Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching Through Scotland for a Border Collie


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Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men is a hymn of praise to working border collies and their shepherds. The 'eminent dogs' are those collies which achieve miracles at sheepdog trials, and the 'dangerous men' are their handlers, shepherds who, like border collies, work 'because', because when you are working, you become whole, and for a short while after you have performed such a miracle, you understand the meaning of life.

Border collies come from Britain, and you can find them wherever there are sheep, especially in Wales and Scotland. They are also very popular as pets in Britain. Some of the most remarkable writing on border collies has, however, come from the United States. 'Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?', also reviewed on this page, is the story of two collie littermates, born in the US. Eminent Dogs is the story of Donald McCaig's quest in Scotland for a well-bred collie, already able to work, to help him on his sheep farm in western Virginia. His ancestors came from Scotland, first driven to Glasgow by the Highland Clearances, and then seeking their fortune across the water. The Clearances followed Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat at the hands of the English. First, there was a mass slaughter. Then big landowners evicted people from their homes because they were no longer needed. Sheep had become profitable, the landowners wanted to make money, and few workers are needed for farming sheep. There was work for shepherds in the Highlands, but most families had to leave for the cities. 

A working sheepdog needs both shepherd and sheep, while a shepherd cannot work without his dog, or sheep. A shepherd who has lost his job might also lose his home, and have to sell his dog. Farmers are often not keen on their shepherds taking part in weekend sheepdog trials, because shepherds are needed at weekends, and farmers don't always want shepherds training young dogs on their sheep. So it is partly a question of luck whether all three elements are in place. Working collies were never the dogs of aristocrats, and their fates have always been tied up with the fates of their owners. They have been bred to work, and if their owner has no work for them, they are likely to be sold. Some lucky shepherds manage to buy land and run their own sheep. Their collies can retire in comfort. But for many shepherds and their dogs, life has been precarious.

A border collie is a dog that works sheep in a particular way. The dog's worth is tested in sheepdog trials. Appearance counts for less than what the dog can do. A few years back, I was on a farm in southern England. The farmer had a 'pure bred' border collie kept as a pet, which was good looking, but ill-disciplined and brattish. His stockman had a working dog, a slightly built bitch, mostly collie and part spaniel. Every movement of the bitch's body language spoke border collie. The International Sheepdog Society registers sheepdogs, mostly border collies. When Eminent Dogs was written, registered dogs included two beardies among the collies. In theory, rottweilers can be registered, if they can do the job of a collie. This, for many people, turns the notion of 'breed' on its head, yet the essence of a dog lies inside that dog, not in its outer appearance.

In Britain, boxers are often goofy pets that never grow up, while pit bulls have acquired a badass mythology. Here, where I live in central Spain, both boxers and pit bulls work as cattle dogs. They are dignified dogs, with a sense of discipline. The nature of a dog lies inside, and is linked to what humans ask that dog to do, what the dog is bred for. Breed specific legislation in the UK defines dogs by their appearance, which makes no sense. A dog that looks like a pit bull is at risk, no matter what its temperament is like. I have heard Staffordshire bull terrier owners argue that their dogs are 'not like pit bulls' Yet in some parts of the US, anti-pit bull laws cover American Staffordshire and English Staffordshire terriers, as well as American pit bulls. The British popular press portrays pit bulls as badass dogs. Most Brits have never seen a pit bull, so many swallow the myths. Label a breed badass, and it starts to attract badass owners. Then along come laws that legislate against appearance, and responsible owners who have well-trained dogs with good temperaments are penalised. Breed, for many people, is all about appearance. Dog shows feed this myth. However, legislating against appearance is irrational, and breeding for appearance means losing sight of the essence of a dog, especially in the case of border collies. 

So the answer to the question 'what is a collie?' can undermine our notions of breed, and likewise, the answer to the question 'how do you train a collie?' can undermine our certainties about training. Often, as Donald McCaig notes, the owner is more ignorant than the dog. A well-bred collie knows what it is meant to do, while a novice handler may both mis-read the dog and the sheep. The work is too complex for simple commands, the handler simply imposing his will on the dog. Dog and handler are in a partnership. They need to understand one another, and both need to understand the sheep. This intuitive understanding comes from experience, from dog and handler being in tune with one another, and being in tune with the sheep, knowing what the sheep are likely to do, and anticipating them. Being a good working collie is about more than being biddable. A dog that is uncertain, constantly asking for orders and reassurance by looking back at the handler, is called a 'keeker'. One quality that Donald McCaig sought in his bitch was that she could think for herself. 

Dangerous men, the best handlers, cannot always explain what they do, nor how they do it. They do what feels right at a particular moment, with a particular set of circumstances, the angle of the sunlight through the trees, the way a ewe carries her head, and the position of the dog, what its stance tells the handler about its confidence, everything is weighed in a split-second, and the handler decides whether or not to send a command to the dog. The best place to train a sheepdog is with sheep, on the hill where the dog is meant to work. A while back, I read a review of another book, written by a winner of sheepdog trials, a 'dangerous man'. The reviewer chided this champion for not using a more 'scientific' method in his training. Yet who was being 'scientific', a man whose way of training was proven to work, or the reviewer, who had no experience working sheepdogs, and who simply had an untested hypothesis based on 'learning theory'? Cultural myths,

such as that operant conditioning is the only explanation for how dogs learn, can blind us to what is under our noses.

The world of working dogs is bounded by the work they do. Until recently, humans bred dogs  mainly to serve a purpose. Back in prehistory, dogs helped puny humans to become successful as a species. They helped us hunt and guarded our camps. As Donald McCaig notes in Eminent Dogs, we had more time to develop our civilisations because of our partnership with dogs. Eminent Dogs was published in 1991. In 2011, twenty years later, New Scientist carried an article with the same startling revelation (1). 


Dogs were created from wolves, but differ from wolves in that they have an inbuilt desire to be with humans. Some dogs like to be with just one, or a few humans, others are happy to be with any human who shows a kindly interest in them. In traditional societies, there was usually someone in the home, and dogs could often follow humans as they walked around on their daily business. When the human sat down, so did the dog. When the human got up and walked on, so did the dog. 


Today, many people have lost contact with dogs. There are fewer dogs on the streets, and people use cars more, so are less likely to meet dogs walking. Owners sometimes leave for work by car in the morning, arrive home at night, and the dog has either been confined, or free-ranging all day, with no human to be with. This is a particular problem in Britain, where people work long hours, but we do have a strong tradition of dog walks, the saving grace of our dog culture. During walks, dog and owner can begin to develop that communion which comes from sharing experiences and tasks together. 


Donald McCaig quotes Ingrid Newkirk, national director of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who argues that companion animals should be phased out, and we should enjoy them at a distance (p132). Yet many pet dogs today suffer precisely because their owners are at a distance, at work all day. Like Newkirk, many owners have lost touch with what it means to be a dog, which is wanting to share activities with us. 'I took him with me to the chip shop last night, and he really enjoyed the walk, he looked really happy' (2), an owner told me of his young dog, who spent most of his day alone, and was not usually walked when the owner got back. That dog was later euthanized for behavioural problems. Deprived of human guidance, the dog got up to mischief. He was part collie.


Donald McCaig ends his book with a warning that collies do not make suitable pets. It is true that collies need owners with commitment and dog sense, who are prepared to put a lot of effort into their dogs. Many people in Britain do keep border collies and collie crosses as pets. Some were bought as pups for agility and obedience work, others are rescue dogs. Collies don't like being in shelters. They can hear a whistle two miles away, and the clashing, banging and barking in a shelter can be a bit much. They need peace and quiet to rest, when they are not working. Sometimes collies are not entirely sane when they emerge from shelters. Given patience and owners who can tune into them, their sanity can be restored, but it takes skill and commitment. 


Today, pet owners cannot usually offer collies sheep to work, but they excel at other activities. Collies of course can win agility competitions hands down, but agility does not really engage a collie. Collies are obsessives, they will do the course fast and accurately, as if driven. They will also play ball games until their feet are raw and they collapse. They can learn hundreds of commands, or the names of hundreds of objects. But if you have a bright collie, mindless, repetitive activity is a waste of a fine dog. Try something more complex, such as scent work, which allows the dog to use his or her brain. Working on a challenging task with his or her owner allows a collie to become whole.


This is a book that will enthrall people who love collies. Eminent Dogs also has a lot to offer people who want to understand how humans can learn to communicate with dogs, and what 'training' really means. It's a classic, written from the heart, straight and true, and as fresh today as when it first appeared.  




1) Pat Shipman 'Creature contacts' New Scientist, Vol 210, No 2814, 28th May 2011 p32-36


2) For readers from the US, a 'chip shop' is a place where you can buy 'fish and chips'. 'Fish and chips' is a dish comprised of fish in batter, and French fries. It is sometimes eaten in the street after the pubs, or bars, have closed, out of the paper rather than using a plate. Glasgow chip shops will fry anything for you in batter, including Mars bars, a type of very sweet chocolate bar with toffee and fudge inside. Some people attribute high levels of heart disease in Scotland to lack of vegetables and a fondness for deep-fried Mars bars, though there is also a correlation between low income levels, poor nutrition and heart disease. Glaswegian humor is instantly understood in Belfast, Ireland, but is not always understood by the English. Nor can the English understand the connectedness that the Irish and Scots have with their history. As with understanding border collies, this is a knowledge that you can only really achieve by experience.


Further reading 


Donald McCaig has written numerous articles on dogs, several historical novels, and two works of fiction which have a border collie as a key character (see Dogs Fiction books). He has also written 'Dog Wars', an account of a battle between competing registries in America to define the border collie, by appearance, or by what the dog is able to do. He has a strong interest in British dog culture, and has advised Battersea Dogs Home on the best way they can help rescue collies. 


Meanwhile, Lue Button's Practical Scent Work, also reviewed on this page, is a very good starter book for learning scent work with your dog, whether or not you have a collie. Lucky collie owners may also be able to find a good trainer, someone who understands that collies are capable of far more than zipping round an agility course, and who can help you develop your dog's potential.