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working BC pup

Donald McCaig was a great dog writer. His historical fiction was even better, but he was a sort of founding father of a movement that I now find rather problematic.

McCaig was a border collie sheepdog trials person, and he was part of a group of people who were fanatically anti-American Kennel Club. So much did they hate the idea of border collies becoming a standardized breed that the American Border Collie Association will not cross register AKC border collie puppies, and any dog that earned a conformation championship from any registry would become ineligible for registration. 

McCaig was the intellectual father of this fanaticism. He believed that the border collie should remain solely a sheep herding dog, and if it were used for something else, it would cease to be a true border collie.

He raised sheep and ran border collies in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, not far from the West Virginia border.  He thought of himself as a traditional country writer, but as a native to that part of the world, he always seemed like an outsider trying to play country boy.

For example, the traditional sheep herding dog of that part of the world is not the border collie. It is the English shepherd, a loose-eyed herder, that also can tree raccoons and bring in the milk cows. It is the unimproved peasant collie of British Isles,  the one that existed before the Enclosure, where lots of livestock needed to be managed, not just vast folds of sheep. Those vast folds came about when the manors were enclosed and the tenants shipped off to toil in the mills, and the border collie’s existence came about when this sort of dog was needed on the new land.

In the Alleghenies, no one runs vast hordes of sheep over great pastures. The woods have mostly reclaimed the Alleghenies. Bears and coyotes make sheep husbandry harder than before, and with the wool market tied up with Australia and New Zealand’s near monopoly, sheep have been mostly relegated to the few die-hards in the West who fight the battle against wolf depredations and the odd homesteader who keeps a little flock in the back pasture.

So, although McCaig was a successful writer and sheepdog trial enthusiast, he was never the sort of authentic mountain farmer that he hoped he was. If he were, he would have kept a pack of English shepherds and mixed enterprise farm on a little holding.

But leaving behind those problems, McCaig’s idea that the border collie should be maintained solely as a herding dog was at best delusional. The dog itself has traits that would make it well-suited for the 21st century. They are scary smart. They are trainable. They are also beautiful creatures with pleasant temperaments.  These dogs have traits that make them superior sport and working animals.

If this attitude had been applied to the German sheepdogs in 1890s, they would have become just regional dogs of no particular note, but Max von Stephanitz and the other founders of the SV decided to use their nation’s sheepdogs as working animals.

German shepherds are certainly still capable of herding sheep and working as farm dogs, but the 1890s, Germans were finding they had less of a need for a sheepdog. Sheep could be shipped via train now, and private property finally replaced the last vestiges of feudalism. Fences could be used to contain the sheep now.  A tending dog became less of a necessity.

So members of the SV embraced the future. They encouraged members to train their dogs for other disciplines. That move created the most successful working dog ever created, one that is known the world over for its abilities.

And because lots of people ignored the sage counsel that breed be produced solely as a sheepdog, the border collie is seeing great days as a sport and working animal. They dominate agility and flyball. They have done great work as search and rescue dogs. Some have even been used as gun dogs. And yes, many are accomplished show dogs, and those show dogs still have their brains and herding instincts.

But even now, you will see wags harp back with claims that border collies are being ruined because they are being used in these other disciplines.

So honestly, what if they are?

Imagine 10,000 years ago that a group of people had a bunch of dogs that were superb at hunting sheep in the mountains. They had the monopoly on these dogs and the sheep hides and meat they were able to procure.

But one day, they ran into another group of people that had managed to tame some sheep. The attitude of the early Holocene McCaig’s would have said the dogs would have no use if they couldn’t hunt sheep. The Holocene Stephanitzes would have begun working on training the dogs to manage sheep. Those were the people who created the first herding dogs.

This is the problem of this McCaig delusion. I do not wish to pick on the man solely, though, for there are lots of dog people with this delusion. They can only see what once was or what they hope things were, and they cannot embrace the future.

And it is this delusion that I wish we would reject.  We cannot assume that a breed or type of dog can remain employed solely in its original occupation. That assumption is what made the turnspit go extinct and the otterhound roll around in obsolescene  and obscurity.

In the Western world, the most important job for dogs is to be family pets, and there is nothing wrong with breeding good working dogs that can fit into modern society. Indeed, this is the challenge of working dogs in this century.  We must find ways to keep working drives and instincts alive and to produce dogs that are suitable for family life.

And that’s why we need to be critical of ideas that are so accepted without criticism, even if they are ideas that are popular. These were ideas that I accepted without criticism, and they are ideas that I now think need more careful consideration for the future of our breeds.

 

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Both of these breeds are pretty intelligent dogs, but they respond to this problem in very different ways.

Source.

Some people are commenting that because the border collie is faster in its retrieval, it therefore must be the more intelligent animal.

But look what’s going on here.

The golden retriever is being very judicious and deliberate. It’s that same sort of behavior that would allow a golden retriever to bring in a wounded pheasant or duck without giving it further damage.

Border collies are great Frisbee dogs. Golden retrievers almost always suck at it. They just aren’t as nutty about jumping up and grabbing things.

Border collies have been bred to move things and make things move.  If a border collie needs to use its teeth on stock, it is allowed to– though this is faulted in the border collie NASCAR events. Border collies are a very much a sporting dog that have been bred for almost neurotic behavior.  Everyone knows that border collies are smart, but they have another side to them, which actually makes them almost entirely unsuitable for general family pets.

I think one of the byproducts of breeding for a soft mouth is that you get a dog that is deliberate in how it relates to the world. This is why golden retrievers, even those from working lines that have a lot more energy than most family dogs, still make very good pets as well as working dogs. This is why both Labrador and golden retrievers and the crosses between them have proven to be the ultimate assistance dogs. They are biddable and intelligent, but they are deliberate and gentle as the work.

Border collies are geniuses, but they have not been bred with the same sort of “nous” or “sagacity” as a retriever.

And I should note here that as much as I complain about how breeding for a particular conformation in bulldogs has essentially ruined them, breeding for extreme behavior in border collies has had almost the same effect.

The border collie is just too much dog for the typical dog owner– and it’s also why I don’t think the solution to the dog fancy’s problems is to adopt the solution that working border collie people have embraced.

A trial that rewards extreme behavior and popular sire selection is just going to produce a dog that is just as genetically compromised as the show dogs and is going to have behavioral problems that are just as questionable as the bulldog’s health problems.

Now, if border collies were bred more like English shepherds, things might be very different. English shepherds are a real farm dog landrace– not a sporting dog at all. They vary in temperament, but many of them are sort of golden retrieverish in temperament. Others are are more like Chesapeake Bay dogs that are docile and intelligent, but they are good guards.

But they are not trial dogs. A better term for an English shepherd would be “generalist collie.”  Because they were always used to do a lot of different things on the farm, they were intentionally bred for sagacity.

And border collies might be canine geniuses, but in some ways they are very limited in their utility.

They have almost gone down the bulldog path, but they have gone along a side road.

This is the over-selection for an extreme temperament in order to win a particular kind of sheep dog trial.

American trial Labradors have undergone a very similar selection, which is one reason why some might prefer a golden retriever or British working Labrador for general gun dog work. In the end, the best retrievers are a balance between docility and sagacity and a strong working drive.

Border collies are all drive and biddablity but are often lacking in docility and deliberation.

That’s why they aren’t my kind of dog.

I don’t care how smart they are.

 

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oliver hartley collie

Everyone tends to think of the collie family as being the ultimate herding dogs. This is how they are popularly known and how they are classified with breed clubs.

However, the American experience with the collie family is that these dogs are more or less generalist in usage, and they were commonly used for hunting and improving hunting stock. My grandpa had a hunting dog that was half foxhound and half collie that could track a deer like no other, and my memories of my dad’s wild farm collie would rather tree cats or raccoons than waste his time chasing cows.

That’s really because Americans began turning the collie to their own purposes almost as soon as they arrived on these shores.

Oliver Hartley describes the collie’s use in the US in his Hunting Dogs (1909):

The Scotch collie dog will make the best friend of all the dogs in the canine race, writes a collie admirer. Of all useful animals God gave to man what can excel the dog, at least with the stockmen; in affection no other dog can compare with him, he is a dog that every farmer needs. He has almost human intelligence, a pure bred collie can always be depended upon in sunshine or adversity. He can do his work in a manner that should put the average boy to shame. The pure bred Scotch Collies are of a kind and affectionate disposition and they become strongly attached to their master. There can be no friend more honest and enduring than the noble, willing and obedient thoroughbred Scotch Collie. As a devoted friend and faithful companion he has no equal in the canine race, he will guard the household and property day and night. The Scotch Collies are very watchful and always on the alert, while their intelligence is really marvelous.

At one year old they are able to perform full duty herding sheep, cattle and other stock, attending them all day when necessary, keeping them together and where they belong and driving off all strange intruders. They learn to know their master’s animals from others in a very short time, and a well-trained dog will gather them home and put each into its right stall. They have a dainty carriage and fine style, profuse silky hair of various colors.

Others incline to the conviction that practical purposes have been lost sight of in breeding, and that appearances have been sought to such an extent that the present day pure bred collies lack some of the attributes of intelligence and hardihood that made the collie famous. In view of this fact it is quite likely that for general purposes and certainly for hunting purposes, a dash of alien blood is advantageous.

The crossed collie, or the well-known shepherd dog, so common to the farm, are very often used with success in all forms of night hunting. There are some who go so far as to maintain that the shepherd or a cross of shepherd and fox hound are ideal for coon, rabbit and squirrel hunting.

The use of these dogs as sheep herders has deteriorated in this country, although they are still bred for practical purposes with marked success in parts of England (pg 222-223).

So Hartley was pointing out that Americans were more than willing to turn the specialized herding dogs of the British Isles into dogs that both hunted and herded, and some areas their primary utility was that of the hunting dog.

In another part of the text, Hartley discusses the best way to get a cheap coonhound:

I have learned at considerable expense that the best at most any price is the cheapest. If you want a good, cheap ‘coon dog, get a half pup collie and half fox hound. Never give him a taste of nor let him see a rabbit, teach him a few tricks (to make him pay for his meals), such as jumping over a stick, then a pole, then a fence. This is to teach him to obey every word (pg. 101-102).

Hartley also talks about his two favorite coondogs, one of which was a collie/foxhound cross:

The best pair of ‘coon dogs I ever owned was Sport, a fox hound and collie, half and half, a slow semi-mute trailer, and Simon, a full blood fox terrier, a fast mute trailer. I used a bell on Sport. This and his occasional barks on the trail kept the attention of the ‘coon while Simon cut across lots and invariably took him unawares (pg. 101).

I grew up where most collie-type dogs were used primarily for hunting. People didn’t keep big flocks of sheep, and even the beef cattle were so tame that the farm kids could move them from pasture to pasture.

The idea that someone would encourage a dog to chase stock would be an anathema to most of the people where I grew up. There were always stories of collies that chased cows and wound up shot, so most people trained their dogs to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons and to leave the hoofed mammals alone.

And these collie-types were maintained without any fancy trials imported from Scotland or England. A border collie was a novelty, and I didn’t even see my first dog of that breed until I was about 12 or 13.

But I knew what a farm collie or an English shepherd was.

Those were the native working dogs for the northern tier of West Virginia.

This is actually my big beef with the Donald McCaig set. McCaig et al, which some wag called “the sheeple,” obsess over “working dogs” in America without actually knowing the history of working farm dogs in this country.

McCaig is a border collie novelist and dog trialer. His border collies are treated as working dogs, but they are nothing like the real farm dogs of the Appalachian Mountains he calls home.

No one trialed a farm collie or an English shepherd, but they were useful dogs.

And as I recall them, they weren’t as hyped up as border collies are. They were just good, ol’ dogs with plenty of brains and sense.

McCaig is really a carpetbagger. Born and raised in Montana, McCaig honed his craft in advertising in New York, and then he came to Alleghenies of Highland County, Virginia. It’s a rather desolate area of Virginia, located on the old road that goes from Elkins to Staunton. I don’t recall seeing any sheep when I went through there, but I recall it being full of rhododendrons and mountain laurel.

And lots of nothing.

Old Stonewall Jackson, the traitor to West Virginia, beat up on the union army at the hamlet of McDowell, but there is no mention of a great history of border collie trials in that part of Virginia.

A border collie, like McCaig, is something brought in from outside and then grafted onto the mountainsides as if they have always belonged there.

But they haven’t

Before McCaig and border collies, there were old shepherds and Scotch collies. These were the old farm dogs, not the trial dogs that McCaig has popularized.

The simple fact is Americans are not British, and even if we and our dogs are of Albion’s stock, we have both adapted to this continent and its peculiarities.

To say that the trial border collie is the historic working dog of the Virginia mountains is simply to engage in romantic folly.

It is a folly that no one says anything about. Most of the people who know better aren’t reading McCaig books or this blog, and none of them of them have the audience of a McCaig.

But because McCaig and the trialists have capture the imaginations of too many people, they get to describe for themselves some moral superiority, even though breeding for trials has done exactly the same thing to border collie bloodlines that dog shows have done to AKC dogs.

I write these words for Old Shep, the generalist collie-type hunting dog, lost in the sea of show and trial faddism.

 

 

 

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alaskan sled dogs

Row B: Sprint dogs. Row C: Distance or Endurance sled dogs.

Chris has a very good post up at BorderWars.

It highlights a false claim that is often promoted in border collie circles:  That border collies are bred just like Alaskan huskies. They just breed them for performance, pedigree doesn’t matter.

The Alaskan husky is what Chris calls an “ad hoc” breed. It’s really a type of dog that has developed for sled dog racing, and in order to do so, the sled dog racers have crossed in different things.

There are two types of racer with sled dogs, and both have different strains and breeding systems. Endurance races require dogs with a lot  more Siberian husky, malamute, and even Anatolian shepherd ancestry, while sprint races incorporate things like pointer or saluki bloodlines.

According to the 2010 study Chris quotes, sprint sled dogs are much more outcrossed than the endurance dog, but both are more genetically diverse than purebred dogs, including border collies.

Chris goes on to quote a member of the American Border Collie Association who claims that the only difference between border collies and Alaskan huskies in how they are bred is that border collies have a registry.

Chris explains:

Border Collies aren’t like either of the Sled Dog sub-populations. Even though the Distance [endurance]dogs have higher F(IS) values, they are still highly heterozygous and have a greater abundance of allele diversity. In other words, Distance dogs are being pushed genetically towards homozygosity faster than the Border Collie is being pushed, but the Distance dogs are starting from a more diverse and less inbred position.

The Sprint dogs not only have a greater abundance of allele diversity and a greater level of Observed Heterozygosity, they are also being actively and continually outcrossed. This simply isn’t the case with Border Collies.

Border Collies have a virtually closed breeding pool of dogs that go back to a few hundred founding dogs a century ago. Their effective gene pool is now equivalent to the genome of only 8 dogs. The number and impact of new blood (typically in the form of Registration on Merit) is negligible. The contribution of other breeds (like Kelpie and Bearded Collie) is highly limited, mostly ancient (a century ago), and not ongoing. The last documented non-Border Collie to enter the gene pool is almost 30 years ago with one Bearded Collie (Turnbull’s Blue) ROM’d within the ISDS.

The last time a Husky was improved with fresh blood was probably yesterday.

The truth is border collies are more like performance-bred bird dogs.

A fairer comparison is that border collies are more like Llewellin setters.

A Llewellin setter, for those of you not in North America, is a setter that is bred solely for hunting and trial work.

There is some debate in dog circles about whether to call these dogs a strain of English setter or to call them their own distinct breed.

They are much smaller than typical show strain English setters, though they do derive from that stock.

They have been bred solely for performance for decade after decade. They are very good at what they do.

But their registry is closed. I don’t think there is any significant gene flow between Llewellins and other English setters, though I could be wrong.

Llewellins are a working dog, but they are being bred just like any other purebred. It’s just they are being selected for performance only.

And that’s exactly what’s going on with border collies.

If border collies were that much like Alaskan huskies, you’d see extreme type divergence . Honestly, in border collies, you see about as much variation as one sees in Labrador retrievers.  There are big ones and little ones, but they are all variations on the same theme.

What I find interesting about Llewellins and border colies is how hard it is to find out about what health problems exist in both breeds.

Google doesn’t help– and is contradictory.

The truth is that in both of these performance breeds there is a culture that just assumes the dogs are fine because they are worked, but compared to fancy breeds, there isn’t as much of desire or effort to find out what health problems actually exist.

And one way to deny it is to say that border collies are just like Alaskan huskies, then provide no evidence.

The truth is that whenever any organism with an evolutionary history of low inbreeding tolerance is bred in system that rewards greater homozygosity and tighter gene pools, health problems are just that much more likely to occur.

It matters not that the animals are worked and trialed and that people write romantic novels about them.

Performance bred dogs that are in these sorts of registries are ultimately in the same boat as the show dogs.

See related post:

 

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(Source for images)

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These dogs are not sables. They are genetically e/e’s– the same as golden retrievers, yellow Labs, and Irish setters.

(Source for image)

The reason why they are called “Australian reds” is because they exist in greater numbers there than elsewhere, and the normal “red” in border collies is what I call a “liver.”

The dogs are sometimes advertised as “golden border collies,” which actually might be a more accurate name. However, that name suggests hybridization with golden retrievers, another breed widely used in dog sports.

Never mind that the vast majority of crosses between the two are solid black and look a little bit like very rugged flat-coated retrievers. Like these puppies:

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Source.

Look at the very dark sable pup. Some goldens must mask the sable gene.

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