Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Learning About Border Collies

I’m very behind in blogging, but a lot has been going on in the last month so I am going to try to catch up.

DJ down in field The biggest adventure we have had lately was our trip to Brookfield, Missouri with Tristan, Django, and Cadence to attend a “Learning About Border Collies” 3-day workshop with the UK trainer, Kay Laurence.  We have seen Kay at ClickerExpo for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to spend a long weekend working with our dogs and learning from her.  The seminar was wonderful.  Perhaps the best I’ve ever attended.  We met wonderful people, and Kay was as always filled with amazing information. 

Basically, Border Collies are just not quite like other breeds of dog.  All of us BC owners have been told that and know that, but this helped us fully consider how it impacts their behavior and what we ask of them. 

BCs are bred to have a very specific behavior pattern, which enables them to masterfully perform the job they were originally born to do: herd.  They are extremely sensitive to motion and sound, they want things to be under control, and they want to chase.  They work on farms with their shepherd and few strangers.  They work in sprints, and must pause to think.  Too often, we don’t consider these traits when we are blushing at the crowded agility ringside as our overstimulated and overwhelmed BC has a tantrum because they can not control the moving dog and handler on the course. 

T mat It’s not that BC's can’t handle these environments – clearly they excel repeatedly in a wide variety of non-herding tasks.  But we need to remember how their brains work, and help prepare them for the types of environments where we want to bring them.  I loved Kay’s response to those who talk about all the “reactive” border collies that you see: “Well I would hope a dog is reactive – it just means he isn’t dead.” 

I’ve come to have a hard time with that term - “reactive.”  What does it even mean?  All dogs will react to some things; it is just a matter of thresholds.  Someone who saw Cadence in one of his bursts of frustration on the sideline of an agility class a year ago might have decided I had another one of those “reactive” dogs.  Unless they saw him the other 99.9% of the time – he is friendly to other dogs and people and is remarkably calm and well-mannered in a wide variety of environments.  I can take him to training expos with hundreds of people and dogs, I can walk through downtown, a busy park, a hotel lobby, a campground, a noisy truck stop, and even a crowded Renaissance Festival without him batting an eye. 

Me and C and DJ What he is, is distracted by motion, and by things that appear out of control.  What he is, is a normal border collie.  I think all of us shared the sentiments of one workshop attendee at the end of the first day, who said to Kay:  “Thank you for validating my dog.”

Kay also shared a paradigm with us that really beautifully illustrated what we see with our dogs.  Originally presented by Stephen Lindsay (I believe), she displayed an axis where one line ranged from uncontrolled to controlled, and the other from unpredictable to predictable.  A dog’s emotional response to an experience depends on where on the continuum it lies:

-Controlled/predictable = Boredom.

-Uncontrolled/predictable = Frustration.  This is the dog barking at the agility sideline.  He knows there is going to be crazy motion and dogs running, but he can’t control it.

-Uncontrolled/unpredictable = Fear.

-Controlled/unpredictable = Excitement and anticipation.  This is clicker training and shaping.  There is a controlled pattern – dog’s behavior will earn a consequence (reward) - but the dog has to figure out what behavior will get him there.  It is why animals enjoy clicker training so much.

A year ago, when Cadence was having his impulse control issues in agility class, a trainer suggested I medicate him because he was so “anxious.”  I was stunned at this assessment of him.  “No,” I said, “he is frustrated.”  The answer I chose was to work on impulse control and manage his environment to help him better handle his frustration.  Thank you, Kay, for confirming that I know my dog.  As she said, never let some outsider’s judgment of your dog get in between your relationship with your dog.

We also learned a lot about how we can use our body language better – how projecting calmness ourselves can keep them calm.  This was an eye-opener for me.  I thought I was giving my best display of calmness, but Kay pointed out how I was still carrying tension in my body, and jokingly suggested I have a drink before training!   She also advised us to move much more slowly when working BCs.  They have a habit of working us up and getting us to move faster and faster.  What we need to do is slow them down so they can better think, rather than both getting worked up to a manic frenzy.

Finally, the coolest part of the weekend was having the opportunity to see our dogs’ reactions to sheep.  The farm arranged a few sheep in a smaller round pen, and we brought our dogs up to see how they responded and whether they could move them about the pen from outside the fence.  It was a great way to keep sheep safe from green dogs, yet to still observe herding instinct. 

It was fascinating watching Cadence.  He approached with interest but some caution at first, as he often does with new things, then rapidly decided this was the greatest thing ever.  The shepherd commented that he moved into pressure nicely, and held his eye on the sheep until they responded.  She was impressed with his natural instinct and said he had a lot of potential if I was able/wanted to pursue herding with him. 

Much to Cadence’s disappointment, we are not about to sell the house and move to a farm.  But we are on the lookout for some practice sheep and herding lessons . . .


Friday, May 20, 2011


So much to say, yet words simply can never describe him.

He was simply the coolest cat you could ever meet.

IMG_0022 He was a young stray brought in to the Humane Society of Huron Valley.  We stumbled across him ten years ago in the last, lower cage in the cat room on a casual stroll through the shelter as we considered whether our current cat, River, would like a friend.  All the other cats were curled up in the backs of their cages, freaked out and wishing they were somewhere else.  This beautiful grey and white cat was having a grand old time by himself though, tossing toys around his cage, and pawing at a spider on the floor outside the cage door.  There wasn’t a doubt in our minds.

Throughout his entire life, nothing ever disturbed Milo.  He was totally unflappable.  When we took him for his first exam after adopting him, he curled up in the window of the exam room and chilled out.  The vet said, “You could never find a cat with a better temperament.”  He loved everyone and everything.  He wanted to be with you always.  He greeted everybody at the door when they arrived, curled up in everyone’s laps, followed us around the house everywhere we went.  He was endlessly happy, and it was infectious.  Everybody loved Milo.  People who thought they didn’t like cats would find themselves stroking his soft fur as he curled on their lap for hours.

IMG_0122He and River became the best of friends.  They were inseparable.  River adored Milo.  Being a little more anxious and high-strung by nature, River seemed to lean on Milo for comfort and support.  At vet appointments, moves, and other stressful events, a calm Milo would stay by a nervous River’s side.  They spent their days curled together throughout the house, and slept in a “cat pile” next to us at night.  If River couldn’t find Milo, he paced through the house yowling until Milo was located, then would curl up with him.  They groomed each other, played with each other.  It was beautiful, and we hated to think of them ever being parted.

Milo’s purr was amazing.  It never stopped and was practically a dull roar.  Many nights it woke me up from a deep sleep.  Because of his purr, it took veterinarians about three years to conclusively diagnosis his heart murmur.  They would all listen, suspicious, but that motor wouldn’t stop and it masked all other heart sounds.  Finally, there was consensus that something wasn’t right, and we were referred to a top cardiologist at MSU for evaluation and an EKG.  I asked if they would have to sedate or anesthetize him for the EKG.  Our vet rolled her eyes, laughing, and said, “Not this cat.”

Waiting for the appointment, I read up on feline heart conditions.  I didn’t like what I read – cardiomyopathy was believed to be the leading cause of death of middle-aged indoor cats, and their life expectancy was about 10-12 years.  I pushed that statistic out of my head.

At MSU, Milo was cool, calm and collected as always.  After the EKG, the cardiologist brought him in and exclaimed, “I love your cat!!”  He confirmed that Milo had a heart murmur, but they couldn’t pinpoint where in the heart it was, there was nothing else he was really concerned about, so he advised us to just continue as usual and watch for signs of him slowing down, cautioning us at the same time that often cats don’t display any signs beforehand.

Years passed happily together.  Milo never slowed down and was always healthy.  Every year, we brought him in for an annual exam and listened anxiously as the vets listened to his heart.  It didn’t seem to be worsening and all seemed well.

We can honestly say we treasured every wonderful moment with him.  At nights, he would wait on our bed for us to crawl in, then would dart under the covers between us, curl up, and purr contentedly.  We would curl around him, faces pressed into his beautiful fur, hands petting his milky white belly – what we called his “cream filling.”  His purr would melt away any stress or sorrows of the day.

On May 2, we arrived home to find Milo in distress – weak, dazed, and unable to use his rear legs.  Hours earlier he had been fine.  In fifteen minutes we were at the vet getting emergency treatment, but he was departing fast.  Something had just failed suddenly and completely.  Through sobs, we said our good-byes, held him, kissed his fur, and helped him be in peace again. 

We always said that Milo’s heart was probably weakened because it was so full of love to give.  In the end, it simply couldn’t contain it all, and he had to depart us, leaving all that love to burst out and into the world.

When we got home from the vet that horrible evening, we witnessed an amazing sunset with brilliant red and pink skies.  We aren’t particularly spiritual people, but nevertheless we felt it was Milo’s spirit being set free into the heavens.  Two days later, despite our sorrow, we forced ourselves out of bed for an early morning run, and witnessed a spectacular sunrise, and both of us felt a sense of Milo looking down on us, always with that unconditional, endless love.

Thank you, Milo, for all that you gave to all of us.  You will always be with us.


Monday, May 9, 2011

At a Loss for Words

It has been a roller-coaster two weeks to say the least.  It began wonderfully, with an amazing camping trip with Tristan, Django, and Cadence to northern Missouri for a “Learning About Border Collies” workshop with Kay Laurence.  The trip was perfect – one of the best dog training experiences we’ve ever had as well as a fantastic vacation.  Unfortunately, we had a harsh homecoming, when shortly after we returned our dear, wonderful, amazing cat Milo passed away unexpectedly due to a sudden and severe cardiac failure, the result of a lifelong heart condition.  It all has felt like a dream followed by a nightmare, and I’m still dazed and waiting to wake up from it all, though it seems more real every day.  Since I’m reeling too much still from Milo’s loss to write about any of it yet, in the meantime here are some photos from the trip, and of Milo in better times.  RIP, beautiful boy.  We all miss you.

road buddies

MO cade learning django

MO Lowell

tristan MO

django field

cade field



new friend