Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? Full Color Edition


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This is the story of two littermate border collies. One, May, stayed on a farm in North Carolina with her breeder, Denise Wall, to work sheep. The other, Sky, went to live in New York with Carol Lea Benjamin, writer, trainer and illustrator, to become a service dog, with special privileges to go places where dogs are usually not allowed, such as on buses. The story tells how each dog-human pair learnt to communicate with one another so that each dog could do a very important job. Their jobs were very different, yet when the sisters met again as adults in North Carolina, Sky quickly got the hang of working sheep. Border collies have an inbuilt understanding of sheepdog work, hence the title of the book.

This is a fascinating story for anyone interested in canine-human communication, and how dogs can learn complex tasks. In each case the tasks go beyond simply obeying commands. The dogs come to learn that there is a wider goal, in May's case, for example to bring in sheep, in Sky's case, to ease pain. Each dog may sometimes take the initiative over the details of how the goal is achieved. This can mean disobeying commands that don't fit with the wider goal. Carol, for example, mentions that her other service dog, Flash, once insisted on lying on her to provide pain relief in a crowded cinema. Carol herself had not wanted to recognise the pain was there. This reflects the relationship of service dogs and their owners described by another writer, Csanyi. He mentions a guide dog which refused to let his owner take a step forward. The dog knew there was an unexpected pothole just ahead, and the owner did not.

Denise and Carol are talking about a relationship with their dogs, and two-way communication. How did they develop such good relationships? Before continuing with the story of May and Sky, I will backtrack to where the book starts, a chapter by Carol on how the wolf became the dog.

How Wolves Became Dogs

The first chapter is a speculative account, because we don't really know how our ancestors first started to communicate with the ancestors of modern dogs and wolves. Maybe, as Carol suggests, wolves started hanging around people because eating our leftovers was easier than hunting. Perhaps, very early on, humans found wild cubs, and raised them, as fun to play with, and sources of warmth at night. Raising cubs away from their wolf parents, and then driving away any that became very wild as adults, would be a fast route to domestication. The tamer adults that are allowed to stay in the camp mate with each other, and after several generations, you get something more like a dog than a wolf. The evolving canines have both been selected for tameness, and have been raised around people. The first known dog skull dates from around 32,000 years ago, though precisely when humans began to breed canines that evolved into modern dogs, we don't know.

Dogs were the first domesticated animals. As Carol notes, dogs brought humans many advantages, like making it easier to hunt large prey. Hunting became a cooperative activity between two species. Carol mentions that dogs could also warn of approaching danger. I used to sit on a favourite rock, watch the stars, and listen to the night sounds with Rug, a spitz cross. He'd back into me so we faced in opposite directions with 360 degree vision between us. We watched each other's backs. Groups of humans with dogs were probably more likely to survive than those without. If this is so, then probably being able to communicate with dogs gave humans a better chance to pass on our genes. We shaped the nature of dogs, and they also shaped us.

The first chapter on dogs and wolves is based on observations of modern wolves. Throughout the book, Denise and Carol revisit this chapter, spelling out ways in which their dogs are similar to and different from modern wolves. Denise notes, for example, that wolves target weaker prey to kill it, while sheepdogs target stronger sheep to control the flock. Carol notes that wolves cooperate and help each other within the pack, so the role of a service dogs in some ways 'fits' with dogs' wild ancestry.

Now there are two key differences between dogs and modern wolves which Carol and Denise don't mention. One is that wolves, even raised with humans from puppyhood, don't bond with humans in the same way that dogs usually do. Wolves don't have the same inbuilt desire to do things with humans, or seek their company. Wolves are also more likely to try to 'take out' a physically frail leader, whereas a well-trained dog with a nice temperament will happily accept the leadership of someone who is blind, or in a wheelchair. This makes it all the more extraordinary that wolves became dogs, even if raised with humans from when they were cubs.

Prehistoric wolves may have been a little less wary, and more adaptable than modern wolves. In prehistoric times, there weren't many humans around. We had no very strong reason to kill wolves. Humans might have driven wolves away from carcasses that we wanted to eat, but did not really start to hunt wolves seriously until we domesticated sheep and cattle. Once there were more humans, and wolves were hunted seriously, the warier wolves had more chance of surviving and passing on their genes. This applies especially to modern times, when our weapons improved, and we could kill wolves at a distance. Humans not only created dogs, we probably put selective pressure on wolves so that they became warier, and less like dogs. Furthermore, heavy pressure from hunting means that wolves are more likely to lose their leaders, their alphas, in their prime. 'Wolf culture', the passing on of skills from older to younger wolves, is affected. Wolves' lives get shorter, they live in smaller packs, and so perhaps become less adaptable. Our prehistoric ancestors almost certainly started out with a different sort of wolf from modern wolves, though how different, we don't really know.

Breeding and Raising Pups

The second chapter is Denise's and is about her work breeding collies, the reasons for her choice of the breeding pair, and how the pups were raised until all but May had left for their new homes. A lot of thought went into choosing the parents, for temperament as well as working skills. Three humans helped to raise the pups. This was a labour of love, and the results were worth it.

Denise's account of how she breeds for a nice temperament is seriously wonderful. She has done the breed a huge favour by showing what can be achieved - dogs that are both useful and sweet-natured. She describes her work in a matter of fact way, as though breeding for good temperament were the most natural thing in the world.

This chapter alone is well worth reading if you plan on breeding dogs, or are thinking of acquiring a pup. Too many people talk of breeding from their dogs because they are cute, or pure bred. Mutts with an unpromising lineage can turn out very nicely. Mutts are sometimes used as service dogs. However, if you breed for temperament, as Denise does, you have a much better chance of producing a nice-natured dog.

Denise's care in choosing parents with nice temperaments helped to create two remarkable border collies that show how much the breed is capable of. Some of the achievement is down to breeding and the care the pups received in their first few weeks of life. Much of it is also due to the later training that they received.

Training is 24/7

The next chapters tell the stories of May and Sky were trained, both their informal training and later training to do their jobs. As both Denise and Carol explain, a lot of training, in its wider sense, comes from dog and human learning to communicate with each other. Both the authors are not only good trainers, but good at explaining what they do. These chapters can tell you a lot more about training youngsters than most 'how to' books, which tend to focus on commands. I liked, for example, the way that Denise explained what 'learning to be a good dog' means, and her stress that body language has to be consistent with what you are telling the dog. I also liked Carol's account of her efforts to ensure that Sky was happy to cope with all the potentially scary stimuli of city life. You could call some of this socialization, or habituation, helping dogs to become sociable with people and other dogs, helping them get used to potentially scary situations, but it's really part of training, in a wider sense.

Most people have dogs that are not as well-bred as May and Sky, even so, these chapters are helpful for all dog owners. Careful training, including socialisation, is especially important for dogs with challenging temperaments, and both Denise and Carol explain very clearly how dogs can learn to be well behaved.

Carol stresses that Sky could not have been trained to do her job by anyone else, because Sky's work involves being in tune with her human, and being in tune, understanding comes from dog and human spending a lot of time together. She argues that the desire of a dog to help his owner comes from being with the owner 24/7.

Now there are people who disbelieve that dogs might want to help humans, and certainly owners can sometimes put too sentimental an interpretation on their dogs' motives. But this desire does exist in some dogs at some times. It is more than wanting to share activities with owners. My ex-stray hunting mutt, Toby, had little contact with humans until he came to us at around 18 months. He loves shared activities, especially retrieving, but he has no particular desire to be helpful. It's also more than being biddable. My mum's two border collie crosses were very biddable, but they didn't show any particular desire to be helpful either. It's more than being sweet-natured. My little bitch, Tilly would be ideal as a therapy dog. She is friendly with all humans, and cheers people up by being her own, sweet self. But she doesn't show any desire to he helpful.

In some dogs, the desire can be developed by a human asking the dog for help. Tilly's brother, Conor is a 'helpful dog'. Though they are littermates, they turned out to be quite different, because they are a mix of four breeds, including border collie. Conor is bigger, bolder, and much more collie-like than Tilly. Conor likes to be given jobs he understands, like protecting me when we had a small flock of sheep. Conor had the self-discipline, boldness and 'presence' to do this job. Sheep, as Denise notes, can be extremely pushy when they are hungry, and rams can be bad-tempered. Our small flock was quite easy to move. They knew me because I fed them every day, so I just had to rattle a feed tin, and they would follow me. There was no need for Conor to do complex sheepdog work, his role as my butt protector was useful enough.

Yet often when Conor was a youngster, though he had the desire to do what I asked, he'd sometimes get distressed because he couldn't work out what I wanted. This was despite spending almost 24/7 with him, which was possible because I was working from home. Conor was, and still is, the most velcro-like of my three dogs, usually by my feet when we weren't out on walks. He liked to press his muzzle against my cheek, as Denise's May did with her. At first I didn't understand Conor well enough to communicate with him. Just spending time with dogs is not enough. Carol's achievement with Sky has a lot to do with her skills in communicating with dogs. That is a key way in which a dog's desire to help can turn into an ability to help.

However, that isn't the whole story. Sometimes dogs will try to help whether you ask them or not. Rugby, aka Rug, Conor's uncle, half spitz and half border collie, was one such dog. Like Flash and Sky, Rug used to help a human in pain. Rug helped my husband Colin, when his joints were aching from gout. Colin worked outside the home for much of the day, but he and Rug were very bonded. Rug knew where the pain was, and provided comfort by lying against Colin. Rug was anything but a biddable dog, but he did show a desire to help in many ways, for example, trying to drag me away from a washing machine, which he became convinced was dangerous after it shorted one day. (It took a while to get through to him that yes, I knew he thought the machine was dangerous, thanks for telling me, but it was in fact OK now.) Rug's desire to help sometimes overrode what his humans wanted, and this went with his independent nature.

We never consciously asked Rug to help, nor tried to train him as a 'helpful dog'. I took him to learn agility and scent dog work to give him something interesting to do. He was very bright and very active, and it was clear that he needed more than just walks and obedience classes. It was a long while before I realised that pet dogs can also be useful dogs. Wanting to help was just part of Rug's nature, alongside at times being pig-headed and argumentative, or just plain daft. Rug was also easily spooked by strange sounds and sights. He would not have made a good service dog, but he could be a useful dog in his own way.

So why some dogs should have a desire to help their owners is not a simple issue. This desire seems to be partly inbuilt. It goes beyond bonding. The desire can more easily be translated into the ability to help an owner if they communicate well. But sometimes your dog understands you better than you understand him, as Rug showed. Even so, wanting to and being able to help doesn't mean a dog makes a good service dog. Service dogs have an important job to do, both in helping their owners, and as ambassadors with the general public. They need to be unflappable, which can be difficult in a busy city. Service dogs like Sky and Flash are very special.

Why a Border Collie?

One of the first questions I asked before reading this book was why Carol had chosen a border collie to help her. Denise's choice is more obvious, collies were designed to work sheep, but most collies I have met are too intense, easily spooked, and sensitive to human emotion to do Sky's job. You might win obedience and agility competitions with a collie, but other dogs can be more sociable with a wider range of breeds, and more resilient to human emotions. Coping with an owner in distress can be stressful, as Carol recognises, which is why she balances Sky's work with play.

Coping with human emotion is perhaps where spitz dogs can come into their own. The dog I chose for long walks in black moments, when my mother was seriously ill, was Tilly. Like her littermate, Conor, she is part collie and half spitz, but she's far more spitz-independent than he is. She is deferential, but very much her own dog. She'd cheer me up just by enjoying her walks, unaffected by my mood when I first stepped out of the door with her.

Carol describes being brought up by 'Snowflake'. From Carol's description, Snowflake sounds like a Samoyed, another spitz. She recalls that Snowflake accepted her tears as well as her smiles, and argues that for dogs, there's no such thing as good and bad emotions, dogs just accept you. Now this is sort of true, but not the whole story. Dogs can accept many human foibles, like appalling fashion sense, but they are usually sensitive to our moods, and can sometimes find them difficult. Perhaps Snowflake had worked out that children often cry, and that most of the time, their tears don't mean that anything especially serious is happening. Perhaps too, Snowflake could be patient simply because she wasn't Carol's mom. Kids are often much easier when you can hand them back to their parents if they get too much.

So what was Carol's answer to the question of why a border collie? She sets this out very clearly. Collies can focus, have a strong urge to work with people, they are intelligent, active, so make us feel cheerful, and reactive, so notice everything.

Some of the downsides people report about collies, like being easily spooked, or getting up to mischief if you don't give them interesting things to do, come from their sensitivities and intelligence. But this is also a breed with a large gene pool, until recently bred mainly to work. Stockmen often worried less about the 'purity' of a collie than whether the dog could do its job, and there are breeds that can blend well with collie. I've met farm collies with a touch of spaniel who worked like any 'pure' border collie. So there is a lot of variety in terms of temperament, and, as Denise has shown, a good working collie can also be cheerful and outgoing.

Good breeding has helped to create Sky, and also Carol's understanding of how much Sky can cope with, her need for play as well as work. It's perhaps this balance of work and play as much as good breeding that has helped to create a working dog who is also capable of enjoying herself, and bringing joy to her humans.

Collies have another advantage, they tend to get on well in groups, so can learn from each other. They tend to be peaceable, with each other, good at teamwork, and good at teaching each other. Both Denise and Carol describe their dogs as living in 'packs'. They mention the ability of wolves to teach and care for the younger members of the pack, and see this in their own dogs. May and Sky were both taught by older dogs. May learnt both manners and sheppdog work from her mother, Kate. Sky learnt about manners and about being a service dog from Carol's older collie, Flash.

Collie people are perhaps more prone than many owners to see their dogs as forming 'packs', and this may reflect a reality, that collie households may be more pack-like than many dog-human households. To explore this, it's worth trying to work out what a 'pack' is, and then it becomes clearer how useful the notion of a 'pack' is for dog owners.

What Is a Pack?

A wild wolf pack usually is, as Carol says in Chapter 1, essentially a family group involved in cooperative activities, raising the young of the breeding pair, and hunting for food. Dogs retain some wolf characteristics. They see us in some ways as 'pack members', and co-operate with us in a similar way to the way that wild wolves co-operate with each other.

It's clear, as Carol and Denise recognise, that in many ways dogs and humans living in the same household are not like wolf packs. It's also clear, though they don't go into this, that some dog-human households are more 'pack like' than others. Denise's dog-human household is quite pack-like in that the dogs are related, and, together with humans, carry out a co-operative activity, ie working sheep, an activity that in many ways resembles hunting. There are more oldsters, and fewer youngsters than you might expect to find in a wild wolf pack. May was the only 'cub' left once the other pups had gone to their new homes. This 'only cub' syndrome might explain why the older dogs were, in Denise's view, exceptionally tolerant of May.

Carol's household is less pack-like. Flash and Sky were unrelated, though Flash took on the role of the 'older wolf' and helped to train Sky. Sky made friends with dogs outside the household, while wild wolves tend not to socialize with members of other packs. Dogs are much more socially versatile than wolves. This trait means that owners with 'only dogs' can socialize them by walking regularly with well-behaved dogs from other households. They can also find walking companions that act as playmates for youngsters.

So here, in their ability to get on with dogs from outside their household, dogs start to resemble humans more than wolves. Both dogs and humans like being in groups, but we can learn to be a member of more than one group. You could call Sky's friends 'honorary pack members' though maybe this is stretching the definition of a 'pack' a bit far. Furthermore, while there are times that humans feel we love the whole human race (eg after a good meal and a fine wine), generally we prefer people we have chosen to group with. Likewise, dogs do not necessarily get on with every dog they meet in a dog park. Sometimes it helps to see dogs through human eyes.

So, yes the idea of a dog 'pack' is potentially useful if used with caution, but in some ways it's unhelpful. And this is before we start talking about 'alphas' and 'dominance'. Carol's view is that wolf leaders, or 'alphas' tend to be the wisest and strongest wolves. The wiser top wolves pass on their genes, and all the older wolves teach the youngsters. Everyone knows their place in the hierarchy, so conflict is avoided.

Here things get a bit complicated. Firstly, dominance is established when one wolf gains access to a resource that both want. The primary resource is food. However, pet dogs don't usually have to compete to eat. The alpha wolves are also the breeding pair, but in human-dog households, it is the humans who usually decide which dogs breed, and in any case, humans are meant to provide leadership rather than the dogs.

Even so, the idea of a pack does help to explain why some groups of dogs are self-regulating, can teach each other good behaviour, and can sort out little differences themselves. It can also help to explain why two breeding females may not get on. Denise saw respecting the dogs' hierarchy as an important part of May's learning to be a good dog. Respect for the hierarchy means harmony, in her household. In fact Denise's household sounds more harmonious than a wolf pack. Her dogs have no need to fight over food or the right to breed, so there's no need for a would-be alpha to take on the top dog to get the best chunk of meat or be able to breed. There's more space for tolerance and co-operation than there would be in a wild wolf pack.

Dogs can, however, sometimes get on without clear hierarchies. They may manage to share resources, or sometimes one defers and then the other. Tilly and Conor have always got on well, and neither is clearly dominant. Then again, other groups of dogs may have a very strong tendency to squabble, whether or not they have a hierarchy, and could do themselves serious injury if left to sort things out for themselves. Then the only position that counts is the human as leader. Or dogs may get on perfectly well, until along comes a pushy and physically stronger newcomer, who needs to be put in his place by the human, or moved to a different household where the wiser and better behaved dogs can keep him in line.

Human society is, of course, are much more complex than a wolf pack. Humans can become leaders for reasons other than being physically strong or wise. Once we stopped being nomads, and started to inherit wealth, then developed sophisticated weaponry, many more factors affected our ability to lead than just our being physically strong or wise. We may also be members of more than one group, and may be higher up in one hierarchy, and lower down in another.

Dogs in this way resemble humans. A brattish, seriously unwise young dog can bully wiser oldsters, just by being from a bigger breed, just as an unwise human may gain power from having been born rich. A sibling of Tilly and Conor, Mickey, was retained by his 'breeder'. He grew to be much bigger his mum, who had mated with a dog more than twice her size. When he got to be bigger, he bullied her and a remaining sister. But one day I saw Mickey with a different group, of dogs, bigger than him, off his home territory. He was suddenly less secure, and bottom dog, though half an hour previously he had been 'top dog' and a bully. Group composition is important in whether dogs work as a self regulating 'pack'.

Carol and Denise are pretty careful about how they use the term 'pack', and it is a term to be used with caution. What helps to explain group dynamics in one household may be less helpful in another, because, though dogs are 'pack animals' they are not pack animals in the same way that wolves are.

What Can be Learnt from This Book?

Denise and Carol have spelled out that owning a dog involves a relationship, and that the partners need to suit each other. They give very clear accounts of training in the wider sense, for dogs in very different environments, which go on to do different jobs. They each explain how their dogs get the general idea of what they are meant to be doing - how training goes way beyond teaching simple commands. They have also shown that working border collies can have nice temperaments. And if working collies can be balanced, with sweet natures, the same is also true of all dogs designed to be pets. This story is a beacon of hope for anyone who cares about the future of dogs.

Working dogs like collies are sometimes bred for their working ability, with little regard for temperament, yet taking temperament into account helps to create a nicely balanced dog. What is not easy to understand is why people want to breed from dogs with little to recommend them, except they are 'pure bred' or 'pedigree'. Our pre-historic ancestors managed to create the dog from whatever wolf-like creature was about in those times, a major feat in changing temperament for the better. Probably our 'primitive' ancestors knew a great deal more about dogs than most of us know today.

Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep is a well-written book, and can be read just for enjoyment, especially the luxury version with the delightful illustrations and expressive photos. The budget version costs only half as much, but the photos in the de luxe version make the extra cost worth it, because they tell you a lot.

Who is likely to enjoy this book? Anyone who likes collies, and anyone at all interested in training or breeding dogs. Most of us may not have the skills or the time to create dogs like May and Sky, but these are very exceptional dogs. Pet dogs can still be useful and bring joy to their owners, so long as we put the effort in, and learn to communicate with them.