Dogs wait for their departed master, Robert Johnston

Susanna Freymark

Robert Johnston’s dogs wait for their master’s call – all 20 of them.

Every afternoon, Robert would take the dogs on a run across the paddocks of his Tatham property. He’d be on the quad bike and the dogs would run behind, tongues hanging out as they followed their master.

They’d stop at the dam where Robert would watch the dogs have a swim.

Then they’d head back to the farmhouse. Robert would down a beer or two and watch the dogs play, Slim Dusty crooning in the background.

“He loved to do that,” Robert’s wife Narelle Johnston said.

On August 18, Robert died in an accident on the farm while felling trees.

The dogs are waiting for their run. Waiting for Robert. There’s no way to tell them he isn’t coming.

His sudden death at 71 has left his family, friends and the wider community bereft.

Robert was well known in the working dog community. If there was a dog trial in NSW or Queensland, Robert and his favourite dogs were there. And most times they won.

Robert featured on the front page of the Express Examiner.

At his home, trophies, plaques and prizes spill out of the trophy room and into the lounge and hallway.

Narelle points out his favourites.

There are photos on the walls of Robert riding.

“Not many people know how good he was at riding,” Narelle said.

When he was young, Robert mustered the cattle on horseback and when he got too old to ride, he turned to using working dogs.

Robert was born in Lismore and spent his childhood on a farm at Alstonville, helping his father in his cattle dipping business.

They had kelpies as working dogs back then. Later Robert began training border collies.

Robert had five siblings and showed Murray Grey cattle. He broke horses in and was a “wonderful camp drafter”, Narelle said.

Robert and Narelle met at a youth group at the Uniting Church. Narelle was 17 and Robert was 21.

The past 20 years, the couple have lived at the farm at Tatham.

“He was a good cattleman,” Narelle said, “but he loved those dogs.”

“He could match people to the dogs and people respected this ability.”

Robert was keen to share his knowledge about training working dogs. He set up a training arena at Shady Acres, the Tatham property.

“He made a decision to help people and would bring the dog and the person together to show the owner how to get the best out of the dog they had,” Narelle said.

“The dogs trusted him. He could take 20 dogs for a walk. He only had to tell them to stop.

“He treated them like you would your children. He never hit them.”

Robert was an excellent horse rider.

Robert kept detailed lists of the dogs he had and who was best suited to own the dog. He sold his pups all over the world.

Bus tours would come to Shady Acres to watch Robert with the dogs. He did demos at Kyogle Show. And if a fundraiser was needed for breast cancer, the men’s shed or any other cause, Robert was the first to put up his hand to put on a demonstration.

And for 30 weekends a year he travelled to dog trials.

He won the Australian Working Dog Championship three times and for 13 years had top dogs in the State of Origin trials.

He shared his knowledge about the dogs for free, Narelle said.

“It was his sense of purpose.”

With 20 dogs and 10 pups left behind after Robert’s death, Narelle has the difficult task of choosing which to keep.

“I’ll keep six – his favourites,” she said.

Robert had three children – Kim, Elissa and Robbie and seven grandchildren.

Here are photos from the funeral at Casino.

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