I have a brother-and-sister pair of 8-year-old Border Collies named Radar and Echo. I rescued them off a horse trainer’s property when they were puppies. They were kept with their litter mates in an old, closed horse trailer with no human interaction. They were on their way to becoming feral dogs, scared of their own shadows. The horse trainer saw them as nothing more than extra income, because he sold each puppy for $150. I saw their worth as being far more than a dollar sign.
I have a fondness for any dog who comes from a herding background because they literally think quickly on their feet. I’ve had strong breeds such as German Shepherds and Rottweilers all of my life, and while I’ve fostered many herding-type dogs, these two special Border Collies were my first of this breed.
My female, Echo, loves me even more than sheep, and she follows me everywhere. Sometimes she is just behind my back heel where I can’t see her, and I call and call for her, not knowing that she has become my shadow. She gives me a nudge on the back of my knee to let me know where she is if I continue my foolish calling for her. Echo is a gentle spirit with people but she’s the boss with the other dogs. Mostly she wants to be left alone so she can concentrate on watching me and, I think, watching over me.
Her brother, Radar, is somewhat rare for a Border Collie in that he is stubborn. Border Collies have been bred over time to be biddable –- meaning they are tractable and willing to do what is asked of them. Echo, who is extra biddable, lives for me. Radar lives for Radar. I don’t begrudge him for that; it’s who he is.
Radar has the most formal training on him of all five of my dogs. We’ve participated in sheep herding (he loved it but was often too aggressive with the sheep), agility (he hated it and peed on top of the tunnel and refused jumps), rally, and formal obedience. He has zero toy drive. Believe me, I tried to bring that out in him and even once resorted to gluing sheep hair to a ball in an attempt to entice him to play -– it failed. If you throw a ball or Frisbee for Radar and tell him to “get it,” he just looks at you like you’ve lost your human mind. He has one trick (Bang! Bang! Play dead!) and he can do a perfect five-minute stay no matter what is happening around him. He makes me look good as a trainer, even though he does have that un-biddable like stubborn streak.
I never formally trained Echo for two reasons: 1) she seems to be able to read my mind and do what I ask of her without formal training, and 2) she is such a sensitive soul that any correction shuts her down. I learned this the hard way at our first sheepherding clinic. Echo is a small Border Collie, weighing in at 35 pounds. She was a year old at the clinic and she was much smaller than the big, burly sheep. At first, they intimated her. I was in the round pen with her, trying to get her to track behind one of the sheep. It was hotter than hell already at 9 a.m. in the morning and I became frustrated with her fear of the sheep (bad human and bad trainer for becoming frustrated in that moment; I blame the intense heat though really there is no excuse good enough). I put my hands on my hips, glared at Echo and sighed in frustration because she was running away from the sheep. The clinician jumped up from his seat outside of the round pen and yelled at me: “You just ruined your dog. Get out of that pen, now!”
My turning and facing Echo with a hard look and with my hands on my hips made her slink away from me and the sheep -– she is THAT sensitive. We did get her herding that day, however –- no thanks to me. The clinician put his dog in the pen with her and after a few minutes, she learned what to do from that dog and he gave Echo confidence. Afterwards the clinician told me I had a “monster natural herder” in Echo and that we could go far together, even to national competitions. Unfortunately I lived in a southern state then and wilted in the heat. I physically could not compete thanks to a health concern that made my heat phobia even worse. I did buy Echo three sheep to practice with at home when the weather and my health both cooperated.
Radar and Echo have helped me in my work with aggressive dogs over the years, and I am grateful for them every day. They don’t react to other dogs when they know we are working. Instead, they stare right at me, willing to turn away and sit with their backs to the client’s dog, who is often at first lunging at my Border Collies. I say “we” work with aggressive dogs because without my Border Collies’ assistance, I cannot get a dog-reactive dog past their emotional reactions to a new dog without a calm dog involved in the process -– it takes a dog’s help to assist her fellow canine. My dogs trust me and I trust them to listen to me and to stay calm no matter what the client dog is doing. Together we’ve helped countless dogs in two different states.
The thing that surprised me the most about my Border Collies is how sweet they are. Before I got them, I had been around many working dogs on Texas ranches. These dogs had a real job and a daily mission to accomplish and they most often were not lap-sitting dogs. My two can “work” for me by rounding up my donkeys and helping me to move them from one pasture to another, and they are as serious about doing something like that as any working dog I’ve seen, but when their job is done, they love nothing more than to be petted and told what good dogs they are. They aren’t food-driven but they are praise-driven.
In the evenings, we all love nothing more than to curl up on the bed together and watch a movie. They always request the same one, Babe, and we’ve watched it countless times. I feel lucky to share my world with these two sweethearts. They’ve made me a softer, wiser and more effective trainer — and human being.
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