Today I was paid a great compliment by a dog owner (nice to meet you Ryan and Riley) we met in the park. And I realized something too, I am the “good girl” dog lady.
Macy was in the car a lot of today save for a 5-minute visit with the staff at Global Pet Foods in New Glasgow and a stretch the legs/pee break on the trail at the Truro Agricultural College while I photographed hawks on the way back.
We are most often working in the home office, but on road trip days she works with me too, which means meeting a lot of new people in pet stores and being in the car a lot. She has come to realize that I will always find her an hour of daylight to run free somewhere within that day no matter where we are.
So today on the way home we found an hour of daylight in Waverly where she met a few nice pooches, but one in particular was a good match for her so they ran and played for a bit and when another dog entered the mix I was able to call her away in another direction from the distraction which actually was great. When she came running back I said “good girl Macy” in my proudest voice and the other dog was so excited to her this she came for the “good girl” reward too. They were both super happy and wiggly, and it reinforced to me how well this method of recall has worked for us and why.
Anyway, the great moment for me was that Ryan was impressed by her recall and commented on this!
Most dogs really do love to know they got it right, and that you are very pleased with them but a Border Collie more than most it seems.
For Macy, this is a very high value reward so it works better than treating for recall training, which has been the primary focus of my work with her.
Treat training frankly makes me nervous in situations that involve other dogs/people because if you reinforce at the wrong time it can exacerbate behavioral problems, therefore I tend to avoid it. I’m not saying other people should but I’ve seen behaviour at all ends of the spectrum in my 15 or so years working in the pet industry, and with rescues. As a result, I tend to be overcautious, but knowing my limitations is useful when working with our 4 legged friends.
So, high praise is what I use for important behavior and for teaching new behavior. I know from working with many dogs that I need to tone things down when I don’t want dogs too excited because dogs respond very enthusiastically to me. My sister in law, Jenn, and I used to trade up dogs in agility classes years ago, when I was working with my old friend Nelson because her dog, Sherpa, needed to be wound up and Nelson needed to be taken down a notch and her and I have very different personalities and approach with dogs. Training is rarely a one size fits all endeavor.
My black lab/setter mix Nelson lived a long (14 years) and wonderful life with me and taught me many things. He was not an easy dog in many ways, but he was very enthusiastic and highly trainable which made him very easy to manage. To be clear, Nelson was in no way a smart dog but that was a blessing because he rarely made his own decisions as I taught him quickly that I always know best and he only argued once about it. It was just never complicated and he was very compliant, and it was well appreciated by me and I miss him dearly most days.
Macy is my “step up dog” and she is a pretty smart cookie, although it took a few months for me to figure that out. For the first month after I adopted Macy I was fairly convinced I’d made a giant mistake, and that she might be stupid. Once I started to figure out how she ticks her brain started to turn on and each day got easier for us. There was a bonding issue since at 15 months I was her 4th home, but primarily the problem was that I need to learn how to teach her.
Luckily Macy is a pet quality Border Collie (hot high drive working dog) with a little Aussie, because honestly I’m a pretty lazy dog owner by nature. I’ve discovered as well that Border Collies are a very cuddly breed and she will happily have a pajama day with me and seem fine with it. I wouldn’t dream of two in a row because it doesn’t take long before her furry little brain explodes and all kinds of barking, growling, and generally unbecoming behavior surfaces.
We actually can have super low activity day once in a while, but it better be sandwiched by two days of running wild with other dogs. I always joke that my most important task of each day is to figure out what to do with the border collie, as knowing what she needs on a daily basis is very beneficial.
Welcome to life with a Border Collie. Don’t get one if you aren’t up to the task 🙂
There is however a great variance in personality in Border Collies I will say probably much more than in other breeds. There is no “breed standard” in fact and Macy and I have met a good variety in the 8 months she’s been with me. I am very fortunate to know many wonderful trainers and behaviorists, and new friends with wonderful collies. As an aside you would not believe how many birders own or have owned Border Collies!
When I first adopted Macy in May, many people had opinions on how I should train her and how to treat her. I encountered a lot of the usual “let her know you are the boss” advice which is well intentioned but not the right path. Especially with a Border Collie being harsh or forceful or making physical contact when they are in a state of excitement can really backfire. It makes sense to me now why there are so many aggressive BCs out there. Being calm and teaching and reinforcing good behaviour is really the only way with these dogs. And with all dogs I would say, just other breeds may tend to make bad trainers look better at what they do 😉 When choosing a trainer my suggestion would be to choose the trainer who owns a difficult dog but doesn’t need a collar and never raises their voice. My friend Rob used to say you wouldn’t hire a gardener with yard full of weeds right? The last thing you want is an unbalanced dog so choose carefully and be wary of quick fixes and punishing devices.
Anyway, knowing that all dogs need heavy socialization in their adolescence (yes even if you did lots of puppy socialization) I decided that would be my focus as well as just integrating her into my daily life. Border collies are hyper alert, hyper sensitive, and prone to over-react so I figured I better nip all that in the bud.
As a travelling sales consultant who visits pet stores, there is lots of opportunity for socialization. As well my sisters 4 young children are happy to land a hand.
My parameters for adopting a Border Collie were friendly with all people and dogs and cats so she could fit into my life. I got all that, but I got some things I didn’t bargain for as she chases things and could be under a motor cycle in an instant if I let her or over the cliff chasing a flying seagull. That being said, recall training was also super important so we’ve done quite a bit of work on that. I’m going to say it took 6 months to really get a handle on that and involved several months of long line training. 6 months in general was when everything started to kick in and I could see light at the end of the tunnel and everything is much easier these days it seems with her.
Of course on Saturday we start Agility classes at Lietash, so maybe ask me again on Sunday how I’m doing? I’m pretty nervous but I did 2 years of agility with Nelson at “the barn” so I have a foundation to steady me with any luck, and great faith in Bob.
I am not a dog trainer by any means but entirely fascinated by dog behavior and learning a lot from Macy. I feel very strongly that Border Collies could be descended from foxes and I’m not alone in that theory, but believe me there is a wolf in there too. A keen sense of play and bounce, but will not back down from much. Macy in particular is very cat like and loves to stalk her toys and toss them around while lying on her back. Life before toys was not much fun for her in fact. Well I had the wrong toys. The day before she arrived I got a variety of balls and Frisbees which she doesn’t care much for frankly (and which is very un-Border Collie like btw).
After a while she started stealing the big stuffed dog that lives on the bed in the spare room. If I left her alone for a few hours, I’d come home to her sleeping with it on the couch and she was very sad when I put it back on the bed each time. My boyfriend, who really know nothing about dogs, suggested that it might be nice for her to have a bunch of stuffed toys she could herd up like sheep to keep busy. Bingo what a great idea and this led to the toy box, toy naming (she may think they are alive and looks for them in weird places sometimes if she can’t figure out where they have wandered off to), and toy sorting which is brilliant for this breed. My friend Silvia suggested she can use her toys to self regulate when she is frustrated and it works great!
It’s good to have lots of ideas and brainstorming I find and my friend Vanessa (who really only knows about kitties) recognized right away that Macy is in a constant state of hyper awareness. That helped me to realize how sensitive her eyes and ears and nose really are. A Border Collie seems a wild thing to me a creature of nature not meant for indoor living. True for the breed, indeed.
So, when she started to develop an obsession for chasing shiny spots on the walls and ceiling I thought and thought until my thinker was sore. I reached out extensively for advice because that can get so bad in this breed that they can need medication or worse. Exercise certainly helps, but there is such a thing as too much and it only masks the problem really. Eventually after the worst week ever, I put up curtains. Done…next.
She actually does still have the problem but it’s very under control. And acknowledging her monsters helps too. She really feels better if she thinks I see or hear what she does and tell her it’s nothing to worry about. She seems to be smart enough to pick up phrases too so talking to her in a calm voice is great. When she is freaking out about anything if I get to her level and acknowledge it really helps. She has a need to be understood by me it seems.
Because, Border Collies are meant to spend the day with one person on a mountain all day looking after a bunch of sheep. Period. So they bond tight and work in sync with their shepherd. They are masters of entertaining themselves and get to the task pretty quickly in fact.
It’s important that Macy thinks I have situations under control I’ve learned and luckily I’ve convinced her to think her leash is a thing that ties us together to keep us both safe and connected. This is largely because I mix up on leash and off leash a lot when we are out about. This is somewhat because I take her birding sometimes and I don’t want her to chase birds, but also because I always make sure a situation is safe before letting her off-leash and leash her up quickly if I have any doubts. I also use the leash in new situations to show her I am handling things and so I don’t set her up to fail. The one time I failed to do so I realized my mistake in her behavior. If I try to restrain her once she is agitated she frankly turns into a mongoose so I must continue to socialize and teach heavily for another year I’d say.
She doesn’t seem to have a great capacity to handle stress but she is young and we’ll keep working on that. She gets overloaded and needs to be removed from situations before she’s had too much. And if she is simply stressed from a couple of days that have been too much, I take her to the ocean and she unwinds in minutes. I expect this is because scent and search is so excellent for this breed her nose is very busy at the beach indeed.
As bad as a battle with a Border Collie can go, conversely their cooperation reaps great reward. Everyone told me when I was struggling “don’t worry she just needs a job”. To which I moaned “what job and what is a job?”. Well I’ve since decided that a job is anything that upon completion I say “good girl Macy”.
She loves to string behaviors together and show me how clever she is and how great her memory is. She seems to create a mental map of places very quickly and run the circuit with great pride like an obstacle course.
And wo we come full circle. I may just be starting to understand this breed. There is hope for us.
And look what these dogs can do!
PS – I’ve done a lot of reading about Border Collies since I’ve adopted Macy and not been impressed by much I’ve read but this article really hits all the points I’d recommend giving it a read if you have the time and are wanting to know more about the breed: