Our water of life flows.
Shallow pools create whirls of wait – forming at the curves of its path.
As these pools of time fill, the rivers plot their own escape – sprouting new tributaries, feeding other rivers.
All of this flow has purpose far beyond the reaches of our understanding in the present of where we stand.
Four years ago on April 23, a split-faced Border Collie was born. A soul collecting in a side pool as our Sadie’s flow was ebbing to a diminishing, slow whirlpool.
A million miles though only four and a half hours away, Boo’s banks were crumbling under her growing water – awaiting her destiny to join my river.
In July of 2015 two weeks out from losing Sadie we drove to the Florida-Georgia border after seeing a photo on the Internet.
When baby “Big Country” turned her head and ran to me out from under that old Ford truck – I gathered her up – held her to my chest.
I looked straight at her and she looked straight back.
Her riverbank burst.
Our rivers joined.
Before that day, I had never been so pushed and driven, so frustrated, so determined, so intense, so connected, so unlocked and alive – felt so familiarly right or been so impossibly in love with life in a new way.
Love The One You’re With
Kathy trains at the Farm with her Bouvier des Flandres, Roxy.
A while ago, she brought along her grand-dog, a Border Collie named Winston who she worked in the round pen.
“Oh, do I get that,” I thought when Kathy glanced over at me, Lisha and Barb with “the look” as Winston completed a picture-perfect gather, landed the sheep at her feet and stood patiently at balance with nice distance for his next command. It may have been his third visit to the Farm.
For the first time, Kathy experienced working a dog that was working the stock with her – instead of a dog that was working her.
“It won’t be long,” Lisha observed in her quiet, funny way to Kathy. “You will cross over to the Dark Side.”
We fell out.
It is not because Roxy is a Bouvie – it’s because she’s Roxy – and Roxy takes a much more managerial and sensible, efficient and pragmatic approach than any of the Border Collies at the Farm.
Once Roxy has done a gather and brought Kathy the sheep – in her mind the job is complete. She wipes her efficient paws of that task and moves on to the next chore.
When Kathy sends her out again, Roxy looks at her and often back to the sheep – and then back to Kathy – as if Kathy is losing her mind.
“Look,” you can practically hear Roxy say to Kathy in her no-nonsense way. “I brought you the sheep. Do it again? Really? What’s the point?”
As we teased Kathy about getting a Border Collie sister for Roxy, Roxy pressed her head against Kathy’s thigh in a “Roxy hug.” Kathy idly twirled the long fur of Roxy’s ears, tossing them in her hand in the absent-minded, natural fluid motion of love and smiled, “It was fun working Winston – though Roxy is the dog I need her to be right now. Roxy is perfect.”
Those words ricocheted around my soul.
I nodded as I smiled at Roxy, catching her soft, sweet eyes from under her silvery bangs.
She winked back at me, took a step forward and softly laid her head in my outstretched hand.
Roxy’s purpose is vast and important – she is indeed the perfect dog to fulfill the role she plays in Kathy’s home and life.
As it is for Boo and me – herding is secondary for Kathy and Roxy – the Farm means much more than what we accomplish in herding sheep.
I sighed as I scratched Roxy’s chin with one finger, lightly held it still and gazed into her infinite, capable eyes.
The week before this I had hit a low spot. Boo and I had rough days at the Farm before.
This time it was different – I had made a terrible, horrible choice that had left Boo crushed, confused and anxious. I hated myself. I had pulled a trigger and taken us back to a very bad, fear-filled place of hysteria and wild fright we had known on another walkabout together.
I was upset when I left the Farm and became more upset on the way home.
I was boiling over with anger not just from my mistake that day, also from that time and place where Boo and I were together before – where I had made an even more horrific mistake.
And then there was the puppy at the Farm that day – as I drove home I selfishly projected all of my frustration with myself to this innocent soul and her owner.
Boo’s issues and my ineptitude aside, it’s tough when you’ve worked with your dog for over three years and there is still so much you can’t seem to accomplish.
Even harder to swallow is when someone new comes along on a hard day with a first-time, six-month-old puppy that works like a Meeker champion.
Compounding your futility and fighting the urge to pack up, drive away for good and find a new game to play is when the puppy’s owner gets in the round pen dressed in a pair of crisp white shorts, Docksiders and dress shirt and strolls around in perfect form as if they had worked dogs their whole life.
I was spent, frazzled, angry and without hope when I got home. I related the day’s events tearfully to my husband.
He listened and then quietly suggested I had forgotten what we went to the Farm for.
Me and You and My Dog Named Boo
“We’ll know we’ve got it right when they choose for themselves,” he used to say. – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Tempus fugit they say, when you are having fun.
The reality is time flies whether you are having fun or not.
Many months of forward motion and a recent incident at the Farm that may have been miss-perceived by some who witnessed it left me with no residual angst or feeling I needed to offer an explanation for my dog’s behavior or my choices in her training.
Just eight months prior it would have left me wiped out – open-palm smacking around a huge monster of inner conflict.
This new day, it did not.
I have since become “Opened.”
Others may refer to it as confidence – though it is a much greater power than confidence as defined by Webster.
I had put Boo in a situation she was not ready for.
When the dust settled Boo reacted as a person in recovery falling to recidivism after owning the right of freedom of being clean. Her disappointment in herself was palpable in the air we shared at that moment – the empty knowing of the awful feeling of losing control held real weight.
She was bearing it.
When Mike came into the field to check on us, Boo rolled her ears down and lowered her head to put the flat of her forehead on his leg, leaning into him as if she were going to be sick to her stomach.
Mike is a special person. Many trainers would demand me to “break” my dog if we were to continue to work stock and if I refused, would ask us to leave.
Mike knows why we are at Draxen Farms – he also knows Boo does not need breaking as much as she needs fixing.
We stood in the field for a while and talked about what happened, how to end that day and where to go from here. We agreed Boo completely understood what happened.
Boo remained quiet and reflective in the kennels the remainder of the day, making eye contact only with Liam. She turned away from the other dogs.
The ride home was quiet. This was good. I needed to think about what happened and I wanted her to embrace how much she disliked that awful feeling of losing control and giving in to Billy Jack when she knew she had alternative choices.
We pulled in the driveway. I opened her crate, she rolled her ears back so that they disappeared, lowered her head, dropped it in my hands and sighed heavily with a little moan, those open-soul-bearing eyes clutching the very center of my being.
These eyes had poured into me before in this same way while on that other journey with an outcome I am determined will not be repeated on this walkabout together.
“Well kid,” I murmured, burying my hands in that soft fur about her neck. “I made mistakes out there – and you had choices too. You know you have other avenues – just have to remember that they are there – refer to that new map you have. Today is over. Let’s move on.”
The event was the first time Boo was placed in a situation to engage her newfound ability to make good choices – even when I make bad ones – when it came to working the sheep since being off her behavioral supplements.
Though she had successfully demonstrated this “New Boo” over and over since ceasing the supplements in our non-herding work – this day at the Farm she made the wrong choice.
Splitting sheep and the pressure cooker it built inside her continued to be her kryptonite.
Now we had our forward road map. A little black and blue here and there – though both being born fighting – we were good with that.
What was different during this Billy Jack episode is when it was all said and done she presented behavior that resembled regret.
I became upset only enough to understand what went wrong and then let it go.
There are times during our educations – whatever the subject of our study – we question our teacher’s motives. Three years ago when Mike handed me a long catch cord for Boo to drive sheep with I was fairly certain it was some type of penance exercise or purgatory walk.
Maybe – I often thought as we strolled the Big Field in the white Florida summer sun – he merely wanted my room-without-a-roof black and white bullet the hell out of Dodge while he was training other dogs that had a serious future in herding.
It was none of that.
It was merely exactly what we needed.
Little did I know then that long, hot summer following sheep around the Big Field with Boo on a line prepared me for what was going to happen before it did this recent day. Because of that summer spent developing my stock sense and a sense of my dog, I knew how the event was going to play out and that I had only a second to come up with a plan on ending it – even if it was ugly and far from storybook or conventional herding.
In the “old days” I would have stood frozen – chaos over-riding my better senses – screaming at Boo – then breaking – chasing after her – helpless and without a plan – rolling around the field like a windmill torn loose from its trestle to bounce across the plains in an Oklahoma dust storm.
Worst of all – after it was all said and done – I would be cursing to God as to why He gave me this dog when everyone else’s dog is so freaking easy by comparison.
That was then.
Now, I am wiser, stronger, deeper – I embrace that Boo has forced me to grow beyond boundaries that others may have given me in my life – and own that it was me who chose to accept those boundaries – and build a barb-wire fence with them.
Since Boo has Opened me, together we roll up the wire and rest it against the baggage shed to let it rust away.
Boo is my greatest gift, my greatest teacher and my greatest responsibility.
Boo is much like having a child with special needs. You work really hard and your dog is “making it” out in this world. You know that there are triggers out there you cannot control and even though you set up yourself and your dog to handle them – shit happens.
Now I take it as a compliment when people who do not want to understand Boo-Think or simply do not know us tell me I’m doing it all wrong, that I need to just “expose” her to situations – “let her play with my dog” – “my dog doesn’t care” – “my dog is great with all dogs” – “my dog knows how to stand its ground and hold its own” (brrrrrrr….scary) – “let’s see what they do when we put them together” – “just let her run in the field with the sheep and she’ll figure it out – it’s all nature and instinct after all, you know.” I respond to all of these comments politely declining and deflecting.
I no longer feel the need to explain Boo – or myself.
It makes me know that all that hard work we have put into our growth and Boo’s ability to maintain an even keel has brought us to a point where we can move amongst the world in a way we appear to be a “normal” team.
Though we are far from normal.
We are on the lookout.
Boo will always be a sensory-seeker and it’s my responsibility to make sure she knows she has choices – to constantly present to her other avenues rather than the explosive sinkholes that dot Billy Jack Lane.
And though other peoples’ and dogs’ actions may not be my fault or out of my control – in the end game – a good outcome is my responsibility.
Even among people who are experienced handlers and their well-trained dogs, Boo and I need to be aware.
Recently we were in a situation where a very experienced handler loosed their dog to run around the outside of a round pen filled with sheep while other dogs were out on leashes.
I saw it coming. Boo did too.
Boo did a great job – we were able to control her anxiety using energy balance techniques – create a distance from the loose dog and handler – taking the pressure off of us. Once we had created space without attracting attention to ourselves, I looked around and noticed that no one had realized we had to work to get through this situation.
I was prouder of us in that moment than any other up to that point.
We took a seat and I looked at Boo and grinned and she turned from the excitement of sheep and loose dog and met me nose-to-nose with a grin of her own. She reached out and kissed me flat across my face – looked straight back at me like she does and gave a little shake to relieve her pressure before returning to watch the dog and sheep with interest though not the explosive anxiety of a ticking time bomb.
The lead lay loose between us.
My soul shifted.
“There’s one more inch of your foot out our door, you asshole Billy Jack,” I whispered to Boo, burying my face in her ruff.
Boo pressed into me, curving her neck so that her head lay on my shoulder and no one could see my tears.
Girlfriend got my back.
Can’t Get There From Here
“When the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole.
Kick the clay that holds the teeth in, throw your trolls out the door.” -REM
Recently I have had the opportunity to work dogs other than Boo at the Farm. It has been an amazing and a wholly fulfilling experience – on about a ka-zillion levels.
I sit at my “day job” and my head spins from Tuesday through Friday with all that I have learned over the weekend and how I will put that to use when Saturday rolls around again.
This new horizon is still very shiny and highly malleable. A story for another day – it continues to be written as it gathers to form a shallow pool in a curve along my and Boo’s river.
Everything about its reality is derived from the sole catalyst of Boo’s little pool spilling into my river.
All that I am in this moment is because of her.
Working with dogs in some capacity was my dream as a little girl.
It was a dream that became a punching bag eventually buried deeply away, walked over and forgotten, covered with life’s dust as it lay motionless where it was left all those years ago.
Just like any old childhood toy.
As I write this Boo is curled up next to me, her warmth radiating into my hip and through my body, her sweet face a vision of pureness and peace.
She neither stirs nor opens an eye as I lay my hand on her ribs. Without effort my breathing falls into rhythm with hers, our hearts sync – the flows of our rivers blending flawlessly.
It’s a good feeling to know.
Although you are my present – in both definitions of the word – I want to wish you happy birthday, Boo Rowdy.
Here’s to where the river flows.