Archives for posts with tag: Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?

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.



Friends come to visit and need to whoop up the dogs because that’s how they feel loved.  Look how excited they are to see us!!!  Good for them, bad for the dogs.

Someone who cannot control his young Rottweiler, even with a pinch collar, gets upset and yells at me because I hold up my hand like a stop sign, No, don’t bring your dog into my dog’s face.  Good for no one, this man who should not have gotten a Rottweiler.

People wait until the service dog’s human partner is swimming, in the shower, looking the other way or in the case of someone who is blind, at any old time, and handle the dog.  Or call the dog.  Or crouch in front of the dog, talking like a squeaky toy.  Not good, not good at all.

The thing is, sometimes it’s not about you.  Sometimes it’s about the dog.   So many people forget the dog part of the equation.  They never think, What does the dog need?  What is good for the dog?  What is that dog doing, that dog I want to distract so that it will give me me me some love? Or why on earth is there a dog at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre (for godssake!), this restaurant, my gym, the Post Office?  Why is that dog on the bus?  Nope.  They don’t ask themselves any of those questions.

Sometimes it’s about the baby crying on the plane.  Bad luck that it annoys you, but the baby is in distress.  Sometimes it’s about the man in the wheelchair for whom you have to give up that front seat in the bus, the one that folds up, the one where the chair fits.  Sometimes it’s about the person coming right behind you, you know, the one you let the door slam on instead of holding it.  How much in a rush are you?  Sometimes it’s about the dog, enjoying a walk, sniffing things, feeling the wind in his fur, thinking his own doggy thoughts.  Does he need you to block his path and squeal at him?  Does the working dog need to have his train of thought interrupted?  Does the dog who is happy to greet you at the door need also to leap and bark and be hysterical because you dropped by?

Sometimes, oh, the humanity, it’s not about you.







It happens every year.  When the holidays approach, more people want to pet my service dog.  Perhaps it’s the light shining from her eyes that blinds them to the notice on her cape which says, Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working.  Or perhaps they are too busy to wonder why she’s in a place where there are no dogs allowed.  You may spend your Christmas season shopping, singing carols, opening gifts.  I spend mine batting hands away from my dog and informing strangers that she’s working. That’s when I get the look, or the comment.  Both say the same.  Working? But she’s just (standing, lying, sitting) there.  I don’t get it.

Indeed. Because when some service dogs work, it’s what lies beneath that counts.  What lies beneath is a silent conversation, the dog’s understanding of where something is off and the gentle, miraculous way that dogs and people improve each other’s chemistry. What lies beneath is a connection that thrives without words and that helps maintain the ancient contract between humans and dogs: We will each do whatever we can for the survival, safety and health of both our species.


Happy Holidays, dear readers.  Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Drawing from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP? by Carol Lea Benjamin and C. Denise Wall

Drawing from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP? by Carol Lea Benjamin and C. Denise Wall

Here are some of the things my service dog, Sky, does for me:

She makes me laugh.

She keeps me warm at night.

She makes me feel safe.


She’s the reason I take a long walk every day.

She gives me something and someone to think about every single day that’s not me or  my troubles.

She teaches me new things all the time. She inspires me.


She helps me understand another species, how they think, how they move, what they care about.  And this helps me to understand species I don’t live with, to know better how to observe and think about other creatures with whom we share our world, to understand that, like Sky, they feel and they contemplate.

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She’s the best ice-breaker ever and so I get to talk to lots of interesting people.  But only when I feel like it.

She gets smiles pointed our way.  Lots of smiles.

She’s the best company ever and so despite having a disability, I don’t feel isolated or alone.  She helps me to feel connected and a part of things.

She notices things I wouldn’t notice without her.

She makes me feel loved, no matter what a mess I am at the moment.

She’s always happy to engage with me, to play, to learn, to just be quietly together.


And none of these things are what make her a legal service dog.  Not one.

According to the law, in order for a dog to be a legal service dog, her handler must have a disability and the dog must do something, on command, to help her person function, to enable her person to be as much as possible like everyone else.  A service dog must give you back (some of) what your disability has taken away.

Yes, she does that, too.

Yes, I am immensely grateful for all of it. Good dog, Sky.

Sky at Chelsea Piers

Sky at Chelsea Piers


What are you training him for? the tourist in the elevator going up to the High Line asks.  Or How long does it take to train a service dog?  A better question would be How do you teach a dog to alert seizures? because no one knows the answer so I wouldn’t be obliged to have a conversation when all I want is quiet and the company of my dog.

On the other hand, how do you train a dog to alert seizures? Of all the things service dogs can do, this one thing has to rank as one of the most valuable.  A seizure coming with no warning, as many do, means you can fall to the ground while crossing the street.  You can fall and break a bone.  You can fall and hit your head.  Or your poor face. It means you wouldn’t know to take your medication so you wouldn’t be able to minimize the seizure.  It means you’d wake up to strangers staring at you, if you woke up at all.

But a person without epilepsy cannot train a dog to react to or predict seizures.  How would they do that?  You could fake it for a human, but not for a dog.  The dog does not react to play acting.  He is reacts to an impending internal storm.  And a person with epilepsy cannot train the dog because if there is no warning and a seizure starts, the person is out of commission.

So how do you teach a dog to alert seizures?

You don’t.  The dog teaches himself.


It is by being with his human 24/7 that dogs learn to respond to medical conditions.  On their own, they figure out how to help with pain, indicate low blood sugar, get a stuck limb moving, calm anxiety, and yes, while it helps tremendously to say, Good dog, letting the dog know that this behavior is exactly what you want, that he is, if not already there, on the right track, you can’t always do that.  And in that case, the dog, on his own, will have to figure things out.  He will need to know what to do when he senses a seizure coming.  He will need to know how to behave while the seizure lasts. He will need to know how to help bring his person back.  And when he does that, he is more precious than rubies.

Remember that it is natural for a dog to understand the difference between sick and well – he comes from an animal who hunts to survive and no animal who hunts could survive without this knowledge. When you’re hungry, when there are young back at the cave to feed, you want the easiest catch, not the one who will fight back and might injure you.  You  want the lame, the old, the less fit.  And our domestic dogs still have this knowledge but luckily they use it to help us, not to have us for lunch.



Will any dog learn to alert seizures?  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.  And there’s the real difficulty. But chances are, given a very strong bond and the constant companionship of their person, a dog with a strong sense of nurturing would do the job. And given the alternative, it sure is worth a try.

Sometimes I find myself thinking that my previous service dogs did a better job than Sky is doing.  They seemed more aware of when I was in pain and more willing to spend long periods of time pressed against me to chase the pain away.  And then I realize, taking the same fox hole again and again as we humans tend to do, that the reason Sky seems less aware of when I am in pain is that, since she has become my service dog, I am hardly ever in pain.

Having a service dog can work like having a pain patch or those patches that help you to quit smoking or perhaps a morphine drip but one that leaves you alert and able to function well.  The drip drip drip is the dog changing your body chemistry and keeping things humming as well as they can hum considering the fact that you have a chronic illness, whatever illness it may be.  Whether the way I am now is a function of Sky’s magic, the magic all dogs have, or a function of the fact that like any other endeavor, we tend to improve with practice, I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s both.  But over the years, I noticed that the time it takes for the dog to chase away pain has gotten shorter and shorter.  It could be akin to what happens during meditation or bio feedback.  A kind of trust in the method develops and gradually, you no longer need all the steps to get where you are going.  Gradually, you let the dog do what dogs do so well, cause a relaxation effect that allows our bodies to release their good chemistry, the stuff that diminishes the feeling of pain and increases the feeling of well being.

When I am swimming, Sky waits at the foot of the pool.  If suddenly there’s pain, I just have to look at her and the pain goes away.  Sometimes I don’t need to take the same fox hole again.  Sometimes I understand how things work, that all the seeds planted by the service dogs who came before her have blossomed.


Before: staying at home a lot because you never know when (pain, seizure, low blood sugar, panic attack, muscles freezing up and refusing to move, falling and other balance problems, PTSD, etc.) will strike.



After: going out into the larger world away from home, knowing help is right at your side, feeling confident and safe instead of isolated and afraid, being able to have a job or work more productively at home, being able to make plans with friends, have a life, be happy despite your disability.


We humans, sometimes a little slow on the uptake, are learning more and more ways that dogs can help us live better, happier, more productive lives, quietly and gracefully offering help when help is needed.  Best friends indeed.



2684Even if your dog doesn’t have a heart on her cheek, the way my dog, Sky, did when she was a puppy, he still has his heart on his sleeve.  Here’s how I know this…

Dogs make people feel better about themselves.

Dogs make people act better toward each other.

Dogs display their feelings flat out.  There is no hidden agenda, no sarcasm, no spite.  What you see is what your dog feels.

Dog help us form social networks, both in real life and in cyberspace.

Even when they don’t understand our words, dogs always understand our feelings.



Dogs let us feel more deeply than we are sometimes about to do on our own.

Dogs encourage us to share our feelings, as they share theirs.

Dogs don’t judge feelings.  They accept them, and when appropriate, the act on them.




Our ancient ancestors probably never heard of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, but nonetheless, they felt its effects.  Once wolves and primitive man began to profit from having a relationship, in addition to practical aspects, there was the feel good factor.  Just as sitting with a dog makes a modern human find that life looks a little better than it did before, so it was for primitive man.



The good feelings that wash over us from being with our dogs are available to anyone.  But for some of us, it’s not just a matter of feeling better.  What can happen when human meets dog can be close to miraculous.  For people with invisible disabilities, diseases that are not apparent to the casual observer but are apparent to even the most casual canine, the constant presence of a (service) dog can reduce pain, alert seizures, prevent blood sugar crashes, predict heart attacks, lessen the frequency of exacerbations, re-start immobile limbs and reduce the debilitating symptoms of PTSD, allowing the human partner access to the wider world away from home and offering a richer, fuller life.

But how does one do this smoothly?  How can we get through life with a big or little dog always at our sides without hearing, “Get that dog out of here!”  Probably, we can’t.  But here’s how to hear it less often and here’s what to do when you do hear it.

1. Always have credentials at hand.  While the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires no credentials, state and local departments will register service dogs and offer a tag, card or letter attesting to the legitimacy of the dog as a service dog.  When confronting a hostile gate keeper, you know, the driver who won’t let you on the bus, the guard who won’t let you into the museum, the person who tells you dogs re not allowed in the building where your doctor has an office, the less you say, the better.  First, show your dog’s credentials.  If that doesn’t work, politely ask for the supervisor.  Often the person trying so hard to keep you from going where you want or need to go is afraid of losing his job for letting a dog in.  Credentials will solve most of these problems.  Speaking to the supervisor, if necessary, usually solves the rest.

2. Remain calm and rational.  The quieter and more confident you are, the more likely it is you will be welcomed in most places.  Some people will break the law.  Even after seeing credentials, you will sometimes be denied access.  You have a choice, then, to shrug and walk away or to call an attorney and pursue the issue.  Going the legal route can be long and drawn out so choose these fights carefully, if at all.

3. Dress your dog for the job.  True, the ADA does not require your dog to wear a harness, cape or other outfit that designates he is a working dog, but boy oh boy is life easier all around when he does.  One of the issues is that your legitimate but undressed service dog, visiting, say, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes other people think they can bring their dogs.  Plus, a big plus, things go much faster when your dog looks official.  This is not an invitation to take your pet to see some Van Goghs or to ride the bus or join you at a restaurant.  With a pet, not only will you not have proper credentials, but you will not be able to answer the questions you might be asked because, in fact, you do not depend on your dog in the way someone with a disability does.

4.  Don’t back down.  Sad to say, some of the people who will try to deny access to legal service dog partners are angry or unhappy people.  I am sad to say this, but I have seen it too many times to not think it’s true.  Confronting a disabled person, they think, will be a win win situation for them.  They will deny access and then they will feel empowered.  But standing up to any kind of bully is important and it almost always works and works easily.  If you have a legal dog partner and you are told something ridiculous or untrue (that your dog needs to be in a carrier in order to ride in a taxi, that you need credentials other than what the Dept. of Health sent you, that you need a card saying you are disabled), politely stand your ground.  More than likely, the other person will back down.

5. While the law says you are entitled to access on planes, in museums, in grocery stores etc., be grateful all the same.  Years ago, this law did not exist. Years ago there were no service dogs and then there were only dogs for the blind.  Feeling grateful for the legal recognition of a broader use of dogs to help with disabilities will put you in the right mode when dealing with others.  I always thank the bus driver when getting off the bus.  I thank everyone who holds a door open for me and tells me where the door is because they see a working dog and think I am blind.  I try, in every way I can, to be gracious to the people who are gracious to me and to Sky and to appreciate the enormous change both the law and the dog have brought to my life.  I think not only the dog but that feeling also helps my body release the chemicals that make me feel better.

6.  Most important – and most obvious – make sure your dog’s manners are impeccable.  He should be as unobtrusive as possible whenever you take him where pet dogs are not allowed.  He should be able to lie quietly at the side of your chair in a restaurant or doctor’s waiting room, he should walk quietly at your side in a museum, stopping each time you stop to look at a work of art, not needing praise or a treat that would distract others, he should not bark in the movies – even if a dog on screen does, he should be appropriately attentive to you and not solicit or respond to attention from others.  He should be clean and groomed and his eyes should shine with intelligence and purpose.  He should not make anyone regret having let you into their place of business, office, movie theater, mode of transportation or home.  That may seem a lot to ask but most dogs crave a job and quickly understand the rules of engagement for the work they are given.


When I brought Sky home from the farm in North Carolina where she was born, I began immediately to prepare her for her future work as a service dog.  Well, in fact, I began before I brought her home.  I began on the plane.  I had arranged to fly her as a service dog in training since the moment she was mine, that’s what she was.  As such, though I had a Sherpa bag, I was able to keep her out with me except for take-off and landing.  At 8 weeks of age, I began to show Sky that her job was to be with me, knowing that as she matured, became more observant and as I gave her reinforcement when she got even a small step right, she would figure out what the job was.


When training complex behaviors, when training any kind of behaviors, it is important for the trainer to have several things in mind.  You must know where it is you are heading.  In other words, you must know the goal, what you want the dog to do eventually.  And certainly, you must not do things early on that will impede that goal later on.  If, for example, you do not want your Saint Bernard to loll and drool on your couch when he weights only-god-knows how many pounds as an adult, you must not let him up on the couch when he is a youngster.  Next you need to be able to break down the behavior into steps, steps your dog can comprehend and learn, and to teach those steps methodically, one at a time, stringing them together as is appropriate.  Thus the trick “Say Your Prayers” would start with “Paws Up” and only later on, would your dog do Paws Up while seated and then eventually would dip his head between his paws as if in prayer.  In addition, the trainer must understand how the dog interprets each step in his training.  This is not so urgent when teaching a trick, other than that the mood be jolly and the dog be jolly as well.  But for the service dog, this is crucial.

I have been told many times by people in need of a service dog that they had a dog they wanted to train, that the dog was one or two or even three, and that they went to work or on a business trip or out to dinner and left the dog at home.  How does the dog interpret this?  He thinks, “I am not needed.”  It is by being with his person 24/7 with as few exceptions as possible that a dog comes to see his work, that he takes on the responsibility being offered and that he takes joy in learning his job and in doing it well.

Everything you do is analyzed by your dog.  Ah, he thinks, he told me not to go on the couch, but he doesn’t seem to pay attention when I do.  Oh, he thinks, when she says sit, she means sit.  And so on.  Little things, big things, your dog is always getting the message, even if the message your are giving is not a conscious one, or even if the message is far from what you think it is.  Let your  dog take your favorite spot, get aggressive over a toy with no consequences, disobey your commands, protect his dinner, not come when called unless he feel like it, he’s got the message even if you don’t.  Show your dog appreciation for cheerful obedience when it’s called for, for the comfort of his body next to yours when you are in pain, for blocking a toddler from a fall, for cheering up a sad friend, for sharing toys with equanimity, for moving over when you want to sit near the lamp, he’ll get those messages, too.

He’s not just a wagging tail, a fetching machine, a kissing fool.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to him than to figure out what’s what in his own world, this philosopher, this interpreter of all he sees, this thinking being.