There have been times when Ted, my border collie, and I have failed to see eye to eye. Indeed, eighteen months ago, when his behaviour was at its most reactive, people would often stop me and say, ‘Ahhh, is he a rescue collie?’ ‘No,’ I’d answer, grimly, ‘not yet.’
Loving Ted was never a problem, but was he ever hard work! And I only had myself to blame. After my ex-husband’s departure, the kids and I all needed a big distraction from the big absence, and what better than the dog we’d wanted for ages but were never permitted? Within ten minutes of my suggesting it, we’d settled on a breed (I blame Shep) and chosen a name that was cuddly yet dignified enough to bawl in the park, and with more than a hint of dark poet about it. Two evenings spent trawling the internet, and I was bonding in the back of my neighbour’s car with a gorgeous, 8-week-old border collie puppy with violet eyes (now amber).
Of course, I couldn’t have done it wronger, and I have to admit that even at the time I knew I was being foolhardy. Ted was Love On The Rebound With Knobs On, a symbol of my and the children's new life on our own. Worse, I’d chosen a puppy used to running around a barn with his siblings, who’d had no injections, no health checks, no socialisation. And whilst telling myself that a pup bred for working out on the hills would be in better physical shape than a dodgy-hipped, epileptic show dog (not to mention cheaper), I’d overlooked the fact that his engrained desire to herd everything that moves might make him unsuited to being my pet, given that we live in the suburbs and our local park is full of joggers, skate-boarders, kids on scooters and speeding, non-bell-ringing cyclists taking a short cut to avoid the traffic on the A38 and A4174. Finally, I, a first-time dog owner, had wilfully bought probably the most demanding breed of dog there is, with a high rate of re-homing, at a time when I was particularly depressed, stressed and anxious following the end of my marriage.
It could have been hell, and there were days when it was. There were three factors in Ted’s and my favour, however. First, I only work regular hours two days a week, and in a place near enough for me to drive home at lunch time to walk and train him. The rest of the week I work varying hours here and there, often in the evenings or at weekends when my younger son is at home to keep Ted company. Second, raising autistic children has given me considerable reserves of patience and perseverance to draw on. Third, Ted is extremely bright and quick to cotton on to what you want him to do (though whether he’ll do it is another matter … )
We’re not out of the woods yet, me and Ted, but we’re definitely in the sun-dappled, bluebell-y bit rather than the darkest depths. In particular, exploiting his strengths and proclivities as a means of training him has proved very successful. Being a typical collie with a collie ‘eye’, he responds very well to hand signals and is now probably good enough to be a Communication Support Worker in British Sign Language. Also, he’s ball-obsessed, which allows me to keep his attention quite easily when we’re up the park, although I still have to watch for passing bikes and joggers. To be on the safe side, I keep him on a long lead which trails as he runs, so I can grab him quickly if need be. The hours of training, both at home and on his lead, have really paid off. He can still be hyper-vigilant when moving from one location to another – eg from the park to the street, or car to car park – but I try to keep him away from anything he might feel the need to herd (cars, bikes, joggers, small children) or protect me from (men without dogs, mainly). All the signs are that he’s beginning to calm down.
‘Best dog I ever had,’ people tell me of their much-loved border collies, ‘after the first three years!’
My dog watches me squat in woods,
on his face the smirk of male
further up the evolutionary scale.
Since he’s learnt to lift his leg,
he cocks at every opportunity,
laying claim to territory.
‘Just like we did,’ grins my father,
‘more than eighty years ago.
Against the playground wall, all in a row.’
Deborah Harvey © 2009 , 2011
Collie pup by Dru Marland