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The Phoebe Chronicles XI: Family Dog—Working Dog?

Several parks and woody areas near Tidy Lawn allow, by decree or blind-eyed consent, off-leash dog walking. Phoebe and I visit them three or four times a week. She runs ahead, tracks new smells, meets new dogs, and plays keep-the-stick-away with her best friend, Lily the Poodle. I stretch my legs and let my mind wander, while Esme does a creaky trot by my side.

collie jumping

We go most frequently to Fresh Pond, in next-door Cambridge, an urban park with a two-and-a-half mile walking track around the city's reservoir. Fresh Pond is a gathering spot for dog owners who, on average, know a bit about dogs. The professional dog walkers bring their packs and meet under the big pine, their version of the office water cooler. Cambridge residents with dogs intended for conformation competition come to compare notes and dogs. Many balls are tossed and praise for handsome dogs is shared. Phoebe and I both look forward to a visit with the doggy gang halfway through our walk.

On some days, however, I leave the gathering deeply annoyed, and must walk another mile before my feathers are soothed. It begins with a comment as we join the group and Phoebe sets to playing with the other dogs, while Esme settles at my feet.

"Wow, you've got two Border collies."

"Yes, the black one over there, Phoebe, is two, and this one here is my old lady, Esme," I respond.

"Border collies are wonderful dogs," begins the lecture, "but they really need a job to do."

I sigh, knowing what's coming from this experienced dog person who has never owned a collie.

"One of my neighbors has a bumper sticker on her car that reads: Every mother is a working mother. I think I'll have one made up that reads: Family dogs are working dogs."

"Are they a lot of work?" is the next question, with the questioner fully expecting me to unload a book of stories about the trouble my Border collies have caused me and my neighbors due to my ill-advised decision to keep them as pets. After all, the questioner has clearly read all of Donald McCaig's books about the brilliant Border collie, including his dire warning that, "If this has persuaded you to buy a Border collie for a pet, I have done you and your dog a disservice."

I don't think I'd like to run into Donald McCaig in a dark alley because he seems a tough sort of person and I, frankly, entirely disagree with him. On the other hand, perhaps my definition of "pet" is not what he, and the disapproving questioner in the park, has in mind.

One of my neighbors has a bumper sticker on her car that reads: Every mother is a working mother. I think I'll have one made up that reads: Family dogs are working dogs. McCaig and the expert in the park are right; Border collies are working dogs. That is precisely why I have chosen the breed for our family dogs. Of course they need training and an interesting, stimulating life. Every dog does. I provide that, and in return, rely on their intelligent, companionable usefulness to keep things running smoothly around here.

I have many jobs to do, all day, every day. I must walk children to school, drive the car different places, stop in at different stores, greet friends and strangers at the door, keep the boys' roughhousing in check, exercise outdoors, sit quietly at the computer, and attend meetings at various offices. The dogs accompany me on all these tasks. They make every errand more interesting and less tiresome. They know when to be sociable and when to lie down silently. Do they know that waiting politely for me outside the bank is not absolutely essential to the success of my errand? No, but they consider it one of their important jobs, and I appreciate their dedication.

The dogs also provide services I cannot manage, as they keep raccoons out of our garbage and squirrels away from the flower bulbs, assess the friendliness or not of the stranger on the path in the woods, and are polite to me when the resident teenager is not. They certainly control my wrestling boys with barking and herding circles far better than I can. They have even earned the gratitude of the local Tidy Lawn administration by clearing the Canada geese from the sports fields every afternoon. Esme has always provided half-time entertainment at the boys' soccer games by displaying her prowess as a goalie. Phoebe prefers basketball and plays a mean guard, knocking the ball out the hands of the best offensive players.

After raising and training two happy, companionable Border collies as—horrors—pets, I offer my conclusion: A working dog receives reinforcement not necessarily from the work it was designed to do, but from fulfilling the partnership that accompanies the doing of that work. Involving a dog in all daily activities builds that partnership. Expecting great things of a dog builds partnership. Mental stimulation builds partnership. Clarity builds partnership. Frequent and positive reinforcement builds partnership. Clicker training, in short, whether on a sheep farm or in Tidy Lawn, creates partnership.

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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.

Tidy Lawn

I grew up in Tidy Lawn! The very same one! I wish I knew a dog like Esme when I lived there though.

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