Sharon Stephenson talks to Kiwi film-maker Sally Rowe about her new movie Old Dog.

New York in the autumn can be cold. Not wrap-yourself-in-layers-of-merino cold, but the kind of temperatures that require a decent coat. Sort of like the canary yellow one Kiwi film-maker Sally Rowe wears throughout our interview.

"Seasons in New York go from ridiculously hot to freezing, with very little in-between," says Rowe, who's lived in Manhattan since 2004.

But the independent director/writer, who sounds as though she's incubating several viruses, hasn't given up her Friday evening to chat about the weather. Instead, she's here to talk about her second documentary feature, Old Dog, a 66-minute love letter not only to New Zealand's unsung heroes – working dogs – but also to Paul Sorenson, a retired farmer and dog whisperer who's spent more than 40 years trying to give these animals a better life.

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"I've always wanted to make a film about rural New Zealand," says Rowe in an accent that still holds mainly Kiwi vowels. "I grew up on a 500ha farm in the Rangitikei that's been in my family for 101 years and I come back every year to visit. I've barely got off the plane and I'll be in gumboots, feeding out on the tractor with Dad."

But on her annual visits to New Zealand, Rowe, 50, started to notice something different – the family farms of her childhood were changing. "It's a beautiful way of life that seems to be disappearing as sheep farms are converted to dairy pastures and younger, would-be farmers are priced out, sometimes by large companies or syndicates."

Keen to tell a story about that world before it changed forever, she cast about for a suitable interview subject. Rowe's uncle told her about Sorenson, one of the country's most respected dog triallists who's often referred to in hushed tones as the patron saint of working dogs.

"To watch Paul in action is amazing. He understands these dogs and appreciates the work they do as the backbone of our rural economy. And he can read a dog like no one else. I've watched him line up six dogs he's known for five minutes and he'll accurately predict how each of them will behave."

Here's something you might know about working dogs: there are two types, heading dogs which stare down the sheep and cattle, and the more common huntaway, a mid-sized mixed breed, usually black and tan, trained to move livestock by barking and "getting in behind". They're both smart, capable animals and most sheep and cattle farms couldn't survive without them.

Here's something you might not know: for years, farmers "trained" these dogs with anger and violence, treating them badly and cruelly disposing of them when they didn't perform.
Seven minutes and three seconds into Old Dog, for example, there's a grainy black and white clip, probably lifted from the 70s, that makes me avert my eyes. In it, a farmer viciously strikes and drags his working dog along a sun-baked gravel road. It lasts for only a few seconds but, as the animal's pained cries echo around the room, I want to cry too.

Sorenson clearly felt the same, because as a young shepherd he realised there had to be another way.

"A farmer once said to me, 'I'm going to shoot that dog' and I told him I'd like to shoot him," says Sorenson, by phone from the Firth of Thames where he and his wife Honey retired five years ago.

"If you've got a problem dog, nine times out of 10 either you've created it or someone else has. I wanted to find a smarter, more intuitive training method for farmers, because when you look after the dogs a bit better, they'll relax and do their jobs and the farmer will relax. And those dogs will have a damn sight better life than they would have had."

As one gruff farmer interviewed in Old Dog admits, Sorenson was always ahead of his time. "It takes a special person to go against the grain and that was Paul."

Instead, the now-70-year-old's approach is to go inside the dog's head, using whistle commands and compassion, not hands and boots, to get the job done. "If you haven't got a bond and trust with a dog, you haven't got anything."

Surprisingly Sorenson, who regularly appeared on TV's much loved A Dog Show from 1977 until 1992 and has a cabinet of trophies to show for his success, has never charged for his services.

"Paul has travelled around New Zealand holding seminars and passing on his knowledge but he doesn't do it for the money or fame," says Rowe. "He does it because dogs have given him so much and he wants to honour that."

Sorenson had previously been approached by other documentary-makers, but Rowe managed to win him over because of her rural background.

"Sally might live in New York, but she grew up on a farm and she understands how important these dogs are to New Zealand's economy," says Sorenson. "That's why I trusted her to tell this story."

And it's not just a story about cute dogs with treacly brown eyes. It's also the story of a complex man with a dicky knee and a difficult life. There's Sorenson's King Country childhood: father cleared out early, leaving his mother to raise him and two younger siblings. Money was tight but love wasn't, and somehow his mother always found room for the stray dogs he brought home.

Sorenson was 14 when he lost interest in school, going shepherding on a remote 11,000ha high country farm.

"I was living on my own with no fridge or electricity and was so young I didn't know how to look after myself properly. One day my tongue swelled up and I got really sick. I know what it's like to be lonely and hungry."

The one constant was dogs. "The other blokes on the farm were 20 years older than me, so the working dogs and the pig dogs became my friends. I've had some good mates in my life but I've had better mates who were dogs."

Later there was marriage to Honey ("If Paul could read me like he reads those dogs, we'd have a pretty good relationship," she jokes) and two sons, Kelly and Gene. Sorenson admits he wasn't around for much of their childhood, that he generally prefers dogs to people.

"He was scary when we were growing up," admits one of this sons on camera.

For Rowe, making the film was a delicious deep dive into nostalgia, of the pie/gumboots/lamington dog trials of her youth. While filming one dog trial, a woman asked her if she really was from New York. "You don't look like it," said the woman, casting a judgemental eye over Rowe's Swanndri.

Toggling between the US and New Zealand also presented its challenges, with Rowe crossing the Pacific 10 times during the five years it took to complete the documentary.

"I'd call Paul to see what dog trials he had coming up and plan filming around that. It wasn't always easy but we made it work," she says, from the living room of the 12th floor mid-town Manhattan apartment she shares with husband Ben Breen, an American classical violinist.

Rowe is used to making it work. Having a rural upbringing was fantastic for her horse-riding and tractor-driving skills, but didn't provide much in the way of exposure to the arts. A friend introduced her to foreign films as a teenager and she was hooked.

"There's something about visual storytelling, of escaping to other worlds, that I love. I became interested in not just exploring but in creating those other worlds."

First, though, she logged time completing a hairdressing apprenticeship in Wellington with the late Derek Elvy. She enjoyed it but knew it wasn't where she would settle for life. Travel came next, from Europe to Asia, where Rowe ended up crewing on yachts.

While living in Bangkok, a friend told her about a local press conference for Natural Causes, a film starring Ali McGraw. Knowing she wanted to work in film, but not sure how to break into the industry, Rowe bowled up to the event and asked for a job.

As these things often happen, she was hired, first as a PA, then as a stand-in and eventually as an apprentice film editor. When the film she was working on wrapped, Rowe was sent to Los Angeles for six months to finish editing it.

"Someone suggested I should go to NYU to do the film course, so I applied and got in." There followed years of hustle, days spent working her way up the film industry food-chain, nights waiting tables and making cocktails.

Rowe's big break came in 2003 when she was hired as a script supervisor on Chappelle's Show, the successful comedy programme fronted by comedian Dave Chappelle which ran for three years. In her downtime, she produced promos for MTV.

But the desire to make her own films was always on the periphery and Rowe spent almost nine years writing, filming and editing her first documentary feature, A Matter of Taste, about celebrated New York chef Paul Liebrandt. Not only was it picked up by American cable network HBO, it was also nominated for an Emmy.

Although Rowe didn't end up taking the coveted golden statuette home, she says it was an honour just to be nominated. "It takes a village to make a film and everyone put their heart and soul into A Matter of Taste, so to have it recognised in that way was wonderful."
She's hoping for similar success with Old Dog: so far it's been shown at the Sarasota Film Festival and has screenings coming up at festivals across the US. Is Rowe surprised that a film set in the remotest rolling hills of New Zealand has proved such a success Stateside?
"Someone told me their shoulders dropped watching it, because the beautiful New Zealand landscape was an immediate stress relief. American audiences have also said they had no idea about working dogs or the way sheep are rounded up. But mostly people just love this gentle story about a man and his love of dogs."

• Old Dog is available on iTunes.