McCaig’s Dog Wars: The Bad

Donald McCaig’s The Dog Wars is an important book to me, and it should be to anyone who reads this blog as well. I mean, come on, the Dog Wars and the Border Wars…. both about Border Collies… McCaig and I are soooo clever.

The pages of insight into the workings of dog registries and the philosophies of the people who run them, both the AKC and the ABCA, are fascinating and informative. The theories presented on why the two camps are so different in their views is also compelling.

But as much as I enjoyed the tongue lashing that McCaig gave the conformation cult of the AKC, I must say that the picture he paints of the motivation and beliefs of the trialing community paint a troubling picture for the Third Estate as well.

The plight of the Third Estate is to be continually marginalized in philosophical importance by the spin-meisters of the first two estates while they try and sell us (and the Fourth Estate) their numerous culled puppies demonstrating our practical importance to them.

The issue doesn’t go unnoticed in McCaig’s book, although even his astute observations fail to appreciate the scope and power of the Third Estate; nor does he recognize the slight we feel by being seen as second class citizens by many members of the first two estates.

McCaig is a good author, and he’s about to become even more famous. But let’s not let his well deserved literary ego distract us from his logical shortcomings.

The issue I have with McCaig is his myopic arrogance and contradictory values that place trialing on a pedistal that has no room for any other aspect of the Border Collie. His non sequitor conclusions are easy to miss if you belong to his congregation of Border Collie thought and simply don’t question the commandment that trialing is god and thou shalt not blaspheme the name of god. Take this example:

Heavily promoted, [McCaig’s book Nop’s Trials] introduced several hundred thousand readers to Border Collies. Its virtue was the warning on the last page that “Border Collies do not make good pets,” a warning the community has repeated often enough it has reached the general public.
– p22

Ok, so his book was Babe, before Babe was Babe. The idealized and romantic tale that popularized the Border Collie with, as he admits, several hundred thousand people.

Just like every other sappy dog story from decades before and after that dealt with lost, wayward, or imperiled dogs that finally got to their ideal forever homes (Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, Benji, Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey) or heroic dogs (Rin-Tin-Tin, Lassie, White Fang) or famous dogs (Pete the Pup, Toto, Asta), it is likely more than a few people went out and bought a Border Collie on McCaig’s recommendation, anemic last page warnings or not. Dan Brown’s warnings didn’t stop legions of cultists from having a coming-to-Mary-Magdalene-moment and he posted his warnings up front.

If steering people away from Border Collies is the desired “virtue” of McCaig’s works, then I have to say that his books are wantonly inadequate to the task.

The NYT review of Nop’s Trials said:

In one instance, Mr. McCaig writes that, ”anyone who’s ever seen a red fox slipping up behind an unsuspecting young groundhog has seen Nop’s delicacy.” Yet we might add that anyone who hasn’t seen such a thing will still experience a keen sense of Nop’s ”dog wisdom,” so convincing is the novel’s rendering of canine thoughts, sensations and even dreams.
– 4/15/1984

With glowing praise for your glowing prose, how can you not expect to sell many a border collie along with your books? The way to un-sell your breed to the masses isn’t to romanticize and glorify them and tie it together with a “not good pets” ribbon any more than you can expect to turn people off to chocolate chip cookies by baking a batch of them in their home and as you pull them hot out of the oven remind them that they are high in fat and sugar and don’t make good desserts.

It also seems odd that McCaig would hypothesize that the masses are listening to his warning yet later in his book The Dog Wars, he reveals that the Border Collie is in the top ten in breed popularity in the USA despite the AKC only capturing one tenth the breed pool. He rubs it in that the breed is so popular and yet very much out of the AKC’s grasp; obviously people aren’t getting the message that Border Collies make for poor pets. Of the 25,000 registered Border Collies born each year (and an appreciable number of unregistered dogs that are not so easy to count), very few are ever going to see a conformation ring or a trialing field and the ABCA is just as dependent on cash from pet-only sales as the AKC is.

Although there must have been informal competitions earlier, the first modern sheepdog trial was held at Bala, Wales, in 1873. The historian and sheepdog handler Albion Urdank notes that this trial was intended as a country entertainment: aristocrats enjoying bumpkins at play. But sheepdog trials were swiftly appropriated by the bumpkins and their patrons, agricultural improvers who decided trials should not seek friendly, pretty, aristocratic, or even competitive dogs. Instead they sought dogs that would make it possible for a man on foot to handle a thousand sheep on mountainous, unfenced ground, dogs that could work on their own, take whistled instructions from over a mile away, and travel a hundred miles a day in the foulest weather without complaint. That’s what trials are for: to choose the sires and dams of the next generation of sheepdogs.

Sheepdog trials are not self-referential: they are designed to produce dogs useful in the practical world.
– p23

What McCaig doesn’t emphasize or even tell you in his book is that he and the others involved in the Dog Wars (like Eileen Stein) and even in the publishing of this book, aren’t WORKERS, they are HOBBYISTS. Now maybe their hobbying is closer to real work than the difference between a cross country train engineer and a guy with some scale models in his basement, but McCaig and Stein and Molloy and Nadelman aren’t career or generational ranchers/farmers, they came to the activity as a hobby and it is likely that their current and former big city careers are supplementing their sheep habit. They are the Third Estate masquerading as the First Estate simply because the activity they do much more closely resembles the working of the First Estate.

As such, their oft heard claim that trials, and only trials, are what made the working sheepdog what it is, ring false. McCaig himself injects a wonderful story of a sheepdog performing all the admirable traits we admire in the Border Collie…. in the 15700s… in what would become Colorado (whoot!). His reference regarding the establishment of trials speaks to their entertainment base, not their practicality or necessity. For that matter, working sheepdogs existed in no less a refined form long before trials and continue to be bred to a work standard divorced from the trial standard today. No serious farmer or rancher should need a trial to tell him what dogs can do the work and which can’t.

Trials should not seek friendly, pretty, aristocratic, or even competitive dogs. Instead, they sought dogs that would make it possible for a man on foot to handle a thousand sheep on mountainous, unfenced ground, dogs that could work on their own, take whistled instructions from over a mile away, and travel a hundred miles a day in the foulest weather without complaint. That’s what trials are for: to choose the sires and dams of the next generation of sheepdogs. They are a paradigm of the dogs’ daily work, made more difficult.
– p25

The notion that trials don’t seek or promote “competitive” dogs is sheep shit. The top trialers in the country have long since proven their dog’s merit and worthiness to breed, yet we see them out there again and again. Why? Because they are competitive. They like to win. There is nothing wrong with this, but merit based competitions are a mark of the Third Estate, not the First.

As for the thousand sheep bit… I doubt any or many of the trialers own that many sheep or have ever worked that many with their dogs. If they do, they certainly don’t need 4 sheep as a proxy for 1,000. I know of trials in the mountains, but not on any mountains. Sure, the ground may be rough and tough, but nothing like the nasty shores of Scotland or remote desert pastures. The dogs and the sheep in trials are likely more familiar with fences than without. As McCaig notes later in the book, the vast open Western grazing lands are now being used to house Buffalo and exotics for Ted Turner. Trial dogs aren’t really asked to work on their own, and certainly not at a mile away. There might be a handful of trials that have outruns past 500 yards, even 800, but that’s still too short by half. And trials last 10 to 20 minutes, certainly not enough time to cover a hundred miles.

McCaig claims that this is the daily work of sheepdogs made more difficult, but it seems to me it’s much more regimented and simplistic, the way sport is regimented and simplistic. The difficulty doesn’t come in the work per se, it comes in the scoring and the rules of the sport. These dogs are talented and able dogs, and when one fails on the field, it might be due to the limitations of a timed and judged sport and not on the animal and human’s ability to work.

Working faster, with more precision, and with clean communication between shepherd and sheepdog are obviously critical traits that need to filter from the trial dogs to the working dogs who don’t trial. And as far as I can tell there’s no better distillation of farm and ranch work than a trial. The essential fairness of a sport is to bring the teams to a level playing field, in one place, and on one day, so they can be judged objectively. Barring the changing conditions in temperature, composition of the flock, and temperament of the sheep, trials appear to do this very successfully and is likely the reason they have lasted more than a century and are as popular as ever.

Trialing is not a minimum standard of performance kind of sport like some means of scoring Obedience and Agility, where you can qualify towards titles without winning first place, it is strictly a ranking and when a champion is declared, the word means what it says. That dog is THE champion.

It seems logical to me that if this truly were about selecting dames and sires, the prizes wouldn’t be trophies and plaques for the handler, but breeding contracts and obligations for the winning dogs. And for that matter, you’d think that success at trials would lead to a licensing of dogs eligible to keep their breeding status in the registry, with qualifying runs and earned standards, strikingly like dog sport.

As a tool of genetic selection, the sheepdog trial has done exactly what its creators had hoped. Very few Border Collie pups won’t work stock. That’s not to say that all Border Collie pups will grow into first-class dogs, or even that they’ll all make trial dogs.

I doubt that there were many, if any, Border Collies that couldn’t work stock before sheep trials. As a method of preserving working ability, of course trials can do that, but as a matter of creating it, McCaig gives his friends too much credit.

McCaig describes a revolution in trial participation that happened in the early 1980s:

More and more, younger handlers were entering trials and doing well. Friday afternoons, Bill Berhow would put his bitch Scarlet on the back of his motorcycle and drive eight hours from Florida to Bill Dillard’s, where they’d work dogs until Sunday night. Kent Kuykendahl decided he was more interested in sheep dogs than the sheep his family was famous for. Cheryl Jagger, who’d grown up with her father Walt’s Border Collies, started giving clinics.

These keen, competitive younger handlers started beating men who’d previously been unbeatable. Their clinics taught hundreds of new handlers.

They raised the bar.
– p22

These aren’t the tweed-wearing grey beards you’d envision pushing sheep on hills in Scotland, they are existentially dog sport people.

You might think this is a minor point, because after all, I’m here yelling about how the Third Estate should be taken more seriously, or at least the Third Estate should have the moral right of self determination (read: breeding rights) with their dogs. But it’s a major point because the moral authority of McCaig and others is derived from their argument that breeding for anything other than trialing (lets distinguish this from work, despite their liberal exchange of the two) is going to ruin the entire breed and bring an end to the vital and crucial WORK (not play) of sheep farming.

I have no objection if you want a collie. I won’t demure if you say that “he still has all his herding instinct. You can’t keep him from rounding up the children.” Love is notoriously blind. But I had hoped to convince the AKC dog people what every sheepman knows: If your livelihood’s at stake, get a Border Collie.

Let’s be clear, the supply of sheep that McCaig and others are bringing to the market is not being driven by the demand for sheep, but rather those hobbyist’s demand for the lifestlye. They play at sheep and compete at trials. It is fun, it is a (retirement) hobby, and it is a game, a sport. Their livelihoods are clearly not at stake, as I doubt any or many of them actually turn a profit in their “work.” I don’t imagine many of them are even trying or would stop if the sheep market in the US continues its decline. Their flocks number in the tens and hundreds, not the thousands or tens of thousands. But over and over again, they usurp the authority and prestige of those who do work, those who are in the business….not leisure….of sheep.

Work and the true sheep and cattle industry has little or nothing to do with this, any more than giant pumpkin contests have to do with the filling in your pie or the jack-o’-lantern you carve every October. So in snobbishly turning away from all other Border Collie proving grounds, not just conformation, the hobbyists in sheep worker’s clothing have tossed out merit based objective activities that bring out the best of the Border Collie’s intelligence, trainability, and athleticism. They also condescend to that same crowd who views trialing as a weekend project or a sport instead of a high art, no matter how well the sport trialers do.

Turning their back on the then-Obedience now-Agility/Flyball/Rally/Frisbee/etc. group was not an unconscious decision on the part of the ABCA, and this book has inspired several other future posts where I will explore what became of the Obedience handlers who signed the “AKC: Hands Off The Border Collie!” petition that McCaig reproduces in the book, why someone would side with the AKC over the ABCA, and why the the ABCA has turned their sights on Versatility breeders as well as Conformation breeders.

More to come inspired by this important book and the important debate over the true future of this great breed.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.