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Keen


Donald McCaig
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Dear Sheepdoggers,

 

I don’t tell you what to want. Absent proximate cruelty to fellow creatures, what you want is your business not mine. Pray for David Korresch to return for the Rapture, yearn for Mrs Palin, seek solace in methamphetamine, vodka, behaviorism or a Best in Show, I only offer my opinion if asked. You know what I'd say anyway.

 

Conformation breeding demonstrably diminishes the Border Collie’s ability to work stock. What is lost by such breeding isn’t the instinct to head livestock, power, balance, heart - qualities that interest sheepdog breeders - what conformation breeding breeds out is keenness - the dog’s want to work.

 

One can rarely judge a sheepdog’s quality until it is working stock and had some training at a year or so. A pup’s “show quality” or “pet quality” can be determined at eight weeks and the absence of “show quality” pups in a particular litter is no problem since litters are easily produced.

 

Producing potential “best in shows” depends on volume and pet buyer’ willingness to buy pet quality (“AKC reg” or “AKC Ch bloodlines”) pups. No pet sales/ no BIS candidates.

 

Pet owners prefer a “laid back” pup - i.e., a pup without keenness. Keenness is no advantage in the show ring either. For that BIS you want a cute, fluffy puppyish dog, not one that drops into a crouch to glare at ringsiders.

 

In the pet world, Border Collies are seen as hyperactive and neurotic. A Greenwich Village professional pet walker insisted my dogs were not Border Collies. “They can’t be. They’re CALM!”

 

There is some truth to this. Border Collies make lousy couch potatoes.

 

Keenness is the stockdog’s motor: it wants to do what we want done.

 

I’ve known a couple “low-want” sheepdogs that turned out okay. Both were a novice’s first sheepdog and the novice put enough attention and training into their dog to produce a capable, not outstanding farm dog. I was glad to see them satisfy but would never breed to those dogs.

 

I want that want. Like most sheepdoggers, I’ve no use for a sheepdog that doesn’t want to work sheep. Training takes too many hours and too much intelligent attention to waste on a dog who lacks motivation. I want the dog that will work until he can’t work.

 

Anyway, that’s what I thought - until Fly.

 

Fly is five years old, born in Ireland, trained there in Scotland and the States. Fly is a piece of work.

 

Here’s what I’ve heard: Fly was a farm dog in Britain and worked a hill lambing. A pup from her first litter ran in the Irish National. Her crate/car/camper/motel room is her safe place - on walks when we start for home, she runs ahead to the safe place and hits her crate like she’s going through the back of it. When a Scottish handler dragged her out of her crate she bit him. His reaction was harsh and Fly quit working sheep. When he sent her off for training, FLy worked fine for the trainer but never worked for the Scot again. She was a kennel dog and when Beverly Lambert drove off her new dog smelled so bad Beverly stopped at the village groomer who was horrified. Bev thought she might be reported to the RSPCA. After she explained, the groomer beamed, “Oh, you’ve rescued her.”

 

I saw Fly run at the Wilson’s soon after she immigrated.

 

Fly bit Bev’s husband, Doug - either because he reached down to pet her just after she deplaned or, perhaps because he corrected her for messing the umpteenth time in the house. She bit Doug every chance she got.

 

Bev had had trouble with Fly’s outrun too.

 

Two years ago, while getting his health certificate to return from the World Trial, the vet noticed Luke’s heart murmur. He’d had Lyme as a pup. Luke was nine and I intended to retire him and his wife June at ten. Although Luke’s murmur was mild and didn’t affect farm work he wasn’t able to compete in open trials. I needed a new dog but the publishing business was in turmoil and our finances were - as they often are - shakey.

 

Anne and I are sentimental and very rarely sell/rehome a dog. Six dogs is our house limit and sometimes I’ve run non-competitive open dogs because those were the dogs I had. Beverly liked Fly - her independent spirit is uncommon in sheepdogs - and wanted us to have her. I waffled. Bev’s Mirk had eaten his way out of his kennel to breed Fly and Bev offered to split pup fees if we’d whelp her but Anne’s kinfolk were sick and she couldn’t nurture a litter.

 

After Sue Schoen weaned Fly’s pups, I picked her up.

 

She was a piece of work. Two back to back litters, no coat, bare tail, hysterical, kennel-dog-in-the-house, counter surfer, indifferently housebroken, needy for affection. She liked me but wasn’t sure about Anne. Fly thought Anne might need biting.

 

I ignored most of her unmannerliness. I didn’t get on her for counter surfing and if she pooped on the floor nothing was said: next night she slept in her crate. I prevented the Anne biting and made one rule: Fly could not sleep on the bed. The other dogs could and sometimes did but I felt that amongst so much forgiveness, one strict arbitrary rule was a good idea.

 

Fly wouldn’t work sheep. Flock or a few, no sheep work, nada.

 

A couple days after Fly arrived we went into the field and walked toward the sheep. When she spotted them, Fly ran back to the truck.

 

I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years and though I’d make nobody’s list of the top twenty handlers (including mine) I’ve learned a little about sheepdogs and trust my instincts. I thought the puppy start method of small ring/ excitement would be a mistake with this five year old trained dog. I did try taking her out when June was working sheep. Fly ran back to the truck. When I brought her out at my dog school (I’ve a few students) Fly ran back to the truck. When I drove into the middle of a 150 ewe flock, and let Fly out, Fly hid under the truck.

 

After 60 days I started worrying that not only wouldn’t she work for me, Fly might have decided to quit working PERIOD. So I drove to Connecticut for Beverly’s help.

 

Beverly sent Fly “Away to me” and as she ran round, I’d chime in, “Away” and for a few beats, until she realized I wasn’t Beverly, Fly was working for me. Twice. Maybe two seconds each. I took Fly home and after a day walked toward the sheep pen. When Fly dropped into a crouch I said “Walkup” and after she took two steps said, “That’ll do Fly! What a good dog!”

 

Next day four steps. Next week, small pen for a full thirty seconds. After she was working in the open, I let Fly bring the sheep in to feed. They bedded down in woods, 4/500 yards from the house. They are extremely dog savvy and hid in the woods and jammed up behind fences. I let Fly bring them, however long it took and only helped when she was hopelessly stuck. Since she didn’t understand my version of Beverly’s whistles, I changed them. Oddly, Bev’s and my most similar whistle is the “walk up” which was/is hardest for Fly to understand. I took her to Barbara Ray for coaching. Fly flanked so quick I shortened my three note “Come by” to two. Our first trial was Dawn Boyce’s. Fly had a fine gather but fell apart on the drive.

 

I expected it would take a year. Better handler/trainers could have her winning trials sooner but I’m not good enough to be impatient. When things went bad, I’d walk.

 

At Robin French’s, Twin Oaks, Belle Grove and Finality Farm, we had our moments but rarely finished. I took FLy to the Dakotas for the Big One and Slash J - the most difficult trials I know.

 

 

 

The outrun at the Big One is 800 yards uphill. Sheep are spotted in a narrow saddle between a small conical butte and a larger flat, slab sided butte. The field rises on the left to a ridge. Toward town, the slab sided butte is overlooked by a cell tower butte. If the outrun goes well, it takes three minutes for the dog to get behind his sheep. At that distance, the dog is a speck and the sheep a speck-blur. The judge had binoculars.

 

The four rambouilettes escaped to the ridge or the slab butte, sometimes back over the top. Near at hand, they broke for the exhaust around the post and there were few pens.

 

You know the photograph spectators take at a trial with all the Border Collies sitting up fixated on sheep another dog is working? Fly isn’t in that photograph. Fly is looking at me or licking her paw or nibbling grass or snoozing butt-toward-sheep.

 

35 mph wind blowing in our face. The dog can’t hear commands beyond the fetch panels.

 

Fly walks indifferently with me to the post. Sheep? What sheep? I’ve no idea if she’ll leave my feet. “Come bye!”

 

She goes out wide then cuts straight across, as if the sheep were three hundred yards out, stops for my redirect but can’t hear it. She crosses, gets to the slabsided bluff and climbs farther and farther away toward the cell tower bluff (“Time for the 4-wheeler? She can’t hear. Can I catch her?”), but suddenly she turns and angles back, surmounts the slab side and disappears. She reappears behind her sheep and brings them. Sheep dots veer toward the ridge but Fly quits them and returns toward the spotters. WTF!!! (My guess - she heard the spotters whistling for their dogs.) When Fly didn’t find more sheep, she returned to the first group and brought them nicely around the post before we retired.

 

The Slash J trial field was a rugged, slight upslope, 630 yards. Although the dog went out of sight on the outrun, the wind was light. Fly would run second to last.

Since the junior classes would run as soon as open was finished, most handlers were there to see run after run break down.

 

Three never-dogged-before range yearlings. The moment they saw the dog, they took off, full tilt boogie. The letout was a powerful draw but if they couldn’t get there over the top and out of sight would suffice.

 

Some of North America’s best dogs lost their sheep that day. Lift? Fetch line? Forget it.

 

Fly was uninterested. She found a sheep poop snack. She searched for more. She plucked a stem of grass.

 

Every dog must be prepped differently for his/her run. I couldn’t bring Luke out early because he’d get excited and dig holes. June is fine under the handler’s tent but thinks too much. However I set June up at the post, she goes for the sheep she KNOWS WHERE THEY ARE and has gathered two white barns, a seismograph truck and, once, some children playing volleyball. Since Fly seemed indifferent I brought her out early to pickup my nervousness. Waiting at the judge’s trailer, I scratch the top of her head. Fly darts left and right walking to the post but I bring her back to my side. Fly can’t decide which side and when to outrun.

She might hang up on the letout on the comebye side. Yesterday Marilyn Terpstra’s dog got through the fence and crossed the road into the prairie. They found the dog pursued by an antelope.

But comeby is the pressure side. Fly goes out unconfidently and vanishes near the letout. Got past it! There she is!. Gone again. She arrives between the sheep and the letout - Fly/speck.

This is the moment of truth and I let Fly handle it. At this distance, the only command I might give is a walk up (to reestablish our connection) and Lord knows “Walk up” might be the wrong command.

The sheep start to move. It’s a dogleg fetch and they’re slightly off-line but I am silent - the letout draw is strong and they’ll break if Flyis one iota off balance. I don’t correct the offline until they are three swerves from the fetch gates, much nearer me than the letout. They are panel shy and only one gets the gates, two brush around.

On line to my feet and start around the post where they break two and one. I was mentally prepared for outwork but silly Donald wasn’t thinking about the rest of the trial and I hesitate before sending Fly for the two who become one and one. I call her off.

The judge says it was the best gather of the day. Beverly, who runs last, asks, “Was that Fly?”

So. We have the necessary bits but aren’t together. I”ll have a dog and Fly’ll have a home. She has taught me that some of the things I knew about sheepdogs weren’t so. I don’t know if she’ll ever be keen. Maybe it won’t make any difference.

 

 

Donald McCaig

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I loved it. I have read it several times and was hoping to think of something creative to say, but I have failed. So again - I loved it.

 

Will this essay appear in a book?

 

Jovi

Let's hope so. That way, we'd have the essay and another book!

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