Not far into Mr. and Mrs. Dog, Donald McCaig says of himself and his talented “Blockhead” of a Border Collie, Luke, the male of the title: “I’ve never done as well with Luke as a better handler might have, but Luke adores me. When I go out at 2 a.m. to check lambing ewes, Luke comes too. When I wake with the night sweats, Luke wakes. He thinks I am a better man than I am. If I sold him, his earnest doggy heart would break.”
It is a tribute to McCaig’s capacity for self-reflection and humor that he is willing to admit his own failures as an occasionally over anxious sheepdog handler. He knows that dogs are not machines and we are not infallible. Ultimately all you can do is the best you can do under sometimes disastrous circumstances.
Upon reaching 68 years of age half a decade ago and finding himself with two quality border collies in their prime, McCaig decided the time had come to launch a campaign to fulfill his dream of the worlds.
Traveling 34,000 miles in his twenty-year-old car, McCaig, Luke, and June (Mrs. Dog) compete in sheepdog trials around the country hoping to compile enough points to secure invitations to join the American team in Wales. At the last minute, June garners the invitation, and Luke gets to compete as McCaig’s second dog.
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If his best-selling Nop’s Trials is McCaig’s contribution to “lost dog” literature—think of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang—Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies is his homage to an equally venerable tradition, the “the dog road trip,” of which John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is perhaps most famous. McCaig is on the road not only to qualify for the worlds but also to broaden his dogs’ experience of different sheep and environments—in a fundamental sense to educate them so they will be better able to cope with situations and varieties of sheep they have not seen before.
Although June pulled them through on cumulative points for the year, her most memorable performance came at a trial in West Texas when she decided to forego herding sheep and goats in favor of far bigger game--a huge, ground-thumping oil exploration seismograph truck. “June wanted, nay NEEDED to fetch that big thumping, flickering weirdness,” McCaig writes, “and nothing I said—neither my shouts nor redirects—swayed June from her goal.”
Once abreast of the thumper, June realized she had not a clue what to do with it and returned to McCaig, but there were no longer any goats to fetch. Her assault on the seismograph thumper had disqualified her.
Hoping to further his own education, McCaig periodically detours from the sheepdog circuit to visit trainers known for their skill in training methods they have developed or adapted. Along the way, he correctly points out that the battle between practitioners of what we might call punishment-based training and those who prefer awards-and rewards-directed training is now more than 100 years old.
For much of that time it appears that punishment has ruled—aversive training, as it were. McCaig himself is something of a follower of William Koehler, the Disney animal trainer from the mid-twentieth century, who developed a method of obedience training relying on long lines and various chain collars and leashes. Even today, most people attending obedience classes probably follow some version of Koehler’s method.
McCaig is looking for training epiphanies; bright moments of understanding or enlightenment that will help him better train and manage his dogs. He meets animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, and attends sessions given by trainers using the dog’s ‘innate’ drives, rewards, the Koehler method, and shock collars, which so engage him that he adopts the industry’s terminology and calls them e-collars.
Over the years, McCaig and I have agreed to disagree about shock collars, and in future postings, I hope to examine different approaches to training. For now, I’ll just say that people searching for a blanket endorsement of shock collars or other training devices or methods will not find them here—with the possible exception of the thirty-foot long line, which need not deployed in punitive fashion.
McCaig’s book arrived shortly after I had visited my favorite trainer, Lourdes Edlin. She is one of those gifted people who will have a dog literally eating out of her hand within minutes of meeting it. She understands that to train a dog, she must learn what motivates it—food treats in many cases, but in others a ball or Kong® or simply praise.
Edlin said that she was growing tired of teaching people basic obedience—sit, stay, heel, come—and becoming more focused on “teaching people how to do things with their dogs.” The basics would follow from that.
I was reminded of Edlin’s comments when I read McCaig’s reflections on his forays into the world of training. “Though each trainer believes his or her method is best, I don’t think it matters which method the pet owner adopts so long as that owner finds a capable mentor and sticks with the training,” he writes. ”Eventually you will learn to see your dog and when that happens the richness of your and your dog’s lives will tell you what to do next.
“Neither Luke nor June was ever trained to ‘heel’ nor ‘sit’ nor ‘stand for examination.’ They have never retrieved a ball or dumbbell. They rarely play with each other and never play with other dogs. Yet they would be mannerly in any human environment. Not because they were ‘trained’ for good manners, but because they were properly socialized, exercised daily, and have a job—stock work. Mannerliness is a by product of that training.”
A few paragraphs later, he concludes, “Have the highest expectations, do the work, and your dog can walk at your side anywhere on earth. He’ll become the dog you’ve empowered to change your life. As Luke and June have changed mine.”
McCaig’s account of the trio’s trip to Wales is informative, amusing, and somewhat sad. The two males manage to win a local Welsh competition, the South Wales Sheepdog Trials Hafod Bridge, where McCaig penned his sheep brandishing his Stetson® hat instead if the traditional shepherd’s crook. A revolution was doubtless averted when McCaig confessed that he simply had deemed his crook too difficult to manage on the flight across the pond and he had neglected to obtain one. Clearly a telescoping shepherd’s crook is in order.
Luke, June, and McCaig washed out in the first round of the big show. McCaig blames himself for failing to meet his expectations, but he should not.
He’s written a fine book and made a most excellent life with Mr. and Mrs. Dog. Moreover, they have had many an excellent adventure. What more could a dog or human want?
This blog originally appeared on Psychology Today. Reposted with permission.