In the Beginning, there was Sparky
A few weeks after the terrible tragedy on 9/11/2001, I lost Magic,a wonderful Beagle, mix to cancer, and his longtime companion Pumpkin was nearly as bereft as I was. I visited the shelter on a whim and fell in love with a male McNab Border Collie mix who’d been found wandering in the Piedmont area of Oakland. Sparky had been sitting in the pound waiting for me since right after 9/11 – I tell people he “channeled” Magic who wanted me to take him home. I knew absolutely nothing about the Border Collie or any working breeds at that point; my experience had been with fairly laid-back breed mutts: Magic and Pumpkin and five earlier shepherd/husky mixes. I had had dogs since I was a young woman and thought I knew how to handle them. Now I know that all my other dogs minded because they loved me and figured out what I wanted, not because I knew how to train them.
As I discussed in my article published in 2005 in a San Francisco newspaper called “WooferTimes”, this breed demands a good deal of attention, interaction, and training – especially when young. Even though this did not factor into my decision to adopt him, he was exactly the right dog for me in a turbulent and traumatic time of my life. I sorely needed something to demand my attention and focus, and he was it!
He Settled In – Sort Of
Because Sparky had obviously been trained and well cared for, I wondered how someone could possibly have abandoned him? (I now know it was probably exhaustion). All Sparky had to learn was his new name; he was completely housebroken and immediately able to walk off leash with a reliable “come” and was a great dog. Except.
He had so much energy and drive he drove both me and Pumpkin (and my other companions) completely crazy. Sparky wanted to do something. Anything.
And The Work Began
He’d pick up a pine cone and throw it at my feet, twist his head and look at me expectantly, and bark in a high-pitched whine. So we discovered fetch. Then frisbee. Then fetch and/or frisbee on 3-mile hikes. He still couldn’t burn off the energy. Sitting down to watch TV, he’d be at our feet with a toy, begging us to throw it.
But it was not nervous or anxious energy, just enormous drive to be doing something he thought important – herding something. So we tried Flyball – and I learned a lot about how to burn off that energy by training him all the time, keeping his mind busy. I took all sorts of dog-training classes with him, and each one taught me (and him) a bit more. All of it was “positive”” or “reward” training, and since Spark’s only bad behavior was barking for the toy, he never needed any negative or corrective training.
During that year, I had more than doubled my doggie-exercise time and spent a lot of time focused on Sparky. Pumpkin was aging quickly and started refusing to go with us (she was due for a fatal stroke in a few months). What to do? Sparky was already not very well socialized with other dogs – he wasn’t aggressive, just did not seem to care about others of his species. All of his attention was on me, or the birds or the bees or the little critters who’d wander into my yard. Luckily, he never caught anything except bees – which didn’t seem to bother him at all.
And Royalty Arrives
After a year, I decided what I needed was another Border. What was I thinking!? Looking back, I realize that at that point I felt (wrongly) that I had gained control of Sparky and could handle another just like him. After all, I was spending so much time with him, I may as well let another dog tag along. I would frequently check out Border Collie Rescue. So I found Princess.
Luckily, she was a perfect addition to the family. She’d play with Spark and help tire him out; she’d boss him when he was crossed some imaginary line; she’d tell him to settle down much more effectively than I’d been able to do. She was actually a “feral” dog, so although she bonded instantly to Spark, it took her months to warm up to me. She was frightened of everything and everyone except Sparky. I therefore had to treat her very carefully and could not discipline her at all, so all training was absolutely positive, no corrections. She didn’t even get a name until I said “come here little Princess” once casually and she responded. No other name got her attention, but she knew she was a Princess. She was certainly the boss of Sparky.
We Move and Settle In
Life changes and I ended up moving to Nevada City, CA. I wanted a more rural lifestyle, and the move helped me achieve that goal quickly. Both dogs immediately adapted to their new surroundings. I was working locally or at home, so I was easily able to incorporate even more exercise and spend plenty of time exploring with them, usually off-leash. A few years went by; they were getting older, too, so our whole family became rather calm in comparison to the turbulent years behind us. We are happy.