When Muster Dogs aired on television for the first time in 2022, the introductory episode exceeded all expectation and attracted 1.5 million viewers.

Five adorable kelpie pups were the drawcard in the first series, except these pooches were never just pretty-faced, cuddly balls of fluff. They were all intelligent and driven, destined for life on a farm.

This heartening documentary followed five graziers across Australia as they transformed kelpie puppies through daily training routines into biddable, working dogs who can think on their paws under pressure.

Lisa Millar’s Muster Dogs: From Pups to Pros is the companion book to the second series of the popular show, which this time features the progress of a group of collies. Gympie-born Millar, who co-hosts ABC News Breakfast, is proud that this winning formula appeals to city and farmer dog lovers, although the urban contingent finds it hard to reconcile that the program’s tail-wagging superstars are caged outside at night.

The intensive training of a muster dog takes three years, but for the purposes of this ABC production, the period was shortened to 12 months. It was a risky experiment which posed the question: is it nature or nurture, genetic traits or training that creates a champion dog? Participants and the producers of Muster Dogs wondered if it was possible for the handpicked youngsters to learn how to corral livestock in such a tight timeframe.

“Never work with animals or children” is a saying attributed to the American comedian WC Fields. Ben Emery, the camera operator, should relate because the young collies in the second series were tricky to film.

The ideal was to get footage from the dog’s perspective, which meant crouching low but, as soon as Emery did that, the dogs bounded all over him and wet noses pressed up against his camera’s lens. It was also a challenge to keep the pups in Emery’s viewfinder because whenever they were released, they scattered to the furthest reaches of the exercise yard.

According to canine expert Neil McDonald, good dogs are bred and champions are made. In 2022, Ross Gilmore paid the record price of $49,000 for Capree Eve, a kelpie. He paid this staggering amount because of the bitch’s exceptional bloodlines and, so far, the animal has been an asset.

Gilmore knows from experience that one farmer working with a few gifted dogs can achieve the equivalent of two or three labourers. This could explain why there are between 270,000 and 300,000 working dogs Down Under.

This documentary series demonstrated the immense value working canines bring to stock welfare and farm management, with the added advantage of negligible environmental wear and tear.

Kelpie and border collie breeds and others have an invaluable advance-and-retreat instinct around cattle and sheep. It’s like a dance – how far to push, when to back off and how much pressure to use without panicking the cattle, which is when accidents can occur.

In this entertaining, down-to-earth page turner, Millar immerses the reader in her rewarding journey as narrator for two seasons of Muster Dogs. She surveys the personality traits of border collies Buddy, Ash, Indi, Molly and Snow and the trials and tribulations of trainers Steve, Lily, Russ, Zoe and Cilla in the second series.

Participants were given targets and dates were organised for the camera crew to visit and film the progress made. Trainers were under considerable external and personal pressures to prove the worth of their hound.

Millar illustrates the bond between humans and dogs with insightful, funny and at times poignant anecdotes. The action and input from the trainers is pitted against the backdrop of Outback Australia. The result is authentic Australiana with masses of rural appeal.

Examining the show’s enormous impact, Millar takes readers behind the scenes, into agricultural heartland and the complex challenges graziers endure in a world of dust, utes, long-distance driving and big hats under an unforgiving sun.

She explains key terminology for a more informed awareness of the mustering process. For instance, “flight zone” is the distance the dog can approach before the stock moves. “Sticky” is the dog’s capacity to keep an eye on the stock with such intensity it appears to be transfixed, frozen like a statue.

As well as co-hosting ABC News Breakfast, Lisa Miller is a guest presenter on Back Roads and the author of the memoir Daring to Fly. Formerly a foreign correspondent for the ABC based in London and Washington DC, the author has covered events as diverse as the Olympics, the US Elections and Harry and Megan’s royal wedding.  She’s witnessed terrorist attacks, school shootings, earthquakes and fires which have left an indelible mark.

Millar’s enjoyment and delight in her contribution to Muster Dogs is infectious and shines through the text of this insightful feelgood read.

Muster Dogs: From Pups to Pros by Lisa Miller, ABC Books, $34.99

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