October 10, 2007

Great read: The Dog Wars by Donald McCaig

At the 2005 USBCHA Finals, Dennis Gelling's Jan stops a collared sheep from joining the others during the shed. Photo by Denise Wall: used with permission.

I should be in bed, dammit! But Donald McCaig's book The Dog Wars has received a fine review from Terrierman and a mention from Gina at Pet Connection, and I'd like to add some comments of my own. [Besides, to borrow a line from Birdchick: "I'm siiiiiick, I'm siiiiiiiiiiick, pity me" does not qualify as a blog entry.]

McCaig's essential history of the border collie versus the AKC belongs in everyone's library. It's about good dogs, about bad things that happen to good dogs when the American Kennel Club gets control of them, and about the major public-relations nightmare the AKC brought upon itself by "recognizing" the border collie against the wishes of virtually everyone who cared about the breed.

And McCaig goes the extra mile. He places working sheepdogs and the AKC in a historical context of socioeconomic changes and political shifts that have affected all dogs and their owners:

The historical fluke that gave the dog fancy and its regulatory body, the AKC, dominion over American dogs has had unfortunate consequences, the worst of which is that no better dog government has emerged to help our dogs survive the rough ordeal of American life in the twentieth-first century.

Because the AKC is the de facto government of dogs, and because the AKC is obsolete, the laws that most affect America's dogs are often made by those who fear them, sentimentalize them, or are only interested in their suffering. Dogs and dog owners endure an ever more dog-hostile culture without a champion.

I know tax paying American citizens who dare not drive through Denver with their dogs.

[All quoted sections in this post are from The Dog Wars.]

Buy it, read it, loan it out and talk it up. This book is a classic -- one of the most important dog books I've read in years.


The only thing bellicose about The Dog Wars is its title: the writing itself is comfortable, blunt, ironic in McCaig's dry fashion, and evenhanded to a fault. (You may have to be a stockdog person to pick up the full measure of rage and pity over once-useful dogs reduced to a fluffy coat and artificial ear-carriage.)

The conflict McCaig details is the effort to save the border collie --- a matchlessly keen, athletic, biddable dog once measured solely by its ability to work stock --- from the control of an organization that values appearance above working ability, and from breeders who confuse titles with merit.

At stake is the breed's essence: quite literally, its heart and soul. Obedience people used to joke that "training a border collie is cheating," and many of these dogs are certainly intelligent and intuitive. But a good working dog on stock is something else. Says Texas handler Red Oliver: "He's obeying a higher master."

At my elbow a tough old ranch woman muttered, "We ask so much of them. And the damn fool dogs go out and do it!"
You don't train a sheepdog, McCaig says [and by "sheepdog," he and other stockmen have always meant border collie], you summon the dog's genetics. You ask them to do what they know already. You ask for miracles -- 180 ewes saved from a storm, escaped rams caught -- and you get them. After a while you may take the miracles, and the dog, for granted.

The farm where I keep my sheep is just twenty acres, but the land has a deceptive roll, and it's commonplace for my border collies to be sent to pastures to gather sheep out of my sight. The first time I did this, nearly twenty years ago, I had no choice --- there was an emergency at the house. I had never sent my young dog for sheep without a flanking command, but she knew what I wanted and would have responded the same if I'd spoken to her in Zapotec. I said, "Go get 'em," and my good girl ran across a five acre pasture, up a barbed-wire lane with cattle corralled on one side, into another pasture, down a slope and across a swampy swale to gather the sheep. She brought them across the water (they hated that), up the hill, past two open gates that led to other pastures, past the cattle corrals the sheep could have slipped into with ease, and calmly trotted them across the five acre pasture to my feet. I thought all this was quite remarkable, until I saw her do a half-mile gather in the steep hills of the Central Coast: she looked as if she'd been running out across the hills for sheep all her life, and in a sense, she had been. You don't "train" a border collie to work stock.

Ten or fifteen years ago I remember a well-known obedience trainer turning up her nose at "rejects from herding" on the grounds that they must not be as smart or as trainable as stockdogs that make the grade. This is comparable to Harvard Medical School's turning down a brilliant applicant because he wasn't a first round NBA draft pick.

If trainability and smarts were all it took, my pit bulls would be running in the USBCHA Finals.


Producing a good stockdog is a bit trickier than breeding for an oblique eye-set*. Is your future breeding prospect keen and sound enough to keep working despite harsh conditions and, god forbid, injury? Does he listen? Does he come from a line noted for its stamina? What livestock has he worked? Is he a good lambing dog? How does he deal with pressure? Is he too focused on the lead ewe -- or not focused enough? Is he a trifle sticky? Clappy? Loose-eyed? Does he run wide? Does he tend to slice his flanks? Is he fast and bold enough to cover anything that breaks? Is he savvy enough to prevent a break before it happens? What kind of grip does he have? Will he balance the sheep, driving and gathering, no matter how strong a draw in this or that direction? How well does he adapt to unfamiliar terrain? Is he patient? Kind to his stock? What breeding would enhance his strengths without exaggerating them?

It should be blindingly obvious to anyone that the border collie's drive, athleticism and brains are due to centuries of selective breeding for stockwork. This is the reason that border collies produced by U.S. versatility breeders are seldom more than a generation removed from true working dogs -- take a look at the pedigrees of the top AKC agility winners -- and the reason the AKC's "parent club" for the border collie fought so hard to keep the AKC studbook open to working registries.

(Australian breeders were surprised and a bit hurt that the new AKC breed club chose not to adopt the Australian show standard --- after all, Australians had "perfected" the breed [that is, standardized its appearance at the cost of working ability]. But their "Barbie collie," as it was promptly nicknamed, was exactly what U.S. versatility breeders hoped to avoid: a lumbering, comparatively dull creature that looked like a small Newfoundland with an enormous coat. The Barbie collie has its fans. I'm sure Barbies are wonderful companions. They just can't work. "This is the head I'm breeding for," I heard one of the first Americans to import the Aussie model announce at a West Coast show, and sure enough, her dogs went on to win at Westminster. Stockwork? Legend has it that a well-known handler could only interest a Barbie collie in sheep after tying a tennis ball to a ewe's tail. For all that, Australian-bred dogs rule the U.S. breed ring.)

[Berkeley geneticist Jasper Rines] asked about Border Collie genetic "behaviors" (his word). I said they were quite complex, that some Border Collie strains ran wider on their outrun than others, that most were thunder shy and some were spooked by the slightest noise. That some strains seemed to be more powerful -- the sheep respected them more -- and that these type of dogs were often harder to flank (shift from side to side).

I told him what Tommy Wilson had observed of unintentional crossbreds in Scotland. They (the crossbred offspring) "have some of the bits but not all of them. Oh no. You can't train them. They're no use."
All this may seem totally irrelevant if you breed border collies for agility or conformation, but Donald McCaig and his allies know that working traits are not irrelevant: they are the essence of the breed. Border collies must be bred in relation to livestock -- bred wisely by people experienced in the ways of stock and stockdogs -- or the complex mix of traits that shaped and continue to shape the greatest working dog ever created will be diluted, diminished, lost. In simple terms: the great athleticism will disappear, and the remarkable mind will disappear. Deliver us from well-meaning souls who think the border collie would be "better" if only it weren't so, you know... intense.


McCaig and the partisans of the working breed failed to prevent the AKC from "recognizing" the border collie -- that ugly business was done in 1994. But the working border collie and its registry, the ABCA, are in a strong position and will remain stronger in the long run, I think, as a result of the struggle recounted by McCaig. The AKC took a direct (and very public) hit and has never quite recovered. Threatened by Puggles and kept afloat by puppy mill registrations, the AKC itself now poses less of a danger to the working breed than sport-dog people who breed border collies indiscriminately (and the stockdog breeders who enable them).

By defending what the working border collie is, and by fighting so hard against what it is not, McCaig, Miss Ethel, Sally Lacy, Eileen Stein, Penny Tose and the rest nudged the AKC off its axis. The dog world reflects the shift. These days Barbie collie breeders post photos of their conformation champions attempting to "herd," and versatility breeders play up the rare trial-winning dog or that famous sheepdog handler training our Scout. Jon Katz, who knows so little of authentic stockwork that he imagines good working dogs are "trained" with a clicker, bought sheep for his Barbie collies to circle. Everyone knows that an AKC "herding title" only means that a dog was able to walk behind tame sheep as they followed the handler down a fence line. And more people than ever know what a real sheepdog trial looks like.

So the AKC may have "recognized" the border collie, and pet breeders may be busy trying to market their kinder, gentler versions, but the authentic border collie is still very much a presence.

You may have read that a border collie named Patch sold for $23,000 to the Bell A Land & Cattle Co. of LaPine, Oregon at Red Bluff last January. (He was sold as a pup for $500, a typical price for a well-bred stockdog puppy.) Patch wasn't bought for bragging rights, to show or to stand at stud. He was bought to work cattle. "So long as sheep and goat farming [and cattle ranching] thrive," writes McCaig, "there will be a working Border Collie." As long as we have livestock, there will be responsible people determined to breed their dogs wisely in the name of good stockmanship, and there will be working trials -- real ones -- to help select "the sires and dams of the next generation of sheepdogs."


Buy it:

The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club by Donald McCaig. Outrun Press, 2007.


*Oblique eye set: In an old issue of the AKC Gazette, I read in the Rough Collie column that the breed's "oblique eye set" [nowhere evident in very early photographs, and I'm looking right now at a photo of show collie Sable Plume, born in 1880] was necessary so that the dogs could better "scan the Highlands for sheep." Gentle reader, do not mistake sincerity for authenticity.


Anonymous said...

Well done. I am ordering the book. Now, if only every owner of Border Collies would read and understand this. Linda(Dixie_Girl)

Anonymous said...

Your review and commentary are excellent, Luisa.

Thank you very much.

Sue R