey. Dogs kept many men on the thin border between sanity and madness simply by being good listeners. The image of the tired bushman, patiently boiling the billy, with his four-legged friend sitting curled next to the campfire, intently listening to every inflection, is a common image in our history. So too the image of the dog sitting alone on the bullock dray, waiting for his master’s return.

‘It must be near one or two o’clock. The fire is burning low. Alligator lies with his head resting on his paws, and watches the wall. He is not a very beautiful dog, and the light shows numerous old wounds where the hair will not grow. He is afraid of nothing on the face of the earth or under it. He will tackle a bullock as readily as he will tackle a flea. He hates all other dogs—except kangaroo-dogs—and has a marked dislike to friends or relations of the family. They seldom call, however. He sometimes makes friends with strangers. He hates snakes and has killed many, but he will be bitten some day and die; most snake-dogs end that way’.

Henry Lawson, our greatest bush storyteller has two wonderful dog stories. The Drover’s Wife is a classic and the passages where he describes the reactions and actions of Alligator, the family dog, are emotionally charged:

It must be near daylight now. The room is very close and hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested; he draws himself a few inches nearer the partition, and a thrill runs through his body. The hair on the back of his neck begins to bristle, and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and lays her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the partition slabs has a large crack on both sides. An evil pair of small, bright bead-like eyes glisten at one of these holes. The snake—a black one—comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits as one fascinated. The snake comes out a foot farther. She lifts her stick, and the reptile, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the crack on the other side of the slab, and hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator springs, and his jaws come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close down in the angle formed by the slabs and the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and tugs it out eighteen inches. Thud, thud comes the woman’s club on the ground. Alligator pulls again.

Thud, thud.  Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out—a black brute, five feet long. The head rises to dart about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but quick as a terrier. He shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind. The eldest boy wakes up, seizes his stick, and tries to get out of bed, but his mother forces him back with a grip of iron. Thud, thud—the snake’s back is broken in several places. Thud, thud—its head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.

(The story goes on to relate the fitful night of watching and waiting until the snake is dead)

She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, rthrowing his arms round her neck exclaims:

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blarst me if I do!”

And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.

Most bush workers summed up their respect for their dogs in a short statement: Dogs don’t complain or argue.


© Warren Fahey 2008

Australia has some of the roughest terrain in the world and some of the nastiest prickles. Maintaining the boundary fences and rabbit and dingo fences that span the continent is a full time job for an army of men and dogs. Horses with metal-shod hooves can easily walk across this rough ground but dogs cannot. Many drovers made, and probably still do, dog shoes out of leather. These shoes covered all four paws and protected the animals feet from being sliced to shreds.


© Warren Fahey 2008

Dog names in Australia, like those of people, are creations of fashion. As a young lad growing up in Sydney I was very aware of the limitednames given to dogs (and young boys and girls) – the most popular being

  • Blue or Bluey (inevitably a red cattledog)
  • Red (ditto)
  • Whiskey (usually black and white like the popular whiskey brand of the era)
  • Bitzer (a bit of this, a bit of that)
  • Heinz (he was 57 varieties)
  • Blister
  • Daisy
  • Matilda
  • Rollie (after homemade cigarettes)
  • Smokey
  • Billy
  • Rover
  • Boy
  • Foxy (usually a fox terrier)

It wasn’t difficult to track new popular names, especially those introduced by Hollywood movies. Lassie was almost the generic name for long-haired dogs. Scamp became popular after Lady & The Tramp. Australian cartoon dogs also supplied names. Cartoonist James Kemsley’s Ginger Meggs had a canine mate called Mike. In those days it was unusual to call a dog by a human name. Ken Maynard’s well known cartoons in Australasian Post back in the 50’s 60’s, of the famous Ettamogah Pub always had scroungy-looking dogs, all of them smoking fags, because Maynard hated smoking! Joliffe;s ‘equally popular Witchetty’s Mob’, a rather tasteless strip based on supposed Aboriginal life, also featured some pretty unimpressive examples of scratching dogs, implying les than clean living standards.  Dagwood Bumstead, the lead in another popular cartoon, had a dog called Daisy but I am not sure how this ended up as a reference to the early takeaway roll and Frankfurt known as a Dagwood Dog.

Dogs nowadays carry many different and very exotic names. There are several internet sites that list endless dog names. Just try googling ‘Dog’s Names’. Folklore has it that some people call their dogs specific weirdo names just so they can shout them out in public places: Nurse, Police, Doctor, Waiter, Cooee, Hooroo etc being the most commonly offered.

My own dogs have been named Whiskey, Astro, Bindy and Moses (or Mo). No rhyme, no reason.


© Warren Fahey 2008

The Australian yarn tradition has many dog stories, especially yarns where dogs talk. In the bush all dogs seem capable of speech, and some are extremely colourful talkers.

A dog goes into a pub and fronts the bar.
“I’ll have a schooner of beer and a rum chaser, mate.”
The barman, looks at the dog, looks at the people in the bar, and turns and pours the rum and beer.
The dog gulps the two drinks down, slides over the money and turns to leave, but thinks twice about it when he spots the barman shaking his head in wonder.
“I suppose you think it’s a it odd a dog coming in here and ordering a beer with a rum chaser?”
The barman looked at the dog and replied: “No way, mate, that’s exactly how I drink ‘em too.”

For a chapter on dog yarns see my books ‘Classic Bush Yarns’ and ‘Great Aussie Yarns’ (Harper Collins)


© Warren Fahey 2008

The word ‘dog’ has entered the Australian language at many levels.

Dogfight, dog-eared, dog’s breakfast (implying messy), shaggy dog (implying tall yarn), gone to the dogs (implying rack and ruin), hair of the dog (ultimate hangover cure), dog-tired, a dog’’s life, dogger, dog-faced. The use of the word as an indication of a low form of life is interesting: ‘he was a dog’ or, worse still, ‘he was lower than a dog’, implies the lowest of the low. To our national shame for a long period our indigenous people were forced to wear ‘dog tags’ as a means of identification. My friend, former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, gave new meaning to the expression ‘Kerr’s Cur’, when referring to Malcolm Fraser’s readiness to accept the GG’s commission to form a Government. Bill Hayden – bumped from the Labor leadership – infamously commented in 1983 that a drover’s dog could have led the party to victory, thus guaranteeing himself a place in our vernacular history. These were not the first to use such dog references. Consider the Ben Hall song ‘The Ballad of Ben Hall’ where the bushranger was  ‘hunted from his station, and like a dog shot down’. Or the version of ‘Bold Jack Donahoe’ in Paterson’s 1905 edition of Old Bush Songs, where the bushranger addresses the ‘cowardly Walmsley;

“Then be-gone from me, you cowardly dog.” Cried Jack Donahoe.’And my favourite colloquial expression  because it’s so bloody graphic: in describing a lean and hungry look – “he’s all ribs, dick and balls, like a drover’s dog.”


© Warren Fahey 2008

Our national affection for dogs is shown in the many songs, ditties, toasts and poems that celebrate the dog.

Swagman’s Toast:
Me and me dog we travel the bush
In weather cold and hot;
Me and me dog, we don’t give a stuff,
If we get any work, or not.

Piddling Pete, the celebrated dog that could dribble, spurt and do fancy piddling tricks, is well known as a bush poem. Pete had diabetes!

Warren Fahey recites Piddlin’ pete

Then there’s the song ‘The Dog’s Meeting’ with its explanation as to why dogs sniff each other’s bums. Lawson’s ‘The Loaded Dog’ is a classic yarn in verse. The most popular song what have to be Jack Moses’s ‘The Dog Sat on the Tuckerbox’ and it’s relative ‘Nine Miles From Gunadagai’. 

Warren Fahey sings ‘Nine Miles From Gundagai’

And finally….

There is much speculation as to what goes through a dog’s mind. Books have been written, experts quoted but the fact remains – dogs are fairly unique in the domesticated pet animal farm. They are unbelievably loyal, smart and responsive to good old-fashioned love.

We owe them a great debt as a vital part of Australian history. Woof!