By Donald McCaig. University of Virginia Press. $22.95.
OK, I admit it. I have never attended a sheepdog trial nor interviewed a sheepdog handler. But the talented McCaig opens a window here into the intricacies of the sport, painting a vivid portrait of two devoted dog teams’ forays into the big time.
McCaig takes the reader from the Texas Sheepdog Winter Olympics to the 2008 World Sheepdog Trials in South Wales with a far-reaching tableau in between.
An author and sheepdog trainer in Virginia, McCaig details his adventures with June and Luke, emphasizing the need for positive re-enforcement training, often referring to the stern methods used by the famed William Koehler from the 1960s through the ‘80s. In that context, McCaig devotes an entire chapter, “Behaviorism,” to dog-training philosophies, from Koehler’s tactics to positivism and even e-collars, noting many literary references.
“Sheepdog trialing is a mental game,” he argues. “The dogs must understand and react appropriately to sheep and handler cues. The handler must unite cues from sheep breed, individual dogs and sheep temperaments, lay of the land, weather, and time of the day.” In other words, it’s a huge mind game.
Make no mistake about it, sheepdog trialing is like no other sport and is light years away from what we ask of our house pets and everyday companion animals, which McCaig calls a “Victorian phenomenon,” based on noted literary offerings.
A show breeder at Westminster once adroitly characterized his sport, “It’s my art. It’s like painting with genetics,” says McCaig.
“Like William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence,’ “ McCaig writes, “the appeal of sheepdog trialing is simplicity: nothing exists outside your run. Debts, sins, bad health, marital difficulties, all those insults life so willingly provides: disappeared. Donald’s ego dies into the intricate fluid man/dog/sheep task. Trialing is serial immortalities; each run, eternity in an hour.”
Unlike dog shows and obedience matches, no autocracy determines who can judge a sheepdog trial, says McCaig. “The trial host hires who he wants,” explains the author. “Since the judge may be judging his neighbor, the fellow he sold an expensive dog to last week, or even his own spouse, the judge’s reputation in the sheepdog community is the only check on all too human frailties.” He goes on to note that complaints about sheepdog judging are “rarely heard.”
McCaig qualifies for the U.S. team to compete in the World trials in Wales, detailing the combustible feel of travel challenges and requirements competing abroad in the Olympic Games of his sport. To be adequately prepared, he arrives 10 days before the meet to acclimate the dogs to the climate, topography, creature and plant smells, light and shadows local dialects.
“Welsh Mountain Sheep would be our adversaries/accomplices,” he says, “and we needed to understand their inclinations and fears.” Team McCaig adjusts nicely and becomes the first American sheepdog duo(Luke and McCaig) to win Hafod Bridge, a prestigious South Wales competition, in its 102-year history.
The World Trials attracts 210 international handlers, all seeking to get the edge on the other with a preliminary walk-through of the rain-soaked grounds, checking topography and what it would mean to the sheep and the dogs. And, of course, there is there is the critical handler element, too, that can spell the difference between placement and elimination.
McCaig’s rich study and brief, zippy anecdotes guide the reader through every step of Luke and June’s performances on the sport’s biggest stage, leaving you twisting, turning and hoping they will earn a placement.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dog” isn’t solely focused on sheep dogging, however. It’s about commitment to one’s dog. In that respect, the author emphasizes, “As Jack Volhard (noted trainer) says, ‘Training builds the integrity of your relationship with your dog.’ “
McCaig’s lively narrative, detailed descriptions and engaging scenarios will take most dog owners outside their familiarity and comfort zone into an adventurous new pathway they will find both culturally fulfilling and invigorating.