Spot and a Still Small Voice

In my early days with sheep herding dogs, I thought the only way of getting through to them was through my voice….and the louder the better.

You see you train dogs in a big open field; and the sheep start running and so the dog starts running, and how do you get to that dog? You yell, of course.

That’s what I did. “Away to me! NO, AWAY to me. COME BYE!”  And especially, “Like down. Lie DOWN!!! LIE DOWN you so and so.”

It’s taken me ages to understand that Border Collies are just like people. They all have strong points, and they all have weaknesses. But above all they all have a strong will to herd sheep and please their handler–that is, unless that will is broken.

So, the worst thing you can do is to get into a battle of wills with a Border Collie. They are driven to control sheep. In the process of discovering their zone of effectiveness—the place to be in relation to the sheep and to you the handler–they will make all the young dog mistakes. But, while Border Collies can quickly learn the words and whistles for their directions, they get confused when their handler is putting up a wall of sound. So when they are working themselves into a frenzy herding the sheep—perhaps scaring the sheep, and inevitably chasing rather than moving the sheep where you want them–the last thing you want to give them is a war cry and a battle of  wills

So, no butting heads. In fact – that’s just why you have a Border Collie in the first place. That’s why you wanted your dog to be bred from a long line of dogs that have a huge, powerful will to herd sheep.

So, don’t fight it.

Instead, the only right thing—the wise thing—is to aim at forming a partnership—a team. Work at meeting the dog halfway. Work with, not against its youthful exuberance. Work with the dog’s unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.  Get out there with the sheep and the dog, position your body in the right place, and let the dog get in the zone where she or he is bringing the sheep to you. Then you can speak softly and the dog will hear you and respond. The key thing is, if you learn to understand your dog as your dog is learning to understand you and the sheep, you will win. If you get locked into a battle of wills, you will lose.

So, here’s the story of how this lesson came powerfully home to me.

About a dozen years ago I had a dog named Spot, bred from my two best herding dogs, Cap and Abbie. Spot was a powerful dog, able to move the most stubborn sheep with ease. He was tremendously athletic and could outrun our ATV at top speed, jump onto it at a clip, and jump off going 25 miles an hour. I couldn’t stop him when he got the urge. I winced, but he took each jump in his mighty stride.

Trouble was, Spot loved to bite sheep. I could work him on sheep for half an hour and he would look like a champ; but when the session was at an end and I was calling him off, he would look at me, look at the sheep, and then rocket in to grab a tail or a hind leg.

Spot shows his power and intensity. Photo by John

Then Aled Owen came to the farm. Over the years I had some of the world’s best dog trainers and handlers visit on the farm and give lessons to people. Aled is a Welshman who has won many International and World Sheepdog Championships. Our stock dog club had arranged for him to judge one of our big herding trials up in Wisconsin for the price of his flight here and back. But for him to make a little money, and make his trip worthwhile, he  gave lessons here at Heatherhope farm.

So, while he was here, I asked this great trainer of dogs to watch me work Spot. Sure enough, Spot showed of his style and power for a while, and then it. He started to dive into the sheep. I could see it coming, and, as was my habit, I growled. “Grrrrrrrr,”  I roared….to absolutely no avail.

I looked back at the great Aled Owen, and do you know what he said?  “You are just telling him to bite harder.”

Aled Owen of Wales giving lessons at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Just telling him to bite harder! As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. Spot was turned off by my inconsistent commands, and when his adrenalin was spiking, my blast of sound drove him on. I had gotten locked into a losing battle of wills with Spot, and was just teaching him to misuse and squander all his power and ability. Like an addict I had growled the same way to no avail, but kept thinking this time it might have better effect.

Incidentally, I learned later that Aled Owen himself had a “Spot” dog himself—one with a very similar attitude that he called his “little bulldozer.” He sold a video of him training this little hooligan, then, later sold him to another Welshman who promptly won the International Supreme Championship with this dog.

My experience with Spot has made me more sensitive to the battles of will among people, and the way the Bible depicts God’s personality. The Bible shows us God and godliness in humans from two contrasting perspectives. Sometimes it seems all God values is growling. But, in the end, God prefers the whisper.

A great place to notice this contrast is 1 Kings, chapters 18 and 19. Chapter 18 is all about God’s fiery side. Yahweh, the God of Israel, and his prophet, Elijah are furious that  many of the people of Israel can’t make up their minds where their loyalties lie. They are hedging their bets. Yahweh, their God, may have been with them from the time of Abraham, through Moses, to their entrance into Canaan. Yahweh had been a good bet in the past; but what about now when a drought is going on? What will make the crops grow? Better lay some of our money down, and devote some of our sacrifices and worship to Baal, the god of thunderstorms and rain.

So, chapter 18 is about the prophet Elijah and the 450 priests of the Canaanite god, Baal, having a contest on top of Mount Carmel. Who can bring down the lightening and fire on the sacrifices? Of course, Yahweh wins, so the prize is that the people of Israel are moved to say, “Yahweh indeed is God! Yahweh indeed is God.” What do the priests of Baal lose? Their lives. Elijah shouts, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Don’t let any of them escape!” And all 450 of them are marched down to the stream in the valley; and there they are executed.

That’s one way of looking at God. God is a growler. The Bible says “The Lord your God is a zealous God;” and that might seem a good and holy thing for God to be, and for us to emulate: smiting those sexual deviants of Sodom and Gomorrah, blazing and smoking in the pillar of fire and on top of Mount Sinai, and filling up the Temple with holy smoke.

Chapter 18 is all about the Lord on fire…Yahweh, growling. Here we see God zealous for justice. Perhaps more deeply we can see God as getting emotionally engaged. God sees his precious people messing up their lives because they can’t decide, and their loyalties are divided, and their thoughts, words, and actions are tearing them apart, all going in different directions. So, God lashes out in fire and thunder because God cares so much.

But Chapter 19 of 1 Kings is something quite different. The fire and the killing and the growling killed the 450 priests, but Israelites still bend toward Baal, Queen Jezebel taking the lead; and all of them are now after Elijah. Just like with me and Spot, Elijah’s and God’s  growling simply made Jezebel and the people of Israel bite harder.

Elijah, in turn, loses his zealous nerve, forgets his triumph, and sees only failure. It doesn’t even faze him that Yahweh is now caring quietly–following him all over and sending angels to give him water and food. Driven by fear and self-pity, Elijah runs away from the contest over the hearts and minds of the Israelites.

For that moment with Spot and Aled Owen, I could feel just a bit of what Elijah felt. My growling got me nowhere. The futility of it all left me feeling humiliated in front of a famous dog trainer. I wished the earth could swallow me up; and I wanted to quit the field.  

But then, this famous, glorious story. Elijah is sulking in a cave and running from the Lord, but the word of Yahweh comes to him and says, “Stand on the holy Mountain, because I’m going to pass by.” Then the wind, so strong it shatters the rocks; but the Lord isn’t in the wind. Then the earthquake; but the Lord isn’t in the earthquake. Then fire; but the Lord isn’t in the fire.

No growling. No snarling. No blazing zeal.

Instead, the Lord is in the sheer silence—the famous “still small voice.”

Yes there is fire and brimstone and a growling God in the Bible. But there is also Elijah who fails to turn things around on the lesser mount Carmel, and comes to a deeper truth on the premier Mount Horeb or Sinai.

And there is also Jonah.  God said to Jonah, “Go and call the hated enemy of Israel to repentance. God to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians—the very people who have starved your people, burned down their towns, taken them captive, raped their wives, and taken their children into slavery. Go there and call them to repentance!”

 Jonah says, “No. I want to hear you growl, God. I want you to burn the Assyrians to a crisp. I want to see your zealous side. I know if I preach repentance, Nineveh will repent and you will forgive, because you are a God who whispers peace and forgives. You are a God who prefers steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Jonah runs from Yahweh. Yahweh won’t give up, swamps Jonah’s boat, sends the giant fish to swallow Jonah, carry him back toward Nineveh, and spit him up.

When Jonah does call Nineveh and the hated Assyrians to repent, they do it, and God forgives them.

Like Elijah, Jonah has a downward spiral of anger, humiliation, and self pity. He  goes out into the wilderness, again like Elijah, and sulks. “I want God’s growling, not forgiveness! If I don’t get it, just kill me.”

Instead, Yahweh makes the castor oil bush grow up to shade Jonah. Jonah likes it. Snoozes a bit. Then Yahweh appoints a worm to eat up the bush, and Jonah gets even more pouty.

Finally, Yahweh scolds Jonah for his brand of zeal, which is pure hatred: “”You care more for the bush than for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

So, what connects my sheepdog, Spot, the prophets of Baal, and the Assyrians?  I say it’s the same lesson about our strategy in life for dealing with people or animals. If we get into a battle of wills, we lose. If we growl, we just tell them to bite harder.

People, like Border Collies, are all different, and all have a will of their own. Because they are all made by God, that will is born good, and it’s only ignorance that spoils it—ignorance that comes from discouragement and disbelief about our good will—born into us by God. The original sin is discouragement and distrust about the original blessing that God has designed into us: to help, to belong, and to do a good job.

We can’t win the battle of wills no matter how many of the prophets of Baal or unbelievers we kill. We can’t win the war no matter how many battles we seem to win. When we growl and fight, we just teach the other to bite harder.

The God of the Bible knows that.

No matter where we stand, we, like Jonah and Israel, don’t fully know our right hand from our left. We too are learning. We make mistakes and slip-slide away on our good intentions.

But growling and getting into battles of the will is the biggest mistake we can make.

Long before my willful dog Spot, I had many run-ins with my willful son, Jeremiah. One of the longest running tussles biggest was over his favorite music I thought of as noise. He would crank it up and I would shout, “Turn it down.” Now the advice I heard from James Dobson, and the program called “Focus on the Family” that was rising in popularity among so-called “Evangelicals,” was that, as a parent, I was to stand in for God, and as a child, Jeremiah was the sinner, naturally wanting to rebel from my authority. The most important thing for “Focus on the Family” was I had to fight to win.

But the funny thing was that when Jeremiah would crank up his playlist he would always ask me, “How did you like that, Dad? Isn’t that great?”

I had to admit: my son was not willfully trying to rebel. His will was to belong in the family, but as his own person, with his own tastes in music and his own personality. He truly wanted to offer up something that he thought would please his father. And it was very much the same with Spot, so many years later. I’m sure he bit the tail of the sheep thinking, “The very best thing I can do for my partner is teach that sheep that it can’t get away with anything.”

Another top sheepdog trainer, and my friend, Gordon Watt, has taught me the most about quiet handling of dogs. And he helped me come to the conclusion that Spot had so much power that he would be better herding cattle than sheep. Gordon gave Spot the opportunity to work with cattle, and helped me sell Spot to a Missouri ranch where he became a prized part of that operation.

Gordon Watt leading training clinic at Heatherhope. Photo by John

It was a steep learning curve with my son. Indeed, the more we faced off in a battle of wills, and the louder I got, the harder Jeremiah would retaliate. The louder I got the harder he would “bite” by acting out. For years now I have told young couples that they should raise and train herding dogs before having kids. And it may not be a sheer coincidence that the further I advanced in understanding Spot and my other dogs, the better I got using a “still small voice” with my kids, and the more they started talking in gentle tones in return. Gradually I learned my son’s strong will was a key part of all his good talents and traits—the very ones he has used for years, to start several companies, marry a wonderful woman, and raise two fantastic children.   

So, whether it’s Baal worshippers, Assyrians, or our own children or loved ones, or the people we work with, or the people we deal with in politics and civil life, if we only growl we just cause them to distrust more, resent more, hate more…and bite harder. Indeed, it would do us well as a nation to see that the crucial divide today is not between liberal and conservative. It is between those who insist on the battle of the wills, and those who admit to the futility of such conflict.

If we remember God’s still small voice, and try to use it to build and grow in our teamwork with the other, we will all be winners.

It is seductive to fix on God’s fire and fury at Sodom and Sinai, and think our own loyalty to the Lord is proven by flexing our muscles and acting the same way. It is easy to think we must be filled with zeal to be true to the zealous God. But surely that is not God’s preference. Surely it is not the way that wins hearts and minds. We must remember Elijah and the still small voice, Jonah and the call to repentance. We must remember the One who was filled with zeal for his Father’s house, and expressed that zeal by teaching, welcoming, teaching and healing. We must remember how the Word of God came to us whispering from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I will try to remember Spot always: Growl and he just bit harder. Remember his God-given good will, speak softly, and he learned.    

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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