The Dog Wars


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"The Dog Wars" 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 sheepdoggers, 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 ISDS, or International Sheepdog Society, 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 all shapes, colours, coat types and sizes. A proposal to turn this particular breed into an attractive, but useless dog, conforming to just one particular appearance template for a collie, makes no sense. Border collies are dogs bred to do a particular job. 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. The AKC won its battle in December 1994, though most owners of American registered border collies opposed the move. How did the AKC manage to do this? Firstly, some pet collie owners were worried that they might be banned from AKC obedience events if they opposed "recognition" of border collies as show dogs. The AKC was then able to convert a border collie breed club representing these pet owners into its official club for the breed.


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. Donald 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. Their sweet nature inspires loyalty, and it's no wonder that Cavalier King Charles breeders are very protective of their dogs.

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 The Dog Wars 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 you 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 outcrossing.

Outcrossing in itself is not always a bad thing, and can sometimes benefit a breed. However, outcrossing is a serious step, and is best done after open debate, and careful consideration as to how to preserve the best characteristics of the breed, in this case the Cavvie temperament. 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". These battles 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 the high shoulders and sloping hindquarters of AKC-ideal German shepherds can cause mobility problems. Now, people have known for a long time that problems can arise from breeding for appearance.

The Dog Wars chronicles debates from the early days of the AKC, way back in the 19th century. Scott and Fuller's Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, published in 1965, mentions mobility problems in German shepherds arising from their conformation standard. Bruce Fogle's The Dog's Mind, published in 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 the problems they had 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, and not many people dared criticise it in public. 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 are part of the reason for the change. The Dog Wars documents how the battles over Border collies and Cavvies 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". Donald McCaig gives a comic account of pet dogs from the AKC's "herding" breeds meeting sheep, and not knowing what to do, having little interest in the sheep. As he notes, their performance had little to do with the skilled, disciplined work of sheepdogs at ISDS trials. Sometimes, as they say, you have to laugh, or you might just sit down and weep.

Many pet dogs, unlike those described in The Dog Wars, do have a keen interest in sheep. There are pet dogs from working lines which retain their natural sheepdog abilities. A Spanish friend with a Pyrennean shepherd had one such dog. A shepherd offered to buy the dog from her after he saw the dog in action, unbidden. The dog had decided that she just needed to work a flock, during a walk with her owner in the countryside. One of my mother's collies was the same sort of dog, a natural, motivated and disciplined. But many pet dogs just get a kick out of chasing sheep, including ewes in lamb. Some pet dogs will even kill sheep deliberately, given the chance. Pet owners with ill-disciplined dogs, who take up "herding" at classes organized by people who are not highly skilled, may unwittingly encourage their dogs to chase sheep. Sheep are not dog toys. Each ewe has her own personality. A savvy ewe can be a very skilled leader, able to assess danger, with enough "balls" to threaten weak, insecure dogs, and able to lead the flock away from real danger. Except there is no escape from real danger if the sheep are penned to provide "sport" for the owner of a wild, out-of-control dog. Donald McCaig writes beautifully, but his description of the utter cluelessness of AKC organizers of "herding" events wasn't funny, except in terms of "you gotta laugh, or ...".

So the issues discussed in The Dog Wars go far beyond the preservation of the working ability of one particular breed, even such a remarkable breed as the Border collie. 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 "No". Dogs are more than simple consumer items. You buy a TV and 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 is an insult. The value of the dog lies in what you and the dog have achieved together. In the long term, if kennel club "brands" are to retain prestige, they have to provide a minimum guarantee of quality. Their prestige would be boosted by ensuring that pups that kennel clubs register are free from common testable genetic defects.

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. Consumers would be able to make more informed choices if pedigrees included ancestors' ages at death, and causes of death, and not just prizes won for looking cute. The key change that would benefit owners, however, would be for kennel clubs, which wield great power over the definitions of breeds, to define dogs in terms of what they can do, rather than what they look like. Donald McCaig freely admits that his main concern is the working ability of border collies. Sheepdoggers, 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 sheepdoggers, at the start of the battle. The original offer was, if the AKC left the sheepdoggers alone, they would leave the AKC alone. The sheepdoggers weren't especially interested in pet dogs.

Throughout The Dog Wars, there is little concern about what happens to collies that become pets. You might think, "Well, collies with no interest in sheep can be perfectly good pets." Is this true? 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. I used to do this with one of my mother's collies. She was freshly arrived from the Welsh border, a new dog in a Wiltshire dog-walking area, and having to mix with breeds she had never met before. Her biddability made her manageable until I had taught her to accept that non-collies had the same right to walk the fields as she did.

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.

Donald McCaig has always argued that Border collies don't make good pets. This is a sensible warning, because they aren't dogs to leave home all day, then let out in the garden. Border collies 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, and then ask "What do I do next?". They have pent-up energy at the end of the course. It just does not satisfy a collie's needs. They tend to be active dogs, and that energy has to go somewhere. A highly aroused collie, like any highly aroused dog, may bite whatever is near it. A trainer friend used to have to do agility covering her breasts, because otherwise her collie got overexcited and bit them. Give Border collies simple tasks, and they can pursue them obsessively, but is this the best way to use their skills? Agility is easy-peasy for many collies. Giving a dog a task that does not stretch that dog, is a waste of a canine mind. 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. They often go into a complete funk in thunderstorms, hyperventilating, just terrified, though curiously if you can get them to work, they 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 dog with the worst temperament in one training class I attended was a Border collie from a show line. The trainer was not particularly pro-neuter, but she did suggest neutering to the owners of this dog. They rejected the idea, because they wanted to breed from him. He was a good-looking dog, "show quality". Everyone in the class gave a sigh of relief when the owners moved up north. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near him in training exercises. He attacked other dogs, and bit the trainer. Lord knows what happened to the dog, though I pray that he did not become a popular sire.

So, a minor grumble about what really is a remarkable book is that Donald McCaig has an imperfect understanding of pet dog culture, and is not especially concerned about collies as pets. He recounts the story of a judge who offered a dog toy to the winning dog of an AKC "herding trial", and was shocked when the dog ripped the toy to shreds. His interpretation is that the judge was a pet dog person, but nope, she was simply not dog-savvy. Many pet dogs rip toys to shreds. A squeaky lasts around five seconds if offered to a self-respecting pet Jack Russell.

Dog toys are often used as training tools, and a dog-savvy judge matches the right tool to the dog. Likewise, he suggests that pet dogs accept food as a motivating bribe from their owners because they are polite, while for working dogs, the reward of working is what is important. Nope, try to offer food to a pet who likes retrieving, when that dog is in retrieving mode, and your pet will spit it out in contempt. Try to offer food to pet dogs who really want to get out of the front door, and they may well ignore it. The most potent reward for sitting nicely is to have you open the door. Owners who think that dogs are only motivated by food are simply not dog savvy, and many pet owners are very clued up as to what their dogs really want.

That is a minor grumble. Nobody can understand everything about the universe. I have a limited understanding of sheepdog culture. 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.

Some years back I talked to a lovely man, in his sixties, a veteran pet owner, very dog savvy, who was distressed at having to put down one of his dogs. The dog was a puppy farm reject, a cocker, stunted, hermaphrodite and epileptic. Yet the owner had heart enough to cherish the dog, except that it also suffered from out-of-character aggression. That was the final affliction which meant the dog had to be put down. This dog was deliberately bred. The dog, and the owner deserve answers.

Once I asked a special friend why she was so sensible "because I hate unnecessary suffering" was her very sensible answer. This is really the only answer. Yes, we may be seduced by canine "eye-candy" at Crufts, or at the American equivalent, Westminster, but it is like soft porn. Just as a guy's cute butt and dreamy eyes tell you little about the essence of the man, so too, a piece of canine eye-candy tells you little about the essence of the dog. Humans are too easily seduced by looks, but no sensible person sets up house with someone because they are a cute bit of eye-candy. Likewise that is not a good basis on which to choose a dog. If we pet owners lost our way for decades, it's also because we are human and often make the human mistake of being too easily persuaded that if everyone else believes something, then that something must be right.

Being a victim is a very boring role. Pet owners cannot afford to do nothing but exhibit our wounds as victims. We cannot really blame kennel clubs for all the suffering that has been caused by breeding dogs for appearance. Who gave kennel clubs their power? It was pet owners who believed that kennel club papers were a brand name that guaranteed quality, and pet owners who made puppy farms profitable. It is now up to pet owners to support those 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. A more open debate is essential to preserve and improve the breeds that we love. This debate has to include support and recognition for breeders who, like Border collies, have been obsessive about doing a job well just because, 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.

Review by Alison Lever


Thank you to Diana Attwood, Bodil Carlsson, Jemima Harrison, Heather Houlahan and Janeen McMurtrie for answering questions relating to this review. Their views do not necessarily reflect those expressed in the review.