Category Archives: Border collies

I Have A Dog Who Answers The Telephone

Please excuse my absence from the blog, as Trudy and I were on vacation. The time away allowed time to contemplate some questioning feedback I received regarding recent stories posted about Little Jack Kerouac. You see some readers did not fully accept that Little Jack dictated his back history and all I did was merely write it down. Oh you of little faith.

I did too dictate my story

Such feedback made me think about other ways in which my dogs communicate, ways which hopefully everyone can accept. Now surely others have witnessed their dogs barking to go outside, to take a walk, to be petted, and in the case of my dogs, to go for a ride in the pickup. Yes, my dogs, especially Little Jack and Buddy, are quite insistent about nudging me out of my chair about 5:00 pm to go for a ride or to take a walk.

Bella, our female Border collie has her own idiosyncrasies. She communicates. She really does. She does this  by barking when Trudy or I don’t hear the telephone. Perhaps like many seniors our hearing is not the best. Trudy has graduated to the honest stage of wearing hearing aides while I simply deny my hearing loss and soldier on. Bella on the other hand has tremendous hearing. We say she has “dog ears.”

Bella, our little helper
Photo by Ramsey

If we fail to hear the land line or a cell phone ring, Bella will begin to bark. I’ve noticed she doesn’t bark for the first couple of rings. Presumably she waits to see if we hear it or not. Only when we don’t respond by the third or fourth ring does she become insistent that we answer the phone. Her initial barks cease and she begins to howl. I’ve never heard her howl except when we fail to answer a telephone, but believe me she is quite effective in mobilizing her humans to answer the phone. Bella can sound just like a hound dog. She’s become a regular little phone helper.

Now this behavior fits well with Bella’s helping personality. She likes to have a job and likes to prove useful. For some time she has helped out Buddy when he wants to go outside to do his business. You see, Buddy will stand quietly beside a door to go out. We don’t always observe him. Only rarely will his urgency cause him to scratch at the door to draw our attention. Bella, on the other hand, seeing Buddy waiting patiently beside the door will begin to bark. Her bark is persistent and loud. It’s hard to miss.

Bella and Little Jack guarding the ranch from the pickup

She also likes to accompany Buddy when we put him out, just in case I suppose. Buddy has actually become fairly dependent on Bella’s going out with him, as otherwise he is hard to push out the door. So you see beside answering our phones, Bella also serves as door monitor.

They say you have to give a Border collie a job, or else it will become self-employed and never productively. Well, I’m here to say some Border collies (read Bella) find their own jobs and are helpful. Who would have thought we would have a dog that answers the phone or monitors doors?

Do your dogs communicate with either you or any other dogs? I would love to have your feedback. Please leave your experiences in the comment section.

Summer Odds And Ends From MSR

Like a lazy river, life at Medicine Spirit Ranch flows on. The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone, and we are now left with only fond memories of Trudy’s family visiting from Baltimore, south of Fort Worth, San Marcos, and Greenville, Tx. What fun to enjoy the holiday with family and friends who seemed to thoroughly enjoy what the ranch has to offer. Gator tours were the biggest hit of their visit along with lots and lots of pool time.

Robert Kearns and Henry visiting the ranch from Baltimore

Family spent much time in the pool

The Golden Retriever also made her way into the pool. Note Bandit keeping a close eye on Brinkley.

Caitlin, Henry and friends

The most noteworthy and concerning aspect of our summer has been a persistent drought. This was  addressed recently by half an inch of rain that may have elevated my spirits more so than drenching our pastures. Nevertheless, it was welcome and the pastures have greened up. Much more rain is needed.

The drought is harder on our stock and wildlife than humans. This week I found the persistent work of some frustrated critter that had gnawed through a thick piece of particle board only to be met by the wire mesh that encloses our duck and fish food box. I suspect the perpetrator may have been a raccoon but I can’t be sure. I left a little extra food on the ground around the food box just in case he should return.

Evidence of one persistent but no doubt frustrated varmint

Likewise the deer have had to search for food. The drought has brought them into our yard and into direct conflict with Trudy. The deer have even made it onto our porches and eaten hanging plants. They have been eating our newly planted landscaping in the front courtyard, much of which is “deer resistant.” Trudy has responded in force by caging rose bushes and frequently applying Deer Be Gone or water with Dawn Dish Washing Soap. These concoctions mildly discourage the deer.

Bella, our female Border collie, has become our nighttime deer monitor. She will bark loudly enough to wake us. When let into the yard, Bella encourages (well, yaps ferociously and chases) the deer to jump back over the fence when she thinks they belong. No invading Bella’s space, mind you.

Bella, our night time deer monitor
Photo by Ramsey

Once again I have been reminded that our cattle and horses are big animals and must be paid due respect. Retirement into ranching hasn’t been in the best interest of my health (broken arm, ruptured disc in back, sprains, numerous cuts and abrasions, and concussion). Recently when working calves and sorting cattle in the pen, my attention had focused on the Black Baldies such that I didn’t see Bell, our oldest Longhorn approaching. She let her presence be known by clubbing my right arm with her horn. This is her way of indelicately asking me for more range cubes to eat.

Many folks incorrectly believe Longhorns protect themselves by stabbing predators with the tips of their horns. This is not the case. Their main horn defense is by shaking their heads from side-to-side and bludgeoning predators (or humans) into submission. In any event my scrapes have healed and I have renewed respect for Longhorns. NEVER IGNORE A LONGHORN!

Longhorns wield heavy clubs and demand attention

 

 

The Importance Of Place

Have you ever noticed how comfortable you feel at home?  Each of us has a certain comfort zone and a sense of place. I’ve often wondered about this?

Buddy as a puppy. “Say this lap feels pretty natural”

This feeling of belonging, belonging to a certain geographical place affects us all- a place that feels right, looks right, smells right and provides comfort and mitigates the travails of the world. Whether it’s early imprinting, as occurs with baby chicks, or some combination of the sounds, smells, sights, and memories (an overall gestalt for an area), I am not entirely sure. Nevertheless, for many who have lived away from their special places know the strength and durability of the homeward draw. It’s like a magnetic force and can be almost overpowering.

Buddy:Being in this pickup truck just feels right

Trudy and I lived for ten years in Minnesota while I trained in Neurology. Our two children were born there and we have wonderful memories of Minnesota. We met some lovely, lifelong friends, enjoyed the incredible 10,000 pristine lakes, and delighted in many novel experiences (have you ever tried lefsa or lutefisk?).

Nevertheless, both Trudy and I felt a nascent longing to return to Texas, our native home. When offered the opportunity to join the faculty of the new Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas, we quickly determined to leave our adopted State of Minnesota and head homeward.

What is it that makes a place comfortable for us? I’d lived in Texas during my formative years. Trudy had always lived in Texas. We both missed the gratuitous friendliness and expansiveness of spirit that is Texas.

Minnesotans were in no way unfriendly but seemed not as overtly warm and forthcoming as we’d come to expect from growing up in Texas. Plus we admittedly missed the Mexican food and Bar-B-Que along with the independent mindedness and largeness of spirit in Texas.

A friend of mine in Fredericksburg, Texas recently told me of having his grandchildren visit from New York City. Wishing to introduce his grandchildren to the wide, open spaces of Texas, he drove his grandchildren to The Big Bend Area. There with their recently purchased packs, canteens, and hiking boots, they set off on a well marked park trail to explore the grandeur of the Big Bend National Park.

After some time had passed, one grandchild developed a quizzical look on his face, looked around with an expression of perplexity, and said in a panicky voice, “Grandfather, we are lost!”

The grandfather asked in a calm voice, “what makes you think we are lost?”

The grandson replied, “Well, there are no people here, we must be lost!”

“I feel right at home in my pack.”
Buddy stands tall above Mollie and Bandit

 

The lack of people, the lack of built environments, and absent din of traffic noise was not “home” for the grandson. It was clearly different from New York City. No doubt the solitude struck the boy as unnerving and frightening. The grandfather shared that he strove to introduce an alternative sense of place to his grandchildren, one closer to nature than is New York City.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve learned a lot about animal and human behavior by simply watching our furry, four-footed friends. This includes the importance of a sense of place.

Buddy, our now senior Border collie, was born in my bedroom closet.

Daughter-in-law Alissa holding Buddy shortly after his birth

With rare exception Buddy has never ventured much beyond the outer fence of our ranch. Oh he frequently rides along on trips to the feed store and has on occasion gone on a wild bull chase throughout neighboring, overgrown ranches (see an earlier post, Slacker), but he is most definitely a home dog.

Buddy crouched and ready to herd

Once and only once, Trudy and I drove him to our daughter’s home in central Dallas. Buddy absolutely hated it. The loud sounds and strange smells were, I suppose, not what he was used to. He let his displeasure known by wetting on the floor, whining, pacing, scratching at the door, and at the end of the visit most eager to jump into the car and return to the ranch. We’ll never make that mistake again. Buddy is not and never will be a city dog.

Once when our ranch house was undergoing remodeling, we had to move about an eighth of a mile and live for several days in our guest house. Buddy, despite the short distance from our home, absolutely hated it.

We had packed a few things and loaded up the dogs for our stay at the guest house (The Yellow Rose). When the sun began to set, Buddy began scratching at the door of the Yellow Rose to go out. When later I went to call him in, I couldn’t find him. Buddy had gone home. I had to return to our main house, gather him from the back porch, and haul him back to the guest house.

Buddy: “Just thought I’d wait for you here on the porch at home while you dawdled  at that other place”

This sequence  of futility repeated several times before I wised up and closed the yard gate to the guest house so that Buddy could not leave. Needless to say, our dog spent a few restless nights at the guest house while the remodeling proceeded.

I learned from Buddy’s escapes that a sense of place proved more important than for him than did human companionship. His preference for place over person proved a little humbling but informative as to what was most important in Buddy’s canine world.

Like Buddy we all share a feeling of comfort when at home and mild discomfort when away from home.  A sense of place may go a long way to explaining homesickness, an emotion we have all felt.

While we may not understand why others feel comfortable in radically different places than our own and with different looks, smells, and accents than what we are used to, we can perhaps understand the comfort that comes to others with residing in their own familiar places.

“Why look elsewhere when I am already home”

A final thought regarding a sense of place deals with the impact of age. As Buddy gets older, he’s developing an even stronger love of home and dislike of travel. He is the first  to return to the pickup when we work on the ranch. Buddy is the first dog to want to go inside when spending time on the patio or in the yard. He is the least likely of the dogs now to participate in a deer chase or challenge a cow.

Perhaps as an older dog, Buddy feels more vulnerable. Home is comforting for him. Are there parallels in humans? As humans age, it strikes me we also develop an increased awareness of our frailties and have an increased love of home place. Don’t many older people, like Buddy, appear less willing to travel, explore, and seek out new adventures?

Our sense of place seems as important for humans, as it is for our canine companions. Perhaps our sense of place which is lifelong may even strengthen with age as it does for my four-footed friend.

Of Buddy and Back Injuries

I don’t know if my absence from the blog has been noticed, but ‘I’ve been MIA for awhile, suffering from a slipped disc. Besides sapping any creativity, it is darned hard to write when lying on your belly in bed.

The offending item that resulted in my most recent aggravation of my back injury

My infirmity did cause me to think back 10 years when I first injured my back. For the six weeks during my recovery, my young Border collie, Buddy, stayed as if glued to my side. I knew he would have preferred to be out on the ranch herding or exploring, but stay with me he did. Because of his loyalty and devotion, his name became uncannily appropriate.

Buddy has of course, like me, aged in the last 10 years. He injured his own back years ago while jumping over a cattle guard, causing a thoracic disc to project out, contuse his spinal cord, and bring about a prolonged weakness of his hind legs. He is probably 70% recovered now and has continued to perform his ranch duties with a fierce determination.

Buddy when younger

Buddy is now an old dog. Of late when we’ve gone on a walk (always an activity he enjoyed immensely), he has tended to stay behind at the house while Bella and Little Jack walk off with me.

Seems to me Buddy is smart enough to know that the exertion will only aggravate his discomfort and we will, after all, return in short order.

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Since most of my time has been spent in my position of relative comfort, that is on my belly in bed, Little Jack and Bella have taken over Buddy’s prior close association. They bookend me on the bed while Buddy lays across the room on his dog bed or underneath my bed. He simply doesn’t have the oomph to jump up on the bed any longer. Instead he seems to delegate this position of responsibility.

Bella on the left and Little Jack on the right

Buddy seems able to accept  changes required by his age and back condition. This lesson is not lost on his pained human companion.

Injuries, such as mine, provide lots of time to think. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive. This provides more solace than I ever would have imagined.

My dogs also provide wonderful companionship and are rooting for my recovery. While I await a visit with the neurosurgeon, I am closer than ever to achieving recovery from my injury. Loyalty is never sweeter than when it arrives at a time of special need- and on four paws with a wet nose.

Canine Cooperation

In an earlier blog piece, I wrote of wolves having been reported as smarter than dogs in a teamwork task. While wolves were superior at performing the pull test, I wondered if this degree of cooperation was true for other dog-dog cooperation tasks as well.

The standard pull task required animal teams of two wolves and two dogs (as well as pairs of other animals) to cooperate in order to earn a tasty reward. The experiment was reported in the New York Times. Viewing this video report made me wonder if my dogs ever meaningfully cooperated with each other or did they merely excel in cooperating with their humans.

Many examples of Border collie cooperation during herding tasks exist, some of which have been detailed here previously but these might well be viewed as examples of human/dog cooperation.

Buddy on left and Bella on right. Photo by Ramsey

Since writing an earlier piece about my dogs and how they cooperate with each other, I’ve found another good example. Bella, our female Border collie, has for some time worked as our nighttime door monitor.

What I mean by this is that Buddy will often go to the door at night but fail to bark to signal his desire to go out. Standing quietly at the backdoor, he often goes unnoticed by his sleeping humans. This is especially true as he goes to the room adjacent to our bedroom when Trudy and I are deeply asleep.

“My humans are so slow in sensing Buddy’s plight.”
Photo by Ramsey

On sensing Buddy’s need Bella’s response is to head for our bed and place her very cold, wet nose on the selected, sleeping face of one of her humans. Believe me, this proves quite alerting and motivating, waking one of us up from even stage IV sleep. Trudy or I will then find Buddy standing at the backdoor and let both Buddy and Bella out for Buddy to do his business. Bella will later bark when both are ready to come back inside.

In my opinion Bella’s door monitoring routine exemplifies dog-dog cooperation. She looks out for the best interests of an uncomfortable, bladder-distended Buddy, but also Bella benefits her human companions by helping avoid a large yellow puddle inside the house.

“And I really appreciate Bella’s help too.”
Photo by Ramsey

Have you too seen examples where dogs cooperate with each other? I would love to hear your stories. Let’s hear it for canine cooperation and doggy solidarity!

Cooperation says it all

Wolves Beat Dogs in Teamwork Test

A video in the NY Times from Wednesday, November 8, 2017 got me thinking. The video produced by James Gorman made the provocative statement that wolves may be smarter than dogs. Could this be true?  More precisely the video claims wolves are smarter than dogs at learning the rope pull test. This task is where two animals of the same species have to work cooperatively to achieve success.

The rope pull test is commonly used test to determine cooperativeness among two animals and to compare among various species. The test consists of a tray around six feet long or so that has two tasty treats in plain sight but unavailable behind a screen. The two animals must simultaneously pull on a rope, at the ends of the slide, thus pulling out the sliding tray amd making the two treats available for consumption. As it turns out wolves learn this task quickly and work cooperatively. Dogs not so much. Other species able to perform the task include elephants, parrots, monkeys, and rooks (black birds). Dogs truly struggle with this task but can eventually learn it.

The explanation provided for dogs’ slowness to learn is that they are not used to working cooperatively with other dogs. Yes, dogs work with humans exceptionally well, such as with bomb sniffing, herding sheep, riding surfboards and skateboards, protecting homes, and sniffing out corpses in forensic investigations. But these are activities dogs do with humans, not in cooperation with other dogs.

Bella on the left and Little Jack on the right

 

Wolves, on the other hand, don’t work with humans but work with members of their pack for survival. If you think about it, this all makes pretty good sense, . Adaptability is after all important for survival. Dogs must adapt to their human companions and make them happy while wolves must adapt to their  pack and become successful hunters.

But this video in the NY Times got me wondering. Are my dogs capable of working together? If so, what can they do cooperatively with each other? I have shared over the years in this blog many examples of my dogs working with me to herd cattle. But this is a task they do in combination with me who is directing them to some extent (at least that is my illusion as de facto leader).

It didn’t take me long to find an example of my dogs cooperating with another dog. Not long after viewing the video I saw Bella, my female Border collie, and Little Jack, our “Texas brown dog” take off on a spontaneous hunting mission. You see, Jack is determined to save the world from what he must see as the scourge of armadillos and squirrels. Just moments before he had spotted an armadillo. After quite a chase, the dogs caught the armadillo. Jack tried to kill it on his own but the armadillo was too strong and pulled out of his bite. Jack held onto the tail of the armadillo and proceeded to ski behind the powerful animal, dragging Jack toward its burrow.

Bella then swooped in went after its head, trying to kill it. Together they managed a successful hunt that neither one of them alone could have pulled off. This hunting duo has killed at least four or five armadillos recently, making them highly effective hunters so long as they work cooperatively. Incidentally they act incredibly proud of themselves, showing extreme excitement and rapid panting after returning from a prolonged absence in which it becomes obvious had been a hunt.

This strikes me quite clearly as cooperation in my dogs. But is it not the only example. I’ve taken to going for a walk for my health most afternoons around 4:00. Not too surprisingly at around this time when usually working at my computer, two dogs will show up at my desk. It can be any two of them.  In tandem they will nose, scratch, whine, and otherwise manipulate me out of my chair. I am then herded unceremoniously toward the door and made available for their afternoon walk.

I have a theory as to why two come at me at a time.  When previously just one dog took on this task, I assumed he/she just needed to go outside to pee and I would promptly put the dog outdoors. They quickly learned a single dog strategy was ineffective.

Well there are two examples of my dogs working cooperatively with one another. There are others I will share in a later blog piece. Please dear readers share your examples. I plan a follow up piece and may be able to share your experiences with other blog readers. Let me hear from you!

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED