Donald McCaig: The Mark Twain of Dog Writers - Modern Farmer

Donald McCaig: The Mark Twain of Dog Writers

In 1970, bestselling author Donald McCaig got a little land, a few sheep and a sheepdog. Before long, he was traveling far and wide to test his and his dogs' shepherding skills.

Donald McCaig and his border collie Fly.
Photography Andrew Jenner

Modern Farmer: So you’re blurbed as “the Mark Twain of dog writers” on the cover of your new book.

Donald McCaig: Well, any dog writer who has a sense of humor gets that title. They’re generally sort of a humorless bunch.

MF: Really?

DM: It’s a little like theological disputes. There really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the Baptists and the Presbyterians, but don’t tell either one of them that. Well, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between people who use nothing but clicker training and people who use correction methods — but don’t tell either one of them that. Boy, they get mad at each other. I mean real mad, to the point of just one shade this side of libelous. It’s a funny world.

MF: What came first for you, writing or sheepdogs?

DM: I published my first book before I had these dogs, and had no idea that I was going to get involved with them to this extent. When I got my first one, Pip, we had sheep already. I got him to help. Then I wrote a book about him.

We writers fall in love easily. You have to be very interested in something and then get very interested in something else. I thought it was going to be the same thing with these dogs. I just figured that it was going to be another one of the passing enthusiasms. And, as you can tell, it ended up being a real passion.

MF: What was the first piece of writing you ever published?

DM: Lord. Poetry, probably. The first piece I ever got paid for, however, was my 1/286th part of a National Book Award. The Whole Earth Catalog won the National Book Award, and I had an article in there about snowshoes. So I have 1/286th of the award. I did a page count. I think they paid me 10 bucks.

MF: How did you end up all the way out here?

The land was cheap, and we were young and ignorant. Young and ignorant ain’t bad. You can get a lot done if you’re young and ignorant.

DM: I just started rolling and this was as far as I got. We were looking for land along the Appalachian chain and hit on this. One thing we were looking for was clean water, and clean water back in the late ’60s was rare. But these streams here are clean, and the land was cheap, and we were young and ignorant. Young and ignorant ain’t bad. You can get a lot done if you’re young and ignorant.

MF: How did you start farming?

DM: If you have a farm, one of the things that has to occur to you is “Well, maybe I’ll farm.” So that’s what we did. A couple neighbors, sentimental fools, gave us two old sheep. They were the last two from their flock. One of ’em was called Grandma. Should’ve been a clue.

Anyway, come August, I was out here looking at ’em, and I realized that one had this horrible case of mastitis. Her udder was just all swollen up. So I called the vet, and I raced to town and bought the udder injector and came back. Tackled her. We didn’t have any facilities, didn’t have a dog then. I put the medicine into her, massaged her bag and felt very proud of myself as a sheep farmer, until about two hours later when she had a lamb. [laughs] That’s how we got into sheep farming. Just pure ignorance. Leap before you look.

MF: Eventually you got clued into dogs?

DM: Sheepdogs change the way you farm. This winter, when we had those nasty snows, I’d go out there with Fly. I’d be standing there in the snow, and I had no idea where the sheep were. I couldn’t see ’em. I just sent her, and directly, I would have the sheep and could feed ’em. You bring the stock to the feed instead of bringing the feed to the stock. That’s a huge difference.

There may be a farmer who really looks forward to feeding sheep, but I haven’t met that fellow. It’s boring. If you’ve got a dog, at least you’ve got somebody to complain to. I don’t know one commercial sheep farmer who doesn’t have a dog. Some might be what we’d call “routine dogs” ”“ all they do is go out and get ’em. They can’t do any of the tricky stuff, but that’s not what most farmers need.

There may be a farmer who really looks forward to feeding sheep, but I haven’t met that fellow. It’s boring. If you’ve got a dog, at least you’ve got somebody to complain to.

MF: Do you consider Fly a worker or a pet?

DM: Well, both, really, which is fairly common. For most production farmers, I’d say probably 75 percent of their sheepdogs are also house dogs. Some are straight kennel dogs. The advantage of a kennel is essentially more control. The only time that they’re loose is when they’re with you, either working, training or exercising.

The disadvantage is that they’re in a bubble. There’s lots of stuff they don’t know. I just took Fly to Europe. She can’t be the dog in the bubble. She has to be able to be in all kinds of complicated human circumstances.

MF: It’s fascinating that using sheepdogs is a farming method that hasn’t been changed by technology.

DM: I just can’t imagine having sheep without having a dog. It’s so much easier, and it’s so much more interesting. And it’s so much nicer to go out there with your friend than to go out there by yourself, feeling sorry for yourself. It is the easiest way to handle livestock without stressing ’em.

It’s gentle. It has to be. The sheep have to cooperate with this. You’re not forcing them to do anything. They have to want to do it. If you push ’em, they panic. So it has to be gentle, it has to be quiet, it has to be slow. I didn’t really begin to understand sheep until I had the dog. It’s about the relationship between the sheep and the dog. You have to know what the sheep are thinking at the same time that you know what the dog is thinking. If you just ignore the sheep, you’re not going to get very far.

MF: Do sheep like sheepdogs?

DM: If you take a young dog that is inexperienced out there, they’ll just run like hell. Sheep are very good at predator evaluation. They look at a [mature] dog and they say, “This dog is sensible. It’s gonna tell us to do what we don’t want to do, but it isn’t gonna hurt us.” And they look at this other [young] one and say “This dog’s lost its marbles!”

There’s a balance. The sheep move off the dogs because the dogs possess enough predatory movements that the sheep respond to them, but not so much that they terrify them. They say, “The neighborhood’s just kind of going to pieces, Martha. Let’s move over here.” It’s an intricate relationship and it’s one that runs very deep in both species, and it varies from sheep breed to sheep breed, too.

MF: Talk about trialing.

DM: It’s kind of a natural thing if you really are interested in these dogs, and if you have the time. Most commercial farmers really haven’t got the time to do it. They’re just running from pillar to post, you know. At trials it’s far more common to see farmers like we were, where some of the income came off the farm but other income came off the writing and that kind of stuff.

As you’re learning to train these dogs it occurs to you that this is a test. So we started entering trials and, as usual, doing terribly. And after a while, kept at it and did a little bit better. I suspect this is true of every sport ”“ when you reach a certain level of accomplishment it’s more fun. It can be very frustrating because a lot of the things about the dogs are really counterintuitive.

The sheepdog trial was designed by practical farmers with the explicit purpose of improving the shepherd’s dog. As a consequence, the tasks very much do resemble real work at the farm. It’s not a rule-bound thing. There are elaborate guidelines for judges, but what is finally at test is practical shepherding.

One of the differences between pets and working animals is that sometimes the working animal is right and you’re wrong. That’s a big difference. Every now and then, the animal has the moral authority.

MF: What’s been your biggest trialing achievement?

DM: The win in Wales [at Hafod Bridge ”“ a practice event before the World Championships] is the one I like to brag about. Winning trials is more fun that losing ’em, but I seem to lose more than I seem to win.

MF: What does having a working animal teach you about being a person?

DM: One of the differences between pets and working animals is that sometimes the working animal is right and you’re wrong. That’s a big difference. Every now and then, the animal has the moral authority. If I give a wrong command out there, and the dog fails to take it, is the dog wrong for not taking my command, or am I wrong for giving the wrong command?

MF: What’s the biggest misconception the general dog-loving public has about sheepdogs?

DM: One time I sold a pup to a neighbor of mine. The pup started breaking out and chasing cows. He said to me, “I always thought you put that stuff in ’em. I didn’t know it was in ’em whether you wanted it or not.”

It’s in ’em whether you want it or not. Desire to do. Desire to work. It’s unformed. If you don’t show ’em what you want ’em to do, they’ll figure out something for themselves. If you don’t have some work for ’em, they don’t make real good pets. They make troublesome pets. That’s the sort of dangerous conception people have. They look at ’em and they say, “Oh, I can get this dog and I’ll have this nice little couch potato that I can jog with.” No, you won’t.

(This interview has been edited and condensed)

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