Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Border Collies

It has been almost two years now since I drove to Virginia to meet Gel (formerly Angelus). After my experience with the Aussie-breeder-from-Hell, I was terrified about dealing with another dog breeder. My fears were unfounded and Ali Curtis has been nothing but supportive of my journey with Gel, despite my often waspish, intolerant nature. Not only am I blessed that she sold me Gel, but that she’s remained in my life and continues to help me.

My journey with Gel has been nothing sort of extraordinary. Never have I had such a close relationship with another animal, and maybe even another human, as I have with Gel. We have had our ups and downs and we have had some almost complete melt downs, but these melt downs seem to be like growing pains. Once we get through them, we are closer and have a better understanding of each other.

When I was examining which breed of dog I wanted to work with, I avoided the Border Collie because I felt it was too much dog for me. Today, I could not imagine having another breed of dog. Yes, a Border Collie is a lot of dog and a lot of work, but you are not going to find another breed with as much intelligence, drive, athleticism and work ethic of a well-bred Border Collie. By well-bred, I mean from solid, working lines.

When I bought Gel, I was interested in doing agility and obedience with him. Gel is trained through Novice, maybe even Open level agility. I spent a lot of money on lessons and equipment, all of which sits in my yard relatively unused. I haven’t entered Gel in an agility competition. I suppose I should, one day, but agility does not cut it for me anymore.

I discovered herding. There is nothing more magnificent than to watch a dog run out into a huge, wide-open field, arcing out around the sheep so they are not disturbed (this is called an outrun) then stopping at the top and “lifting” the sheep, without overly disturbing them, and bringing them back to your feet in a straight line. I did not do much to teach Gel his outrun; he just did it, all because of his breeding. I could sit and watch Gel do outruns all day long they are so pretty.

Herding is the hardest, most rewarding thing I've ever done in my whole life. I waited until I was 45 to get into a sport that is so incredibly hard to do. I'm not much of a dog trainer, I have no stock sense, yet somehow, Gel and I are hanging in and slowly making progress.

Gel is learning to drive (move the sheep away from me) which is very hard for a Border Collie, who is a natural gatherer. In the beginning, Gel would get so frustrated with my commands, he’d take it out on the stock. He's finally getting the hang of it (or more likely, I'm getting the hang of it) and seems to enjoy driving.

It’s taken me months of practice on my way to and from work (I knew I had an hour ride each way for a reason) to learn to blow my whistle. Because Border Collies work at such distance from the handler, you need to switch from verbal commands to whistles. Poor Gel, I've screwed with his brain for so long in giving him wrong flank commands (away-to-me means for the dog to go counterclockwise around the stock, come-bye means to go clockwise). Imagine standing in the middle of the field with sheep (or goats) going every which way trying to figure out which way is clockwise and which is counterclockwise. Somehow, even if I gave a wrong flank command, Gel would take the one I really meant, which seems to be a good thing, but now that we are moving up into driving, he has to take flank commands that seem wrong to him (called off balance flanks) and he has given me a hard time with taking off balance flanks. Now that I usually give the right flank command (driving has cured me of giving wrong flanks) I have to remember which whistle corresponds with which flank and be able to blow the correct whistle.

Gel is a sensitive dog and almost too in-tune to my feelings and emotions. This is what has caused some of our melt-downs. If I’m stressed, angry, sad or depressed, he knows and he’ll sometimes shut down on working. This in turn gets me angry at him which only makes the problem worst. On Saturday I went out to a trainer's house, somewhere I've gone before. There was a time I’d go out there and we'd spend several hours together working dogs and it was fun. Saturday wasn't one of those fun days. I guess he was having a bad day or maybe he just didn't want to have me come out. I came there all excited about Gel’s newly-developed driving talent and was excited about showing the trainer. As we walked out into the field, the trainer started barking commands behind me. I got nervous. Gel picked up on my emotions and forgot how to drive. It got ugly and I walked off the field with Gel and went home. I took out my own sheep and goats and we (Gel, sheep, goats and me) all had a wonderful afternoon out in the fields near my house.

Many of these herding people go through dog after dog after dog after dog looking for that special one. I don’t know how many of them find that truly special dog. I have. Gel may not be a world-class champion, but I think he’s wonderfully talented, he is extremely forgiving of my mistakes and the wrongs I’ve done him when I’ve been in a bad mood, he’s silly and zany, and just a wonderful dog to spend time with. Not only is he a great herding dog, but he’s great in agility and may one day make a good obedience dog. I’ve started to train him to be a service dog, he picks up things that I drop, all in all, he’s a very useful dog.

A Border Collie has to have a job, otherwise, they get into trouble. Gel is no exception. Allowing him too much time on his own is a recipe for disaster. I will often create work for Gel to do. Recently I started dumping out his entire toy box throughout the house, then sending him to pick up all the toys and bring them to me to put in his box. The other night when I got home from work and was bringing things into the house, I left my chore shoes outside at the bottom of the steps. While changing into my play clothes, I took off my work shoes and socks and was looking for my work shoes. I finally found them, where I left them, at the bottom of the stairs. It had started raining and I really didn't want to go down the stairs barefoot to get my shoes. I sent Gel for them and he happily brought them up one at a time.

Another new “job” is to break up noisy cat wrestling. The flea market kitties often get into rip-roaring play sessions. Border Collies don’t like disorder and as his keenness has developed, he’s become less tolerant to loud cat wrestling. When one starts, he comes running to me and stares at me, waiting for me to give him permission to break it up.

An example of how Border Collies don't like disorder. While at a herding clinic a few weekends ago, there was an Aussie there who was herding like Aussies do, barking, with lots of darting in and between the stock, causing them to go every which way. The Aussie broke one sheep off from the bunch and honed in on it, chasing it away from the rest of the flock. Both Gel and another Border Collie ran after the sheep, not to chase the sheep, but to head it and bring it back to the flock. Keeping the sheep together and moving in a calm manner is what a Border Collie is bred to do. This is why they run far wide away from the stock rather than right up the middle of the field. The less disruption, the better.

I have a puppy coming this week. It’s taken me a long time to decide what I wanted in my next Border Collie and when I was going to get her (that’s the only thing that I knew, that it would be a female). I finally decided on an extremely well-bred puppy from a breeder in Connecticut. The pedigree of this puppy is essentially a who’s who of herding dogs. She should have a tremendous amount of natural talent, probably even more so than Gel. She should also be extremely precocious, which may or may not be a good thing. Gel has been extremely slow to mature. He still is not completely turned on and only has a few brain cells touching. I don't expect to see Gel's full potential until he's four or five.

One thing I will do with this puppy is start her on whistles very soon in her training, as well as start her driving sooner than I did Gel. I've learned so much with Gel. I hope I can transfer it to the puppy.