Friday, October 05, 2007

Border Collie Owners Battle What Doesn't Work

In 1848, Queen Victoria was introduced to working Collies at Balmoral Castle. She became captivated by these intelligent dogs and brought a few back with her to London, where they became the rage -- hitting center stage just as the first dog shows were starting to take off in the U.K.

With the rise of organized dog shows between 1860 and 1890, a show standard was written up for the Collie by John Henry Walsh (aka "Stonehenge"), a man who himself did not own or work Collies, but who felt himself expert enough in nearly every breed of dog to write a standard by which they could be judged by appearance alone.

Needless to say, dogs were soon being bred to this "standard," which assigned large numbers of points to head shape and size, coat length, and coat color.

A Collies ability to actually work sheep or take commands was not allotted a single point.

A Border Collie rides herd on sheep in a chute.

In 1893, the fate of the Collie took another bad turn when the very young Czar Nicholas II sent 15 Borzois to the aged Queen Victoria. Intended as a diplomatic gift to curry favor with an aged dog collector who also happened to be his wife's grandmother, the Borzois more than left their mark, as they were soon crossed with Queen Victoria's Collies, thereby helping to create the strange-looking, impossibly narrow-headed dog we now know as "the Lassie" Rough-coated Collie.

By the 1920s, these non-working and narrow-headed Collies appeared to be a different breed from the working Collies found in rural parts of Scotland, Wales and the rest of the British Isles.

While the show dogs were increasingly homogeneous, the working dogs were of varied sizes and colors. Some had short coats and prick ears, others had longer coats and folded ears. The dogs themselves ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, and they came in a wide variety of colors from brown or red, to black and white, from dappled Merle to various hues of gun metal gray. In fact, almost the only thing all these dogs had in common was an obsessive devotion to work created by breeding worker-to-worker for generations.

"Big one, little one, handsome one, ugly ones, long-coated, short-coated: nobody gave a damn. How's his outrun? Can he read sheep? Can he move a rank old cow?"
. . . . - Don McCaig, Dog Wars

Needless to say, these were not the kind of questions being asked by the folks at The Kennel Club shows!

As a result of divergent selection criteria -- working ability versus conformation -- the smart, working, heterogeneous collies that had been so admired by Queen Victoria in 1848, were systematically selected out of The Kennel Club gene pool in favor of more homogeneous conformation stock.

Could these pretty show dogs herd a cat across a living room? Perhaps, but no one had much illusion that they would be of any real use on a mountain side with 500 head of semi-wild sheep to pen before an approaching storm. Shepherds looked elsewhere for their working dogs.

But what did that matter? How many people really had sheep to pen? Never mind that the sheep and the hill created the Collie. How could a dog be harmed if it still looked good? A non-working Collie could be bred to a non-working Collie, and it would still chase a stick. What else was needed?

In fact, by The Kennel Club's light, what mattered was not the dog, but the name. And so, in 1924, when the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) brought working Collies to Hyde Park for a sheepdog trial, The Kennel Club objected. How could these feral-looking dogs be called Collies, they demanded!? They had no resemblance at all to the dogs in The Kennel Club ring!

"Fine," the ISDS replied, and promptly began calling their working dogs by a new name: "Border Collies," to differentiate them from their non-working Kennel Club cousins.

A Border Collie at Crufts: a bored animal at a dog show started by a man that never owned a dog.

Much the same story played out with working Fox Terriers at about this same period of time (complete with Queen Victoria in a supporting role).

Here too a breed of working dog, was quickly wrecked by Kennel Club breeders focused on pure conformation standards within a closed-registry system.

And here too, the true working dog continued to live on in the countryside under a different name -- the Jack Russell Terrier.

Move forward 100 years, and the tale plays out anew, as the Kennel Club bureaucracy circles back to try to round up two popular working dog breeds that somehow (how?) slipped out of sight and off their roles.

"The Border Collie? The Jack Russell Terrier? Oh, we must have them."

Never mind that these dogs had already been pulled onto the Kennel Club roles. By now the Kennel Clun dogs were ruined beyond recognition and operating under a different name. Time to try again!

It is here, at the start of the Second Battle for the Border Collie that Virginia sheep man and writer Don McCaig begins his tale in The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club.

In its simplest form, McCaig's book is a battle between what works and what doesn't.

On one side you have the American Kennel Club -- a 19th Century organization driven by 19th Century genetic theories and an almost Kremlin-like bureaucracy in New York City. These people have the strange notion that all canine breeds can best be judged at a glance while trotting a dog around a ring on a thin string leash.

On the other side, you have a small collection of not-too-sophisticated farmers and sheep dog trialers; the very people who made the working collie what it is. These folks may not own a tuxedo or ball dress, but by God they know two true things; 1) that the show ring has never made a working dog, and; 2) that the mettle of a Border Collie can only be determined on the hill while working cattle, sheep or goats.

The fact that McCaig is a partisan in this war does not mean he has not written a fair book.

In fact, he is more than fair.

While he mentions some of the breeds ruined by the Kennel Club's love affair with closed registries and show ring standards, he does not catalogue them (or their ills) to the extent he could.

Nor does McCaig open up both barrels in order to blast the AKC' for their sordid history as puppy mill profiteers.

Instead, McCaig's book focuses on the straight-forward history of the "Border Collie War" of the 1990s, leavening historical chronology with short divergent tales of his own working dogs, Silk, Moose and Harry.

McCaig does a pretty fair job of puncturing the American Kennel Club lie that they "only register dogs," and that it is individual breeders -- not AKC policies -- that are responsible for the general decline in pure-breed quality and performance.

In fact, McCaig notes, the Kennel Club does far more than register dogs. It also mandates that all AKC breed be maintained in a closed registry which almost guarantees mounting levels of inbreeding.

The AKC also prohibits performance tests as a requirement of winning a championship, and they will not allow a club to ban puppy mill or pet store registrations which are a large part of the AKC's bread-and-butter business plan.

The staff of the AKC have forced the rewriting of show standards (as they did with the Labrador Retriever), and they will not allow a breed club to mandate a health check as a condition of registration, even if the breed has a serious, pervasive, debilitating, gene-based health care issue such as deafness, cataracts or dysplasia.

In fact, as McCaig makes clear, the AKC is really not interested in power-sharing with a strong breed club. If a strong breed club already exists outside the AKC, they are not willing to do much to woo its support in order to have them join the AKC.

It's much easier -- and safer -- to simply create a new club from whole cloth; a simple matter of finding a few dozen people who are anxious to "get in on the ground floor" with a new AKC breed.

These new AKC converts are likely to already believe that dog shows are the beginning-and-end-all in the world of dogs.

What does it matter that geneticists have said that the AKC's breeding scheme is unsound and bad for working dogs? They will be careful and breed smart.

So what if the AKC is a major engine driving the puppy mill and pet shop trade of dogs? If the AKC was not pocketing the cash, someone else would.

And who really needs working dogs any more anyway? Sheep herding with dogs is an anachronism, and fox hunting has been banned in the U.K. The modern world is all about fly-ball, agility, and Frisbee. If the dogs have a little less obsession and drive, they will still be fine for that.

And, so the AKC charges ahead and does what it wants.

When the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club (founded in 1954) turned down AKC overtures because the AKC would not allow their Club to deny membership and registration to puppy millers and breeders that sold their dogs to pet shops, the AKC simply created its own Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club to compete.

When the Border Collie folks said they would greenlight AKC admission only if there was a performance standard, the AKC would have none of it.

When the Jack Russell Terrier folks opposed a too-limited conformation standard and maintenance of the breed in a closed registry system with no limits on coefficients of inbreeding, the AKC simply rounded up a collection of breeders who cared more about blue ribbons and green cash than the future of this working dog.

McCaig gives a nod to these other dog battles, of course, but his concern is the Border Collie.

McCaig details an AKC in which both officials and staff are secretive, arrogant and clannish. They think nothing of omitting facts, telling lies, and stretching the truth. When asked to explain their intentions, they become a collection of Know Nothings, and when asked to sit down to see if common ground can be found, they express outrage that -- after 100 years of wrecking dogs -- the entire world is not willing to roll over and give them the benefit of the doubt on their say-so alone.

After all, they will tell you, they are the experts on dogs. What, you don't believe it? Well, just ask any of their all-breed judges who claim they can judge the value of a sheep-working dog at 40 feet, never mind that they themselves have never seen a sheep.

Ask any one of the terrier judges who have never dug four feet to a fox, or carried a shovel out of their own backyard.

You want to to know about whippets and greyhounds? Well the AKC has experts on chasing plastic bags on a string. Who would know more about running dogs than people with experience like that?

Though McCaig's book is brutal in its accounting, his tone is generally dispassionate and he sticks to the facts.

In fact, I would argue that McCaig's book is actually generous to the American Kennel Club.

Recognizing that the organization is behaving irrationally -- spending money to lose money, winking at puppy mills, capriciously changing breed standards, and ignoring the wishes of both breed clubs and dog owners alike, he wonders what is going on. How could people, whom he generously supposes are neither evil nor stupid, be so terribly misguided?

He dismisses the notion that it's all about money. He says it is not -- in discussions with the AKC they never mention money, and they seem offended that anyone would suggest theirs is a business (never mind the Madison Avenue offices, high salaries, black-tie galas, and plethora of cross-promotional activities with dog food companies, veterinarians, and dog toy manufacturers).

McCaig generously suggests that the AKC is guided by something else -- a vision that can best be described as religious in nature, since it seems to operate both independent of fact and based on faith alone.

And what is that faith? McCaig writes:

"Throughout the fight, I kept stumbling over a simple truth without quite seeing it: dog fanciers and their creature, the AKC, really do believe that what is most valuable about any dog can be judged in the show ring, that the show ring is the sole legitimate purpose and reward for all dog breeding. They even believe, against all evidence, that the show ring 'improves' breeds."

And, to give credit, McCaig cuts them a little slack about their belief system. He even tries to identify in -- at least a little bit.

"The AKC's faith in the show ring is no more implausible than the fourth-century creed I recite every Sunday in the Williamsville Presbyterian Church."

goes on to note
that while AKC dog show folks really do believe a dog is all about looks, the AKC staff is motivated by something else in their eternal quest to pull ever-more breeds into the AKC show ring.

"When AKC staffers argued with traditionalists that they should abandon their venerable snobberies and recognize every breed they could, the staffers were just doing what staffers have done since the time of the pharaohs; increase their importance by swelling their organization."

And so, in the end, McCaig tries to humanize the AKC. He does not forgive them their lies, their pettifoggery, or for what they have done to the Border Collie and other working breeds, but he does try to see the world through their eyes.

Unfortunately, it's still not a pretty picture.

One big issue seems to be that the staff of the AKC feels that their power in the world of dogs is slipping from their fingers.

The United Kennel Club already registers more breeds, and other for-profit dog registries are popping up left and right.

The American Press Corps (from Time magazine to ABC's 20/20) have informed everyone that AKC dogs are more likely to have specific genetic defects than run-of-the-mill pound puppies.

And with their recent disastrous attempt to form an alliance with Petland, everyone now knows that a huge portion of AKC's bottom line comes from the registration fees pocketed from the sale of "misery puppies" cranked out by commercial puppy mill breeders.

Slowly, the glow is coming off the rose. So what to do?

Well of course, your double down your efforts and continue doing the same thing! Isn't that so often the way?

So how does it all end?

When the smoke and fog of war lifted, it turned out that both sides had lost the Border Collie War.

The Border Collie had lost because they were now just one more dog within the American Kennel Club where they were to be judged on looks alone rather on the brains, obsessive drive, and bidability that make them truly unique in the world of dogs.

The American Kennel Club lost because they not only activated a permanent (and growing) base of opposition outside of the AKC, but also because the public was apparently not deceived by their shennaningans. Ten years after the Border Collie were first drawn into the AKC, that organization registers only 2,000 border collies annually; only a tenth of the dogs the American Border Collie Association registers.

And while McCaig notes that the AKC has twice the number of herding trial events as the American Border Collie Association, the AKC events are poorly attended because "ordinary citizens seem to understand what's real and what's not."

At least for now, it seems, common sense has won out.

The same can be said in the battle for the Jack Russell. Not only is the AKC version of the dog not as popular as the AKC had hoped it would be, but it is no longer even called a Jack Russell Terrier. Meanwhile, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America continues to prosper and thrive as the largest Jack Russell Terrier registry in the world. It's focus: to preserve and protect the Jack Russell as "first and foremost" a hunting dog.

And so, as George Santayana might have predicted, the world of working dogs has come full circle.

The AKC once again has drawn into its folds a type of working collie (and a type of working terrier too), and put them on the fast track to ruin in a closed registry system with a pure-conformation standard.

Within 50 years, these new AKC dogs will be as as close to their working cousins as chalk is to cheese, and 100 years from now, if the AKC is still around, the whole process will probably start all over again. Nonetheless, I suspect the working Border Collie and the working Jack Russell Terrier will continue to endure.

Bottom Line: Buy and read Don McCaig's new book about the battle for the Border Collie. It's a good book, and an important book. And, truth be told, there are damn few of those.

A Proposed New AKC Class: "Working Dogs Ruined by the Show Ring"



Anonymous said...

Ordered!! Blogged!!

Anonymous said...

I came to read you due to the similarities between your fight and the Border Collie fight. I'm a working BC person myself, although I'm down to one pet at the moment. My dogs come from working stock, and when I bred them, it was to other working stock, and the pups mostly all went out with Basque sheepherders and cowboys running cattle. None are registered, although the trials people have their own registries too. The stockmen I know just want a dog that will work, and if it doesn't, it's a quick shot to the head. Pulls that one right out of the gene pool. (The houndsmen I run with have similar policies, although they keep track of bloodlines more than I did.)

FrogDogz said...

I've ordered my copy, as well.

I own and breed show dogs, but I admit - and it's a hard thing to admit - that I have no faith in the show ring, and little respect for it. However, time and again I have heard that no one will 'take me seriously' as a quality breeder if I give up (in disgust, might I add) on showing.

My dog was bred to be a companion - that's all. Unfortunately, our standard has created a dog that's riddled with health problems, which is hardly, in my opinion, something that the average person looks for in their companion.

So, I whine about it, and breed my own version of Frenchies, which still do a fair amount of winning. Given my druthers, I'd only compete in agility and obedience, but I don't quite have the guts to chuck it all in yet. I'm almost there, though...

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Have ordered my copy and eagerly await its arrival.

Now that the border collie is eligible to compete in CKC (Canadian Kennel Club) events, including confomration, will be interesting to see who chooses to do so and with what kind of dogs (sport collies, AKC show collies, etc).

The one question that bugs me, that none of the KC folks can answer is: how does affiliation with the KC improve the breed?

Heather Houlahan said...

Thanks for posting this Patrick. I'll be reviewing Mr. McCaig's book for my breed club newsletter. We're trying to keep our working dogs off the ACK radar screen as long as possible -- if we can stave it off long enough, perhaps they'll implode with the force of their own arrogance before they turn that lidless eye at our 'umble beasts.

Two weeks ago the ABCHA held its National Finals in Gettysburg, PA. I attended with my bitch and her four month-old pup, who are not border collies, but can pass, (because, who cares what they look like?) Unlike dog shows, agility trials, etc., the competing dogs and spectators' dogs were all well-mannered. Many (including several terriers and feists) wandered at will about the handlers' tent, minding their own business. It was not evident to whom they belonged.(Because, who cares about that if they are behaving themselves?)

I had the pleasure (among many others) of watching my friend Mr. McCaig and his June qualify for the semifinals, performing a refinement of farm work that is so delicate, so precise, so exacting, that it engenders the definite idea that what one is seeing is impossible. A dog and a human being cannot do what I am seeing them do.

I have never, not once, had that thought at a dog show.

Heather Houlahan

Anonymous said...

I am far from an AKC fan and I have to agree with most of what was said here. I do, however, have to give credit to the Border Collie Society of America (AKC parent club) as they have fought to try and keep the idea that the Border Collie is a working dog in the forefront, including rewriting the standard and getting the AKC to agree to keeping the registry for Border Collies open indefinitely. If Border Collies are going to be an AKC breed, at least there are those trying to work within the system to keep them as they should be.

PBurns said...

No one is knocking the AKC club (not McCaig, not me), but let's not kid yourselves than you can rewrite the standard in the AKC, eh? That's the point of the debate: the standard for a Border Collie is the WORK not its looks. The AKC will NEVER, NEVER allow a performance standard. NEVER.

Nor will they maintain an open registry forever. The registry will close as sure as God made ittle green apples. If you think the AKC Border Collie Club can keep the registry open forever, then you are simply confused as to who runs the AKC; it's not the breed clubs. It's nameless faceless staffer in New York City. New York City? That's no place for a border collie!



Luisa said...

Gack! Beth --- members of the ABCA and the USBCHA are keeping the border collie as it should be.

If the members of the AKC breed club gave a rat's patoot about the authentic border collie and the complex mix of traits that make it such a remarkable animal, they'd stop title-chasing long enough to demand a closed studbook.

The registry will close as sure as God made ittle green apples.

Patrick, from your lips to God's ear. And the sooner the better.

colliesrtops said...

The comment about Queen Victoria being smitten with the Border Collie is incorrect. She was smitten with THE Collie in his original form. Just as Border Collies undoubtedly have Collie, Whippet, and Springer Spaniel coursing through their veins, the Collie continued to be a very useful dog in a variety of work and as a superior companion dog. Agriculture, and the demand for dogs as herders, has dramatically decreased beginning with the late 1800s. While I realize that that the Border Collie is now obviously the best trials dog, he is not a good pet in what is now a predomiantly companion dog society. We are working on retaining the herding instincts and abilities of the Rough and Smooth Collie, cousin or possibly even ancestor to the Border Collie, but we will probably never be at the intensely bred obsessive compulsive behavior of a typical trial BC. Granted, a small number of breeders introduced Borzoi into the Collie,but it is felt that it did NOT make it into the mainstream of the breed. If you would see a wellmade and useful "working" Collie, they a a great breed that can any type of work -- they are believed to be the most versatrile breed around. I want a dog with an off switch, not one thaqt has OCD or is a biter as are some BCs.I get tired of BC people trashing the Collie.

Anonymous said...

Someone referred to the Collie (aka Rough Collie, Smooth Collie, Scotch Collie) as a non-working dog. This is far from the truth!. Since the early 1900s, more and more were primarily companion dogs. HOWEVER, there were still pockets of these dogs being worked on a daily basis as farm dogs. Only a small handful were trialed such as Ormskirk Charlie who is represented as one of the Supreme Champions in the book, The Blue Riband of the Heather! Not everyone has sheep, and so many more dogs are now trained and trialed in obedience trials, agility, etc. Better some type of work or sport than none at all! For more information, refer to This is an organization founded in 1979 for the promotion and preservation of the Collie as a working dog including herding.

FYI The two top winners of the first herding trial held in Bala, Wales were Collies, not Border Collies. The owner of the dogs was S.E. Shirley, a founder of The Kennel Club and a breeder of Collies.

PBurns said...

Ha! The fact that you and the American Working Collie Association seem to think agility is work tells you a lot. Here's a hint: a border terrier can do agility. A schnauzer can do agility. A spaniel can do agility. It is not what a collie is supposed to do. As for AKC herding certificates, they are not much are they? In these things, it's hard to get a shot of the dog without a fence in the picture less than 12 feet away. Not much open-field herding, eh??! Again, we see border TERRIERS that have won AKC herding titles. It's a bit like an elephant painting a portrait of itself -- the fact that a few animals have been taught how to do this for the amusement of the tourist trade in Thailand does not suggest this is a good way to make a living in the portrait art business. And a show collie is NOT a working dog anymore. In fact, the show collie people do not even seem to know what work IS anymore!!

As for the notation that "not everyone has sheep," that is true enough, but more illuminating is the fact that the folks who DO have sheep (and there are scores of millions of sheep in this great big world) has an kennel club collie working them. The Kennel Club "scotch" collie is now a dog for hair dressers and suburban matrons who want to win weekend ribbons from show-ring enthusiasts who do not own sheep themselves. Your evidence to the contrary only afffirms and underlines the case.


colliesrtops said...

The Collie IS still a working dog, but his repertoire has expanded ten-fold since his creation centuries ago. At hias core, he is still a good all-around farm dog whether it's herding, guarding hearth or fold, killing rodents or other pests, taking care of the children, or acting as a gun dog for his owner when he isn't working stock. My father-in-law's family used to have their Collie pull a card with large milk cans to help out. A friend who is disbaled has her Collie pull a travois full of wood to help keep the winter's fire going and, when going to market, he pulls his cart filled with groceries for her. His calm demeanor and bright intelligence provide confident reassurance that she needs -- he is helping her to be as independent as she can. Another friend's Collie protected her senior husband whenh he went down in front of an aggressive ram. Spectre took charge and moved the ram away from Jim and into a nearby paddock. It does not end, and simply gets better! I say have faith -- you would be surprised at what a well-bred dog with good genes can do whether it be Collie or Border Collie. And, as far as farm ers who have flocks of sheep...I think that region must have a lot to do with the acceptance of sheepmen (or women) to use dogs. Here in Indiana, at least my area, no one uses sheepdogs on a regular basis. When asked, some dismiss it while others laugh it off. Perhaps it's because they are small flock owners who have never been convinced of the value of a good stock dog. Perhaps ignorance, or perhaps no one in their family has ever had such dogs. Oh, and by the way -- herding is not the only type of work. We could get into a pissing contest but I'm simply saying that there are those who say that sled dogs (such as those running the Iditarod are the hardest wofrking dogs on the planet, while others say hunting dogs are, hering dogs, etc. Simply said, is infintessimal types of work and sport for our dogs to do with or for us. I think they should all be recognized and accepted (except for the horrid bloodbath called dog fighting!). That said, the abilioty of dogs to flex and adjust and evolve helps to ensure their survival in this human dominated world. I admire Border Collies, but do not want to deal with the typical obsessive-compulsive behavior that comes with the package.

Matthew said...


if you want a dog with an "off switch" that is fine. I want a dog with an “off switch” as well. That is why I choose not to keep collies, and keep a different breed… one that is supposed to have an off switch.

Trying to dumb down the collie and then say, "Well that is the dog that suits -my- needs." is selfish in the extreme, and detrimental to the breed. The first, best and highest calling of this particular breed is that of obsessive stock tending. If you want a different kind of dog, that is perfectly fine. But don't try to change a beautiful working breed to suit -your- needs if they are not aligned with the breed’s truest working purpose.

Is a Ferrari still a Ferrari if you put a 3 cylinder Honda engine in it? No... it will still look like a Ferrari, but a Ferrari, it is not.

Anonymous said...

Matthew -- I'm talking about THE Collie, not the Border Collie. Any trait bred for in exclusion of all others oftentimes/usually leads to detrimental results. Examples include breeding for nothing but bone and subtsance, too much angulation, too much coat, and extreme behaviors (such as frantic obsessive-compulsive behaviors and excessive eye which locks a dog onto non-herding/predatory inanimate objects such as a leaf). In the case of the Border Collie, the OCD behaviors that make for a flashy trial performance also cause the dog to worry livestock, work themseves close to death in a nonsensical fashion, and can make them poor candidates as companion or performance sport dogs. I wouldn't care spo much ezxcept that BC people often trash the breeds of others, when their own breed has a lot of problems itself. Remember the saying, "Poeple who live in glass houses..." BC people were against AKC registration, but it isn't AKC registration that changed the breed. It was the choice of PEOPLE who either wanted a trial dog, or a show dog. Look at show-bred BCs. They have drmaatically changed during the past 35 years especially in England, istraloia and New Zealand. Now, there IS a separation in the BC breed between show and trial bred dogs. Look at the ads of US and Canadian show bred BCs -- the conformation is beautifl, but they are now show dogs. They are prettier dogs, with a level topline, nice head and expression, pretty eye (NOT the ugly glaring "eye" used in trials), good bone and subsance, and a calmer demeanor. They would probably suit the average citizen as a pet. Otherwise, look at all of the BCs being dumped at selters and rescue...why? Because their extreme herding behaviors which have gone beyond what is needed on a farm or ranch. The trial-bred BC is too much for most peopleto handle. I'm an experienced behaviorist and trainer, and I prefer not to work BCs. And, guess what, I do drive a Ferrari and I have no problem in handling it. But, I need to have control of it. Not all people can do that. I don't want to see extremes bred for in any breed.

Simon 'Squiffy' Falla said...

Great Blog...but, where does Adam Telfer come into this?...I mean Auld Hemp was THE Border Collie