Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Athol Patrick Butler (1902–1961)

by A. D. Parsons

This article was published:

Athol Patrick Butler (1902-1961), sheepdog handler and grazier, was born on 27 April 1902 at Box Hill, Bingara, New South Wales, seventh child of native-born parents Thomas Butler, farmer and grazier, and his wife Isabella Catherine, née Read. Athol attended school at nearby Pallal station, then worked on Box Hill until 1925 when he bought a 4000-acre (1619 ha) property, Kanimbla, thirty miles (48 km) north-east of Moree. He played district cricket and tennis at Crooble and Milguy, before starting to train sheepdogs. On 11 October 1930 he married 18-year-old Mary (Mollie) Alice Borland (d.1987) at the Church of Mary the Immaculate, Waverley, Sydney.

His first dogs were Border Collies, but it was with Kelpies that Butler became identified. In 1946 he entered a large, black-and-tan Kelpie called Johnny (1942-1959) in the National Sheep Dog Trials at Manuka Oval, Canberra. Johnny won the Duke of Gloucester's sash and the first of five annual championships (1946-48 and 1951-52), a feat unequalled by any postwar sheepdog. In his final trial in Canberra in 1952 Johnny required 98 points to win his fifth title: he put up the perfect 100. Governor-General Sir William McKell wrote to congratulate Butler 'on such a really remarkable achievement. We were all most happy to meet you and Johnny and to see a master at his best'. That year Movietone News filmed Johnny working at the Marist Brothers' Agricultural College, Campbelltown, New South Wales.

After winning the novice trial at the Sydney Sheep Show in May 1953 with a red Kelpie, Kanimbla Betty, Butler took her and another Kelpie to the 1954 Queensland championship trials at Goondiwindi where he won the maiden with Woombi Zinc and the open with Betty; in the finals they were the only dogs to pen their sheep. Unlike some competitors, Butler kept his dogs in superlative condition.

He conducted a small, registered stud and had a good demand for his dogs. Believing in the importance of temperament in sheepdogs, he bred for himself in the early days and tried to reproduce Johnny's compliancy, but, in attempting to breed Kelpies more amenable to handling, he produced some dogs that were too soft for the average stockman. Johnny, bought as a pup, was a splendid trial dog, though less good at working sheep in the paddock. Butler's breed, however, improved markedly after he acquired Porter's Don.

Although he was extremely courteous and a good conversationalist, he was a very quiet man with no bluster. A good judge of sheep as well as dogs, Butler was able to see two moves ahead and controlled his dogs by a series of whistles so that they appeared to have the sheep on a string. He was a perfectionist. Nobody else worked Kelpies quite as he did; only Frank Scanlon rivalled his mastery. The style of work which Butler introduced provided the inspiration for young handlers. He retired from working dogs in the mid-1950s. Survived by his wife and three sons, he died of pneumonia on 21 November 1961 at Moree and was buried in the local cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Parsons, The Working Kelpie (Melb, 1986)
  • A. D. Parsons, Training the Working Kelpie (Melb, 1990)
  • A. D. Parsons, The Australian Kelpie (Melb, 1992)
  • Canberra Times, 1 Oct 1945, 7 Oct 1946, 6 Oct 1947, 11 Oct 1948, 14, 16 Apr 1951, 14 Mar 1952
  • Land (Sydney), 29 May 1953
  • private information.

Citation details

A. D. Parsons, 'Butler, Athol Patrick (1902–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 April, 1902
Bingara, New South Wales, Australia


21 November, 1961 (aged 59)
Moree, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.