The Ballet


Any athlete, dog or man, must master the flowing gestalt of things, must comprehend physical meaning, must be slightly ahead of the action. Amateurs think of a sheepdog trial as static geometry: a pattern of invisible straight lines the sheep must traverse. That's mistaking the choreography for the ballet.

Often I've watched the beginners bring their dogs to sheep for the first time, and from the way the men walked, how they held their stiff bodies, I knew it was hopeless. You cannot train a dog if you're bumping into things all the time.

Nor can you train a sheepdog if you have too great faith in words. The mental model for too many would-be dog trainers is the drill sergeant: "Right About Face!, Left Shoulder Harms!" and dogs can be trained to those useless mechanical perfections. After all, that dairy farmer's dog did STAY, even when it killed him.

But such dogs are no good on the trial field, no good on the Hill.

The most important command any dog has is his name. "Pip" means, "Off!" "Pay attention!" "Think!" "Get up!" "Come here!" and half a dozen other things depending on how and when it's uttered. His name is the first word any dog learns yet, sometimes, when a sheepdog is sold, the new trainer will change the dog's name. It is common for a new trainer to change all the dog's whistle commands and sometimes reverse his flanks so "Away to me" no longer means "Go right" but now means "Go left." In a skilled trainer's hands the dog's confusion is brief.

One time Jack Knox was working a student's dog in a five-acre pasture. When you're "putting the flanks" on a dog, you wait until a dog wants very much to go left, is actually started left, and then command him to the opposite side. Since your new command violates the dog's previous training, his own developed sense of where to be, his balance, you announce to the dog that a new level of understanding is required.

This young dog went out, out, started to head its sheep, swung around to the left, Jack whistled "Go right," and the dog instantly took the command. When the dog had found a new balance point, Jack whistled the dog "Down." There is nothing particularly remarkable about this except one thing: This dog had never been trained to whistles.

When Jack, or any other top dog trainer goes out with his dog, he becomes pure communication. The trainer's body and voice are the command.

That this communication works for dogs who never take their attention off their sheep, rarely look at the man and, over great distances, cannot possibly see him, extends the boundaries of communication or perhaps affirms the primacy of intention over fact.

Much of J.M. Wilson's dog history occurred before the distemper vaccine, and his kennels were hit hard by the disease. Roy, thrice winner of the International, barely survived a bout, and many other fine dogs died. In 1935 Wilson was working a young part-trained dog on the Hill when the dog had a sudden fit and attacked him. Wilson tried to toss his coat over the dog to subdue it, but the dog savaged his hand and wrist until J.M. shot it. Wilson took blood poisoning and very nearly died. His was an excruciatingly painful wound. But when a reporter from the Scottish Farmer visited him in the hospital, "Wilson lay back on his pillow, his heavily bandaged hand outstretched before him. 'It was the most promising dog I ever had,' he said softly. 'The famous Craig was its father and his son was the double of him. He had the same markings, the same nature, the same tricks. . . .'"

Maybe Geoff Billingham is right. All dog training is regrets.

Wilson and his wife had no children, but J.M had proteges. Dougie Lamb remembers being in the beer tent midway through a National trial when J.M. came bursting in. Everybody set down their drams. In his powerful voice, J.M. said, "When I was young, I'd watch Sandy Milar because I could learn from him. Out there is a man you can learn from."

That man was Jock Richardson, who was as gifted with dogs as J.M. was and, perhaps, a bit kinder. Jock wasn't longheaded at all.

Jock Richardson grew up a poor city boy and came to livestock work after he was full grown. Before he took his first shepherding job, he trekked around the countryside with a stallion, offering him at stud. When Jock became a shepherd at Lynne, near Peebles, David McTeir worked nearby at Milton Manor and Johnny Bathgate tenanted Easter Dwyck. The three friends traveled to the sheepdog trials together. Up at Saturday dawn to do chores before they set out, they wouldn't be home again until dark. On the return trip, Johnny Bathgate'd get sleepy and curl up against the door, and David McTeir'd drive and Jock Richardson would ride in the back seat with the dogs, singing.

J.M. Wilson took an interest in Jock Richardson and gave him young dogs to train. When the young shepherd qualified Wiston Cap to run at the Cardiff International, J.M. took Jock under his wing. Now, J.M. was no drinking man. Jock Richardson was so nervous that day at Cardiff, he drank four bottles of (nonalcoholic) ginger beer.

Wiston Cap was a hearty black-and-white dog with considerable white on his face and big upstanding lugs--like his wartime ancestor Wilson's Cap #3036. Wiston Cap was twenty-one months old when he ran the International, and when he won it, it was about the same thing as a high school boy quarterbacking the American Super Bowl. Border Collies are slow-maturing dogs. Dogs run in nursery trials until they're 2 1/2. The International is a desperately difficult, big, big course. The outrun is half a mile, and dogs frequently work at twice that distance from their handlers. Experienced, steady trial dogs fail to finish the course more often than not, and many fine young dogs lose it altogether. But what young Wiston Cap did at that daunting trial was win it, and when Jock and Cap came off the course, J.M. came up to Jock, grinning. "Your dog could do that course again," he said.

Wiston Cap became the most sought-after stud dog in Border Collie history, and soon Jock Richardson was pocketing better than a thousand pounds a year in stud fees (shepherd's wages at the time being forty pounds a week).

Jock got Mirk and Sweep out of Cap, and when the great dog's sons started to win trials, Jock Richardson was a rich man--in his kennels he had the three best sheepdogs in Great Britain.

Wiston Cap provoked deep goofiness among breeders. The man who bred Cap repeated the exact mating over and over, hoping to get another Cap. (Geoff Billingham had one of these pups, a bonnie big thing named Wattie Cap, who died of pneumonia.) An English solicitor deliberately bred Wiston Cap's sons to Cap's daughters until he created a pup with "86% Wiston Cap Blood." The pup did look like the old man, but, of course, he never amounted to much, and I shudder to think how many deformed pups were produced by those matings.

And Jock was a splendid handler. Hamish MacLean remembers a trial where the pen was built so narrow nobody could get the skittish ewes inside. Jock, working with Sweep that day, put the ewes into single file and they followed the leader in, quite docily. (Under pressure, sheep do not go in single file.) Then, hurrying, Jock pressed the sheep against the judge's car to get a quick shed.

But that's not the picture that stays in Hamish MacLean's mind. It's afterward, after the applause stopped and Jock took his sheep off the course. Then, his sheep put away, out of sight of the spectators, Jock walked along with his great dog and Sweep jumped up, again and again, his head as high as Jock's own.
Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, pages 51-55

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