The Story of a False Story

Donald McCaig, author of the just-published Mr. and Mrs. Dog, has been contributing a series of pieces on a little sheepdog named Fly. In this latest piece, McCaig indulges in a little dog psychology—always a perilous undertaking with someone who may be smarter than you. McCaig followers will want to know that Mrs. and Mrs. Dog has just been reviewed in the Washington Post. Read the review here.

This is the story of a false story.

We live and sometimes die for our stories; some benign (“God is Love,”"All Men are Created Equal”) others not (“lebensraum,”"separate but equal”). Among the false stories doggers tell are: “Registries don’t ruin breeds, breeders ruin breeds,” “Corrections are cruel,” and “Dogs offer unconditional love.”

We all have stories about our own dogs who are “natural outrunners” or who are “kind to their sheep” or “reliable around kids” or who “suffer from separation anxiety.” Some of these stories are true, others false.  Whichever, they color our expectations and the dogs’. They direct our training.

Last weekend Fly and I attended a Patrick Shannahan clinic in Maryland. Patrick is a fine, gentle teacher, and I learned from him, but my important discovery came watching a dog—not my own—trained by another trainer.

Backstory: when I bought Fly, Beverly Lambert told me a story about Fly and a Scottish trial man. Fly’s crate is her safe place and when she wouldn’t come out, her brand-new owner dragged her out and Fly bit him. Whereupon he got “harsh” with Fly and she responded by refusing to work for him. Period. A fully trained three-year-old open-trial winner gave up her career—not for everyone, Bev worked her, but she never worked for the Scot again.

Bev said something like, “You don’t see many Border Collies who’ll stand up for their rights.”

Good story. Dog is mistreated and removes the punchpowl. Brave Fly! The Defiant One!

When Fly came to me, she was a Wild Child and she wouldn’t work sheep. Period. Finally I tricked her into working and we’ve gone on from there. But Fly’s story was always: The Defiant One. Never mind in 30 years I’ve never seen one of these Defiants; never mind that while The Defiant One may lurk in some terrier genetic codes, it isn’t anything a Border Collie breeder would breed for. Never mind that she wouldn’t work for me—although I HADN’T dragged her out of the crate nor abused her. Fly had her story and I was sticking with it!

Backstory 2: After I’d had her six months we ran at Joanie Swanke’s in the Dakotas. Joanie’s outrun was four to five hundred yards blind through sagebrush on three range yearlings. You couldn’t see the work very well, and the three wild sheep broke 1-2, or 1-1-1 or broke back to the letout or over the ridge out of sight in a very big prairie.  One dog went missing and was recovered trying to fetch an antelope. It was very difficult work—so difficult that Tommy Wilson and Sly took twelve minutes to get the ewes to his feet. Tommy is a far, far better trainer/handler than I am.

Fly didn’t really want to outrun and disappeared at a lope. Since I couldn’t see I didn’t say anything, and directly she was behind her sheep, just a dot, and I couldn’t see well enough to read the pressure so stayed mum. As they moved past the letout, I couldn’t see well enough to command. I didn’t say anything until they were at the fetch panels. It was, the judge told me, the best outwork of the day, and the memory of it kept me going with Fly when good sense said quit. This story was “Dog so talented she could handle difficult work w/o help.”

Last weekend, both stories changed. Fly’s pup Rose was at the clinic, and she was her Mama’s daughter. If Rose had any genes from her sire, they weren’t on display. It was like seeing Basic Fly—absent all Fly’s training, work, and life experience.

Rose hated stress, and the balance point between necessary training corrections and losing her was unusually delicate—and that point shifted up and down the scale.

Linda Tesdahl had been training Rose for a year, and we watched while her owner and Patrick worked. Rose, like her Mama, is a piece of work. Talented but . . .er . . .

At the end, Rose was on sheep a hundred feet from her handler’s feet when he said, “That’ll do, Rose.” And Rose came off happily and straight to his feet! Which, in my experience, is really weird. Unless something really awful has happened, well started young Border Collies don’t want to/won’t come off their sheep. “Do you mean it?  Ah, you don’t really, really mean it! Just a minute more. I’ve come back partway, is that far enough? Don’t you want to send me again?”  We’ve all seen it. I said how odd Rose’s willingness to quit was, and Linda said, “She’s coming off stress.” Which was my Aha! Because 500 yards from me, Fly is perfectly willing to come off her sheep–just like her daughter. And both hate stress.

Story: Fly is thumped. Defies the man who thumped her by removing the thing (sheepwork) he cares about most. Great story. But impossible. How would Fly connect the thumping with working sheep? Even if she did, why would she later refuse to work for me?

So what’s the more likely story? If I were writing it, I’d continue after the thumping. We have a still angry handler. HANDLERS DON’T GET BIT! Fly is now chained in the stall. But the handler wants to end on a good note. He unclips Fly and takes her out to his training sheep, intending to get a brief gather and fetch, say, “Good Lass” and put her up. But he’s still angry and maybe she picks up on that and hesitates and he gets on her again—verbally this time—and Fly’s doggy mind is spinning and she shuts down hard. And stays shut down. In a brand new home with no anti-stress reserves (affection, safe routine) she shuts down. And Fly has learned that shutting down (like coming off sheep) removes the stress she hates.

No, its not as good a story (no movie sale), but it is more likely to be true.

So why’d she do so good on those range sheep?

Because she did it on her own—no handler commanding her. The most difficult sheep are much less stressful than her handler’s demands.

I’ll want to keep that in mind.