Like many people, I associate all books about dogs or horses, let alone fawns, with loss and heartbreak. “Old Yeller,” “Black Beauty,” “The Yearling” — these are not novels I want to return to, even if they are classics. At the end of this memoir, Donald McCaig summarizes the famous story about the Welsh prince Llywelyn, who owned a beloved hound named Gelert. One day, the prince returned from hunting to find his baby son’s crib empty and the excited dog covered in blood. Horrified, the prince slew Gelert. “Moments later he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.” Even as I typed that sentence, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
Happily, “Mr. and Mrs. Dog” is an exception to the “heartbreak rule” about animal books. In this account of McCaig’s run-up to the World Sheepdog Trials in Wales, all the main characters are alive at the end. Border collies Luke and June — the Mr. and Mrs. Dog of the title — perform well, sometimes superlatively well, at various field events. It’s usually their handler — Donald McCaig himself — who makes the mistakes that sometimes cost them points.
As many readers know, McCaig, described by Patricia McConnell as “the Mark Twain of dog writers,” has produced a half-dozen canine classics, including the novel “Nop’s Trials” and “The Dog Wars.” He’s also well known as the author of the best-selling “Rhett Butler’s People,” an authorized sequel to “Gone with the Wind.” By my count, this former advertising executive-turned-farmer has managed to bring out at least 15 books while somehow keeping sheep in western Virginia, training dogs and competing in far-flung sheepdog competitions.
Throughout “Mr. and Mrs. Dog,” McCaig’s voice on the page might be described as down-home, occasionally sardonic and sometimes even a little vulgar. “My Highland County neighbors think Manhattan is Sodom or (in a more charitable mood) Gomorrah. Manhattanites assume my neighbors know nothing and impregnate their sisters.” Despite the easygoing, almost rough-hewn quality to McCaig’s prose, you’ll want to pay close attention when he outlines the terms and technicalities of sheepdog trials:
“At a national trial the dog runs to the sheep and comes around behind them without upsetting them (OUTRUN: 20 points). The moment of dog/sheep first acquaintance is the LIFT (10 points). The sheep come off quietly and straight for the FETCH (20 points) through panels to the handler’s feet. Proper outwork (outrun, lift, and fetch) is vital and worth 50 of the trial’s 100 points.”
In these competitions, a handler doesn’t earn points, he has them deducted for every human or canine mistake. And “outwork” is only half the game. There’s also the “drive,” in which the dog steers the sheep away; followed by “shedding,” which is “sorting a ewe or ewes from a group”; and then “penning” and several other tasks. Not least, the handler must stay constantly aware of time limits. I do think the book would have benefited from a few diagrams, especially for those of us whose knowledge of these matters consists entirely of dim memories of “Babe,” the children’s film about a sheep-herding pig. The dog photographs are wonderful, though, especially the one of Luke outrunning.
Still, there’s more to “Mr. and Mrs. Dog” than just a series of qualifying competitions in the United States, followed by our human-canine trio’s adventures in Wales. Throughout, McCaig intersperses chapters on dog-training and on current, and competing, theories about how this should be done. Positive reinforcement, punishment, the use of special leashes and crates, doggy treats, shock collars and even Prozac are all discussed. McCaig’s disdain for mere show-dog competitions, like that associated with the Westminster Kennel Club, comes through clearly, as does his suspicion of one expert who doesn’t actually own a dog. But, then, the latter views himself as a “behavior consultant, not a dog trainer.” McCaig, by contrast, is “a crude American pragmatist. I like hearing dog-training ideas, but absent real life dogs, I can’t evaluate them.” In contrast to the theories of the canine behavioralist, the “Scotsman Derek Scrimgeour’s training theories are unusual, but Derek has won the Scottish National and anyone can watch his superb dogs work. Scrimgeour’s theory is tested by living dogs.”
Finally, after two years of training and trialing, McCaig, June and Luke are invited to compete in Wales. But these days, flying abroad with animals involves a slew of government regulations: “Make one mistake and Mister and Missus would be turned back at the port of entry. At the previous World Trial several Americans were turned back, and the return flight was so expensive Scott Glenn had to sell one dog to get himself and the other dog home.” But the team from western Virginia finally reaches Llandeilo. There the World Sheepdog Trialsopen with a prayer recited by another American, John Seraphine:
“Lord, we thank you for our dogs — your simple gift to us. Open us to what they teach. We thank you for the grateful exuberance of our dogs.
“We thank you for the way they bound across the hills, splash in the waters, chew on sticks, and roll in the dewy grass. Teach us, every day, to say our own ‘thank you’ with every fiber of our being, for the wondrous works of your creation.
“We thank you, Lord, for the honest, direct loyalty of our dogs. We thank you for the wag of their tails and the offer of a cuddle for friend and stranger alike, the way they make people . . . into our neighbors, the way they regard not body type, color of hair, or color of skin. We thank you for the easy way they forgive faults — the way they love us, not because we can love back, but because of our need for love. . . .
“We thank you Lord for our shepherding dogs who can’t stand to lose track of the wayward lamb. We are your lambs, O Lord, and oh so often lost.”
While “Mr. and Mrs. Dog” avoids tragedy, I said nothing about the occasional catch in your throat. As I read Seraphine’s prayer, I couldn’t help but remember a certain Labrador named Seamus, widely acknowledged as the greatest dog that ever lived. Except, of course, for yours.
McCaig ends his book with a glimpse of an unnamed sheepdog “outrunning, swift and soft as light” across the green fields, while an old hunchbacked shepherd looks on with “eyes as clear as a boy’s. ‘They are brilliant, aren’t they?’ he said. ‘Absolutely brilliant. The dogs.’ ” That they are.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
MR. AND MRS. DOG
Our Travels, Trials, Adventures and Epiphanies
By Donald McCaig
Univ. of Virginia. 193 pp. $22.95