Donald McCaig

Donald McCaig is a novelist, essayist, poet and sheep farmer who gained recognition with his classic man-and-dog tale, Nop's Trials, which was followed by numerous other bestsellers, including Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and, most recently, Rhett Butler's People.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Shepherd’s Life

“Shepherd Wanted” ads in UK farming magazines often specify “Must be experienced. Must have two dogs.”

At the gather (when shepherds come together to bring everyone’s flocks out of the crags), James Rebanks writes, “The best men and dogs are sent to the hardest places,” and “Each of us is responsible for not letting any sheep break past us, easy with a good dog, impossible without one. Farming the fells is only possible because of the bond between men and sheepdogs.”

Rebanks was a fairly typical farm kid who loved working with his father and grandfather on their farm in England’s Lake District but for whom school was a boring waste of time. He quit when he was 15.

By chance he picked up W.H. Hudson’s 1910 classic, A Shepherd’s Life, expecting the usual silly misapprehension of the farmer’s “simple life.” But Hudson’s book was about land and work and men the dropout recognized. It was a book about him. Rebanks immersed himself in books, went back to school (finally to Oxford) and today, his farming is subsidized by his UNESCO salary.

The Shepherds Life is far from simple. It’s sheep and foxes and crows and roe deer and miserable weather and Rebanks’ children waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning, waiting until every last one of the animals has been fed. It is a beautiful, unsentimental life, and very, very hard.

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

Like his grandfather, James Rebanks loves the landscape but “his relationship with it was more like a long, tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair.”

The farm belongs to his children, too, and they are expected to help. One morning, Rebanks talks his daughter Bea through birthing a lamb. “She is small, just six years old, and the lamb coming (judging by its feet) is on the large side. But she grabs a lamb toe in each fist and pulls … She nearly stops when it resists her pressure at its hips, but she knows enough to pull it farther and get it out now so it can breathe quickly. She slops it down in front of the mother, whose tongue is already manic in its determination to lick it down. My daughter laughs because the ewe licks her bloody hands as she sets the lamb down.”

His grandfather’s dog, Ben, had been trained to “catch a single ewe on command without hurting it, holding the fleece without nipping the skin … But Ben was cheeky; he knew he couldn’t be caught by the old man, so he would taunt my grandfather by bouncing in front of him as they went to do some work, and my grandfather would shout blue murder at him.”

After the old man had a stroke, they brought Ben to see him. “He was so happy to see his beloved sheepdog that he cried.”

The Shepherd’s Life isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible.

It’s the best book I’ve read this year.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Only a Dog
Examination of the enduring bonds.

You didn’t know how much you cared. Hell, she was only a dog. Nothing special. A Heinzey-57 varieties. Just a mutt.

But she …

Six months after your dog died, you still can’t talk about her. You turn your face away, embarrassed and perhaps ashamed of your tears.

Only a dog.

On one particularly bleak morning, Anne told me, “I wake up and Zippy’s gone and I wish I was dead too.”

“Only a dog”: that stupid, heartless diminutive comes straight from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.

Why did the ancient Semites seek to disrupt the profound, ancient connection between man and dogs?

In legends of other native peoples, the dog is a benign and helpful creature; sometimes he’s God’s companion, sometimes the guardian spirit of the underworld. Maria Leach’s wonderful God Had a Dog lists 70 native gods who had or used a dog.

Early nomadic Semitic peoples needed dogs for hunting, watchdogs, war and to defend their all-important flocks. The Midrash counts Abraham’s sheep-guarding dogs as part of his wealth.

But Semitic writers never once praise the dog’s virtues. The dog’s fidelity and courage go unremarked. He is absent from the 23rd Psalm, and at Christ’s nativity, when those terrifying angels brighten the night sky, the shepherd’s dogs don’t bark.

I tuned into an Evangelical radio broadcast whose preacher instructed children, “Sure, you like old Spot and you must be kind to him, but remember, children, you have a soul and old Spot doesn’t.”

This doctrine troubles some devout Christians who hope to see their dog in an afterlife and, scripture to the contrary, presume they will. Some trust that since theirs is a loving God, He will slip their pets past Saint Peter. More consistent Christians assume they will be so busy worshipping God in the afterlife that they won’t miss their dogs—that their love for Spot is merely an earthly love, no more important than their affection for their Chevy Impala.

Early Semites worshiped gods of fertility and gods of war: Dagon and Hadad, and Baal, “the rider on the clouds.” Often cruel, these gods required propitiation, but you could do business with them.

These capricious, somewhat manipulable gods might make the barren wife fertile, bring rain, or cause an enemy’s spear to miss its mark, but they never shared with human worshippers their god-attributes, neither their power nor their all knowingness nor their ability to live forever.

Aspiring to a god’s powers was a bad idea; see Icarus.

Belly full, protected by the watchful dog lying beside him, man began to dream of the impossible. We can trace the painfully slow, irresistible progress of this dream through the years of the Old Testament’s creation.

Although they hedged their bets with Dagon, Baal and the occasional golden calf, some Semites began to dream of a single god. One can read the Pentateuch as the history of how Jews became monotheists. They swapped out a host of familiar, approachable gods for one remote, powerful, all knowing, loving but extremely cranky Deity.

Why did God love a species that often denied Him, defied Him and sometimes ranked Him second after that golden calf?

God loved weak, sinful, forgetful, rebellious man because, “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth …” (Genesis 1:26).

 “After our likeness”—that brilliant link made monotheism possible. Just as there is one man, so there is one God. The worshipper is commanded to become “like” God (imitatio Dei). And surely, if we are “like” God, can’t we share some of his attributes, even His immortality?

Emphatically, God did not make dog in His own image. Monotheism asserted an extreme human singularity that has engaged philosophers ever since: “Man, the featherless biped.” “Man, the rational animal.” “Homo faber.” “Man the animal that makes promises.” Our determination to distance ourselves from other animals—indeed, from nature itself—has powered eco-catastrophes that endanger all life on Earth.

When God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures, he simultaneously banished the dog from his special place at man’s side.

The betrayal of dog by man—the “Lost Dog” story— is one of our oldest, most poignant tales. When Odysseus returns home after years of wandering, no creature recognizes him except his dying dog. “Infested with ticks, half dead from neglect, here lay the hound, old Argos. But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”

Gelert was the favored hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn ab Joweth . One day, Prince Llewellyn noticed that Gelert had left the hunt. When the prince got home, the bloody Gelert greeted his master exuberantly, but the prince’s infant son wasn’t in his crib, and blood splattered the walls. The enraged prince promptly slew Gelert. Moments later, he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.

There are at least 30 recorded versions of the Gelert story, the earliest before the Christian Era.

“Lost Dog” is paradigmatic; retold so many times in modern literature, it seems to be the only dog story we need to tell. White Fang, Lassie Come Home, The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs, my own Nop’s Trials: all stories of sundering and loss.

In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” an overwhelmed husband abandons the family dog beside the road: “He saw his whole life a ruin from here on. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog … A man who would get rid of a little dog wasn’t worth a damn. That kind of man would do anything, would stop at nothing.”

We rewrite and reread this predictable, profoundly satisfying story, although in each recounting, we humans are cruel betrayers and dogs are our moral superiors.

The story satisfies because it is true. Yes, we betrayed the dog.

Our old partner, the animal who ensured our survival, who slipped into our genetic code like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, became “only” a dog, no more privileged than hogs or sheep. We needed to spurn him because the dog threatened the same dreams his watchfulness made possible.

Freed by dog to dream of God, freed to yearn for God’s attributes, to escape the tragedy of human mortality, man gave up his dog for the greatest vision man has ever had.

Yet the dog remains eager—pathetically eager—to renew that 100,000-year-old genetic partnership from which he has been forever banished: Lost Dog.

Man didn’t abandon his dog cheaply. He didn’t sell him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Man asked the greatest reward any creature ever asked of his god: immortality.

We lost our dog to live forever.

Excerpted from Mr. & Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, forthcoming from University Press of Virginia (March 2013). Used with permission.

Culture: Reviews
Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?

“Border Collies,” as a Scottish shepherd once told me, “have been bred for 300 years to work with us.” Bred to work sheep over difficult terrain to their humans’ faint whistled commands, Border Collies’ strong work ethic and trainability have made them excel in work shepherds could never have imagined. Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? tells of two littermates with important but very different responsibilities.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a native New York dog trainer who wrote the bestselling Mother Knows Best. Denise Wall breeds, trains and trials sheepdogs, and fondly recalls her grandmother’s farm, where every new stockdog was “Dolly.”

Two years ago, Carol took puppy Sky home to train as a service dog while Sky’s littermate, May, remained on Denise’s farm to learn the sheepdog’s traditional trade. In alternating chapters, each author shows us how her pup matured and learned its life work.

Taxis, buses, restaurants, gyms, street people, jampacked sidewalks, frantic dog parks, MANY odors, hooting horns, police strobes: that’s Sky’s Manhattan, where the young dog learns to anticipate and relieve his owner’s sudden, debilitating pain. Since Carol’s Crohn’s disease can flare up any time, Sky never leaves Carol’s side. Carol describes their connection: “The intimate relationship between me and my dog gave me back what having a disability took away.… Instead of feeling alone, with Sky at my side, I felt part of the human race, ready to face anything even when I was ill. There’s no prescription, no man-made pill that can do what a dog can do.”

From her Tennessee sheep farm, Denise writes: “It was important that I recognized that she [May] was trying to do the right thing, even when things didn’t go exactly right … the young sheepdog needs time to develop all her instincts and learn how to balance them with self-control in order to become a good worker.” May made the grade; at two years old, she qualified for the National Finals Sheepdog Trials.

After Sky was fully trained as a service dog, the littermates had a glad reunion on the farm where, for the first time, Sky worked sheep.

Carol and Denise have spent their lives training dogs, and Sky and May’s stories are lucid, insightful and sometimes surprising. The reader will discover two wonderful dogs.

As a child, I was enthralled by Jack London, Eric Knight and Albert Payson Terhune. Somehow, magically, the stray mutts my family took in became like White Fang, Lassie and Lad of Sunnybrook Farm. Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? stands comparison with those classics. 

Culture: Reviews
See Spot Sit: 101 Illustrated Tips for Training the Dog You Love
Skyhorse Publishing, 120 pp., 2008; $12.95
See Spot Sit

Since Carol Lea Benjamin and I share the (unofficial) world’s record for “Most Border Collies tucked under a café table in Greenwich Village,” I am not an impartial reviewer. But I know Carol’s dogs, and dogs are the test of any dog trainer.More on her dogs later.

Carol Lea Benjamin’s Mother Knows Best derived from her brilliant intuition that we should train our puppies as their dam trains them. Mother Knows Best is one of the two or three best-selling training books ever written—and has helped owners train hundreds of thousands of dogs.

Mystery fans will also be familiar with Carol Lea Benjamin’s Shamus award– winning series starring detective Rachel Alexander and her dog Dash.

She’s an International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Famer, and has won countless honors from the Dog Writers Association of America.

See Spot Sit is a dramatic evolution from Mother Knows Best. It’s the first dog training book which instructs with cartoons. Carol’s charming, funny cartoons illustrate, amplify and comment upon her simple, practical training advice.

Tip #59: “Teach your dog to walk at your side.…Walking on a leash shouldn’t be a tug of war. If your dog pulls ahead, turn and walk in the opposite direction. If he lags behind, crouch and call him to you, arms held open for him.”

Tip #85: “Hang out with your puppy. The time you spend with him early on —training, playing, watching and learning— will pay you back more than you might imagine.” Trainers often suggest you play with your dog. Carol tells you how to play with your dog.

Tip #91: “Throw the ball far but not high. Dogs can get injured if they jump too high.”

Tip #93: “Play dead. Choose games and tricks that your dog does or can do naturally.Watch your dog at play. Does he love to bark? Teach him ‘speak,’ ‘count,’ ‘add.’…Is he light on his feet? Born to jump? Teach him to jump over your leg, over a stick or through a hoop.”

Carol lives a human/dog intimacy most dog owners (and many dog trainers) can scarcely imagine. Carol spends every minute of every day with her service dogs, Dexter, Flash and Sky (in training).When Carol’s swimming at the gym, Flash lies quietly at poolside. In restaurants, hotels or flying to Paris, he’s at her feet.

Carol Lea Benjamin explores her unique experience with simple and—I repeat—practical tips to enrich your dog bond. She’s no ideologue, and never badmouths trainers with different methods. Carol Lea Benjamin is only concerned about you and your dog.

Now, about that shared world record: Carol; her husband, Steve Lennart; and I had dinner outdoors at Pastis. Like most Greenwich Village cafés, the tables are jammed together and are so minuscule we scarcely had room for three plates up top and three sets of feet underneath. When we finished and rose to go, our three Border Collies emerged. The waitress was startled. “I didn’t know there were dogs under there,” she said.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Starting with Stockdogs

It depends on what you want. Suppose you have a pet dog you love to death and want to do more with. Suppose your dog has “shepherd” or “sheepdog” in his name, maybe his breed is among the AKC “Herding Group”. Or maybe your dog is a “shepherd/mix” from the shelter.

If your dog is an AKC “Herding Group” purebred, it’s easy to find training and AKC “herding” trials. ASCA (the Australian Shepherd Club of America) lets more purebreds compete but If you’ve got a crossbred – or don’t know what your dog is, The American Herding Breeds Assn is your best bet.

At any of these events, you’ll meet people as crazy about their dogs as you are. You might earn a ribbon or initials after the dog’s name – if nothing tonier than “HCT” (Herding Capability Tested). These programs aren’t difficult and you and your dog will have a ball.

In fairness, I must warn you against traditional stockdog work and trials. Learning how to handle and train a sheepdog takes years. You’ll put miles on your car and your dog. You’ll be out in the foulest weather. You’ll need to understand not only your dog – no cinch – but sheep, cattle or goats too. Do you really want to be on a first name basis with a three hundred pound Suffolk ram?

All your most shameful mental qualities: your impatience, egotism, vagueness, vanity and inattention will be painfully and publicly obvious. Your dreams, fantasies and love for your dog will count for nothing. You won’t earn titles or championships. Ribbons and prize money will be rare and humiliations commonplace.

Welcome, sucker. If you’ve got this far, you’re probably too hard-headed to accept my most important advice: IF YOU WANT TO WORK A STOCKDOG BUY A TRAINED STOCKDOG. A started sheepdog (can fetch sheep, goes left or right on command and is starting to drive) will run you two grand, a trial winner as much as fifteen, a 9 or ten year old retired trial dog mightn’t cost more than a good home for him. Since you can buy the cutest sheepdog pup for five hundred, why spend the money?

Because in the long run, the high dollar dog is cheaper. Because you need training and THE TRAINED DOG TRAINS YOU.

If you ain’t got the genes, you ain’t got no thing

Any dog can be useful on livestock: I’d lay my Labrador Retriever in a gateway to block sheep. But a few breeds have this powerful genetic urge to work stock. Alas, most dogs from the “Herding Group” are bred for dog shows and aren’t much more useful than my Labrador was Your best genetic bets are Border Collies, Kelpies, English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds – in that order. Shun show dogs and be deaf to breeder guff. If you don’t like the way mama works stock, don’t buy her pup.

You’ll need a plastic stick to extend your reach, a tie chain for your dog while he’s waiting to work, a leash, a collar with your dog’s id, and a 2$ plastic whistle which you won’t be able to blow although your kid will. You won’t need treats, halters, snootloops, clickers, choke, prong or ecollars.

Your Sheepdog Guru

Stockwork often seems counter-intuitive and even with a trained dog nobody learns without a mentor. If you stick with AKC, ASCA and AHBA events, mentors are plentiful. T’were it me, I’d see my mentor’s dogs work before I signed up for his/her instruction.

If you’re determined to learn traditional stockwork, usbcha.com lists every sheep and cattle trial. Thats’ where you’ll find local, traditional trainers. After your pup is six months old, enroll him in your mentor’s sheepdog handler’s clinic.


Your mentor will escort you and Shep into a small ring containing three or four docile sheep. You’ll unclip his lead and all hell will break loose. Shep will go after the sheep, the sheep will split and bolt, the mentor will be saying something as you’re praying that Shep won’t kill some wooly creature. SHEP WON”T LISTEN!!. HE’S ON ANOTHER PLANET!!!

That’s how everybody starts learning. Fun, huh?



Because it’s beautiful and because Shep will think it’s beautiful too. From the start you’ll have glimpses; momentary communication so intense, your and your dog’s mind will be one mind. Because one day you’ll be in difficulties and your dog will rescue you. Because one day last year I sent my Luke for sheep half a mile away, across three ridges; then down a steep backslope and Luke disappeared from sight for one minute, two minutes, three . . . four . . . and reappeared – so far out there he was a dot, but exactly where he needed to be. That tiny black dot was the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen.


Good Dog: Activities & Sports
The World Sheepdog Trial—2008
Donald, Luke and June run against the best

It is easier to bring a camel through the eye of a needle than two sheepdogs into Britain for the World Sheepdog Trial. I’d had great help from my vet, the USDA office and two friends who’d brought their dogs into the UK in the past. Despite all this, I fretted. At the previous World Trial, three American handlers hadn’t done things perfectly, and were turned away. This year, a New Zealand handler would go to Heathrow luggage to learn that his dog had been sent back to New Zealand.

We boarded the plane at Washington/Dulles (after the TSA boobies body-searched my dogs), and 11 hours later, I was in the Charles de Gaulle rent-a-car lot pushing a luggage cart stacked with dog crates, and my duffle on top. Fifty kilometers later, Luke and June finally got out. We spent the afternoon in Calais.

It was very far from my parked car to the ferry terminal. I dragged a huge Vari Kennel and had June on a string lead; I crated her in the check-in area. A second huge crate, and Luke. When I turned to go for my duffle and carry-on, the ticket agent said, “You cannot leave your luggage unattended.”

“The dogs will guard it.”


Her supervisor inspected my papers, and a bus took us deep into the bowels of the huge car ferry echoing with tire rumble and engines. I left Luke, June, crates and duffle in a wire cage. Upstairs, the lounge was beeping, blinking gambling machines and hundreds of noisy tourists. The Channel was invisible in the drizzle. Next thing I knew, someone was shaking my shoulder.

Below again. Cars and lorries were filling the ferry, and I told a workman I didn’t want to go back to France. Another bus brought the crates past customs, but Luke, June and I had to walk.

At 10 PM, the dogs and I passed through a dim, cavernous hall, me dragging 80 pounds of luggage. June greeted the British officials, who were so busy admiring her they didn’t ask for my passport.

As we disassembled the crates, the Pakistani taxi driver showed me a photo of his Doberman. “Stella is my everything.”
We passed through Dover’s medieval streets to my B&B, which was a fourth floor walkup. That night, the dogs slept like the dead.

I’ve been working, training and trialing sheepdogs (a.k.a. Border Collies) for 25 years. I’m a fair handler, and Luke and June are better than I am. June’s a reliable worker who schmoozes people mercilessly. Luke is brilliant and desperately anxious to please, but I wouldn’t trust him with toddlers. They are seven going on eight, in their prime, and I’m 68 (past mine). The tri-annual World Trial won’t be held again until 2011.

If not now, when?

Sheepdog trials are a genetic strategy to reward and produce useful farm and ranch dogs. Sheepdog trials don’t title people’s pets. Real trials are open to any dog, any age or sex, any registration or none. Easy to enter but extremely difficult to win.

The World Trial at Dinefwr Park in South Wales would be two days of qualifying dogs from 22 nations on three separate fields; 42 dogs competing in the Saturday semifinals would be winnowed to 16 for the finals on Sunday.

In the qualifying and semifinals, the dog must outrun 450 yards and get behind five sheep and lift them: “Omigawd,Martha. It’s a dog!” “Call me Shep, ladies. Move along now.”

The dog fetches the sheep through freestanding panels to the handler and turns them behind him. The dog drives the sheep through the drive panels, perhaps 200 yards away and across the field, 300 yards through the crossdrive panels before returning them to a 40- yard mowed ring. Now, the handler can help the dog. Two of the sheep wear bright red collars. Man and dog shed and control two uncollared sheep, and urge all of them into a 12-by-9- foot freestanding pen. They pen the sheep, then return to the shedding ring to single and control one of the collared sheep. 15-minute time limit.

A week before the trial, Luke, June and I booked into our farmhouse B&B.
I’d come early to acclimatize us to the new climate, topography, creature and plant smells, and dialect. It had rained all summer. Welsh roads were flooding; rivers were out of their banks; and I was in rain jacket, pants and rubber boots much of the time. Luke was a longhaired canine mud pie.

With my Welsh friend David Rees’ help, I worked Luke and June. Each dog trialed 10 times and to my surprise, and to the Welsh’s astonishment, we won one.

Phone lines were busy. “An American has won the South Wales. And he’d never run it before. And he worked the sheep with his hat! He hadn’t a crook.”

The president of the South Wales Sheepdog Society awarded my trophy. Although he wore a tweed suit, dress shirt and tie, his thick fingers and handshake were a farmer’s who’d worked all his days.

His niece said, “In the 102 years of the Hafod Bridge trial, no American has ever entered. And an American has defeated the Welsh.” She paused for a beat. “Do you not use crooks? In America, I mean.”

It had been a rough week for the dogs. They’d been 12 hours with an airline, in the back of a cramped car four more and in the belly of an ocean ferry for three, and next morning they’d traveled from Dover to Wales. Whether training or trialing, they’d risen at daybreak and, oft as not, had eaten in the car. Walked mornings and evenings by flashlight and, since they were wet and muddy, they slept in crates in a stall. They’d had no Dog Time—without requirements, commands or leashes, just dogs alive in the world, sniffing their sniffs, investigating, going where they would.

So we went to the beach. Evidently dune sniffs are different from farm sniffs, because June and Luke’s snouts were glued to the sand. On the beach, they rolled and rolled, tongues lolling, being just as silly as they wanted to be. Grinning, June suggested to Luke that they might “play,” but that stick-in-the-mud wasn’t interested. They dashed, they rolled, they ran like the wind, they had a big time. Like tired children, they slept all the way home.

At 6 PM, Luke, June and I waited on a Llandeilo side street with 12 other Americans in bright-red World Team jackets. It was pouring rain. Television sound men tangled our leashes. Cameramen lay prone on the cobblestones to get close-ups of the dogs.

The drum major bellowed and the bass drum thumped and, in a rag-tag, intensely doggie fashion, we paraded alphabetically—Australia, then Austria, through to the United States and Wales. Clots of handlers and sheepdogs paraded through the narrow streets. More television, more cameras. Llandeilo is a small village, but there were thousands of cheering spectators.

School children waved paper flags they’d made in class, and Boy Scouts saluted. An ambulance corps in bright lime-green uniforms gave us a cheer.

The United States team was applauded, but moments later, the crowd roared when the Welsh team appeared.

My dogs hated it.
The trial was an enormous undertaking: food venders (including “Mobile Indian Cuisine”), a Renault exhibit, crook makers, artists, a cider- and perrymaker, an outdoors clothing tent. One could buy Australian boots, electric fence or Border Collie figurines. The vegetable stand was piled high with carrots and onions. Land Rover was the main sponsor, and you could have bought one Thursday, but it wouldn’t have done you any good. No car could move in this mud.

Buses brought spectators. We handlers got in before the turf was broken.

Luke and I ran on qualifying field number two, the 14th runner.

These were Welsh Mountain Sheep from one flock, brought off the hill three days previous, and they were extremely skittish. In the first 13 runs, only one dog settled them. Sheep spotters stationed a man and dog between the sheep and the fetch panels to hold them until the competing dog could get behind.

It was Luke’s kind of course—outrun 500 yards, 300 to the drive panels, 400 crossdrive.

Two judges watched from a portable tower as the announcer said, “Donald is from Williamsville, Virginia, in the States. Williamsville has a population of 16, presently 15 now Donald’s in Wales.”

Before Luke reached them, the sheep bolted and overran the spotter and his dog. In 30 seconds, we were toast. Luke never did control them, and when he brought them into the shedding ring, his eyes were hot and furious. What had been an ugly run was about to become uglier, so I tipped my hat to the judge and Luke and I retired. We were applauded for knowing when to quit.

The next afternoon, June was to qualify on field three, under the broken parapets of Dinefwr Castle. The field was a steep bowl, with the handler’s post at the bottom—a 400- to 450-yard outrun. While you could send to either side, left gave June more room. The sheep had been run yesterday on this field, and those who had been penned were less frightened of it. Those who’d previously evaded the pen knew something too.

We couldn’t press these sheep—June must be well behind.

The crossdrive was dangerous. The sheep had to scramble down a steep bank, which started them running. Five speeding Welsh Mountain Sheep are hard to steer, and most handlers missed the crossdrive panel, usually low.

The next hazard was the split. Handlers had trouble sorting the two (of three) uncollared sheep from the two collared ones, and June isn’t a particularly good shedder.

Qualifying runs were in the high 190s of a possible 220.

“Ms. Fiona Robertson from Quebec, Canada, will be our next competitor. Will Donald McCaig from Williamsville, Virginia, please stand by.”

As we walked to the handler’s post, June said she knew where the sheep were, and we exchanged good wishes. I sent her and clicked my timer: 15 minutes.

June made a fine outrun, absolutely nothing wrong, and I whistled her down when she was behind her sheep.

June brought the sheep quietly. I downed June again—and again. These sheep liked to be worked at a brisk walk, nothing faster.

Five Welsh Mountain Sheep approached the fetch panels a little quicker than I liked, but when I downed June, they veered, so I kept her on her feet. The lead ewe had a mind of her own. She intended to escape and end this sheepdog-trial nonsense. I turned the sheep behind me in stages: “Away June/Down!” “Away/Down!” “Away/Down!” The turn wasn’t tight (two points off per judge) but it served. En route to the drive panels, we had a bobble (one point per judge) but I downed June, held my breath that the sheep had passed through the panels, and flanked my dog for a perfect turn. June flanked too tight, and the sheep picked up the pace. Three dark green rushes marked the proper crossdrive line, and June’s sheep were a little high, but not much (one point per judge); then they broke into a run. HANDLER ERROR: I’d seen a dozen runs here, and if the sheep started running at this spot, they kept running, but I downed June (briefly), hoping they’d slow. When I regained my senses: JUNE TO THE LAST-MOMENT RESCUE. June’s always been fast, and she caught them right below the crossdrive panels.

A rescue turn often sends the sheep shooting across the panels to miss on the high side. But at the nanosecond June turned them, I whistled and she bent them properly through. A little awkward (three points per judge), but we were still in the running.

We had 11 minutes left for the split, pen, single—a month. June is an uninspired shedder, and I’d never done the “two unmarked sheep” shed before. June on one side, me on the other. Sheep hate crooks pointed at them, and I used my (borrowed) cane to rearrange them. I had my two, but a collared sheep joined them at the last second. Since they didn’t leave the ring and I didn’t ask June to shed, it’s a small error (two? per judge).

And immediately, we’ve two unmarkeds perfectly willing to split, and June marches them off.

I get the pen gate open, its rope in my hand. But as the sheep approach, with eons of time and thus far a qualifying score, I get stupid and forget that ewe with a wandering eye. These sheep are man-shy, and the dog has to do most of the work at the pen. June can do it; she’s biddable. I can flank her by inches.

Instead, I attempt a strategy that hasn’t worked for any of the 50 runs I’ve watched over the past two days. I decide to put pressure on the sheep, wag my cane and then, like good little sheepies, they’ll go in.

That lead ewe wouldn’t. And once she ran around the pen and ran around the pen and ran around the pen…. Twice, we penned four sheep, but four out of five doesn’t count.

That’s sheepdog trialing for you. I’d dreamed of getting into the semifinals and through to the finals. By definition, dreams are unlikely.

The day of the finals was glorious; bad weather had lifted and the light was incandescent. Dinefwr Park had dried out, and when we arrived, cars were pouring in. The 400-seat restaurant would stay open until five o’clock, and trick riders, raptors, search and rescue teams, and celebrity chefs were doing demos.

A friend from the Hafod Bridge trial cried, “Ah, Donald. I have a crook for you. I went to the riverbank and cut it.” It was a thick stem with a thumb rest. I thanked him and asked could I buy a grandstand pass.

“Nay. Nay. Sold out weeks ago. Go ’round up the hill. You’ll see better from there anyway.” As I left, another Welshman hissed, “Donald, you don’t have a ticket? Here then. But don’t tell anyone I got it for you.”

The Reverend Canon W. Roger Hughes led the Sunday service. He announced the location so those who might wish to come, could; those who didn’t probably needed to. It was a theme service. Rev. Hughes described the lost sheep (my paraphrase from memory): “Everyone thinks of that sheep as a fluffy little lamb, but she’s not. She’s been in the briars and the thickets, she hasn’t been shorn, and she’s probably got manure tags. She’s smelly and unpleasant. Quite possibly the flock has cast her out, yet Christ the Shepherd seeks her—whether she wants him to or not…”

After the blessing, I sat in the grandstands beside David Rees. Roger Hughes came thundering, “You know, David, when I was talking about the lost sheep, I was talking about you!”

David replied, “I’m no’ the lost sheep. I’m the black sheep.” And everyone, including Roger, laughed.

The finals are a more difficult version of the National Trial. The handler must send his dog to the right to find, lift and fetch 10 sheep to a stake inside the fetch panels. Then the handler gives his dog the “Lookback” command, and the dog abandons these sheep and outruns again on the left for a second group. As the first sheep drift or graze, the dog brings the second group through the fetch panels to join them.

At the lookback, the dog has already worked hard to gather and fetch his sheep, and now the handler is saying: “Not these; some other sheep.” It’s a dog conceptual problem. Abandoning gathered sheep is a sheepdog nonstarter, but if the dog has total faith in the handler, he’ll do it.

Handler and dog then drive and crossdrive, with 20 sheep to squeeze through each set of panels, not five.

Next, sheep, handler and dog come into the shedding ring for the hard part—the International shed.

The American handler beside me said, “I really wanted to be out there, but right now, I’m glad I’m not.”

Here’s how you do the International shed. You’re on one side of the sheep, your dog’s on the other. Using the dog as a gate, you urge some sheep—four, five or six—to drift away from the others. These sheep will serve as the “draw,” the magnet to which sheep shed later will go.

You amble around, urging uncollared sheep toward the invisible gateway before you open the gate and a few more gallop off to the draw. You never, ever want to find yourself with one uncollared and five collared sheep. Should any collared sheep escape to the draw…oops…start over.

The first handler, John Wood (English), walks out with Moe. Moe, Spot, Tweed, Rock, Cap, Rob, Roy, Floss, Bill, Jim, Mirk, Recca, Sammie, Nell, Eira and Joe: The best sheepdogs in the world are working-class blokes.

There were seven Welsh finalists, five Brits, a Norwegian woman with a dog everybody was watching, a New Zealander (he’d been here three months practicing), a Dane and a Dutchman. Two Americans made the semifinals but didn’t get through to the finals.

Four judges pointed faults: Rushed lift? Bad line on the second fetch? Collared sheep stepped out of the shedding ring? Dog out of contact?

Richard Millichap and Cap were in trouble. The draw had drifted over a rise where the last uncollared sheep couldn’t see them. His magnet was gone. Worse, Richard had shed that single off once: She’d gone 50 yards before galloping back to the collared ewes, leaping over Cap in the process. That uncollared ewe was frightened and determined; she knew exactly what Richard intended and wanted no part of it.

Ten minutes left, a fine run to this point, but Richard and Cap’s sheep clung tighter than a chastity belt. Richard worked quietly, Cap patiently maybe eight of those 10 minutes when, suddenly, as if by magic, that single popped out of the others and ambled up the hill, staring at 20,000 people as if asking, “You’ve come here just to meet little old me?”

Richard and Cap penned to tremendous applause.

No, they didn’t win. Welshman Aled Owen and Roy took the solid-gold shepherd’s whistle, the World Trial trophy and the check for £3,000, but Richard and Cap didn’t exactly lose either.

An ancient, hunchbacked shepherd had been at all the trials, and a Dutch handler had told me, “That fellow was sitting in the top row of the grandstand at the International, his chin on his hands on his crook, fast asleep. His crook slipped, and if someone hadn’t grabbed him, he would have rolled right down the stairs.”

On the trial field, the next sheepdog was running swift and soft as light.

The old shepherd’s eyes shone as clear and innocent as a boy’s. “They are brilliant, aren’t they?” he said. “Absolutely brilliant. The dogs.”