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Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,


This is the story of a false story.


We live and sometimes die for our stories; some benign (“God is Love”, “All Men are Created Equal”) others not: “lebensraum”, “separate but equal”. Among the false stories doggers tell are: “Registries don’t ruin breeds, breeders ruin breeds” , “Corrections are cruel” and “Dogs offer unconditional love” .


We all have stories about our own dogs who are: “Natural outrunners . . .kind to their sheep . . .reliable around kids . . . suffers from separation anxiety . . .” Some of these stories are true, others false. Whichever, they color our expectations and the dogs’. They direct our training.


Last weekend Fly and I attended a Patrick Shannahan clinic in Maryland. Patrick is a fine, gentle teacher and I learned from him but my important discovery came watching a dog not my own, trained by another trainer.


Backstory: when I bought Fly, Beverly Lambert told me a story about Fly and a Scottish trial man. Fly’s crate is her safe place and when she wouldn’t come out, her brandnew owner dragged her out and Fly bit him. Whereupon he got “harsh” with Fly and she responded by refusing to work for him. Period. A fully trained 3 year old open trial winner gave up her career – not for everyone, Bev worked her, - but she never worked for the Scot again.


Bev said something like, “You don’t see many Border Collies who’ll stand up for their rights.”


Good story. Dog is mistreated and removes the punchpowl. Brave Fly! The Defiant One!


When Fly came to me, she was a Wild Child and she wouldn’t work sheep. Period. Finally I tricked her into working and we’ve gone on from there. But Fly’s story was always: The Defiant One. Never mind in 30 years I’ve never seen one of these Defiants, never mind that while The Defiant One may lurk in some terrier genetic codes, it isn’t anything a Border Collie breeder would breed for. Never mind that she wouldn’t work for me – although I HADN’T dragged her out of the crate nor abused her. Fly had her story and I was sticking with it!


Backstory 2: After I’d had her six months we ran at Joanie Swanke’s in the Dakotas. Joanie’s outrun was 4-500 yards blind through sagebrush on three range yearlings. You couldn’t see the work very well and the 3 wild sheep broke 1-2, or 1-1-1 or broke back to the letout or over the ridge out of sight in a very big prairie. One dog went missing and was recovered trying to fetch an antelope. It was very difficult work – so difficult that Tommy Wilson and Sly took 12 minutes to get the ewes to his feet. Tommy is a far, far better trainer/handler than I am.


Fly didn’t really want to outrun and disappeared at a lope. Since I couldn’t see I didn’t say anything and directly she was behind her sheep, just a dot, and I couldn’t see well enough to read the pressure so stayed mum. As they moved past the letout, I couldn’t see well enough to command. I didn’t say anything until they were at the fetch panels. It was, the judge told me, the best outwork of the day and the memory of it kept me going with Fly when good sense said quit. This story was “Dog so talented she could handle difficult work w/o help.”


Last weekend, both stories changed. Fly's pup Rose was at the clinic and she was her Mama’s daughter. If Rose had any genes from her sire, they weren’t on display. It was like seeing Basic Fly – absent all Fly’s training, work and life experience.


Rose hated stress and the balance point between necessary training corrections and losing her was unusually delicate and that point shifted up and down the scale.


Linda Tesdahl had been training Rose for a year and we watched while her owner and Patrick worked. Rose – like her Mama – is a piece of work. Talented but . . .er . . ..


At the end, Rose was on sheep a hundred feet from her handler’s feet when he said, “That’ll do, Rose” And Rose came off happily and straight to his feet!


Which, in my experience, is really weird. Unless something really awful has happened, well started young Border Collies don’t want to/won’t come off their sheep. “Do you mean it? Ah, you don’t really, really mean it! Just a minute more. I’ve come back partway, is that far enough? Don’t you want to send me again?” We’ve all seen it.


I said how odd Rose’s willingness to quit was, and Linda said, “She’s coming off stress.”


Which was my Aha! Because 500 yards from me, Fly is perfectly willing to come off her sheep – just like her daughter. And both hate stress.


Story: Fly is thumped. Defies the man who thumped her by removing the thing (sheepwork) he cares about most. Great story. But impossible. How would Fly connect the thumping with working sheep? Even if she did why would she later refuse to work for me?


So what’s the more likely story? If I were writing it, I’d continue after the thumping. We have a still angry handler. HANDLERS DON’T GET BIT! Fly is now chained in the stall. But the handler wants to end on a good note. He unclips Fly and takes her out to his training sheep intending to get a brief gather and fetch, say, “Good Lass” and put her up. But he’s still angry and maybe she picks up on that and hesitates and he gets on her again – verbally this time – and Fly’s doggy mind is spinning and she shuts down hard. And stays shut down. In a brand new home with no antistress reserves (affection, safe routine) she shuts down. And Fly has learned that shutting down (like coming off sheep) removes the stress she hates.


No, its not as good a story – (no movie sale) – but it is more likely to be true.


So why’d she do so good on those range sheep?


Because she did it on her own – no handler commanding her. The most difficult sheep are much less stressful than her handler’s demands.


I’ll want to keep that in mind.


Donald McCaig

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Thank you, Donald - as always, your writing gives me cause to think.


My Celt is a very natural dog but also soft and very sensitive to pressure. He started out beautifully for me but, under direction and without knowing enough to realize for a while that it was the wrong approach, I applied too much pressure and too much negativity to this dog who was bred to read his sheep and work - which I was not.


I find now that we have reached a much better consensus - I keep my mouth shut as much as I possibly can and he does the best job he possibly can. Sometimes the anxiety does get to him. Sometimes he still can't handle the pressure. But he gives me everything he has because when I am quiet, I am trusting him and letting his rather good instincts do their job, instead of mucking it up with what *I* think he should be doing differently.


Each dog, each situation, is (I believe) different even when they all share some things in common. We can learn from every dog and every person, whether it's what to do or what not to do.


Thank you so much.

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Well told. Likely better, IMO, and truer than the original.


I want to think that in addition to the stress issue, that some dogs instantaneously develop a good relationship with the sheep. It begins right at the lift, and takes no time at all. The right rate of approach, from a good angle, with appropriate body language and eye allows the stock, in a sense, to trust this dog, and rather than blast in a crazy direction deeper into the sagebrush, they comply with dog's wishes, not fighting him. I'm not sure it can be completely trained. What do you think...a dog that is less stressed may be better able to develop that trust in the stock? -- TEC

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Dear Sheepdoggers,


Mr TEC asks a useful question. Off the top of my head: Stress ain't stress unless it is. When we were first together - after I got her working for me - all sheepwork was stressful for Fly. I was visiting Patricia McConnell in Wisconsin and put both June and Fly on her small flock of dog-broke sheep. June put them anywhere she wanted, they hated Fly. Then, not two weeks later, Fly had the brilliant outwork at Joanie Swanke's. Why? Might be she liked wild range sheep better. Might be the distance and my disappearance from her world allowed her to show her natural talents. She sure didn't act stressed.


I have gradually (too gradually) increased her stress tolerance but I'm coming against age - she's 7 now - and if she didn't already have all the necessary skills and experience, she'd be too old to impart them at the level I seek.


Despite the work/pet split we take for granted in our dogs (obedient at home, they won't lie down around stock - etc), I believe that a dog-rational home and travel life helps them handle work stress better.


I suspect some very good handlers will disagree with me and certainly some top working dogs have little or no pet dog life - but as many do. Do they win more trials? No, but that home life may prevent them from overstressing.


We ask a lot of very sensitive dogs. Why not make things as easy for them as we can.


Donald McCaig

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It think some people with a great deal of experience and who work dogs at top trial levels and/or challenging farm/ranch levels, would say that a life spent in a quiet kennel between work and exercise periods, is much less stressful than the life of a pet dog between work times.


They would say that the dog has the chance to rest, physically and mentally. The dog does not have to interact with people and their accompaniments (children, noisy TVs, family rowdiness, strangers at the door, telephones ringing, etc.) or with other dogs directly (both other working dogs and/or true pet dogs) or pets (like obnoxious cats). The dog has a chance to lie down and "contemplate" or think about the work that has been done, with minimal distractions. The dog has a place of his/her own.


Which is less stressful? I guess a lot would depend on the dog, the dog pack dynamics, the people pack, and the kennel or in-house arrangements. What might work better for one dog might not work better for a different dog, and so on.


Dogs sense our stress and anxiety, and I'm sure that affects them, particularly the more sensitive ones. I am sure stock can readily sense the powerful confidence of one dog versus the anxious, stressed nature of another dog - and they will respond accordingly.


This is never a simple equation but has many variables - along with many commonalities. Thanks for encouraging some thought on these topics.


PS - Our dogs live in the house and we wouldn't have it any other way. They are more than working companions, for better or for worse.

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Thank you for this post. I am reading your new book "Mr. and Mrs. Dog" and am trying to delay finishing by finding other stories to read so that I don't go into the dreaded post book depression. I'll always remember finding a copy of Nop's Trials on the shelf of a women's loo in the Lake District I traded "The River Why" for it and off I went. My husband and I were on our way to Tanzania and had a week to kill in England with little to no money. By chance we found a wet note on a telephone pole advertising a sheepdog trial at a pub. We walked hill and dale 10 miles to get there and spent a lovely dry afternoon watching dogs run. We went on to Tanzania where we spent 9 years working on wildlife behavior and ecology. We closed with 6 years studying African Wild Dogs and observed over 600 successful hunts (to put it politely). After an unsuccessful attempt to chase wild dogs with a baby in tow we returned to the US. Finally I could get my first dog. With a one year old baby and another on the way I was quite heedful of your warning at the end of Nop's Trials and went with a kind gentle Border Collie/Lab. Occasionally his ringed tail would drop as he spotted geese or deer and I was reminded of that long ago trial in the Lake District. Once we moved to Montana and had a fenced yard and a new hobby of agility I decided to get that purebred Border Collie that could bump me out of agility and into herding. Unfortunately "The Dog Wars" hadn't been written yet and I was clueless about BC genetics. I rescued a nice 6 month old female and hoped for the best. She's 16 now and didn't work out on stock. She gripped unmercilessly and I was kicked out of herding lessons after several good goes. Need I say that she's very pretty with a gorgeous full coat, tight feet, and lovely square structure. She was a great agility dog though not possessed of the rocket speeds of those dogs selected off the hill. Not one bit of herding instinct came her way though. My third dog was a another breed off the hills of France with plenty of instinct, but alas a bad heart. Anyways my dogs live a long time with an average age of 16. Finally 2 years ago I was able to make my 4th attempt. With "The Dog Wars" fresh in my head I researched pedigrees, visited local ranches and watched young dogs get started. Finally on an organic sheep farm here in Montana I saw the dog I wanted my pup to be related too. He was a neutered male working close and far. When my own old dogs piled out of the car he welcomed them genuine and warm. Two months later I had my pup and what a ride it's been. With a top handler he'd be an open dog someday. With me we're brilliant on sheep that we dog broke when he was 9 months old. Now at a young 2 we're tentatively seeking a nursery trial to overlap teenager shenanigans. Looks like it will work out on Whidbey Island this June. In our Africa years we had to carefully protect duty free shop whiskey and chocolate. Now with your book I'm down to the last triangle of Toblerone. I sincerely hope you are already working on the next!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Oh, Donald, you are giving me a headache! I have been reading all your posts about Fly, and while I am still a beginner in this sheepdogging business, I have been involved in dogs and their learning processes and interactions with us humans for some time. This whole business with Fly has me thinking, and I can't help help but wonder what sort of training did she go through when she was young? She sounds like a dog that wants to work, but feels like she can not completely trust her person to help her. She thinks they are impeding her.


Now, I am concerned about my training with my own Pete. I think he is an amazing dog, but, of course, being new to this business of sheepdogging, I might think that of any border collie that I happened to obtain...or would I? I am constantly being told by other people (note: people who do not compete in trials) that he "blows me off," doing what he wants to do. But he does listen to me! He lies down when I ask him to! He comes off the sheep when I ask him to! He is pretty good with the flank commands, when I say them correctly (away? come bye?) . Yes, he is strong on pushing the sheep, moving a bit faster than most people would like to see. But, darn it, I think he's a good and talented dog, and a lovely, sweet dog, and I think Fly is, too.


We are lucky people to have been blessed with the partnership that we have. We need to accept and glory in it.


That's enough.



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