South Otago Farmer Paul Collins and his heading dog Sky travelled some tough terrain to become New Zealand long-head champions at the National Sheepdog Trials on May 26.

The second generation sheep and beef farmer’s first job was running sheep and he has been managing 8000 animals on 1200ha between Clinton and Owaka for the last three years.

‘‘Dogs are tools of the trade,’’ he said.

‘‘If you’ve got them, they may as well be good.’’

Mr Collins has missed only one trials season in 20 years, but in November 2019, cancer almost stopped him in his tracks.

‘‘I mentioned some stomach pain at a routine check-up . . . That led to blood tests, a scan and biopsy.’’

He was diagnosed with advanced peritoneal cancer and advised to set his affairs in order.

Twelve-hour surgery the following January involved powerful chemotherapy and the removal of 5kg of mass.

‘‘I was very lucky with recovery during lockdown and got to a few trials about a month after — that was really good medicine.’’

But he and Sky had been back at work only three months when Sky’s bad luck began.

‘‘She was trying to sort out two bulls that were fighting on a hilltop,’’ Mr Collins’ wife, Roxy, said.

‘‘One of them fell on her and broke her front leg. She need major surgery but they were able to fix her.’’

A mishap with a farm vehicle and over-curiosity about rat poison complicated her recovery, but with determination and love of their trade the pair worked their way back to the Tahatika Collie Club — neighbour of 2023 national trials host Warepa Collie Club.

‘‘Trials or work — every run you do you want the best,’’ Mr Collins, who is an experienced national-level trials judge, said.

‘‘When it’s your turn all the people watching are behind you. It’s just you, your dog, three sheep and the judge.’’

In the long head, silent agile dogs bring sheep downhill over a straight course up to a kilometre long.

Competitors begin each of their two runs with 100 points which are docked for the slightest loss of control

In her second run, Sky kept a flawless ‘‘run-out’’ to head (collect) the sheep, and lost just 3.5 points over the long ‘‘pull’’, where she and her boss use the sloping and rocky terrain to the ‘‘hold’’ — the 20m finishing circle where the sheep must be still enough for the judge to ‘‘read their eartags’’.

‘‘The sheep thought about making a run for it as soon as they started out the hook, but Sky kept them calm and they decided to work with her. After my first run I was in fifth place with 95.5 points, which shows the calibre of all the teams,’’ Mr Collins said.

‘‘I knew we’d had a good second run, but the Warepa club were running an absolutely professional, next-level competition and held all the results until prizegiving.’’

Both scores are aggregated and with a total of 192, Mr Collins and Sky won their first national championship.

‘‘It had everything: my parents, the girls, Roxy and all the great people in the community all there to watch us take the green tie and silver tray — every trialler’s dream. We’re both very thankful to a lot of people, including some very talented surgeons.’’

With the 2023 trial season over, Mr Collins said he’d be making the most of some family time — and that would certainly include Sky.

‘‘Sheepdogs usually work for seven or eight years, but Sky’s getting a bit stiff from her injuries,’’ he said.

‘‘We think she should enjoy an early retirement,’’ Mrs Collins said.

‘‘She’ll end up as a pet dog.’’