Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘Shetland Sheepdog’

Our Greatest Companions

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

September 19, 2010

I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.

My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.

He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.

Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.

Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.

The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.

Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.

Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.

No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.

Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site,, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.

Champion MacTavish!

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

“I hate it when this happens,” said Darren McKinnon. “I mean, it’s wonderful, and we’re all very happy – but in some ways this is the worst thing that can happen. Owners think it’s normal, and they expect it to happen again – and then they get upset and disappointed when it doesn’t.”

It was Saturday, February 9, at the Halifax Kennel Club Show at Exhibition Park. Talisker Sea Dog MacTavish – our 21-month-old Shetland Sheepdog – had just cantered through the show ring hauling in ribbons. To be a champion, a dog needs 10 points, and MacTavish – in his first day at his first real dog show – had won four points, a dazzling start to a puppy’s show career.

And Darren, who has been showing dogs for most of his 40-odd years, was cautioning us not to think this was normal. We shouldn’t expect MacTavish to do it again.

So the next day, MacTavish did it again. In his first two appearances in the show ring, he accumulated eight points. Just two more points, and he’d be a champion. But the next time out – in a cavernous, bitterly-cold arena in Truro, at the end of March – he won no points at all. When we took him last weekend to the South Shore Kennel Club’s annual show in Lunenburg, we were still seeking the elusive two points,

Dog shows are a perfect example of order within chaos. The Lunenburg rink was clogged with dogs, and dog voices filled the air – baying, woofing, howling, yipping. Shows may have 150 breeds or more – some in their kennels, some walking or standing with their owners or handlers, some in the ring. Sleek Salukis, big blocky Bouviers, peppy Papillons, terrible terrific terriers, bandy-legged bulldogs and bonny bad-ass beagles.

Primped and powdered and perfumed, clusters of dogs journey to the judging rings and strut their stuff, scampering in circles with their handlers. They stand on tables while the judges poke and prod and peer into their ears and other orifices, appraise their bearings, bones and briskets, contemplate their coats and assess their testicles.

Then the judges hand out ribbons and rosettes. Everyone applauds. The dogs go offstage, and a new crowd enters the ring.

This is “conformation” competition. The judges are determining how closely the dog conforms to a published “breed standard,” which describes the ideal example of that breed. The Shetland Sheepdog, or “Sheltie,” should stand between 13 and 16 inches at the shoulder, should have a long, heavy double coat, should have a black nose, a flat head and a well-rounded muzzle. The ears should be small and three-fourths erect, with the tips breaking forward. A Sheltie may be reserved, but not fearful; self-confident, but not aggressive. And much more.

Each of these points is, literally, a judgment call, and the dog which wins with one judge (in Halifax, say) may fall flat with another judge (in Truro.) So what about Lunenburg?

MacTavish comes from the Talisker kennel in Middle Sackville, owned by Sharon Ayers, and in the show ring he’s normally handled by Emily DeLong, Sharon’s associate. I don’t know how to show a dog, and neither does Marjorie. Last weekend, however, Sharon was in New York and Ontario, showing her great champion, Lily – who has now been rated “Best in Show” no fewer than 23 times, tying the Canadian record for Shelties.

On Saturday, with Sharon absent, Emily and MacTavish were both on edge, and they were skunked again. Worse, all of us realized that MacTavish’s heart really was not in the game, though he gallantly did what was asked of him, as he always does.

Driving home, with MacTavish lying exhausted on the back seat, Marjorie said what we all had been feeling. Was there any point in making our beloved dog suffer in the show ring, if that really wasn’t what he liked? Let’s just not do this any more. We didn’t buy him to show. I love his quick, bright mind, and I’d much rather do obedience with him anyway.

We had promised to take him back to the show the next day. But after that, his show career would be over.

On Sunday, however, MacTavish was himself again – sassy and alert, ready to take on the world, infecting Emily with his buoyancy. He was up against some beautiful Shelties, but when judge Jack Ireland – a distinguished man, and clearly a perceptive one – pointed his finger at the Best of Winners, he was pointing at MacTavish.

Two points. Champion!

“There, he’s done it,” said another Sheltie fancier, as Emily led MacTavish off for his official championship photograph. “Now he can go do what he really likes – which is sailing, isn’t it?”

Champion Talisker Sea Dog MacTavish! With an emphasis on the “sea dog,” if you please.