One-of-a-Kind Spot

One-of-a-Kind Spot

            I had used two-year-old Jock to move the five practice sheep from the north pasture into the feed lot. Then I used three-year-old Abbie to take the 55 sheep of the main flock out of the south pasture, around a grand tour of the back pasture and into the north pasture. She is a zippy thing and though I tried to get her to relax and pace herself she was bushed by the time we got the sheep all settled.

            Then I used seven-year-old Cap to put the practice sheep into the south pasture and practiced some out-runs. I set the sheep out as far as I could (about 250 yards), brought him back and sent him on outruns, walking up the field to close the gap and blowing my whistle quietly to get him used to stopping and waiting patiently there for several seconds before pushing the sheep up to me. Cap’s biggest problem in competition is getting the sheep going too fast when he first starts moving them on the fetch. The trouble is he does this at trials where he is extra excited, but almost never here at home.

            Then I turned my attention to Spot. Spot is now one week shy of being eleven months old. He is the son of Cap and Abbie and was an “only child,” as the only other pup of the litter was dead when we found it an hour or two after birth. This may have some bearing on his personality which is about as bold as bold can be. He grew fast into something most people called “a little tank” when they saw him at about 6 months of age. He put on weight fast and was always very stocky. He started walking, then running, then going up and down stairs with quick alacrity. Playing with the other dogs he is the ONLY one who gets the Frisbees. If another dog catches one, Spot races across the yard to body slam that poor dog and take the Frisbee for himself—even if he is carrying another Frisbee at the time. Then he lays down with them both under his paws.

            I put Spot on a long thin line—about 70 yards long—and controlled his speed as we drove the five practice sheep around the field. Spot walked behind the sheep and I held him back when he wanted to charge.  After about 20 minutes of this I tried to pull him out so he would flank wide around the sheep. We would be starting at the six o’clock position and I could manage to get Spot to 8 o’clock going left or 4 o’clock going right, but if I would then release the line a bit he would then start to charge straight at the sheep. He finally upset the sheep and got himself tangled in the line before I could stop him.

            So I took him off the line, thinking he might work more smoothly. What ensued was a session in which the sheep would be huddling for safety on the fence, I would block Spot and use my body to pressure him left and right. Then I would stop him as he neared the fence on the arc around the sheep. I would walk him quietly a few paces, and the sheep would start to move. If the sheep ran at all along the fence, or away from the fence, Spot would find himself a bit beyond my reach and dive in. He would then pick off one of the sheep by grabbing with his teeth at the sheep’s hind leg. If Spot did this while running at a very fast pace he would upend the sheep completely and then stand, a bit triumphantly near the sheep that was lying on its side.

            I, of course, would be trying to chase Spot off the sheep and shout either “lie down” or “get out” or “no” or anything that might have the least effect on him. Little did.

            Then I would shout “lie down” and blocking Spot from charging again at the frightened sheep, I would walk relentlessly toward Spot until he would, at last, lie down. Then I might slap him a bit on the head or nose to make sure he knew grabbing legs and tackling sheep was not allowed.

            Spot began to tire. On one bite of a sheep’s leg he caught his own tongue and lots of crimson blood started to run from his mouth and onto his own legs and onto the sheep as well. A couple sessions ago this had happened and I was afraid a sheep was bleeding or that his own mouth had been severely rope burned by the long line, so I ended the session early. But now I knew it was only his own tongue that this dumb dog had bitten, and he would live—so I went on with the session.

            Because Spot and the sheep were all nearing exhaustion, everything slowed down. Spot began to stop more often when I shouted. Hid adrenaline-fueled,  dives of death were punctuated by longer and longer intervals where he made nice, smooth moves around the sheep and walked behind them without harassment. I was just about to end things, as I like to do, “on a good note” when he got another sheep sliced off from the others and took it down. More shouting and stalking and a slap on the nose and we started again. Finally he gathered two sheep—the others had successfully limped far away into far corners of the field—and I laid Spot down, snapped on a lead, and took him off.

            The sheep had had it. Spot was panting hard and needed to have his mouth washed out with peroxide and to get some water. I was soaked with sweat.

            And I was scratching my head. Should I have kept Spot on a long line? Should I keep him on it for months or until he lies down and walks slowly automatically? Or should I forget the line completely?

            I had had expert advice that would take me in either direction.

            The very first time we had Spot on sheep he was only about 14 weeks old. He took one look at them and tried to gather them. Since his legs were too short he wound up just pushing them to the other side of the field where he tried to hold them on the fence.

            We had him working with Bobby Dalziel of Scotland when he was here for six days of clinic in April. Bobby is one of three living people who have won the International Supreme sheepdog championship three times.  Spot was only five months old then and Bobby worked him on a 70 yard-long thin line, driving the sheep all about the field and holding them finally in the corner for about five minutes time. Bobby likes to work all his young dogs on a line for a couple months before he starts serious training. Then Gordon Watt, an Irish handler and currently shepherding in England, worked with Spot and me in Missouri. Gordon has won the Irish National, English National and World Championships. We worked without a line and had Spot moving about quiet stock, keeping him away from charging the sheep with a horse whip. Then Aled Owen visited in late August and early September for a three-day clinic and again we worked Spot without a line. Aled advised me against growling at Spot when he started to dive in and, instead saying “lie down” and moving away from the sheep and Spot to give the dog room to gather the sheep.

            Each time I work Spot my mind is swimming with choices. Should I use the lone line? Should I use a short whip or a long one or no whip at all. Should I command or just use short corrective grunts or growls or “hey” or “uh?” Should I step toward the sheep or toward the line between the sheep and Spot or toward Spot or should I just move away from the sheep so Spot can flank around and gather them to me?

            And when I think of my training with Spot I often think of the other dogs I have trained and what they did and what I should expect from Spot. This or that technique worked well enough for that dog – or failed with this other dog. And then there are the experts I have worked with and what they recommend.

            As I sit and write this, I believe I can conclude, for now, only two things. One is that in order to get Spot to herd sheep—in order to progress at all with him—I have to get him to stop biting sheep. So I need to have him flank out better, and, especially, he should stop when I tell him.

            The other thing I know is that no other dog is exactly like Spot. When I started working with sheepdogs I was a little skeptical when I heard all the time that each dog had it’s own unique personality. When you are used to having one dog at a time as a pet, you think all dogs have to be pretty much alike. They all wag their tails when happy and they all are angry at the mailman. But now I am TOTALLY convinced.

            Take Spot for example. I have some Border Collies that like to catch Frisbees and others who don’t, but I’ve never had one who leaps so recklessly into the air for the Frisbee and never had one who would crash into any other dog to take all the Frisbees away and guard them with his life the way Spot does.

            Bobby Dalziel worked with Spot for one 10 minute session before he declared that he thought Spot would prefer to flank about the sheep, and so he would need more work on driving. Perhaps this is so, but at this point Spot wants to flank just a bit about the sheep and then when they move away from him he immediately wants to dive at the middle of the flock, single of a ewe, grab a hind leg and grab it. I’ve never had a dog do that so consistently before.

            I have seen the benefits of Bobby Dalziel’s long line, of Gordon Watt’s quiet walking about, and of Aled Owen’s moving quickly away from the stock. But I have to find the right combination of these and other ideas to work with this particular dog.

            Spot is, in the end, a one-of-a-kind dog.

            When I was a child my father would get my goat when he would say, “I can read you like a book.” He was saying that he knew kids and I was a kid and he therefore knew not only that I did something wrong, but why I did it. He knew what was going on in my head.

            I resented that because I thought, “No you don’t. You know a little of what you thought when you were my age, though I’m sure you have forgotten much of that. And you might know a little about what kids in general think. But you don’t know ME. Heck, even I don’t know me. I’m so mixed up a times, I don’t know what I am thinking or feeling. I am complicated!”

            And as an adult, one of my pet peeves is the genre of book or magazine article that purports to tell you how men are different from women and Baby Boomers are different from Generation X, Y or Z. When I look at the descriptions of these tidy little groupings I see not black and white, but I see gray spilling out all over. I often have more in common with the women or with people of entirely different age cohorts. I have never belonged that neatly to any category, and I suspect that no one does. We are all one-of-a-kind and we can and do resent it when people think they have read our minds because they read about “people like that” in a book somewhere.

            They say that Eastern religions are more interested in the universal and the whole and that Western religions more in the individualistic and particular. Hinduism and Buddhism look toward Nirvana where we will be absorbed as drops of water into the great Ganges River. We in the West are supposed to be repelled by that because we want our heaven to be more like a gated community with each of us having our attached garage that we can drive into without having too much to do with those tacky neighbors who have managed to get to heaven as well—we have no idea how.

            But I know religion is more complicated than that. I know that the primary idea in the East is not the emptying and not the loss of identity, but being connected. It is an illusion to think we are islands. It is a dangerous and destructive falsehood to believe that we don’t need others—that we need Rambo-Heroes to save us. That the best credential for a president is being a “Maverick.” We need others. Our nation needs other nations. We can contribute only when we belong.

            But, I also believe that in order to belong we must understand ourselves and be understood by others as the particular people we are. If Border Collies can be so diverse and so uniquely gifted, how much more is that true of human beings.

            This whole vision of particularity and connectedness comes to us in the Christian Bible in the form of Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, so beautifully laid out in 1 Corinthians 12 through 13. When read in its entirety, we see that our gifts our ours because of the grace of God and that they come to fruition when we live toward the whole – when we live our lives for the upbuilding and advantage of the Body of Christ. It is not a gated community, but a commune that we are to strive for and accept as a gift.

            I will be a more effective partner with Spot if I understand him as the one-of-a-kind dog that he is. And I will be more effective and a better human being if I understand myself connected and in partnership with all other people, near and far, and treat others as uniquely gifted individuals who need me as well.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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1 Response to One-of-a-Kind Spot

  1. Judy says:

    Enjoy reading your articles, John! Spot reminds me of Paige. They have something in common … Paige and 3 of her siblings survived a birth where 6 of her siblings died. (A puppy had died in the womb spreading an infection.) That boldness you speak of I think helped her survive, but wow, is it challenging on this side of things! Ken calls Paige, “a full-throttle dog.” Best of luck with Spot, and blessings to you and Connie, Judy

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