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The Phoebe Chronicles XII: What Drives a Border Collie?

Our cat moved out. He disappeared long enough for us to put up "Missing Cat" signs around the neighborhood. The single man who caretakes the house down the street, the guy who fixes his car in the driveway and no one ever talks to, soon called: "I think I've got your cat." Matthias had walked in one day and called this neighbor's quiet house home. And he won't come back.

cat looking back

A muscular tabby, Matthias was a birthday gift to one of our sons from a cousin whose cat had kittens. His father was feral, a wild cat who wandered into the yard, left his gene pool, and took off into the fields again. Matthias is his father's son. A crack mouse hunter who asks to be let out at night rather than curl up on a bed, he owns this hilltop. No other cats dare walk on our block, and even the coyotes that have been eating cats here and there around town haven't made a meal of Matthias yet. I've always hoped they would.

Despite his handsome gold coat, booming purr, and unmatched record at keeping the house mouse-free, Matthias has a tendency that has nearly landed him in the pound innumerable times. He bites babies. He'll cross the room to do it.

He didn't come by the habit through experience. The household in which he was born had several small children, yet they, like my children, are animal savvy and were never rough with him. He came to our house at 8 weeks of age, where he was coddled only by children who know how to hold a cat. The biting was built into him. He just doesn't like children. The younger they are, the less he likes them. Now that all the children in the neighborhood are edging into adolescence, he likes them fine.

"If Phoebe had lived with a cat during her early weeks, would she be more accommodating toward this one?"

Who Matthias doesn't like, and never will, is Phoebe. It's her doing, really. Esme, our 12-year-old Border collie, and the cat are cordial. They touch noses as they pass each other in the doorway. Young Phoebe, however, never saw a cat until she came to live with us at 15 weeks, and never sees Matthias without dropping into a crouch, freezing, and leaping to attack. No amount of bloody scratches on Phoebe's nose deters her. Matthias hasn't been able to walk through the living room without watching his back for two years. No wonder he relocated.

If Phoebe had lived with a cat during her early weeks, would she be more accommodating toward this one? After all, she never saw a child either until she came to live with us, and she likes them fine. The younger they are, the more she likes them. In fact, she adores children and seeks them out wherever she goes. Only a baby in stroller can distract her from a squirrel in a tree.

When my mother and I brought my children and young nieces to the Cotswolds over the summer, we visited with Phoebe's mother, Quiz, and grandmother, Kiwi. Neither collie has spent much time with children, but Quiz's face lit up, just as Phoebe's does, when she saw them: "Oh, lovely, children!" And she made her way right into the middle of their pack. Sweet Kiwi said her hellos, yet preferred the company of the adults.

Clearly, Phoebe's comfort level with children, to the degree that she seeks them out and prefers their company to all but mine, is a gift from her mother. It's a part of "the inherited pack of traits," as her breeder Kay Laurence says, that could have been put to use gentling a lamb, but has been applied instead to coddling children.

Once I took Phoebe to a herding clinic where she displayed a businesslike keenness toward the sheep, circling them with balance from the beginning. If I had a flock on which to practice, she would be a fine working sheepdog. I also brought elderly Esme and two children along that day. While working with Phoebe, I looked up and saw Esme, who never glanced at the sheep, circling my running children with perfect balance and pressure. Perhaps, at some point, she too could have been a fine working dog, but her genetic toolbox has been used for another purpose.

It's possible, however, that the most important tool in the box, the key inherited trait that decides whether a dog is good on sheep or good with children—or splendid with both—is simply the desire to please. The collie's eye for doing what pleases us is uncanny; of course, my dogs would be drawn to children. And perhaps Phoebe figured out right from the beginning that I never really liked that cat. She was just trying to please me.

About the author
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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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