McCaig’s Dog Wars: The Good

With a name like “The Dog Wars” and content that documents the battle between the First Estate and the AKC, how could I not immediately order, devour, excrete and then roll in it over and over and over again like my Border Collies do with anything smelly and gross? Well, that’s just what I did. It is not that the book is smelly and gross, it’s just very appealing to dive into.

I’ve been sprinkling some of the most interesting quotes from Donald McCaig (author of such Sheep Trialer hagiographies as Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and Nop’s Trials) into my recent posts, and on my second read through I retyped long passages I found worthy of discussing, and there are many.

By the time I’m done mining the book for inspiration there will hardly be a passage I haven’t quoted and discussed on this blog and you could probably reassemble the book piecemeal.

The book is the first and currently only work released by the ad hoc publishers Outrun Press, started by two Directors of the USBCC, Sally Molloy and Heather Nadelman. The pair run a small hobby farm in New Jersey and Heather runs the go-to website for novice trialers, Littlehats. The production value is modest for the $21 price tag, but I don’t suspect that will matter to anyone who reads it. Function over Form being the way of the land.

The underlying story is an important one and McCaig padded out the pages with charming anecdotes and sympathy building stories about real working dogs and dogs on hobby farms. Like a modest working farm dog that lacks the polish and hype of a trial dog, this book gets the job done even if it doesn’t impress you with its suspect editing and self-published feel. The faux-hardcover addition you see in the photo has been *expertly* photoshopped (by me), although McCaig would likely balk at ‘judging his book by its cover’ or perhaps overemphasizing external beauty at the expense of inner merit. That would make a fitting parallel to the essential debate between trialing and conformation.

This book is by no means perfect, nor is it great literature; but it is an excellent retelling of the events and mindset of an important turning point in the history of Border Collies written by an insider (as inside as you can get) who is no stranger to the pen. A testimonial on the back lauds McCaig as “The Mark Twain of dog writers,” yet this is probably due more to McCaig’s physical resemblance to Twain than an honest assessment of his craft. Either way, it’s an ironic twist on looking the part vs. performing the part that is so central to the show vs. trial debate; McCaig would likely be offended to be called a “Barbie” Clemens even if the title fits.

The book comes in at 192 pages, about half of which is filler like the 14 pages of Chapter 6 which are a reprinting of “Two Dog Shows,” an essay by Charles Dickens which compares the forerunner of the Crufts Dog Fancy show to one of the first animal shelters. Dickens wrote the piece to bolster public opinion of the animal shelter (still in existance) and encourage donations in an era when critics suggested that money spent on mangy lost dogs was literally taking food out of the mouths of England’s impoverished masses and was an unjustified waste. There wasn’t the same contempt for the luxurious amounts spent to put on airs at the nearby dog show; so the aloof, staid, and nippy fancy dogs Dickens describes make a poignant contrast to the needy, hopeful, and exuberant mutts he finds waiting for a home or last minute pardon at the shelter.

McCaig gets around to sizing up the chapter 66 pages later:

Charles Dickens’ “Two Dog Shows” displays a brilliant, intuitive connection. Once we divide dogs into two classes, purebred dog show aristocrats and mongrels, we have reduced all dogs to whims (“fancies”) or disposable curs.
– p144

You’ll notice that McCaig and Dickens (being of a time before the rise in numbers and credibility of dog sport) both fail to appreciate that there are four classes of dogs, not just two, and while McCaig might bristle at Working Dogs being left out of Dicken’s classification, I likewise protest McCaig and the trialing elite dismissing the Third Estate of Border Collies (Dog Sport athletes) either through omission or rejection.

In some works, filler is empty calories you easily forget you consumed that needlessly bloat the price or length of the book. Not so with McCaig. Although the core story about battling the AKC could be told in half the pages, McCaig deftly choses some choice documents to share dog history that you’d be unlikely to come across otherwise. One was the Dickens passage and another is an excerpt from the publications of George Wilkins Kendall–a 19th century American journalist, ground breaking war correspondent, and survivor of the ill-fated Texan Santa Fe Expedition which was one factor that sparked the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War:

During the 1570s the master of an unusually clever sheepdog was killed by the Indians in Colorado. For some reason the sheep were not taken. But the dog continued to perform the shepherd’s duties, keeping them together and guarding them from predators and at night rounded them up and drove them into the great corral belonging to that range, and lay in the gateway all night, since he could not close and fasten the gate. Two months after the raid, the owner (of the flock) found them to his great surprise, under the care of the dog, not one missing.
– p12

McCaig has an ability to make you feel culturally richer after each such divagation and the plethora of references allow for a much greater research experience should you chose to retrace McCaig’s steps.

The few faults and even my complaints are easy to overlook and hardly dampen the core message:

We had been thrown into a philosophical briar patch. What is a “dog breed,” and who has legitimate interests in it? Do those who know the breed best have any authority over its future, or can any group do any damn thing it pleases with any dog breed? If, for instance, one group’s breeding practices assured the genetic deterioration of very many individual dogs with consequent dog suffering and costs to the dogs’ human owners, is there no way to stop it?
– p37

What follows is a brutally honest confession of how no one really won the Dog Wars and how just about every interested party failed to gain their objectives and became embittered over a topic that once brought only joy. The ABCA failed to prevent the AKC’s hostile take-over, the AKC has yet to increase its Border Collie market share above 9% of the breed, and the Third Estate has been left to decide which parent to side with in the divorce. Unlike numerous other breeds that were assimilated and whose parent registries were wholly consumed by the AKC, the Border Collie will always have a hostile and defensive registry that the AKC will never seduce. There will be no monopoly here, and the breed is better off for it. Why? For the same reason McCaig answers the philosophical question of what is a dog breed and how should those who know it best protect it:

We found ourselves exactly where we hadn’t wanted to be–facing a legal fight between a twenty-nine-million-dollar organization and twenty-nine-hundred-dollar dog club.

We believed that those who historically had bred, registered, and protected a dog breed for years should have some rights over what that dog becomes, that they had some legal interest in that dog’s reputation.
– p130

That’s not to say that the ABCA and the AKC walk away from the first Dog War unscathed or smelling of roses. In my next post, McCaig’s Dog Wars: The Bad, I discuss the fallout between the First Estate and the Third Estate and how the polarizing effect of the Dog Wars has strained their relationship. In the third post, McCaig’s Dog Wars: The Ugly, I discuss the dark side of the AKC that McCaig reveals in crisp detail.

A sample chapter from the book is available for free download, although you will most certainly want to buy your own copy to digest and roll in it over and over and over. I recommended it to the Terrierman and you can read his glowing review here.

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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.