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The Collie in Mendocino
by Lulu McNab (from Overland Monthly magazine, May 1894)

The Scotch collie is practically unknown to the majority of Americans, although some Eastern farmers associate the name with the family dog that makes a safe playmate for the children and brings in the cows at milking time, while the fancier, in turn, recalls the pride of the show bench, and one of his most devoted pets. What is, then, the real Scotch Collie and what his mission? Briefly worded, he is the ideal shepherd. Among Scottish flocks he is the pride of Scottish owners, and is valued, both in the Old World and the New, as one of the best aids money can procure.

Here even, in far California, there is one ranch, lying high on the breezy mountains and low in the grassy dells, that for years has relied upon the help given by imported collies and their offspring, and it is of the work these bright dogs do that this article is written.

For the history of the collie one must look elsewhere than in a brief magazine sketch. In appearance and color they vary; the heads are sharp, almost pointed; the eyes, bright and intelligent, fairly speaking to those they favor most; ears, carried sharply upright in many cases, and as a rule the better workers are those of light, lithe build; as the sheep- man puts it, "one that is springy on his feet."

On this Mendocino ranch, for twenty-five years and more, the trained collies have handled sheep, season after season, herding, driving, holding, gathering, with a trained intelligence that seems marvelous to the novice; and the very stones, if they could speak, would bear eloquent witness to their practical utility and value as viewed from a business standpoint. Many wise dogs have journeyed far by land and sea to race over the rugged hills after the nimble sheep, which in these mountain wilds give fleet defiance to the would-be gatherer. From a quarter of a century ago, when the present owner came to California in pursuit of health lost in the mists of rainy Glasgow, and the beauty of the hills appealed to his city-starved heart, since then, when shepherd Dougal followed him across far seas, and collie Flora pattered down the gang-plank at his heels, there has never been a time that these wise dogs, the Scotch collies, have not been the help and pride of the place. The short-haired collies are usually chosen in preference to their longer- haired brethren, owing to the warm summers of the Mendocino interior; and though the change from Scottish mist to California sun is a little trying to any, all bring their natural sagacity and trained work to bear as faithfully on the mountains of the new worlds as upon the heathered hills of Scotland.

Many puppies here have grown to active usefulness with wise care, though not every sheep-man can train a young dog successfully, but few possessing the requisite knowledge and tact. No one but a real Scotch shepherd can train these dogs to the perfection they attain among Scottish flocks under constant supervision. Descended from long generations of workers the puppies take actively to business, and practice amusing tactics of herding on the farm poultry while still too young to be initiated into the graver cares of life; and at first sign of a band of sheep will usually make some move that denotes the shepherd strain. They are trained to work from motions of the master's hand, quick whistles that sound shrilly above the bleating flock, and brief, sharp words of command; and to be successfully handled must be kept solely by one person, and be fed, worked, praised, or punished, by one alone. Literally is it true of the collie, "Ye cannot serve two masters"; his allegiance must be given to but one, or the valuable animal becomes worthless for the work that nature and training have given him to do. A well-trained collie does the work of several men on rough and brush- grown hills, and does it with infinitely more ease and less hard running of the flock, after the sheep are once accustomed to him, saving the hire of man and horse, and furnishing his owner with faithful help for years if wisely handled.

Come with me in spirit to the Mendocino hills, and follow the master and his collies through the pleasantest gathering of the year, at rodeo, or marking time, in early April, while the hills are still knee-deep with waving grass, bright with the beautiful flowers of the Mendocino region, while the air is one caress of springtime, and burning summer still is but a memory or prophecy. The breeze is sweet with bloom, and the sunlight falls, a flood of golden glory, over the lavish green of April meadow, as we take the upward trail, a woodland path that rises steeply under the shadow of the Peak, giving but glimpses of the valley home below, and winding through still shadows in the absolute silence of Nature's own domains. Higher we go, and onward, past an old stone cabin, a picturesque bit of ruin in the lap of spring, sheltered by whispering madrones, and nestled in great banks of yellow violets, erythroniums, and maiden-hair fern that peeps shyly between the crevices of its gray walls. As we come out from the woods with the Peak still above us, send a swift glance northward, where Sanhedrim and the northern mountains still are capped in glittering snow, rising sharply from green valleys to the sunny sky, their sparkling peaks the only hint of winter in all this summerland. Southward lies the rival of Kashmir, -- Sanel Valley in April, flower-lit, green-held, the jewel of the hills.

Below us, in the hollow, is a little bunch of lambs; there is where the collies' work begins; and in response to a word and gesture, the two race gayly down the ridge through buttercups and poppies, and running beyond the startled ewes gently turn and drive them in the direction pointed by the master.

"Fred! Here, sir!"

Off he dashes up the hill, makes a wide circle past a dozen ewes, and as they bolt up hill heads them, turns, and deftly drives them down. Over the ridge a number are feeding in the hollow. Their lambs lie asleep in the warm sun or frolic together on the hillside, bright bits of moving white against the green. A motion of the hand directs the alert dogs, and they join the two bands and send them steadily along the trail. Two ewes and a lamb go running to the side.

"Here, Pete!"

The dog dashes quickly across a little rill, the bright drops sparkling on his black coat as he passes the sheep and turns them. Bolt!--off they go at a tangent. Circling in front again, the dog overtakes, turns them, follows, and turns again, and patiently works them along till his troublesome charge are safely among their fellows. If sent to hurry the little flock, he dashes at the hindmost, barking his orders.

Here the master whistles Fred to the right. Nothing is visible to him, but off scurries the obedient dog, barking frantically, circles, and stops. A wave of the hand sends him in a wider circle up the hill. Nothing yet. Another, wider sweep of the master's hand sends him flying in a great circle through the trees, barking as though his doggish life depended on it.

A bunch of sheep now run from the brush, and Fred, barking always, follows and drives them down, to meet the main band with a nicety as to crossing lines.

The whole flock is startled now, and dashes away down hill, but a shrill whistle sends Fred to the front. He runs back and forth behind the leaders and checks their clumsy lope to a slow run. Off he dashes, perhaps fifty feet or so ahead, and dropping to the ground with nose between his paws, he waits till the flock is close upon him; then he springs up and trots ahead again, and once more quietly waits their coming.

"Fred! Lie down, sir!"

The master walks away, and Fred, understanding perfectly that he must keep the flock, swiftly circles round them and brings them to a halt. Here, alone, he holds them, keeping them closely together while Peter and the master "gather" the other side of the hill, and return two hours later to find the sheep quietly grazing and Fred lying as quietly watching them.

Two ewes wander a little too far. Scarcely rising to his feet, the dog slips quietly through the grass beside them, and they turn and slowly rejoin the band, cropping as they go. Fred trots quietly around his charges, sees that all are safe, then drops down again, watching them ceaselessly with shining eyes, and not a ewe or lamb is missing when the returning master adds his flock.

Steadily we climb, through the golden afternoon. Occasionally shy deer peer through the brush, the warm air is sweet with the breath of bloom, and a distant eagle screams as he sweeps in stately circles over the Peak. The flocks number in the hundreds as we finally reach the summit, where we are met by the shepherd and "Tweed," with another band. In go the dogs, and send the sheep briskly down the trail, while Peter, circling far behind of his own accord, often brings in a stray ewe that has slyly dropped out.

Yonder is a place where the whole band broke away years ago, and never have forgotten it,--but neither have the dogs. Watch them, untold, slip quietly ahead and stand alert, watchful and ready. Bolt-- go two old ewes down a sudden turn, swiftly followed by a hundred more. With a fierce challenge the collies vigorously meet the flying band, and force them back to the trail more roughly than we have seen them do yet,--in punishment, perhaps, for their presumption and past sins. As we go, watch that old ewe. She has bolted away several times, and given Peter much trouble to bring her in; but his Scotch is up, as she dashes away again. He springs in before her, and with a dexterous hoist of his body sends her tumbling end over end, which is his own cure for these troublesome "bolters," and was never known to fail. Tweed observes this, and being a most imitative collie, forthwith essays the same thing. Away goes his sheep. Away goes Tweed, and heads it. As if shot from a cannon, the ewe bangs against him, and over goes Tweed, howling--rolling over and over, down the steep hillside, all four feet kicking at once, in angry protest as they come uppermost; and his chap-fallen expression, as he struggles to his feet and away, shows that Tweed is both a sadder and a wiser dog. Though all are trained alike in a general way, two collies differ as widely in characteristic methods of work as two men,--each possessing a distinct individuality of his own.

Ah! there is a break the collie did not check, and running at headlong speed down the mountain the men risk life and limb to save the day's work. After much hard running the flock is finally under control, but a bunch of lambs has become separated in the confusion, and after circling helplessly, stampedes in wild disorder. Peter tries his wise best to work the foolish little things back, vainly attempting to head them off, but they jump over him, half-a-dozen in succession, ears and tails flapping wildly as they clear his broad back. Others run under him, pass between his legs, and take other juvenile liberties so off he trots with them, in their own direction, with a glance at his master that plainly says, "These children must be humored."

As it is a large bunch, after Fred has helped the master safely corral the flock at the foot of the mountain, he too is sent off,--one motion telling him to go help Pete. While the master separates the sheep, let us sit on this sunny hillside and watch the collies as they circle round the running lambs. They never bark at them as they would at old sheep, but merely follow and slowly check them by degrees. The little things are both obstinate and foolish, and at first pay no attention to the quiet collies that trot patiently around and round, quietly gather them together, and at last stop their wild run. Slowly, and with marvelous patience they are turned, jumping over each other, then over the dogs, and it seems a hopeless task even to attempt to take them the half-mile to the corral, but in a couple of hours time Fred and Peter come slowly up to the gate with them, not a lamb hurt or missing, and their first acquaintance made with these gentle protectors and friends. In such a case, many of the lambs would have been hopelessly lost, had it not been for the dogs,--men could have done nothing with them.

The lambs safely in, the master sends Peter to keep two bunches of sheep separate until he can attend to them; and though the bands are but a dozen feet apart, and try their best to join, Peter keeps each bunch strictly by itself; and his master says, in response to our surprise, that not even on the range can two bands join if Peter is told to keep them apart.

The corral work over, we walk away, listening to the master's many anecdotes of his pets. Peter is a favorite, bright even beyond the ordinary collie, his first appearance in the field showing a canine reason. The wooded pasture bewildered the new comer; plainly he was at a loss. Then he suddenly spied a huge rock; straight for it he want, and springing into sight upon its top, he stood a moment, one paw uplifted, ears up and nose a-quiver, a pretty picture, gave two quick glances, and was down and with the sheep again, and quietly drove them straight across the field to the hidden gate. Often, till he learned the hills, did he leave the sheep, and on some high point literally "take his bearings," to return to his charge and take them down the better way, justifying his master's assertion that surely the line between reason and instinct is closely drawn in the Scotch collie. He was a ready match for a certain obstinate old ram, that always fought the dogs and delayed their work; till at last when sent for the flock Peter went first for his old enemy, and there, nose to nose, both heads bobbing excitedly, he would angrily bark and growl, till the conquered ram at last would make a sudden bolt, and the victorious Peter calmly gather in the flock. A most conscientious dog, his work was done faithfully and well till years disabled him; but Fred, more alert to praise, did best were strangers present, when he abounded in bright ways and brilliant work, done with a comically conscious air of superior excellence. He had the collie trick of carrying a stock or stone in his mouth, dropping it on barking, only to seize another; and often carried light poles longer than himself, flirting his black body and lifting his dainty feet with all the airs of a danseuse; and proportionately, the longer the stick, the prouder the dog.

One summer, when shepherding was a weary task on glowing hills, the collies suffered much with sore and swollen feet, caused by creeping seeds that burrowed far between the toes, and caused most painful swellings. Pitifully their eyes met their beloved master's as he probed to remove the cause. The young man pondered a little, then to the country saddler he went and ordered made from his description little leather shoes. A stout leather sole was cut the shape of the foot, two curving pieces sewed to it, joined in front and lapping at the back, with strings to tie securely around the leg; then he came triumphantly home to try the new invention on his pets.

Peter the Wise walked off daintily upon them; held up each foot by turns to look, sniff, and ponder what this new-country idea might be. He took to them kindly, like the wise dog he was, wore them gratefully, and after a long day's run through flying seed, off would come the shoes, leaving his feet sound and well. But Fred, the rascal! Meekly he would let his shoes be donned, regarding his master quizzically the while, and wear them complacently enough in view, but let him be sent for sheep a little out of sight, a little delay would be noticed, -- then out from behind some bushy clump or sheltering rock Fred would gayly emerge, with many gambols to divert the eye. But the master knew him! And behind the bush or rock he always found the four little cast-off shoes, tucked carefully out of sight, while their owner scampered gayly in the distance.

New-comers from auld Scotia are faithful Clyde, willing Help, and pretty Gyp, who first opened her blinking eyes upon the stormy seas around the Horn, and entered the Golden Gate a feeble specimen of her race, at once the pity and the jest of the good ship Howth, but one feeble sister left to her out of a large and once promising young family. Clyde closely resembles Fred, whose days are past; and till the present puppy, tiny Tweed, grows to working age, Clyde is the mainstay of the gathering. Help fulfills his name on other portions of the large range; but either are true types of the working collie, willing and faithful helpers till years disable them. Either one is sent for sheep entirely out of sight in a large field, and patiently hunts till he finds them, then brings them in alone; and Gyp's mother, Bessie, brings in the entire flock from her owner's small range just as readily as from the field. Indeed, it is easier for a collie to drive five hundred sheep than five.

Volumes might be written descriptive of these collies, but suffice it that this is a truthful sketch of the practical work they have done and are doing today on the mountain ranges of Mendocino.

NOTE: The McNab family continued breeding their "Scotch Collies" in Mendocino. Eventually the "McNab" developed into a breed as other ranchers acquired and bred the dogs. Although no doubt other local dogs were bred into the strain, this article shows that the McNab family brought females as well as males over from Scotland for the foundation stock. Several drawings accompanying the above article show dogs like typical Border Collies in appearance, black-and-white dogs with short hair or with medium-length hair, erect or semi-erect ears.

 

 

 


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