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The Phoebe Chronicles: Letter from America

Training Dogs Magazine © 2002


Our small New England town is ten miles from downtown Boston, Massachusetts, five miles from Harvard Square, and a hundred miles from the nearest flock of sheep. The homes sit on one-eighth acre lots of perfect green lawns and tidy flowerbeds. The town's canine control laws are strict and enforced: every dog must wear a leash, all dog droppings must be picked up and disposed of properly, dogs are not allowed on town fields, and no dog is allowed to bark for more than ten minutes. If the town had its way, dogs might be banned altogether-certainly anything larger and more active than a pug or a dachshund.


It's a wonderful town, however, in which to raise children-good schools, a nearby library, safe streets, and a public pool. Our three sons-Max, 15, Wylie, 11, and Nathaniel, 5 years old-hop on their bikes to ride to the pizza place and the candy store, and can always find enough friends for a baseball game.

In 1992, when my older boys were still quite little, the clamoring for a dog began. My mother, savvy grandmother and animal behaviorist that she is, said, "You don't need to take care of one more living thing. You need something that will help you take care of them. Get a Border collie."

A Border collie? Here, in Tidy Lawn, U.S.A.? A Border collie? Those frighteningly brilliant creatures that drive themselves and everyone around them mad if not provided with the mental and physical challenge of sheep herding or mountain rescue on a daily basis? Surely, mother, you can't be serious. "Oh, yes," she said, "a collie would be perfect. In fact, I just met a lovely dog in Michigan. Let's see if we can get a puppy from her breeder."

Esme, a 10-week-old white collie puppy, was soon put on a plane to Boston. Ten years later, she's nanny, pal, bedwarmer, kitchen-floor and baby-face cleaner, ace football goalie and baseball outfielder. In short, the world's best family dog. "Ez " employs herself by gently nudging the neighborhood toddlers off the street and on the sidewalk, visiting (and snacking with) lonely elders, letting the grownups know if the 10 year olds are doing something risky, and generally being a contributing member of the community. Ez doesn't need a flock of sheep. She's got a flock of humans to watch over, and she takes her work seriously. Sometimes she wears a leash, and sometimes not. The animal control officer tends to turn a blind eye to Ez - perhaps because he's an ex-army sergeant, and appreciates that I've clicker trained her to salute him.

While healthy at ten, Ez is slowing down. The ripe old age of fifteen or sixteen suddenly seems right around the corner. It's become a burning question: How could we ever manage without her? Could any Border collie adapt to the suburban life of a busy family so happily - or is our Ezzie unique?

Or, is the real question whether suburban family life can be adapted to the needs of a collie. After all, shouldn't life be stimulating and purposeful for every dog, whether on an eighth of an acre or on 100 acres?

On a trip to the Cotswolds in March 2002, I posed these questions to Kay Laurence. Her wicked response was to introduce me to the Genabacab collies, including Quiz and her two-week-old pups. Thirteen weeks later, young Genabacab Quick Step, aka Phoebe, arrived in Boston, accompanied by Kay herself. And so our experiment in collie-raising in an American suburb begins.

Practical Preparation

Phoebe joined our family long before she arrived. Kay sent pictures of her as she grew, and as each adorable image went up on the refrigerator, she worked her way into my three sons' affections. I prepared them by talking about what life with the puppy would be like, knowing that unchecked imaginations could be in for a surprising reality. By the day Phoebe arrived, the boys knew:

  • Puppies are babies. They need to be loved, there's a lot they don't understand, and they need to be treated gently.
  • Puppies need toys. On a trip to the local pet shop, the boys chose a range of things that rattle and squeak. I selected a few additional Kongs and other chewable items. I also pulled a box of the boys' own well-gnawed baby toys out of storage.
  • Unwanted behaviors are not funny. Everyone in the family would be responsible for teaching the puppy what is okay and what is not okay. What is cute in a fifteen-week-old pup would not be as sweet in a one-year-old dog. Laughing and dancing around in response to ankle-biting only means more ankle-biting; walking away and ending the game means less.
  • Puppies do not learn by punishment. Punishment has never been a discipline tool in our household so this rule was obvious to our boys. The neighborhood children, however, required some education: "Yes, I know your dog was taught not to jump by kneeing him in the chest, but we will not teach our puppy that way - and neither will you."
  • Only Mom uses the clicker. The boys of course found the clicker an irresistible toy. Without a firm rule, Phoebe would have had to endure an endless cacophony of meaningless click-click-click-clicks in her ear.

More preparation for Phoebe's arrival, however, took place in my mind than in conversations with my sons. Families so often run into problems when they bring home a puppy because it never occurs to the adults that real commitment--just short of opening a college savings account--to this new family member is required. I prepared for Phoebe's arrival in much the same way I have for any of my babies. I recognized that both my mind and my heart would be busy caring for this new collie-child, and that consequently I would get less done in every other area of my life. I prepared myself to bond, and that would make all the difference.

Stay tuned to this space in TEACHING DOGS for a series of updates on an English Border collie growing up in an American suburb. Can a lass from sheep country adjust and prosper in Tidy Lawn, U.S.A.? Can three boisterous boys be taught to be sensible collie handlers? Find out what it takes for a busy family to keep a collie happy and occupied (thank God for Canadian geese), how clicker training a collie affects child development, husband development, and neighborly relations - and what Ez thinks of all this.

Gale Pryor is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the daughter of Karen Pryor, clicker training's pioneer. She does not consider herself a dog trainer, professional or otherwise, but having been clicker trained herself from birth (M&Ms remain a favorite treat), she feels quite comfortable with the process.

Learning About Dogs - ©2002 Learning About Dogs/reprinted with permission.

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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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