Newsletter 5
Living with a Collie
March 4, 2010

Greetings Everyone,

I've just finished listing all my Collie books in the ebay store and Cocoa, our resident Collie, isn't speaking to me. She has forsaken her usual spot next to the computer and refuses to enter the office. So, in an effort to get back in her good graces, I thought I'd write about her this time around.

Cocoa came into our lives through a strange set of circumstances. I'm still not sure how it happened. For several years, due to illness and multiple moves, we had been dogless. Dogless. It sounds like some dreaded disease, doesn't it? Things just seemed to come together in sort of a "perfect storm" when we got Cocoa. Of course, what's another name for things that mysteriously converge? The Bermuda Triangle. I'm still trying to figure out which term applies.

Four years ago, the time was finally right to once again add a dog to our family. We had moved to a new house, the fence had been installed and this time I was really going to fulfill my promise of getting a dog for my son. Okay, it was just as much for me, but I told myself that I was on a mission to provide a four-legged companion for Matt.

Like all knowledgeable dog people, I began with a list of the requirements I wanted for our new dog. My checklist included: small, laid back personality, not overly active, outgoing temperament, exceptionally hardy, minimal grooming, affectionate, reasonably quiet (not yappy or given to barking), etc. There were a number of breeds that made our short list, including Pugs and Welsh Corgis. Research was needed on several other possible candidates. Matt and I pored over dog books so that I could get his input. Harve leaned toward Pugs, which we had owned in the past, while Matt showed a preference for Corgis. By now you're thinking that Collies most definitely would not make the list. And you would be right!

I had just discovered Craigslist and decided to check their pet listings. These were dominated by rescue organizations. I had no problem with getting a rescue dog since we had no intention of breeding, but I was turned off by some of the die-hard zealots involved with the cause. I did have one requirement that made it difficult wading through the rescue ads. Call me a snob (it's true), but after spending so many years around dog shows, I knew whatever dog we ended up with had to be a good specimen of the breed. By chance, I stumbled across an intriguing posting and things just snowballed from then on. A man said that he was looking for a home for a four-month old Collie puppy. He had bought the dog as a pet for his young daughter, but his wife had become pregnant and was having complications. She could not cope with both a toddler and a new puppy and, though it was breaking his heart, he was forced to place the dog. Something about the letter got to me. I really don't know why, but I wrote him a letter, telling him of my background, my desire to get a pet for my son, etc. Obviously, his posting must have struck the same chord in many people. He received more than 100 emails offering a home to the Collie. My email was the 10th in line and, after reading it, he didn't bother with the rest. We were exactly what he was looking for, he said, and invited us over to meet Cocoa. He was so certain that we were the ideal home for the Collie that he insisted that we take her for free.

Two days later, we met Cocoa and the wife and daughter. It quickly became apparent to me that the couple had not had a meeting of the minds with regard to breed selection. The wife had had a beloved 14-year-old Min Pin when the two were married and she was still heartbroken at his passing. I'm certain that she would love to have replaced him with another puppy of that breed. The man had grown up with a Collie and he was convinced that this was the ideal breed for a child and his views had prevailed. After an internet search, they had purchased Cocoa from a breeder in Texas. She came with a champion-studded pedigree and was born on a working cattle ranch where temperament was at the top of the list when it came to breeding.

Cocoa was a doll and she took to us immediately. Hey, she knew dog people when she met them! Cocoa was housebroken, well socialized and had been taught manners. "We never let her get on furniture," the wife told me, "and we've trained her not to beg." As she patiently explained to me, "We never allow her to have human food. If dogs don't taste people food, they will never develop the annoying habit of begging." On the way home, my husband asked how long that would last in our house? I figured it at a day or two, at most.

I had read a fair amount about Collies and, years ago, I knew a couple of people who raised them. The only true way to really learn about a breed, though, is to live with them. We were about to embark on a new adventure.

I have to digress for a moment. In the early years, most of our housedogs were from the sporting or hound groups. I loved their temperaments. They were content to lounge around the house until I was ready to go and then they sprang into action. I loved the wild exuberance of the big galoots or the jaunty enthusiasm of the smaller hounds and spaniels. This was the first time I'd actually lived with a herding breed and, if Cocoa is typical, they are quite different.

I had made such transitions in the past. Years ago, we switched from Weimaraners to Alaskan Malamutes. Talk about night and day. My first indication that things would be radically different came when it was time to feed my new dogs. Let me give you an example: Let's say you want to feed two sporting dogs or two hounds together. You prepare the food and place the bowls down before your two eager customers, separating them slightly. The chowhounds dive into the bowls, eating with great glee. The first one to finish immediately pokes his snout into the other dog's bowl. It becomes a race to see who can gobble their food the fastest.

To my amazement, the Alaskan Malamutes were totally different. I parceled out the allotted food, set it before my two Mals and waited. Both dogs lowered their head to the food bowls, but they didn't eat. They eyed the adjacent dog and began a low growl. Oh no, there's going to be a dogfight, I thought. Should I step in now or see what happens? Since their hackles weren't raised, I decided to wait. They continued to stand there, growling softly and guarding their meal. I waited. Ten minutes and they hadn't taken a single bite. Finally, I separated them, placing one in a different room. They plunged into their bowls with great gusto and a sense of relief.

What has always amazed me about Cocoa is how inherently GOOD she is. I admit, she did become a proficient beggar and she's a champ at catching any treats you toss in the air. You can, however, place a steak or turkey, any kind of food, on the countertop, leave the room for hours and it will be there when you return. This was astonishing to me.

Since Cocoa's the lone dog in the house at present, we leave out a dish of dry food and a bowl of water. She grazes, taking a few bites whenever she's hungry. She never over indulges. If she gets lucky and manages to beg a fair amount of food from us, she skips her normal meal of dry food. If the bowls ever run dry, she gets our attention and then sits, lady-like, until we have refilled them.

In the past, I expended considerable energy trying to outsmart my Weimaraners and Beagles when it came to food. In those days, I bought 50 pound bags of dry food and always kept one in the kitchen. I'd fill the food bowls (always moistened with water or broth since bloat was a consideration with the fast-eating Weimaraners) from the bag, then fold down the top. The Weimaraners quickly learned to nose the bag open. The Beagles were more direct. They knocked the bag over and, if it didn't open, they gnawed a hole in it and gorged themselves. My next tactic was to empty the food into a plastic bin with a secure top. That lasted a couple of days before one of the Weimaraners learned that if she chewed on the left corner the bin would pop open like Pandora's box. Okay, maybe if I put it out of sight, it would be out of mind too. I placed the dog food in one of the lower cabinets near the sink. I'd underestimated those keen noses. It didn't take long for the Weimaraners to learn to grasp the handle and open the cabinet. The Beagles found that their noses also came in handy for prying the door open. Finally, I had to place a length of chain, secured with a combination lock, on the cabinet door. Boy, was my mother-in-law confused when she visited.

I could never leave any food on countertops. If I did, I'd find a Weimaraner, standing on back legs, vacuuming up every morsel in sight. If I chanced to leave a chair close to the counter, I'd find a fat bellied Beagle roaming my countertops. I even learned that the chairs couldn't be within leaping distance.

But, enough. This is, after all, supposed to be a story about Collies. Cocoa likes order. Lacking sheep to watch over and herd, she's transferred these duties to humans. She insists on knowing, at all times, what her two-legged charges are doing. She makes regular rounds, checking up on everyone and then picks the most advantageous spot from which to oversee their activities. She knows that I'm supposed to come up to the office every weekday and, if I take too long in the morning, she's constantly nudging me to get up the stairs.

Our backyard is bordered by the 15-foot wide Wolf Creek. In fact, this picturesque creek, which draws such wildlife as ducks and herons, is one of the main reasons we chose this house. I couldn't see putting up a fence and obscuring that glorious sight, so Cocoa has one of those shock collars that keeps her from leaving the property. I admit, I had qualms about this, but it took only one jolt and Cocoa learned the lesson. She's only breached the perimeter once (more on that later). The collar has become part of her routine. In fact, she refuses to go out to the backyard unless she's wearing her collar.

Cocoa takes guarding our property and us very seriously. At first, she was only concerned with our yard, but now she's adopted the entire neighborhood. If she can see it, then it's her territory. If she's outside, she perches on the deck landing which gives her a nice overview of our yard and the street. When inside, she takes up a vigil in front of the bay windows in either the living room or library, which affords a wide view of the neighborhood. She considers other residents interlopers and immediately announces their doings to us. She remains quiet if children walk calmly by, but she hates it when they ride bicycles or skateboards or play touch football in the street. She's tolerant of the mailman, but has a passionate loathing for garbage collectors. She's absolutely convinced that they are stealing something. Personally, I think Fridays, when the garbage trucks rumble down the street, are her favorite days. I've given up telling her not to bark.

I can recall the day I first realized that Cocoa had extended her territory beyond our property lines. It was the first time that the battery on her collar ran down. I was in the kitchen when I heard this very serious and alarmed barking. It sounded like Cocoa, but from a distance. I checked the backyard and discovered that there was no dog. I panicked and ran to the front yard. I found Cocoa across the street in a neighbor's yard. The man stood on his front stoop. Cocoa remained quiet until he put his foot on the top step and then she barked furiously. Even I felt intimidated. "She won't let me go to my car," he said. Mumbling apologies, I clipped on a leash and she wagged her tail the whole way home, convinced that she'd done her duty.

I love to garden and Cocoa is the ideal gardening partner. She loves to be with me when I'm pruning or puttering around. It's a nice contrast from my previous gardening with dogs experiences. Oh, my other dogs loved to garden with me, too. They had great fun digging in my flower beds, squashing plants in pursuit of squirrels or birds, or holding impromptu tumbling sessions on my favorite newly planted shrubs. They just loved it when I weeded, jumping on my back, covering my face with wet kisses. I had to develop strategies for gardening with them so that I wouldn't strangle the beasts. Not Cocoa. She almost always stays to the paths. On those rare occasions when she ventures into the rose beds, she walks with dainty steps.

I love to watch dogs in motion. It thrills me to see a good moving dog, whether in a backyard, a field or in the show ring. My hounds and sporting dogs could move quickly when they were in pursuit of something, but Cocoa's movements are different. I quickly became aware of the qualities that all good herding dogs must possess. While my other dogs were fast, Cocoa is lightning quick. She can jump up, spin, and turn on the proverbial dime in a flash. It's remarkable to watch. Lacking something to herd, she uses these qualities in chasing squirrels and cats from the property. However, it's turned into quite a game for these mischievous critters. The squirrels like to position themselves on the fence tops where they can laugh down at the crazy dog. The cats are even more devilish. They, too, have learned the limits of Cocoa's collar. They sit, just beyond her reach, and languorously preen and wash themselves.

One of my biggest adjustments has been getting used to Cocoa's bark. I was used to the deep voices of my sporting dogs or the bay of hounds. The sound, which has to travel down that length of Collie muzzle, is higher in pitch. It's not the sharp yap of a terrier or the yip of some toy breeds. When she barks, I am immediately transported back to my young days, when sitting before a TV, the whole family watched Lassie. I can just hear Lassie barking that Timmy had fallen down a well. I still long to hear a bay, but I'm in luck. Someone across the creek just bought a Bluetick and occasionally I'll hear his musical bark. It makes me smile.

As much as we love Cocoa, she is unquestionably Matt's dog. He was out of town, playing sousaphone with his marching band when we brought her home. The band had gone to the Bands of America Grand Nationals, in Indianapolis, when we got Cocoa. They had made it to the semi-finals of the competition, but failed to make the final cut. We gathered at the high school when the buses arrived ferrying them home. Out of the buses tumbled 250 tired, bedraggled, disappointed kids, Matt among them. I can still recall the smile on his face and the delight with which he hugged his new puppy.

To Cocoa's great sorrow, Matt is now away at college. Too bad there are those pesky rules that bar dogs from dorms. I feel guilty that Cocoa's forced to live with two staid old-timers like us. She'd love nothing better than to live in a house with lots of children, their friends and constant activity. She longs for the days when Matt returns and is in seventh heaven when he brings one or two of his college buddies home with him. She dances with delight when Matt picks up his iPod because she knows it means they will go for a long walk. Patience, Cocoa, spring break is just around the corner.

Just a word or two about the Collie books I've added to the ebay site. (Here's a link to the Collie page.) Please peruse the books because there are a few you won't find anywhere else. A number of them are among the prized items in my collection. Baskerville's Show Collies (Rough and Smooth Coated) and Shetland Sheepdogs with a Chapter on Working Sheepdogs, published in the 1920s, is extremely difficult to locate. Ditto for the 1924 edition of Bennett and Wheeler's The Collie. There are also a couple of extremely rare small books. I have the only copy I've seen in any catalog or listed for sale on any database of The Care of the Collie Written for the Amateur, by F.W. Avery, and published after his death in 1926. I've included some background information on the author on my listing as well as info on my search for the book. There's also another book that's so rare that it usually doesn't even appear in most Collie bibliographies: W. A. Sargent's The Useful Collie and How to Make Him So. If Collie bloodlines are your thing, then you must check out Trudy Mangel's two works, The Evolution of the Collie, both the 1st and 2nd editions.

One of the prizes of my collection is a first edition of Show Collies, Rough and Smooth Coated, by Packwood, published in 1906. I couldn't believe my luck in finding this very rare volume. About 20 years ago, I was perusing one of my favorite auction catalogs. The name of the man who ran the auction, based in Washington, D.C., escapes me at the moment, but he was a true bookman and I bought some great books, prints and a painting or two from him over the years. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a lot of Collie books. They included, if memory serves, a copy of How to Raise and Train A Collie, This is the Collie and The Complete Collie. From a collector's standpoint, these are rather commonplace books. But, teamed with these books was the one by Packwood. Even then, it was the rarest of all Collie books, but it was obvious that both the person who consigned the lot and the auctioneer did not know this. I put in a fairly low bid, crossed my fingers and sat nervously for a week before winning the lot. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Happy book hunting,

Cathy, Harvey and Cocoa

P.S. The illustration for this column comes from Vero Shaw's The Illustrated Book of the Dog