Into the Lion's Den

This article was written by sheepdog handler Sally Lacy in 1994.

I don't know what prompted them to ask me. Nor do I know why I readily accepted the invitation to give the program for the famous Ladies' Dog Club. Ladies, as it is universally called, was formed eons ago to give women a chance to run a dog club. It was quite Proper Bostonian. They are first and foremost a dog-show-giving club. An AKC affiliated, dog-show-giving club. I found out later that they have eleven delegates to AKC, among them are the delegates from a number of breed clubs and the delegate from Ladies. Our friend, Edie Overly, has been a long-time member and she telephoned me when she heard I had accepted to urge me to be very basic. Breeding for performance only is a concept that is foreign to them. It was a chance to win friends in high places or to be written off as an ignorant fool. Was I nervous? Well, yes, except that I felt that the message is such a powerful one that they might enjoy hearing it.

It was a marvelous experience. I knew they would be polite, but they were far more than that. What did I say? I had one aim: to present in word and slide that the genetics behind a sheepdog's instincts are complex. If the various components of herding instinct can be shown to come in "too little, too much and everything in between," then we would be foolish to consider breeding for any other reason than to try to get it "just right." In ten minutes, Border Collies, the Isolationists of the Dog World, were introduced, and definitions for terms that have special meaning to us were given--balance, power, style, pace, weak vs. strong, hard vs. soft--all having meanings different from ones they might use in the context of their own breeds.

Were they politely dubious, teased into curiosity? Oh well, turn out the lights and show the slides. The first few were related to the instincts I had talked about. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a stupendous, huge canvas by Franz Snyder painted 350 years ago depicting a Boar Hunt. In their slide you can see the header dog, the heel-biter, the withers-gripper, the shoulder-slasher, and the cowards chasing after piglets instead of the dangerous boar. The hunting pack is all there. Taking a different tangent eons ago, shepherds softened the killer instinct while maintaining the interest in the prey, surrounding it, stalking it with head lowered and the famous "eye," great speed or lateral movements in response to movement by the sheep. It is hard to show in slides the ranges in instinct from "too much" to "too little" which are components of every dog we work with, trying to work with what is natural and enhance by training and handling what the dog lacks. When in a Border Collie's life should it be judged, by whom, where, and by what standard? It is not an ideal standard of perfection, but the Sheepdog Trial is the closest we come to testing a dog against a universal standard, and I showed some slides of the various tests required in trials and told how they related to real work.

Finally, there was a Gallery of slides of the most diverse appearing Border Collies I could find, ranging from lop-eared hound types to prick-eared fuzzies, from traditional markings to red, merle, and the locally famous blond dog. This diversity had them chuckling, of course, but I pressed on. "A Border Collie is what it does, not what it looks like. It's what is inside the head that we judge." We were already embarked on an impossible quest for the perfect working sheepdog, and a conformation standard didn't fit into the equation at all. In a 1939 book by E.L. Hagedoorn, a Dutch consulting geneticist to breed societies and countries around the world, I found a closing quotation:

"In the production of economically useful animals, the showring is more of a menace than an aid to breeding. Once fancy points are introduced into the standard of perfection, the breeders will give more attention to those easily judged qualities than to the more important qualities that do not happen to be of such a nature that we can evaluate them at shows. Showing has nothing to do with utility at all, it is simply a competitive game."

There, I had said it. What would their response be? "I know this is true for sheep . . ." I let the words hang. "It is true for dogs, too," came back quite a chorus. Lights on and wonderful, lively questions followed. I think they are interested in coming up in the spring for a box lunch and demonstration. And to see the baby lambs everyone wants to think of living happily ever after. I hope that they understood, that they appreciate what the dogs do and why protection is needed. No one, at least, seemed inclined to go out and buy one.

Many Border Collie people have been giving sheepdog demonstrations for years, giving thousands of people a chance to see the dogs in action and to explain our performance standard. I found that there is another avenue to promoting understanding, appreciation and protection for Border Collies; and in a place where we really need all three--an AKC affiliated dog club.

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