Years ago a fellow named Vince, out in Colorado contacted me to purchase a collar pendant for his dog Ellie. I sell pendants made from gemstones that are suppose to help the wearer feel more courageous. Mostly I think they just make us feel good because they look nice. I suggested that Vince also try cheese and counter conditioning, just in case.
Over the years Vince has kept in touch, sending me updates on his life with Ellie. Like Ellie I think that he shares a bit of the border collie’s commitment to the task at hand. He never gave up on becoming Ellie’s friend. Thank you Vince for sharing the following story with us.
Ellie was terrified. I knew then that she would not stay in that despicable emotional or physical space. He told me she was not for sale. He didn’t understand! Her name then was Kay. Even today when lavishing praise a certain care needs to be exercised when saying “okay.” The books said change her name. They never said it would change my life. So I named her after my mother and looked for that extra bit of strength.
Ellie’s Long Road home had begun. It was, and seemingly will continue to be a long strange trip. The rest stops now are shorter and the smiles, dogs smile you know, almost nonstop.
Was Ellie a fearful dog or just suffering from PTSD. I chose the latter and gave her the space to do the work. It could’ve turned out another way but then that would be a different story. We are very fortunate; 15 acres of good pasture and 1/4 acre fenced grassy forests around the house where a dog could hide once she actually left the house. I am fortunate because my lovely bride Lefty was always Ellie’s protector, her caregiver in those first six months. Months that I rarely saw Ellie except for a flash of red and white in the tall grass or sitting still as an owl behind a Stickley chair. Anyplace where she was confident that I could not reach her.
We got Ellie in the spring, and soon she had a path worn along the fence perimeter from hideout to hideout; the Holler, The Corner Pocket, and The Dew Drop Inn. It is most important to respect these hiding spots for two reasons. First they need to build trust and second even a lightning bolt won’t catch a border collie. You need to know if they are fearful or just very cautious; the words stubborn, manipulative, spoiled, self-centered little… Come to mind but then I figured two things. First how she would flood so completely lying on Lefty’s lap and I came near and second, now three years later, when she is talking to me with her eyes; no kidding! Remember the dog does all the work. You just think of the opportunities. Sure despair, frustration, anger, rejection and hurt all exist in the same bag as hope, delight, joy, acceptance and happiness. Oh I forgot the boatloads of patience.
This is the dog that would only eat ice cream if she was at least an arms length away from me. My sleeve length is 38 inches. She’d take a graham cracker but only if I first dipped in milk. Even the Vet said you can’t do that. She will never eat dog food. Hell, I had already bought every food and type of dog food on the face of the earth. Now she eats her lamb and rice with a little cheese as long as I am sitting behind the counter. She’s a kick.
So okay what worked. We all know border collies are obsessive compulsive. In themselves not bad traits. It’s what makes them such hard workers. If you can put an obsession in front of a fear then you win. We found, kind of like Columbus found America, something that I saw her eyes watch more than me; A Frisbee; a flying squirrel to be exact. She would sit near Lefty just as we as we started throwing the frisbee to each other. She watched it like it was a herd of sheep and she was hooked. She still wouldn’t come in or out of the yard if I was near the gate but she would play frisbee. She wouldn’t come closer to me than 15 feet but that wasn’t too bad even when you’re lying in a ground blizzard staring into those amber eyes just taking each others measure with no flooding.
There were red letter days When I got to scratch her stomach “no scratch no catch” worked. We played baseball with the frisbee. She would crouch on the ground ready while I kept up the color and play-by-play; He looks, gets the sign, checks the runner on first and third; goes into his windup, and she’d be off running where I looked or maybe was football. We’d line up, wide receiver split outside; set; 31 and BAM she’s off! Now she’ll come right to me roll over on my lap, get scratched until I say “number 31” and she’s off. This is the same dog that in year 2 I could hold if Lefty was near and sing “Ellie Girl” to the tune of “Danny Boy.” But, year 2 passed into year three and we still had her in spite of those days when I would have traded her for a dry cow. Can’t sing “Ellie Girl” anymore; that took some learning. Things can work for a while and then they become part of the past; part of all bad memories. If it worked and then doesn’t lose it. That dog is ready to move ahead. Still the frisbee kept flying. Now when I see her in a full speed run both of us knowing I can hit her on the fly almost brings me to tears.
Then we got another border, a pup. I do not recommend this to everyone. There are so many ways it can go wrong. We were lucky. Hank and Ellie became fast friends almost at once. It brought Ellie back her childhood and she grew back up again.
She Saw Hank get in the truck and come back. She saw Hank come right to me and take a treat like a graham cracker. She’ll do that now but they still have to be dipped in milk! She leaps into the future and trusts. This took some doing on her part. Don’t be afraid when things go south now and then. Imagine trying to build your life without words and what you need to do it. Remember the dog does all the hard work. You just need to understand and adjust; unafraid to try anything. Your life is like a taxi ride; it goes where you want it to. The dog’s life is like a train; on set rails.
You try everything and believe everything will work and when it doesn’t try something else. I bought Crystal charms, shameless plug it is, I think they worked. Single-handedly I kept the dog food industry in business. Now she eats Milkbones from my hands. For over a year I thought I might never leave the ranch. I was afraid I’d never get Ellie in the truck. Now sometimes I can’t get her out. Sure sometimes she needs to do some obscure ritual before she gets in but she gets in and that is the point right? Years went by when she would not come in the house when I was there. Now I can snap my fingers and say up and she is on the bed. Would I do it again? Yeah. You don’t leave dogs in small cages.
Was it worth it? Most definitely. When we are hiking in the woods and she comes turning back to me jumping up saying Thanks; that’s worth it. She learned to trust and I learned patience. Just watch out for the first few years try everything; push but don’t shove, open yourself to the dog and let them close that chasm which to you looks so small but to them may be miles across. Sounds a lot like life doesn’t it!