Today I proclaim high praise for Floss, an exceptional Border Collie. A gift from God.
From birth to death Floss was a no-nonsense working dog. If Border Collies are bred to have focus, she exuded that trait to the extreme.
Floss was born, I think, in Powys, Wales, to Brian Jones’ Bess, on February 11, 1996. She died here in Illinois on Monday, October 31, 2011 at the age of 15 years and just about eight months.
Ken Gwilliam, who owned Floss’s sire, Andy, gave Floss her solid early training. She ran well in the Shropshire nursery trials, and so, in the summer of 1999, when I was asking around about a trained bitch with a good stop on her to help me get the feel for dog handling, Austin Bennett, the sculptor/sheepdog handler/writer of many interviews with top handlers, introduced me to Ken and took me to Burrow View Farm where he was shepherding–at the top of Taddymoor Lane just outside of Hopesay, near Craven Arms in the county of Shropshire, England.
Ken showed me Floss and a couple of his other dogs, but Floss impressed me the most. I didn’t buy her right away, since I had seen a few other dogs on that same trip and was thinking them all over. But I asked the great handler, Jack Chamberlain, to keep an eye out for her. He had already noted some good qualities, but watched her then more carefully at the trials after that and his final decision was that she was quite a “useful bitch.”
So I returned to Shropshire in December of 1999 to buy Floss. At that time Ken took me all around the farm with Floss and his other dogs in the back of his 4 cylinder Toyota pick-up. He used Floss at one point to go around a big hill to do a blind gather of the sheep on the other side. She did a great job of it and would flank around the sheep near where their feed had been spread in troughs. She often slid under the truck, paying it little mind but always keeping her hard gaze locked onto the sheep.
At another field Ken got sent Floss across a valley to gather a flock to the right, and he sent Kate (Floss’s older sister?) to an adjacent field to the left. Floss gathered her flock first, through the woods and across a creek, and was holding them to Ken and me as Ken continued to try to get Kate around her sheep. Soon Floss started to respond to the whistles intended for Kate. As I stood there video-taping the whole thing, Floss flew over a big hedge (wasn’t it over 6 ft high?), and then back again. I found it hard to believe she could clear that height, but I have the proof on tape.
The night before leaving to fly Floss home I sat with her on the floor of Ken’s kitchen. She wasn’t shy, but she was a dog that obviously enjoyed working more than snuggling. She was always a licker, though. She would sit next to me, accept my loving petting, and occasionally lick my hand. I have a sweet photo of a number of Ken’s dogs from that visit, all huddled with Floss around Ken. And sure enough, Floss is licking Ken’s hand.
Floss was in heat at the time of that visit, so I took her over to Jack Chamberlain’s and we bred her to his great dog, Don. Later we would lose the one, huge pup that resulted, when Floss had a caesarian, but perhaps that was okay. Soon after that Jack noticed Don wasn’t listening well. He had him tested and discovered that he had gone deaf.
Floss was very quiet through her plane trip from Manchester to Chicago, O’Hare. When my wife, Connie and I pulled up at our home in Lisle, Illinois, we put Floss inside our picket fence on our ½ acre property as we took my luggage out of the car. Of course, Floss nonchalantly jumped over the fence to be beside me at the car. I laughed, but did worry a bit about not being able to keep her in. But my worries were not warranted. Floss respected her boundary, and that was the last time she jumped the fence.
Floss didn’t have an easy life. At the time we had already gone through a time of conflict between two bitches. Tip was the first Border Collie that I tried herding with, but she started attacking a toy fox terrier we had. After that dog died we bought Tess, another Border Collie. But after a year or so of Tess trying to herd Tip, they started into terrible fights. Since it seemed that Tip was the aggressor we gave her away through a rescue group. Floss and Tess then got along fine until they both came into heat at the same time. From that point their fights got more and more intense so we tried to keep them apart at all times, because if they could see and reach each other it would be a fight to the death. I believe Tess was the one to get things started, but Floss was not about to back down. Tess would get bloodied, but Floss had the worst of each fight. At least twice we had to take Floss into the vet’s to be stitched up. Once a big flap of skin was ripped open on her face. Another time it was a big flap on the top of her head. We did keep both Tess and Floss, but until Tess died, several years ago, it was hard, hard work, since the two of them could never, ever, be out together.
The great thing about Floss was that she was a dream to handle. She took every command, and when she stopped she gave herself a red belly. She stopped on a dime, even if she was going full tilt, and she would rub her belly raw by sliding on the ground.
At that time Lyle Lad, who was then Lyle Boyer, was giving me handling lessons. Once, when Connie and I vacationed, we left Floss to train with Lyle. She had a visit from a class from Michigan State University, and to show how a Border Collie could gather sheep that were out of sight, she demonstrated with Floss. She said she always loved to watch me run Floss in trials because Floss looked like a snake the way she flanked nicely, but sideways around the sheep. To get a wide flank around sheep you usually like to have the dog turn its head and shoulders away from the sheep first and then flank around. But Floss could go nice and wide even with her head aimed at the sheep. She would slither around like a snake.
Every dog has its weaknesses and Floss’s was that she would not shed. Ken would divide large flocks with her, and I could get Floss to do that too. But shedding with the small bunches that you have to work with in trials became something we just couldn’t do together. Because of my inexperience, and because Floss could do everything else so well, I got frustrated. Then I would put too much pressure on her in practice, and finally she got so fed up with me that she wouldn’t even drive the sheep. So, I backed off. I kept her in pro-novice and never moved her up to open class. She won trials in novice and had lots of placements in the prize list in pro-novice, but never worked with me in open.
After she lost the Chamberlain’s Don pup we did breed her a couple more times. The first time she had five wonderful pups. We sold them all, but bought one back from a friend who had named her Queen. Queen turned out to be a fantastic herding dog. She too was a bit reluctant to shed, but got pretty good at it. We had her in the National Nursery Finals and she made it to the final day – the top 30 or so young dogs in the nation. She got round real well that final day, but couldn’t pen, so I believe she ranked about 12th or so. She won the award for high combined pro-novice at the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association Labor Day weekend trial and went on to have some fantastic runs in several years in open class.
Unfortunately Queen developed fluid on her heart and died prematurely a couple of years ago. I think she was only 7 years old.
But Floss went on and on. Her last breeding she developed a uterine infection and suffered gravely. She got bit up in many fights with Tess. But she went on and on. Whenever she was being treated for those infections or sewed up for those bites, she just looked up at us with those big eyes and never made a squeal or squawk.
As I said, she was focused on her work. She never retrieved a Frisbee or ball, and would go off to watch sheep when other dogs were playing. On the trips around the farm for exercise she always ran ahead and didn’t play at all with other dogs.
Once, when we were putting on a demonstration at the huge Sandwich Fair, the oldest and perhaps the biggest of the county fairs in Illinois, Floss wandered off when we were setting things up. I started to worry and asked all the passersby if they had seen a black and white dog. Finally one little boy, who was walking with his mother said, “Yes! Yes, we did see a dog like that, over by the horses, and it was frozen!” Sure enough, there was Floss, standing stock still, with her strong eyes locked onto the horses being prepped for harness races.
And she did often look frozen when she was at dog trials and she would spend the entire day at the fence, riveted on the action on the field. My only concern was that she was so still and oblivious to pain and discomfort, that she allowed flies to bite her ears till they were quite bloody.
Though Floss never got good at shedding, she did everything else well on the trial field and on the farm. She was completely fearless with sheep and the only thing I worried about was when she did anger a protective ewe, she would not back off even if the ewe was battering her into the ground. So I had to be careful at lambing time to help her be a bit more defensive.
Once, again at a demonstration, the sheep found they could get away from my other dogs by wedging themselves tightly in a narrow gap between my trailer and the fence. Since no other dog would dare go into that gap, I tried Floss and she shot like a rocket, right through their legs, and in a cloud of dust got those sheep out before I could blink.
For the last couple of years Floss has also concerned us because she twice spent the whole night out. She has been very hard of hearing for the past couple of years, hearing high pitched sounds better than words, but even whistles only if I was less than 50 yards or so away. These two nights she failed to return after we had all the dogs out for the last time at night. We, of course, searched for a couple of hours each time, both on our property and on neighboring farms. And both times we were phoned in the morning by someone who found her on their farm. In one case she was discovered watching intently a pair of Canada Geese nesting in a dead tree. In another she was staring at a horse in a pasture. In both cases she was so tired and weak that she was obviously up all night.
So, we have walked Floss by herself at night, either taking her out on a lead to the tree line on the north border of our farm and letting her then walk back to the kennel within our sight, or by allowing her to run in a fenced pasture if there were no sheep there.
She had amazing stamina and zest for life in her old age. We would let her out of the kennel first and she would go straight out and try to get ahead of the rest of the dogs who would work each other and bark at the ATV a bit before we set out on our mile-long circuit. Even to the last days Floss would start out with a bounce in her step, and even made it all the way around the circuit up to about a week ago. But by the time she got back around to the barn she was dragging her hind legs. Then, the last several days, she was falling over because her hind legs were collapsing beneath her, and she would then struggle to get up.
Floss had one last thrill just a few days before the end. As I emerged from the kennel with Floss’s five barking kennel mates, I looked up the lane and was startled to see about 8 brood ewes from the south pasture who had gotten loose and were standing near the gate to the north pasture. I was alarmed because two of those 5 sheepdogs are still unruly in their working habits and I had no idea what kind of chaos would ensue if they caught sight of the wayward ewes. So I tried to get them back into the kennel. However, Floss, who had gone straight out, had already worked her way around the ewes and was bringing them down the farm lane toward me and the other dogs! Her arthritic legs could hardly support her and would get crossed up easily, but she managed to dog this one last job!
It ended well as we quickly got the ewes back through the gate they had broken open (too much rubbing on a gate not chained securely enough) and managed to grab the one bitch who wasn’t listening well enough. And we were thoroughly amazed by our Floss! No wonder we often called her our Energizer Bunny—she just kept going and going and going.
When Floss could walk only a short distance before her hind legs collapsed beneath her, we took her to our veterinarian, Margaret Rogers. Through some of her own tears she said, “Don’t you wish they could live forever?” As she gave Floss the injection, this no-nonsense bitch just did her part to make things easy. She looked up at us to exchange one last loving look. Then she laid her head down, and it was over, and we kissed her goodbye.
We buried Floss under the huge apple tree in our north tree line. She was laid to rest next to her daughter, Queen, and good old Mirk.
Connie and I said our prayers. We thanked our good and gracious God for loaning us this holy creature. We thanked God for her hard and fearless work and her faithful and loving companionship. We prayed that God would give her lots of opportunities to hear whistles again, jump hedges, and gather huge flocks of sheep. And we cried our tears into the gravesite, longing for that day when we would see Floss and Tess as buddies, joining Queen and Mirk, flying low, gathering the sheep from the hills once again.