Book Review: Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men

A sheepman’s view of Border Collies — and their owners


In these days of dogs as pets and creatures of the show ring, the world of the working dog can be hard to understand. In Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, Donald McCaig gave a glimpse into that world and the kind of dog he knows best – the sheep-herding dog. Here the dog is measured by how well it works with sheep, and the man is measured by how well he works with the dog.

Donald McCaig lives in Virginia, where he runs a small sheep ranch. Like many sheepmen, he keeps a sheepdog around to help with herding his 300 head of sheep. Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men describes his journey to find a second dog for his farm.

The first couple of chapters are an introduction to sheepdogs, sheepmen, and the sheepherding trials where both men and dogs show their skill – or lack of skill. Sheepherding isn’t as easy as it might sound. Sheep are far from being smart animals, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to deal with. When you combine a hilly course with fractious sheep, a hot summer day, and a strict judge, a trial becomes more of an exercise in endurance than anything else, and the winners are the men and dogs that work best together.

Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men opens with a description of a trial in which McCaig and Pip didn’t do very well, and McCaig took all the blame. Pip, he said, is a better sheepdog than McCaig is a sheepman, and he thinks he’s ruined Pip by his own inexperience. A few years later, with Pip eight years old and slowing down a bit, McCaig set out to find a young, well-bred female sheepdog to raise and hopefully train better than he trained Pip.

By far the best sheepdogs in the world are Scottish Border Collies. The Scottish Highlands are full of sheep and sheepdogs. They’re also full of the kind of terrain that tests a sheepdog to its limits. When the sheep are spread over a square mile of rocks and cliffs and moors, the sheepherder must be able to trust his dog, and the dog must be able to work the sheep on its own, with only an occasional command. Untalented or inadequate dogs and men just don’t make it there. So in April 1988, McCaig headed for Scotland with a thousand pounds to spend on his new dog and three months to search for her.

Most of the book is about this trip and the people and dogs McCaig met along the way: good and bad dogs, and good and bad sheepmen. He met eminent dogs, who consistently did well in sheepherding trials, and dangerous men, who consistently bred, raised, and trained good sheepdogs. McCaig did a good job of describing the feel of Scotland and Scots. Scotland is a raw sort of country, with great swathes of beautiful landscapes given entirely to sheep range. It breeds hardy dogs and hardy people, people who care more about results than appearances. All of that comes across clearly in McCaig’s account of his ramblings.

Also along the way, he had some fascinating thoughts on the relationship between dogs and men, particularly working dogs and farming men. The dogs he met were no pampered show dogs or bland house pets. They were working dogs – smart, swift, clever dogs as far above the average house pet as that pet is above the chair he sleeps on. These dogs were individuals, maybe not as smart as people, but most assuredly not dumb.

Like many books, the back cover of Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men includes several quotes from reviews of the book. One reviewer said this book “does for Border Collies what Walter Farley did for black stallions,” but that’s nonsense; Farley’s books were romanticized fiction, but McCaig has written about the reality of sheepdogs and sheepmen – and as often happens, the reality beats the fiction all hollow. I rather agree with the quote from Vicki Hearne: “Here is the world of the working Border Collie, a world of large and poetic events normally closed to the outsider.” If you read Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, you’ll never look at a Border Collie quite the same way again.

Order Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men Donald McCaig/Paperback/1998 from Amazon.com

Jon Woolf

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