In 1866, at 47 years of age, Alexander McNab emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland to Northern California. His wife and children followed, arriving by cart to set up housekeeping in a log house in the fields of the main valley in Ukiah, a ranching community in Mendocino County. It was there that McNab established a large sheep ranch, homesteading a 10,000 acre parcel in the valley.
McNab had brought a Scotch Collie from Scotland named Flora and she was the first official dog on the ranch. After Flora’s passing, the McNab family attempted to herd sheep without the aid of a dog.
One fall afternoon in 1885, the McNabs tried to bring in their 3,000 sheep without a dog. Just as they reached the corral gate, one of the wethers took off towards the mountains and the entire flock followed.
That same night, the McNab family decided that they would have to either abandon the sheep business altogether or return to Scotland and retrieve new shepherd dogs. The next day, Alexander McNab packed a bag and set off for Scotland.
After reaching Scotland, McNab went to the Grampian Hills where he acquired two black and white Scotch Collies from an old neighbor, Bruce McKinsey. The two dogs were Peter and his elder half brother Fred. Fred was initially left behind in order to complete his training, while Peter traveled with McNab to California on an emigrant train, hiding under the seats whenever the conductor entered the car.
When McNab returned to Scotland to retrieve Fred, McKinsey tried to back out of the deal, but McNab managed to leave with the dog. After both dogs were back on the McNab Ranch herding sheep, Peter worked either on the lead or behind. Fred was strictly a lead dog – a playboy who led the flock carrying a picket in his mouth. These two dogs, bred with select females, were the start of the McNab Shepherd as we know it.
Once Peter and Fred began working on the McNab Ranch the local ranchers took notice of how differently the dogs performed compared to the dogs they were used to. As interest in McNab’s dogs grew, more and more ranchers wanted one of their own.
In his quest to further develop the perfect shepherd, McNab became interested in the brown herding dogs owned by a number of local Spanish Basque migrants, the exact breed of which remains undetermined. He particularly appreciated their dog’s herding abilities as well as their stamina in the warm California climate. McNab proceeded to breed his two collies to a number of female dogs owned by the Basque sheepherders.
McNab returned to Scotland and brought back several more Scotch Collie dogs. To help his dogs cope with the hot summers and collect fewer foxtails, McNab selected dogs with tight, short coats for breeding. The dogs that came from his breeding process garnered a great deal of interest from local ranchers. McNab had developed an upright, loose-eyed dog that could both head or heel in a forceful manner while using both bark and bite; all advantageous qualities in a herding dog.
In 1901, the elder McNab passed away. His youngest son, John McNab, an attorney and stockman, took over the ranch and reinvigorated his father’s breeding style. Some historians claim that the dogs weren’t called “McNab Shepherds” until after John took over.
The dogs became known for their distinctive look which typically meant a black dog with a white stripe between the eyes (sometimes called a “Bentley Stripe”), a white ruff (simulating a collar around the neck) and a tail with a white tip. McNab regularly sold dogs to local ranchers, who clamored for his quality bloodlines.
Refinement of the McNab Shepherd continued and in 1915 two dogs were imported from Scotland. The dogs were red in color; a male named Clyde and a pregnant female Bessie. Bessie whelped three weeks prior to her arrival in America and there were three surviving pups ultimately named Gyp, Jet and Tweed.
Ed and Mertle Brown purchased one of the pups born on the ship from John McNab and named him “Jet.” The Browns, eager to get a McNab, had been on a waiting list since 1895. The Browns went on to breed Jet but never out-crossed him, breeding him strictly to Scottish Collies imported directly from Scotland.
The importations by the McNab family were mostly the short-haired type, although there was at least one long-haired dog, a male named “Reddy” who was brought over in the early 1920s. The final dog to be imported was Bess in the 1940s. By the mid-1940s, the McNab Shepherd was the sheep dog of choice on the North Coast of California, an area also known as the Redwood Empire.
One of the stories that John McNab liked to tell was about how he herded sheep through Ukiah on horseback with his McNab Shepherds by his side. As he told it, he would have the lead dog pick up a stick from the ground, turn around and face the sheep, and then place the stick on the ground again and leave it until it was time to start again. Ukiah residents would stand on the sidewalks watching in amazement as the dogs worked.
Unfortunately, no records were kept to trace the McNab Shepherd’s ancestral lines back to Peter and Fred. McNabs became so popular in Mendocino County through much of the early 1900s that local ranchers considered virtually every dog with a short black and white coat and small feet to be a McNab, particularly if it had good herding abilities.
By the early 1970s, the McNab family and their sheep were gone from the McNab Ranch. The original 10,000 acres that was the original McNab Ranch was eventually subdivided into several parcels. Today, there are three Wineries located where the ranch once stood in what is now called the “McNab Valley.” Although the McNab Ranch is gone, there are numerous breeders and enthusiasts throughout the world who are committed to preserving the tradition of the McNab Shepherd.
A Piece of McNab History
In 1950, Wayne and “Topsey” (far left) were the winners at the Sheep Dog Trials at the Napa County Fair in Calistoga, California. All the dogs in the photo are McNabs. The men pictured from left to right are Wayne Foster (Covelo, CA), Whit Newland (Geyserville, CA), Leonard Batt (Healdsburg, CA), Lev Beebe (Geyserville, CA), Bill Nutter (Dry Creek, CA), Laverne Irwin, Nick Beebe (Healdsburg, CA), Ed Mauritson (Dry Creek, CA), Curt Beebe (Geyserville, CA), Clyde Ludford (Cloverdale, CA), John Henderlong (Skaggs Springs, CA), and Ernie Bardini (Bonside, CA).
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