Donald McCaig, was an American author, historian, sheep farmer and sheepdog trialist who lived in western Virginia, who died on the 11th November 2018. He is well-known in the US for his historical novels. He deserves to be better known in the UK, for the passion and lyricism of his writing on dogs. His most recent dog book is Mr and Mrs Dog (2013), which tells the story of how his Border Collies, June and Luke, got to take part in the Welsh World Sheepdog Trials. The story is sometimes funny, other times serious, and always crafted with care. We learn about sheepdog work in the US, and how that compares with Wales, both the culture, and the conditions which the dog has to be able to handle. The story is interspersed with anecdotes about dogs, and reflections on different approaches to pet dog training.
His ‘dog novels’, Nop’s Trials (1984) and the sequel, Nop’s Hope (1994) featured a Border Collie as the hero. Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men (1991) told the story of McCaig’s search for a working Border Collie in Scotland, and how he finally found Gael, not an especially pretty dog, but a good worker. A Useful Dog followed in 2004. It is distilled McCaig, starting with a poem, moving on to lambing, setting the scene for an account of sheepdog trials with Gael, the bitch who first appears in ‘Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men’. The stories continue with new characters, like a working dog in Albania helping with de-mining. Then we go back to when it all started, the evolution of dogs, and a fast forward to the first dog shows. Prizes were given for appearance, and the unintended consequences of breeding for appearance are very much in the news today. At the same time as Victorian dog shows took off for posh dogs, Battersea Dogs Home was born to help abandoned dogs. Today, Battersea is a success story. Then we are back in Virginia with more sheepdog stories, which end with a tale of Christmas Eve, orphan lambs sheltering by the wood-burning stove, a half moon and a silent night outside. The tales work on many levels, though they speak especially to people who want to understand how it is that dogs and humans have come to mean so much to one another.
McCaig’s most polemical book was The Dog Wars (2007). It is very readable, because of McCaig’s talent as a storyteller, interweaving the main storyline with anecdotes about his own dogs. It is the story of a battle by organizations representing owners of working Border collies to prevent the American Kennel Club (AKC) from “recognising” their breed. “Why the fuss?”, you might ask. “Surely recognition from an influential body would bring benefits?” Well, actually no, according to many breed organizations. For working dog people, like Donald McCaig, the concern is that recognition brings pressures to breed dogs that conform to a particular appearance, the “conformation standard”. Yet the essence of border collies lies in their ability to work.
The role of breed registration organisations
Registration organisations are usually called kennel clubs when they cover a wide range of dog breeds. They are potentially able to help to preserve a breed by keeping records, and giving would-be breeders or buyers access to information on pedigrees, with details on health (including longevity), temperament, and working ability for working dogs. The American Kennel Club (AKC) is the biggest registration body for dogs in the United States. Some kennel clubs, such as the AKC, hold shows where dogs are given prizes for whatever is fashionable in terms of looks for that breed. Studs can win prizes despite health and temperament issues. The second largest general registration organization is the United Kennel Club, or UKC, which focuses less on conformation, though there are also breed organizations, such as the American Border Collie Association.
Border collie owners can also register with the ISDS, or International Sheepdog Society, which will register dogs on merit, for their ability to work, regardless of their parentage or appearance. As anyone who has watched “One Man and His Dog” knows, Border Collies come in a wide range of shapes, colours, coat types and sizes. For people with working collies, AKC recognition was effectively a proposal to turn this particular breed into an attractive, but useless dog, conforming to just one particular appearance template for a collie. This makes little sense bcause Border Collies are valued for what they can do. Collies bred for appearance only are therefore not border collies, regardless of their pedigrees.
Donald McCaig talks of this in terms of a religious war. Religion is about shared values and ethics, so in the eyes of people who love working Border Collies, breeding Collies for appearance is sacrilege. He tells how the AKC won its battle to recognise the breed in December 1994, when the AKC converted a Border Collie breed club representing pet owners into its official club for the breed. Border Collies had joined the ranks of AKC show dogs.
The wider story
The story does not end here, because the battle over border collies coincided with battles over other breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. McCaig recounts that most American Cavvie breeders did not want AKC recognition. Their breed club had a strict policy of banning sales to pet stores or “puppy mills”, as puppy farms are called in America. Cavvies are loved for their sweet temperaments. Temperament defects are all too common in Springers and Cockers (both English and American), but they are much rarer in Cavvies, whose sweet nature inspires loyalty.
The Dog Wars describes how the AKC was set up in the 19th century, as a gentlemen’s club. Its income increased dramatically as Americans got better-off after the Second World War. Increased prosperity meant that families could afford to buy “purebred” pups. The AKC makes most of its money from registrations of “purebred” puppy births. As McCaig notes, it’s a good business to be in. You get cash, and in return, all you have to do is mail a piece of printed paper.
Large-scale commercial breeders of dogs, or puppy farms, can provide a registration organisation with a steady stream of cash. Puppy farms carry weight in the economies of some mid western states of America, as is true for some parts of Wales in the UK. AKC papers are not a 100% guarantee that a pup has the parents stated on the pedigree. Once puppy farms could produce large numbers of Cavvies with AKC papers, anything could happen to the breed, including a little surreptitious, uncontrolled outcrossing, and this is what many Cavvie owners feared.
Outcrossing in itself is not a bad thing, and can sometimes benefit a breed by increasing genetic diversity and helping to eliminate harmful mutations, a point stressed by Jemima Harrison, who made the documentary ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’. This was first shown in the UK in 2008, over a decade after the AKC had recognised collies. In mainland Europe, some kennel clubs have pioneered outcrossing programmes for breeds afflicted by health problems, though the UK Kennel Club, like the AKC, has tended to be conservative about outcrossing.
There is a strong case for outcrossing to tackle the serious health problems that Cavvies are prone to. However, outcrossing is best carried out with careful consideration as to how to improve health while preserving the best characteristics of the breed, in this case the Cavvie temperament. So AKC membership could bring both uncontrolled outcrossing which could harm the breed, and a reluctance to tackle a breed’s health problems through enlarging the gene pool in a controlled way. Though most Cavalier King Charles breeders voted against AKC “recognition”, a small group of breeders became the AKC’s official breed club, and the breed was “recognised” in 1995.
The AKC comes under scrutiny
McCaig tells how the battles over Border Collies and Cavvies prompted questions in the American national press about the AKC’s near-monopoly of the registration of “purebred” dogs, and how it used its consequent power to define breeds. Many consumers believed that AKC papers were a guarantee of quality, and that a show ring winner in your dog’s pedigree meant that you had a very special dog. But what did AKC dogs win prizes for? For their intelligence? For being lovable, biddable dogs who were good with kids? For being free of genetic medical problems? No, on the contrary, dogs lacking any of these qualities could become champions, so long as they conformed to the coat length, colour, height and proportions decreed as suitable by the AKC for that breed. Furthermore, the “conformation standard” for some breeds, or what the AKC decreed they were meant to look like, was guaranteed to cause problems. The massive heads of AKC-ideal bulldogs, for example, make it difficult for them to give birth naturally, while high shoulders and sloping hindquarters of German shepherds can cause mobility problems.
The Dog Wars chronicles debates on breeding for appearance from the early days of the AKC, way back in the 19th century. Later, Scott and Fuller’s Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965), mentions mobility problems in German shepherds arising from their conformation standard. Bruce Fogle’s The Dog’s Mind (1991), mentions the risk of unwittingly introducing temperament defects into breeds, by focusing too much on appearance. By the end of the 1990s, the UK police dog trainers were voicing concerns about finding enough German shepherds in the UK with stable temperaments.
So why had nothing been done? As The Dog Wars explains, part of the problem in America was that the AKC was very rich and powerful, which deterred public criticism. Consumers remained ignorant, because few people dared tell them the truth. This has gradually changed, and the battles over Border Collies and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels increased public awareness of the limited value of AKC papers. These battles were lost, but the war continues.
Large organizations are often slow to change. People who are unused to having their decisions questioned may simply be unaware that there are problems which can only be solved through open, honest debate. The AKC argues, for example, that it does promote events for working breeds, such as “herding”. McCaig gives a comic account of pet dogs from the AKC’s “herding” breeds meeting sheep, and not knowing what to do. As he notes, their performance had little to do with the skilled, disciplined work of sheepdogs at ISDS trials.
Many pet dogs have a keen interest in sheep. There are pet dogs from working lines which retain their natural sheepdog abilities, and are both motivated and disciplined. But some dogs just get a kick out of chasing sheep, and will even kill them deliberately, given the chance. Though McCaig does not mention this, owners who take up “herding” at classes organized by people who are not highly skilled, may unwittingly encourage their dogs to chase sheep.
Dogs as consumer items
What began as an attempt to prevent the AKC from redefining collies in terms of appearance became part of a much wider debate, about the nature of dogs and our relationship with them. Are dogs just consumer items? Is the problem that the AKC “brand name” is suffering because the products sold under that brand are often so poorly designed that they are defective? Most pet owners would say that dogs are more than simple consumer items. You buy a TV, it packs up, and you can get a new one. Buy a pup, spend a few years training your companion to become a well-behaved dog, and if the dog dies young from an avoidable genetic defect, just getting a replacement pup is not enough. Being offered a refund in terms of the price of the pup feels like an insult. The value of the dog lies in what you and the dog have achieved together.
Yet, though dogs are not simple consumer items, there are useful analogies. If kennel club “brands” are to retain prestige, they have to provide a minimum guarantee of quality, for example, by ensuring that pups that kennel clubs register are free from testable genetic defects which are common to that breed. Consumers could make more informed choices if pedigrees included ancestors’ ages at death, and causes of death.
Removing dogs from the gene pool because they have heritable health problems might seem to be the best solution, however, it makes the gene pool smaller, which increases the risk of health problems in the long term. So careful outcrossing programmes are also needed, to increase genetic diversity.
Obviously it’s sensible to change conformation standards so that these are more flexible, and are not detrimental to the health of the dogs bred to conform to them. A key change that would benefit owners, however, would be for kennel clubs, which wield great power over the definitions of breeds, to define dogs more in terms of how they behave, and what they can do, rather than their appearance. Dogs destined to be pets need temperaments suitable for life as a pet. Pet owners vary a great deal, but most prefer dogs which are tolerant of other dogs, and of strange humans, even if they don’t want to be best buddies with everyone. Some breeds, like collies, are also valued for performance, so it is important to preserve their talents.
Working dogs vs pet dogs
Donald McCaig freely admits that his main concern is the ability of border collies to work sheep. Working sheepdog people, like many working dog people, often have little time for pet owners or their dogs. If the AKC’s concerns were narrow, so too were those of the working sheepdog people. The original offer was, if the AKC left them alone, they would leave the AKC alone. They weren’t especially interested in pet dogs.
A minor grumble about the Dog Wars is that there is little concern about what happens to Border Collies that become pets. Border collies are very common in the UK, where there are more pet collies than there are collies that work sheep, because it has become more difficult to earn money as a sheep farmer. Pet collie owners often compete with them in dog sports, because the traits that make collies good working dogs are also useful for dog sports.
Working collies are bred to be biddable and disciplined. Some working collies are friendly with humans, and will flirt with any human who pays them attention. Others will nip any human who offends them, and will only work for one person. Border collies often ignore other dogs unless they are also border collies. This is a “collie thing”, and a great benefit if you don’t want your dog distracted by other dogs. There are some collies, however, which eye-stalk other dogs, then charge. Biddability and discipline give owners something to work with. You can instantly call off a biddable collie which is eye-stalking another dog
When dogs are bred for appearance, anything can happen to temperament. Once you lose biddability and discipline, life gets more difficult for collie owners, especially if you have a dog bold enough to bite, or a very sound-shy dog that is too spooked to enjoy walks. Some Border Collie breeders, like Denise Wall, breed for both temperament and working ability. In Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? she writes about how she picks breeding dogs for a nice temperament as though it were the most obvious way to breed. Well, of course it is, for anyone who is sensible. And unless show breeders put temperament high on their list, there is a great risk of creating lines that are unfit either as working dogs, or as pets.
McCaig has always argued that Border Collies don’t make good pets. They certainly aren’t dogs to leave home all day, then let out in the garden. They do need owners who can both give them interesting work to do, and peace and quiet when they need it. Collies often excel at agility, but they can zap round the course in the blink of an eye, though some have pent-up energy at the end of the course. Give them simple tasks, and they can pursue them obsessively, but is this the best way to use their skills? Some pet collie owners prefer more calming tasks which make better use of their dogs’ minds, such as scent work.
Some of the traits that make collies challenging pets are linked to what they were bred to do. Working collies are sensitive to sights and sounds, sheep on a hill, a far-away shepherd’s whistle, so can be worried by strange sights and sounds. Working collies can go into a complete funk in thunderstorms, though curiously if you can get them to work, some can tune out the scary noises. They have an inbuilt need to work, and tend to find themselves something interesting to do if you don’t provide it. Now, you may think that a working-line collie is challenging enough, but when collies are no longer bred to be working dogs, all sorts of personalities can emerge, from laid-back dogs with little interest in sheep, who can make cute, if boring pets, to “projects” that most trainers would avoid.
The future of dog breeds
Donald McCaig began simply fighting for his breed’s working ability, and ended up walking slap bang into a major debate that affects all of us who care about dogs. It just happens that today, most dogs in developed countries are pet dogs. Where Donald McCaig started from affects how he sees this debate. We all have an interest in the future of dogs, whether we are working dog people or pet dog people. When we talk to each other, we often find we have a lot in common.
Once I asked a special friend why she was so sensible “because I hate unnecessary suffering” was her answer. This is really the only answer. Yes, we may be seduced by looks, and a pedigree with show champions, but they are not a good basis on which to choose a dog. Pet owners once believed that kennel club papers guaranteed quality. This is less true today in the UK and US. Some people prefer to try to reform kennel clubs, while others simply ignore them.
Today, there are special breeders who make a determined effort to breed sound dogs with nice temperaments, and where relevant, with working ability. These breeders deserve recognition. For many years they have done their best because they believed in doing the right thing. Yes, a more open debate is essential to preserve and improve the breeds that we love. This debate has to include support and recognition for those breeders who, like Border Collies, have been obsessive about doing a job well just because doing a job properly means that life and the universe make sense.
So, if you care about the future of dogs, read this book. Whether he likes it or not, Donald McCaig has taken his border collies for a walk right into the centre of a major debate about the relationship of dogs and humans, and the future of that relationship.
Alison Lever November 2018
Thank you to Diana Attwood, Bodil Carlsson, Jemima Harrison, Heather Houlahan and Janeen McMurtrie for answering questions relating to this article. Donald McCaig also corresponded about the topics here, and was very generous with his time. He is very much missed.
This blog article on a breed very similar to Border Collies, the English Shepherd, explains some of the issues facing breeders very well, and with passion! http://cynography.blogspot.com/2017/04/the-historians-bypass-museum.html
Reviews of some Border Collie books mentioned in this article
Research on pedigree dog health
Since ‘Dog Wars’ was published, there has been a lot of research published on pedigree dog health. The four articles listed below help to provide an overview on the topic:
Asher L, Diesel G, Summers JF, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: disorders related to breed standards. Vet J. 2009 Dec;182(3):402-11. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.08.033.
Farrell LL, Schoenebeck JJ, Wiener P, Clements DN, Summers KM. The challenges of pedigree dog health: approaches to combating inherited disease. Canine Genet Epidemiol. 2015;2:3. Published 2015 Feb 11. doi:10.1186/s40575-015-0014-9
Leroy G, Rognon X. Assessing the impact of breeding strategies on inherited disorders and genetic diversity in dogs. Vet J. 2012 Dec;194(3):343-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2012.06.025. Epub 2012 Jul 20.
Summers JF, Diesel G, Asher L, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 2: Disorders that are not related to breed standards. Vet J. 2010 Jan;183(1):39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.11.002. Epub 2009 Dec 5.