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Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?

“Border Collies,” as a Scottish shepherd once told me, “have been bred for 300 years to work with us.” Bred to work sheep over difficult terrain to their humans’ faint whistled commands, Border Collies’ strong work ethic and trainability have made them excel in work shepherds could never have imagined. Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? tells of two littermates with important but very different responsibilities.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a native New York dog trainer who wrote the bestselling Mother Knows Best. Denise Wall breeds, trains and trials sheepdogs, and fondly recalls her grandmother’s farm, where every new stockdog was “Dolly.”

Two years ago, Carol took puppy Sky home to train as a service dog while Sky’s littermate, May, remained on Denise’s farm to learn the sheepdog’s traditional trade. In alternating chapters, each author shows us how her pup matured and learned its life work.

Taxis, buses, restaurants, gyms, street people, jampacked sidewalks, frantic dog parks, MANY odors, hooting horns, police strobes: that’s Sky’s Manhattan, where the young dog learns to anticipate and relieve his owner’s sudden, debilitating pain. Since Carol’s Crohn’s disease can flare up any time, Sky never leaves Carol’s side. Carol describes their connection: “The intimate relationship between me and my dog gave me back what having a disability took away.… Instead of feeling alone, with Sky at my side, I felt part of the human race, ready to face anything even when I was ill. There’s no prescription, no man-made pill that can do what a dog can do.”

From her Tennessee sheep farm, Denise writes: “It was important that I recognized that she [May] was trying to do the right thing, even when things didn’t go exactly right … the young sheepdog needs time to develop all her instincts and learn how to balance them with self-control in order to become a good worker.” May made the grade; at two years old, she qualified for the National Finals Sheepdog Trials.

After Sky was fully trained as a service dog, the littermates had a glad reunion on the farm where, for the first time, Sky worked sheep.

Carol and Denise have spent their lives training dogs, and Sky and May’s stories are lucid, insightful and sometimes surprising. The reader will discover two wonderful dogs.

As a child, I was enthralled by Jack London, Eric Knight and Albert Payson Terhune. Somehow, magically, the stray mutts my family took in became like White Fang, Lassie and Lad of Sunnybrook Farm. Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep? stands comparison with those classics. 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011
Donald McCaig is a novelist, essayist, poet and sheep farmer who gained recognition with his classic man-and-dog tale, Nop's Trials, which was followed by numerous other bestsellers, including Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and, most recently, Rhett Butler's People.

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