Archives for posts with tag: border collies

Years ago, we went to the farm where the sire and dam of the puppy who would be my first Border collie lived and got to photograph them working sheep for Dog Training in Ten Minutes, the book I was working on at the time.  First the sire was sent and moved the sheep around the field as instructed by whistle commands.  When I began to move to where I could get the shot I wanted, the breeder asked me what I was after and signaled the dog to move the sheep in such a way that I could get the shot from where I was.  I was very impressed.

At some point, the sheep got very close to the fence.  In fact, they were pressed up against the fence.  The male, commanded with the whistle to move them, hesitated for just a split second.  The breeder called him off and sent the female, heavy with pups which were due in a week or two.  She ran to the sheep and in a quick, sure move, poked her long nose between the first sheep and the fence, effectively and quickly sending the whole flock back into the field.  It was a graceful move, executed with confidence.  I was pleased to get the shot, a picture of my first Border collie working sheep in utero.

That pup, Flash, plied his trade in New York City,and wherever in the world he went with me, becoming my service dog.  My gamble was that, like the German Shepherd, the Border collie could take his inborn skills and apply them to tasks other than sheepherding.  Luckily for me, that was true and Flash became an outstanding worker, doing the work he was assigned rather than the work he was bred to do.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

The other day, walking with my Border collie, Sky, on the totally crowded High Line, the elevated park made from the area where the trains brought produce into the city, I was reminded of the Flash’s mother, moving the sheep off the fence.  I was able, because of Sky’s skill, something passed down to her from her mother and her mother’s mother and all the working collies who came before her, to walk at a good speed despite the fact that the path was jammed with people. Sky took her pointy nose and moved ahead at full speed, inserting it between strolling tourists, the way Flash’s mom had inserted hers between the fence and the sheep. This neatly opened the way for her and for me, at the far end of the leash, to follow.  I always find it interesting to watch a dog work, whether she is using her skills to do the job her breed was designed for, or whether those same skills come in handy for doing something totally different, but equally as useful.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall. And below, looking out the window of our Alaska Airlines flight home.



Years ago, when I was writing the Rachel and Dash mysteries, I attended at a Private Eye Writers convention in St. Louis with my first service dog, Dexter.

DexterOn the third day of the convention, someone came up to me to tell me that Dexter was the best trained dog she’d ever seen.  I thanked her for her kind remark and then told her that I hadn’t asked him to do anything since I’d left home.  I hadn’t told him how to behave in the airport or where to lie down on the plane.  I hadn’t told him to kiss everyone who came to talk to us to make them think I was a great writer.  I hadn’t told him what to do when I was on a panel or how to behave at meals.  Dexter made his own decisions and this was fine with me because he always made appropriate ones.  He was the smartest dog I ever met about being a dog.  He knew how to get along with others, humans he didn’t know and dogs who were too fearful to even look at him.  The first time he walked into a hotel, he stopped in the lobby, glanced around and had the whole thing down cold.  He happily moved from hotel to hotel with me on book tour, schmoozed up the audiences to help sell books and even did some tricks on TV when we were in Phoenix and discovered that the host of the show had not read my book and had no idea it was a mystery.  Dog?  Dog tricks!  OK, you got it.  Smart dog?  Smart dog.

Now that my partner is a Border Collie, I hear this just about every day:  That’s the smartest breed, isn’t it?


How should I answer?

Should I say, as I sometimes do, it depends what you’re after, that if I were hunting rabbits, I’d sooner take a Beagle along.  Or that if I needed to protect some sheep, rather than move them, I’d want an Akbash.  Should I say that hybrid vigor makes mixed breed dogs smarter?  (Some yes, some no.) Or should I say that what’s really important is that you can work with your dog in a way that increases his intelligence, that takes him from wherever he is and helps him to learn language, solve problems, crack jokes, understand and be understood.  Should I say that if it’s the Tibetan Terrier or the Lab or the Dachshund or the Newfoundland that makes your heart beat faster, so be it.  You can make that dog, the one you love, the one you have, into a smarter, more fun companion.

And, no, you probably don’t want a Border Collie unless you have a real job for her to do.

What’s the smartest breed?  All the ones I’ve ever had because when someone asks me how long it took to train my dog, I think, Why stop?  Why not show her shapes with my hands and send her to find something to match the shape?  Why not make the sound one of her toys makes and send her to find it and make that same sound?  Why not satisfy everything a dog needs, mind, body and spirit alike? Why stop at a PhD when you can do post doctoral work?

Of course, when I’m in a rush and someone says, a Border Collie, the smartest breed, I just smile and say, She’s pretty smart.  And that’s true, too.





“Lassie Come Home, Adam’s Task, The Plague Dogs, White Fang, Winterdance: classic dog books inhabit a mysterious, magical space where two unalike species love and comprehend one another.  Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? is such a classic.”  Donald McCaig, author or Nop’s Trials, The Dog Wars and  New York Times best seller, Rhett Butler’s People.

Many years ago, when a friend got a Whippet, I set up a challenge to myself.  I planned an article for my column in the AKC Gazette called “How to Train a Whippet.”  The thing is, I had never been asked to train a Whippet.  Was this a problem?  I wasn’t sure.

Of course I started by reading and re-reading the breed standard, the blueprint for making the dog.  And then I interviewed as many Whippet people as I could.  I backed up and thought about not only the breed, but the group the breed was in.  And then I studied and thought about the body of the Whippet, because the body of the dog will give you an enormous amount of information about who inhabits such a body, about potential abilities, likes, dislikes. And then I read the breed standard again.  And again.

I did a lot of my interviews at Westminster.  Because it is a benched show, I had access to nearly everyone who was showing a Whippet.  And before you jump down my throat, as some of you are already dying to do, if you know how to interview, you can get the answers you need.  Period.  It didn’t matter that some of the people I spoke with did not live with a Whippet.  It didn’t matter that some of them only trained their Whippet for the show ring.  What did matter – good to know if you are looking for a new breed for yourself – is that I first asked “What are the (insert any number) best things about the Whippet?” and then let them talk for as long as they wanted to.  And then I asked, “What characteristics of the Whippet might be difficult for an inexperienced owner?”  And, happily, because I’d let people tell me all the things that were wonderful about the breed, they were very forthcoming about what might be a problem.  During one of the interviews, I had a Whippet asleep on my lap.  And that also told me a lot of what I needed to know.

Does breed matter?  Indeed it does.  Training a Whippet is not like training a Beagle or a Mastiff or a Border collie.  Training any dog means first understanding who he is and who he isn’t, how he moves, how he plays, whether or not he hunts and if so how, what he was bred for in the first place, what he feels like to your fingers, how sensitive he is, how he feels about his person.  Why just yesterday, a very nice man walking along West 23rd Street in New York City, where I was walking with my Border collie, Sky, asked if he were a Border collie.  “Yes, she is,” I replied.  “I can see,” he said.  “She’s herding.”  I smiled and continued on my way, not in the mood to tell a stranger something he probably didn’t want to know in the first place.  Sky was not herding me or anyone else.  In fact, what I saw as we headed home was not “eye” but tail as she used her sweet pointy nose as a wedge to cut through the humanity out walking on a beautiful day and make room for us to walk at her preferred speed and not just meander with the crowd.

So the lesson is, don’t stop at the most obvious fact you learn – Border collies herd.  Instead, dig deep.  I wrote my column and got more positive response than I expected, including a letter from a Whippet breeder in Florida who wrote, “Dear Carol, You must have been hiding in the bushes while I was training my dogs…”

Breed matters.  Studying the blueprint, the history, the body, then carefully observing the individual, always prepared to be surprised as you find out more and more about your best friend, your student, your sidekick.  The secret to training many, many breeds, as professionals are asked to do, is to do your homework and then allow the dog to fill in the blanks.  After you learn all you can, approach the dog empty, being open to what he can teach you before you jump in and start to teach him.  Individuals differ, but so do breeds, and that’s important to know before you begin to train.

I still have never trained a Whippet, but I feel the research I did and the observations I made would make a good beginning for a friendship that would lead to mutual education.  The better you understand your student, the deeper the friendship will be and the more he will be able to learn and to teach you back.  But don’t forget that generous praise…

Drawing from DOG SMART, The Art of Training Your Dog

Drawing from DOG SMART, The Art of Training Your Dog




If you have an invisible disability and want to learn about the help a service dog can give you, if you want to learn more about dogs, if you want to know what a great breeder does before you get to bring your puppy home, if you want to laugh – or cry, if you want to see some really really good photos of dogs, if you want to see some telling, funny drawings of dogs, if you want to read about how one dog taught a complex job to another dog, if you want to understand how your dog’s genetic predisposition to do a job informs his life, if you have an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook, for $6.99 you can read DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP? and never look at dogs the same way again.


You know you’ll use “sit” and “stay.”  How else will you take silly pictures of your dogs?  But what about “back up,” “walk up,” a recall while swimming?  What about teaching your dog to throw a rubber duck into the bathtub?  What about teaching your dog to shake her head and growl when you shake your head and growl?  OK.  No one needs that last one, though it’s gotten me a lot of laughs.  But what about the others?

Teaching your dog anything will make her a smarter dog, a faster learner, more fun to be with.  And then there’s another reason.  You never know.

I had gone to visit a neighbor whose cancer had come back.  I brought my then service dog, Flash, knowing he would comfort her, hoping I could give her a few happy minutes on a very, very sad day.  I suggested she get into bed and she did.  I never had to say another word.  Flash got into bed with her and pressed against her, turning his head back to kiss her again and again.  I sat quietly on the floor, thinking that in ten minutes, my neighbor, a very reserved woman, would get up, thank me and that would be that.  She got up an hour later and threw her arms around me.  “I’ve never been kissed by a dog before,” she told me, hugging me tight.  “I feel so much better.”

On my way out, I passed the open bathroom door where her parents were giving a bath to her nephew who was about two.  As I nodded to them, the little boy reached out for Flash and I noticed a rubber duck at the side of the tub.  So I sent Flash into the bathroom and told him to find the duck.  Which he did.  And then I told him to toss the duck into the tub.  Which he did.  In no time, the little boy was giggling and his grandparents were laughing, a moment’s respite from their sadness, a small miracle which happened because I teach commands just in case.

Another time, we were in a crowded restaurant with Flash and the only place he could fit was sort of a little slot between our table and a wall.  Had he gone in forward, he would have spent the meal staring at a wall.  I had taught “back up” simply because it was easy and fun and because it was a nice way to practice “walk up” or “come,” alternating sending the dog away and asking him to come close.  This time, “back up” did the trick.  Flash could lie next to the table and still see us and the bacon someone had dropped a few feet away!

The basic commands are taught for your sanity and your dog’s safety.  Beyond that, teaching is still a good idea because it makes the dog a richer, better companion and because, to repeat myself, you never know.  Yesterday, coming home from the eye doctor on the bus with Sky, I was asked twice how long it takes to train a service dog.  Like humans, dogs can and should be life long learners.  The larger a dog’s vocabulary, the more willing a dog is to pay attention and learn on the spot, the more flexible he becomes.  Education helps a dog to take things in stride, to entertain when that’s the perfect idea, to stay safe and even to crack more sophisticated jokes.  Dogs – a great thing.  Educated dogs – even better.



If  you need a service dog whose job will be to react to something happening in your body – pain, low blood sugar, an oncoming seizure, a coronary “event,” the inability to move – it works well if you are able to train the dog yourself.  After all, how would a healthy person get the job done?  What would the dog learn to react to?

The best way to help the dog to understand what her job will be is to start with a young pup and have her with you 24/7.  When I brought Sky home from the North Carolina farm where she was born, I kept her with me as much as I could.  I had applied for her credentials before I even brought her home so that I could start taking her on the bus, to restaurants, into stores etc right away, getting her used to all the places she’d have to go with me when the job became hers and getting her used to our partnership which tapped into her natural mindset – the pack takes care of its members.  Thus, she began to wear a service dog cape, at least part time, when she had yet to grow into it and into her future job.

Starting early lets the dog become accostomed to new things at the age when that’s easy.  I keep things as unstressful as possible during the fear period, approximately 8 to 10 weeks of age.  But if you watch your dog, you will see when she can handle change and when she can’t.  I had no problem picking up my puppy when something overwhelmed her.  I’d carry her inside my jacket, the way her breeder, Denise Wall, had done down on the farm.  Denise called it coat cuddling and knew that for the two dogs flying to their new homes, it would be a great help in the airport.  And it was.  But it also helped when Sky saw her first New York City dogs, two dachshunds wearing coats.  She turned around and asked to be picked up.  She loved the dogs on the farm and Flash, the dog she came to live with, but dogs in outfits?  Not so much.  Of course, over time, that changed.  All the things we practiced when she was young became easy, became second nature.  In a short time, she would ride the bus, lie down near the table in a restaurant, navigate the Eileen Fisher store on Fifth Avenue, wait on line at the bank, all as a normal part of her day.

Also normal was that we were together a great deal of the time and so we came to feel each other’s moods.  That is the beginning of a dog knowing when something’s wrong, or, more miraculously, knowing before something goes wrong.  So starting with a pup and patiently helping her to know that when she notices that you are not well that this is indeed her job is one way to begin training your own service dog.

For basic obedience and beyond (good manners, games, problem prevention, even a few well chosen tricks), my new ebook will do the trick for you.  Here’s some great news:  my friend, Maxine, downloaded the free Kindle app and then bought the book and downloaded it, in full color, onto her computer.  Then, opening her black and white Kindle, she found the book there in black and white.  You can’t download directly to a black and white Kindle, but you can get it on your b & white by first downloading the free app and then the book to your computer.  Dog Smart will give you all the basics.  If things are going well and you need the specifics of training your own service dog, that can be gleaned from the memoir I wrote with Denise, Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?  It’s the story of how her dog, May, learned her place and her job on the sheepfarm where the pups were born.  And it’s the story of how Sky learned to be a service dog.  Everything you need, in just two books.  Ain’t life grand!


It seems the two most popular topics on this blog are (1) working with rescue dogs and (2) service dogs for Crohn’s disease.  And, yes, those can  be combined into one topic.  A rescue dog can make a good service dog, with some caveats.

The good thing about employing a rescue dog is that, Lord knows, if any dog needs a job, it’s the dog who has been rescued.  Might as well, in my opinion, rescue him all the way with employment that helps create self-esteem.  For the lucky lucky person who does not need a service dog – we who do salute and envy you – find other work for your dog.  He can fetch dropped items for you even if you are capable of fetching them yourself.  He can learn to bring a soda from the fridge, or gather the laundry your children leave all over the house and drop it in front of the washing machine.  He can be trained to put his own toys away.  And to behave as unobtrusively as a service dog at outdoor cafes.  The more he learns, the happier he’ll be.  And if he can actually help with a disability, so much the better.

Do dogs know you have Crohn’s disease? a reader asked.  Yes, they know you are hurting.  And where.  No, they do not know that the hurting was named for Dr. Crohn, who, by the way, misdiagnosed me many many years ago.  Words, as I have noted previously, don’t mean that much to dogs.  Labels mean nothing to them.  But they are good diagnosticians and are predesposed to helping us.  We are, after all, their pack.  (Don’t tell on me – I used a four letter word.)   And much of their behavior is for the survival of that four letter word.  Do they think we’re dogs?  Let’s not trivialize their intelligence.  They think we are pretty cool and they want to keep us that way.  We are a mixed species pack and they no more think we are dogs than we think they are people, even if we say we are their mommy.

The not so good thing about using a rescue dog as a service dog that while what you see is what you get, and while they (and we) carry around the past, it’s not alway that visible and it’s not always visible right away.  With an older dog, there may be triggers that haven’t yet shown themself, surprises but not exactly like birthday presents.  So the rescue service dog needs more careful monitoring because he may not have been given the opportunity to make good decisions on his own.

The well-bred puppy you purchase to raise and train as a service dog may have issues as well.  She may not take to the job, believe it or not.  She may grow up to be all play and no work, shy in public, less caring than you hoped, not fit enough to work all day.  She also won’t be able to work for a long time, until she’s grown up, until she “gets it.”

Either way, there are benefits and risks, like much else in life.  And like much else in life, there are no guarantees of success.  But the pay off is glorious.  There may be a little extra pride when your working dog is admired, saying he’s a rescue.  There may be a little extra pride the other way, saying you trained your service dog yourself.  Either way, words don’t quite cover what it feels like to get help where there had been none.


I am just back from Newfoundland, a place of raw, unspoiled beauty like nowhere else I’ve seen.  Luckily, there were sticks there and places for a dog to run and swim.  There were butchers who had raw beef for hungry dogs to eat just outside the shop, not waiting for a kitchen or even a dish.  And there were birds everywhere, flying over cliffs and seas, making the most welcome racket.  There were whales, too, rolling playfully in the ocean and for the first time, I could hear their magical sound.  There was a moose on the road, a young one, strolling by the car, another with two calves, at the side of the road, another grazing, a few feet from where we stood with the dogs.  There were places to hike and time to think.  But there was something else, something quite surprising.

Because I travel with Sky and because when kind, unintrusive people ask about her, I answer them, I discovered something strange.  Everyone, it seems, knows someone with Crohn’s disease.  Until recently, no one said it – no one said “Crohn’s disease.”  It was a secret no one wanted to share.  But now there are spots on TV about it and sometimes there’s a famous athlete who wows us all by saying he has it and plays football or basketball anyway.  And now I have put my secret down in a book, a book I hope will tell others an even better secret, that dogs know how to help with pain, that if someone has Crohn’s disease, a service dog can make life much, much better.  The book tells why dogs help and how that help can be inspired and reinforced.  And those are secrets worth sharing.

If like many of the people I met in Newfoundland, people of amazing and genuine warmth and no pretense at all, if like them you have a friend, a relative, a neighbor with Crohn’s disease – or, in fact, another chronic illness that causes pain – the book is called Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? and it’s available on Amazon, which is available in Newfoundland, the United States and lots of the rest of the world.  Tell your friend, relative or neighbor about it.  I wrote the book to change some lives for the better, the way my life has changed.  You can help.  I am counting on you.

My first service dog, Dexter, wasn’t big on words.  We were once at a mystery convention in St. Louis when someone came up to me and said that Dexter was the best trained dog she’d ever seen.  I thanked her profusely and then told her that I hadn’t asked him to do anything since we’d left New York.  His first time in a hotel, he’d stopped when we entered into the lobby and got the whole picture, all on his own.

The big excitement is that Chaser, a Border Collie, knows over 1,000 words.  Her owner, who spent 4 to 5 hours a day teaching her more than 1,ooo words now says he has to go to bed to get away from her.  So what did he accomplish and what does teaching a dog words mean?

More interesting by far is that dogs – not just Border Collies – understand concepts and that they often gain this understanding on their own, the way Dexter “got” what was involved in hanging out in a hotel for a mystery convention.  Dogs have become experts at understanding us as well as the world we live in and the places we take them.  My service dogs have all understood that they should act one way where other dogs are allowed and another where they are not.  The dogs I have now, Sky and Monk, have taken overnight train trips and have picked up the important information about relieving themselves in the station and not on the train.  They have, like Dexter, stayed in hotels and learned that sounds in the hallway had nothing to do with us, particularly handy when someone else rolls in at the crack of 3 AM.  And doesn’t your dog always know the difference between when you are getting ready to leave the house and plan to take him with you and when you are leaving the house, oh no, and planning to leave him at home?  (Don’t be fooled by his campaign to go along.  He already knows the answer.)

Why do we continue to judge dogs by human standards?  They are bright enough and cooperative enough to learn a few words that might save their lives one day – or save ours in smaller ways every day.  But words aren’t their thing.  Give them a book, say, and they’ll fall asleep before they get to page two.  But ask them to understand the relationship between family members or the difference between friends and strangers and you’re talking their language.  Until we judge them as dogs, we’ll never know how smart they really are.