Fate And Her Spirit
Karen Thompson, the wonderful friend and accomplished border collie breeder of amazing dogs – she brought Red and Fate to us – called last night, she suggested that I consider sending Fate to an experienced border collie trainer for 30 days to see if she could develop her herding eye.
It was an interesting suggestion, and Maria and I talked about it at some length last night. We both have enormous respect for Karen, and gratitude also. You cannot get better dogs than these two. As many of you know, when we originally got Fate, we never planned for her to work sheep, she was going to be Maria's dog.
That, essentially, is what has happened, although it was not a straight line.
After months of working in the Pole Barn, walking up to the sheep, encouraging her to use her eye, I decided this wasn't really Fate's calling in life. She and her siblings are all descended from great herding lines in Wales and all have great eye. Karen suggested the problem was that Fate had been permitted to run freely too much around the sheep, and that had become her habit.
I don't know anyone more experienced about working dogs than Karen, and I accept her evaluation. I told her I didn't see any evidence – ever – that Fate was keen to challenge the sheep and force them to respect her. But it would well be that I just misread her.
I should say I have always been controversial in the border collie community, my training ideas are very personal and idiosyncratic and have sent many of the border collie purists up a tree over the years. There are entire websites still devoted to railing on about me.
But I have had wonderful dogs and trained them well and have worked with dogs and sheep now for 15 years. I would never claim to be a professional herding trainer, and we've done well with the sheep, but I can claim to have been very happy with my dogs and still am. Every border I have owned has had sheep in their back yard for just about every day of their life, woods to run it, people to be with, all kinds of good work to do. I am quite proud of that.
Red is the most accomplished and professional working dog I have ever seen, and I could never train a dog like that by myself to be as poised and intuitive and responsive as he is. He makes training look easy, but it is not easy. And border collies are definitely not for everyone. But they are for me.
I also accept that I am older (we do all get older), our training skills change. I can't move as quickly as I could when I trained Rose or Izzy. That matters when it comes to training border collies. I was thinking i might want to get an older dog so Red could retire and Fate could be Fate.
I've trained four border collies and never had that issue before, but that doesn't mean Karen is wrong. I distinctly remember the moment when I felt Fate was signalling to me that she wasn't Red, and didn't want to be aggressive with the sheep. It seemed very clear to me, and still does. How does one just if that is correct or not? I really can't, I just have to follow my instincts.
Like Fate, I have never really been attached to the conventional wisdoms and dictums of other people. Like Beavis &Butthead, I find my own way, because I am stupid, I am free. Because I don't know what I am supposed to think, I am sometimes able to think. I would never make it on the left or the right. I actually like to think.
The irony is that Fate has become exactly the dog we hoped she would be when we got her – a loving, high-spirited, charismatic and much-loved family dog. She is Maria's dog essentially, as Red is mine. She is astonishingly intelligent, loving and fun.
Her life is very much in balance – she is with people all day, she has work to do, good exercise, is thoroughly socialized, rides around with us, spends her days with Maria, giving shape and support to the artist's life. If she went away for 30 days, would she be the same dog when she returned?
We don't want a different dog.
For Maria, the idea seemed a bit like being sent to a military academy for being weird. Perhaps I should be the one sent away for training for 30 days. Might be easier all around.
Curiously, Fate bonded with Maria, who did not bring her to sheep, and not to me, who did. She and Maria are inseparable, Fate spends all day with Maria in her studio, walking in the woods, riding around town, visiting her pals in local stores (biscuits everywhere), and hanging out in the back yard with Red.
She loves to come with us when we work the sheep, and yes, she sure does love to run around them, get her exercise, and have a blast. It has become her habit, but she will lie down instantly, remain still for long periods of time, she just loves to be a part of things.
I want to talk more to Karen about it, but Maria clearly does not with to part with Fate for a month, and doesn't care if she herds sheep or not. She doesn't want a single thing about her to change. I feel the same way. When Red was lame and injured, I thought his working time was short, but thanks to his laser and other treatments, he has come roaring back and is able to run and work just the way he did before.
I was struck at the last Open House to see that people were just as excited to see Fate running around the sheep as they were to see Red work them in such a professional a way.
Karen and I both think he is good working for the foreseeable future. It makes perfect sense to send a working dog off to a professional trainer to learn how to herd sheep well – I am not nearly as accomplished as the professional trainers – but I agree with Maria, I don't see sending Fate off to be trained.
Karen and I will talk about it some more, she knows her stuff and I want to listen to her carefully. I also acknowledge that Fate is not my dog, and it is not my decision to make. It will have to be Maria's. And it makes absolutely no difference to her if Fate challenges sheep and gives them the eye or not.
Despite the twists and turns, we got the dog we want, and just like us, she is a non-conformist who has her own strange and wonderful way of doing things. She fits us like a glove. For all the twists and turns, we got the dog we wanted.
I love training my dogs, I consider it a spiritual experience, not an exercise in obedience. Training border collies to work with sheep is one of the most complex and challenging training experiences I know of. Training them to love you and live with you and have important work to do isn't simple either, but it is a lot simpler.
The voice I keep hearing in my head is "Let Fate Be Fate."