The Story of 'Red Dog'

Australian KelpieAustralian Kelpie

The box office success of the recently released Australian film 'RED DOG' looks set to entrench our Australian Kelpie into history. This is more than just the legendary story of an individual dog named 'Red Dog'. It is also the story of how one of this iconic Australian breed adapted from being integral to Australia's sheep industry, to being part of a pioneering community which was working to establish Australia's iron ore industry.

The Backgound of 'Red Dog'

Modern Working KelpieModern Working Kelpie

The origin of the Australian Kelpie was the 1800's when it was said that Australia rode on the sheep's back. Today, although many Kelpies still work sheep, for other members of this iconic Australian breed, their role has been adapted to various forms of companionship. For 'Red Dog' he was to become the mate of an entire pioneering mining community.

During the 1970's this mining boom was well underway in the north west of Western Australia. Iron ore had been discovered in this area in 1965 and a railway had been built to the coast to transport the iron ore by ship to the rest of the world. As nothing was there except a hot unforgiving landscape, the iron ore company began building settlements to accommodate the workers, who came from a variety of backgrounds. They were attracted to work in this area for many different reasons, not least of which was the large wages. Most of the men eked out a lonely existence like the gold miners who preceded them in past generations. So when a waif dog arrived in the district in 1971, he was befriended by all and sundry. He became known as 'Red Dog' and had the amazing ability to bring people together and connect them. It seems everybody in the community loved the companionship he gave them.

"Red Dog belonged to everybody but to no-one. He was an independent spirit, a symbol of the individual in an increasingly urbanized, suburbanised, bureaucratic society. Born in 1971 he chose to live the life of a hobo and spent 8 years on the move."[2] 

Everybody fed 'Red Dog' and gave him lifts in cars, buses, trucks and trains that traveled throughout the mining district and beyond. His homing instinct was reinforced by the welcome he always received. Many of those he met told their own stories about him.

Mining and 'Red Dog'

Mining Camp Pilbara WA 1964Mining Camp Pilbara WA 1964

The following quote summarizes where, how and why the legend of 'Red Dog' came about.

".... the town was so full of lonely men. There had been a few aborigines and even fewer white people there before the iron companies and the salt company had moved in, but just recently a massive and rapid development had begun to take place. New docks were constructed, new roads, new houses for the workers, a new railway and a new airport. In order to build all this, hundreds of men had arrived from all corners of the world, bringing nothing with them but their physical strength, their optimism and their memories of distant homes. Some of them were escaping from bad lives, some had no idea how they wanted their lives to be, and others had grand plans about how they could work their way from rags to riches.

'RED DOG' as portrayed on the movie set of the film'RED DOG' as portrayed on the movie set of the film

They were either rootless or uprooted. They were from Poland, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Greece, England, Yugoslavia, and from other parts of Australia too. Most had brought no wives or family with them, and for the time being they lived in big huts that had been towed on trailers all the way up from Perth. Some of them were rough and some gentle, some were honest and some not. There were those who got rowdy and drunk, and picked fights, there were those who were quiet and sad, and there were those who told jokes and could be happy anywhere at all. With no women to keep an eye on them, they easily turned into eccentrics. A man might shave his head and grow an immense beard. He might go to Perth for a week, go 'blotto on Rotto', and come back with a terrible hangover and lots of painful tattoos. He might wear odd socks and have his trousers full of holes. He might not wash for a week, or he might read books all night so that he was red-eyed and weary in the morning when it was time to go to work. They were all pioneers, and had learned to live hard and simple lives in this landscape that was almost a desert.

Red Dog - the actual dogRed Dog - the actual dog

These brawny individuals took a rapid shine to Tally (Red Dog). They had little affection in their lives, and they could feel lonely even with all their workmates around them, so it was good to have a dog that you could stroke, and have play fights with. It was good to have a dog to talk to, who never swore at you and was always glad to see you. Tally liked them, too, because they ruffled his ears and roughed him up a bit, and rolled him on his back to tickle his stomach. They fed him meaty morsels from their sandwiches and dinner plates, and they brought him special treats from the butcher. Even though he was sometimes absent for days on end, there would always be a can of dog food on the shelf, along with all the tools and oily rags, and there would always be a bit of steak left over from the weekend's barbecue."[4] 

Red Dog Statue in DampierRed Dog Statue in Dampier

Despite 'Red Dog' being known by so many people, very few photos of him have survived. But nearly all photos show him wearing his dog tag. On his tag was characteristically inscribed: "RED DOG - 'BLUEY'" on one side and "I've been everywhere mate" on the reverse.[5] 

The Legend of 'Red Dog'

'Red Dog' was unarguably part of the community. He had his own bank account and was member of the Trade Union. He reportedly saw every film at the drive-in and was there at football matches and any other gathering of people.  Of his other activities, one can only guess, as many puppies in the area looked remarkably like him.

When he died from a poison bait containing strychnine, money was collected not only from the iron ore workers and the vet Rick Fenny who looked after him, but also from the local dog clubs and indeed from dog folk all over Australia. The statue was sculptured by Mrs Merri Forrest and cast in bronze. A focal point of the bay of Dampier, it stands on a 10 tonne iron ore rock from Mt Tom Price facing the road out of town. The inscription on the monument reads:

'RED DOG The Pilbara Wanderer Died November 21st 1979, erected by the many friends made during his travels'[5] 

The statue has this verse inscribed on the bronze plaque beneath it[3] It is the last verse of a longer poem written by Lloyd Reynolds of South Hedlands WA

The stories this old dog could tell
If he could only say
Would add a page in history
For ever and a day.
But still he'll be remembered
By those who knew his way
The Red Dog of Pilbara
From the north of W.A.

The Film of 'RED DOG'

The tale of the Red Dog captured the imagination of many people. Based on the Louis De Berniere book in reference[4] below, the story was adapted into the film 'RED DOG' that was released recently. I thoroughly enjoyed both. As far as I am personally concerned, the star of the film was 'Koko', the Kelpie who portrayed 'RED DOG'.

Koko as a showdogKoko as a showdog

'Koko' is an ANKC registered Australian Kelpie who attained his show title of Australian Champion Klassikelp Smart n Bossy handled by his breeder Carol Hobday from Dunolly in Victoria. When trainer Luke Hura approached Carol for a dog to play a part in this film, 'Koko' was already three years old. As a young dog, when Carol was teaching him to stand and gait for the showring, she observed how eager he was to please. But it was up to Luke to do the rest. Luke is already well known in Victoria for his outstanding work as a dog trainer.

'Koko' was required to give sufficient expression on command for all those wonderful close-up shots. This was a big ask because Luke had to teach him to 'look front' so 'Koko' would actually look straight at the camera. This produced marvelous charismatic shots which for me were part of the film's magic. After the film shoot was complete, Carol Hobday was so convinced that Nelson Woss would give 'Koko' a good home, she ultimately gifted him 'Koko'. He is now Nelson's best mate.

'Koko''Koko'

As look-a-likes are essential for any film shoot, producer Nelson Woss and dog trainer Luke Hura also sought pure breed Kelpies to "stand in" for 'Koko'. Interestingly three of these were also Australian Champions. Although I was not on the set and have no idea which dogs, other than 'Koko' were actually used, the breed type was so consistent and the editing so clever that I was never distracted from the story by any minor differences between any of the dogs. The producers certainly were successful in telling the story of 'RED DOG' with it appearing that just one dog filled the main role.

Luke sourced an old Kelpie from a working dog background for the part of the old 'RED DOG' who, along with 'Koko' reduced so many of us to tears. And lastly the puppy that appears at the very end of the film was the other Kelpie which filled a definite role.

A Place in History

'Red Dog' was certainly part of a pioneering community in Australian history. Local stories about this remarkable dog live on in many different ways. But a mark of true fame, is when a wonderful film is made about a legend. I think 'RED DOG' is a must-see film, and although somewhat fictionalized, it will no doubt cement the Kelpie's position into Australia's iconic history.

References and Further Reading

This story was published by "Dog Show Scene" Australian Canine Press Pty Ltd Austral NSW Issue 4 2011 Pages 12 - 13 and 112 - 113

  • also by "Dogs Victoria Magazine" Victorian Canine Association Inc. Cranbourne Vic Vol. 78 Issue 1 January 2012 Pages 22 - 24

[1] Robert Kaleski, "Australian Barkers and Biters" first published 1914 and later printed by Bulletin Newspaper Co. Ltd. 1933 Pages 90 - 91.

[1a] Robert Kaleski, handwritten manuscript courtesy the Australian Kelpie Club of NSW National Dog Newspaper (Dog Publications Pty Ltd Windsor NSW) November 1979 Page 18

[2] Pauline Sadler (Secretary of the Pilbara all Breeds Dog Club) "Red Dog of the Pilbaba"  National Dog Annual 1980 (Dog Publications Pty Ltd Windsor NSW) Pages 32 and 174

[3] Betty Reading, "West Australia Report" National Dog Newspaper (Fitzgerald Publishing Pty Ltd  Windsor NSW) February 1981 Page 7

[4] Louis de Berniers, "Red Dog" (Published by Secker & Warburg, Random House London 2001) IBSN 0-436-25617-7 pages 21 - 23

[5] Beverley Duckett, "RED DOG The Pilbara Wanderer" 1993 Pages 28 - 31


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