NEVER GIVING UP: Denise Hawe and one of her dogs in the training ring.
NEVER GIVING UP: Denise Hawe and one of her dogs in the training ring.

Working dogs help outback woman deal with dementia

AT AGE 49 sheep farmer Denise Hawe received the news she had a degenerative brain disorder.

Determined to defy the odds, the Longreach woman took to working with her border collies to help reduce the effects of the grim diagnosis she received eight years ago.

After a busy morning helping her husband Steve with fencing, Denise caught up with the Rural Weekly.

This is her story.


Kaden Working Border Collies pups
Kaden Working Border Collies pups



DENISE was diagnosed with vascular dementia, a form of degenerative brain disorder, eight years ago.

"I've got lesions on my can't be fixed," she said.

"Forming sentences was tough, even now I'll talk great for a couple of days but then I'll have a day where words don't come, and I can't speak the words I want to speak.

"My legs are failing through all nerve problems from the brain, health-wise I'm deteriorating per year."

Denise said the drought and the diagnosis took a toll on her emotionally, as she used to cry while she walked her dogs each morning.

"I just embarked on this thing where I'd brought up my kids and worked with my husband and I felt like it was my time," she said.

"Then I got this terrible diagnosis, and I think you do feel sorry for yourself, you just think 'why me?'.

"It was sad because I'm one of three sisters and two years before the diagnosis I buried both my sisters eight weeks apart to cancer, so I'm the only surviving one."

Although the diagnosis has been hard on Denise, a piece of advice from one of her late sisters has given her the motivation to fight it and not let it get her down.

"She said never, ever live the disease, never put it out in front of you," she said.

But despite all the sadness, Denise's dogs gave her a reason to smile again.

"I'd let these dogs out, and they made me smile, gosh they made me smile," she said.

"I see so much in them that it just made me so happy."

Although her condition isn't curable, Denise has defied the words of her doctor from eight years ago.

"The doctor said, in five years I wouldn't be able to dress myself," she said.

"And yet now I'm running a business and I'm dressing myself quite well.

"It's basically all because of these dogs."



DENISE is fortunate enough to work with and be around her dogs every day. She runs Kaden Working Border Collies with her daughter Caitlin (Kate).


"We used to have kelpies for about 30-odd years, and we lost all the dogs to a baiting," she said.

"When we started again we only had the one border collie and it was then we fell in love with them."

Denise's idea for dog training came after she trained her first border collie, realising she loved it.

"I was at that point in life where I felt like I needed something of my own," she said.

"And after training that first dog I realised I absolutely loved it.

"I decided I'm going to have a go at this, so I got a pup, I read up and did a few schools."

Denise starts the training while the pups are young with the first test at just 12 weeks old.

"I show the pup some sheep, but do nothing because it's all about seeing if they have the natural instinct," she said.

"I don't start training my dogs until they are about 10 months old, after I've seen the instinct in the pup around the sheep, I put him away and he is a pup until about 10 months old, so I just enjoy him.

"They play, socialise and learn general manners, like sitting, then at 10 months they go into training, and I train them for four days and then they have four days off."

However, Denise said seeing the pups go to a new home didn't get any easier.

"I've had some interest from people overseas but none have gone over there yet," she said.

"But there isn't a state around Australia I haven't got a dog in."

As well as training and looking after her own dogs, Denise has also been running kennels for that past three years that lets her look after other dogs.

"Steve was away a lot and I didn't really want to be on my own, and the kennels came up for sale on a property 30 kilometres out of town," she said.

"I knew looking after dogs was something I was good at, and I thought it would give us another income, especially during the drought.

"We bought the kennels and then came the Christmas rush, I think we had something like 40 dogs."



Spring Plains aerial shot
Spring Plains aerial shot


SPRING Plains is 16,996 hectares of dry, mixed country.

Its closest town is Longreach which is approximately 128 kilometres west of the property in the central west of Queensland.

Denise and her husband Steve have lived there for the past 13 years.

"We left NSW when our daughter Caitlin was only a bub, she would have only been six or eight months old," she said.

"So off we went on this adventure...we travelled to the Kimberly, and we camped out in swags with no tents or anything.

"We leased our place, and we just didn't know where we wanted to be, we only had a little block, we felt like we were going nowhere, and this was like our last chance at something and we wanted to see if we could take that."

Denise and her husband Steve would go on to managing properties in the Northern Territory, and she fell in love with the experiences.

"It gave us the opportunity to work with big mobs of cattle and just travel around, it was just wonderful," she said.

"Eventually we decided it was time to settle down, so we bought this little property in Torrens Creek (west of Charters Towers), it was only 2428 hectares.

"Coming from NSW, it sounded huge to us, so we built it up and after three years we thought it was our time to get into something a bit bigger."

The next move would take Denise and her family to their current home Spring Plains.

"We'd never been to Longreach, so nothing really drew us there," she said.

"But this place (Spring Plains) came up and they had just had a lot of rain and it was something we could afford and it was a bigger block where we could do things and expand ourselves."

The Drought

The Hawes' property has been in drought for the past six years, seeing only 180mm of rain on average a year.

In 2013 Denise and her husband completely de-stocked their cattle, keeping only a few sheep.

"When we sold off all our cattle there was a huge crash in the market, we were selling off for less than what we bought," she said.

"It was a really hard year that year because I think we only had about 60mm of rain."

Denise feels that out of all the hardships drought brings to farmers, the hardest thing is keeping mental health right.

"Mentally to get up every morning, and to look at your husband and look at each other and see something positive outside, you can do it for a few years but now it's going into six years," she said.

"Steve and I are feral net fencing at the moment hoping for rain and to increase our sheep numbers.

"As we are fencing, we're looking at patches of mulga and shrubbery, and it's just dead for as far as you can see and we remember the beautiful days here."

Although they have been lucky with water supply they are starting to run low and Denise fears she may, again, lose her garden.

"This is probably one of the worst droughts I've ever been through...we had to bring in our own water restrictions," she said. "I lost all my garden and I've replanted it again this year, thinking that we might get a wet season, but I could lose it again.

"The first thing that goes is watering your garden."

The Future

Although her health is deteriorating year by year, Denise is not going to stop going on new adventures with her dog training in the future.

"The one thing I really do love is doing working dogs schools and teaching people how to train their dogs," she said.

"I'd like to go online with it, and I'd like to have it so I'm interacting with the people.

"I'd like to have it so they can contact me and say 'help my dog is doing this' then I can go out and do an exercise with one of my dogs and get back to them in the form of a video."