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Posts Tagged ‘Donald McCaig’

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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