Yup, Redstart Farm has a new member of the family. Maggie, a 15-month old female Border Collie from Idaho, has stolen the hearts of us all, Willie especially. He is gobsmacked. In love. Head over heels. Watching the two of them play has become one of my greatest joys in life.
Those of you who have been following the farm for awhile know that finding the right dog for Willie hasn’t been easy. He started life as a puppy pathologically afraid of unfamiliar dogs. He grew into an adolescent torn between fear and the desire to control everything, the kind of dog I call an “alpha wanna be.” He has always loved to play with dogs who also loved to run together outside, but became tense and a tad crazy if they came into the house. Remember Jack Nicholson’s face in the movie The Shining? That’s my Willie when a new dog comes inside, all stiff-legged and tight-mouthed and crazy-eyed. But he loves to play with other dogs, and I’ve known for years that I couldn’t get him the exercise he needed during the winter when we can’t work sheep. Winter lasts at least five months a year here, and that’s a long time. Yes, we can go on long walks, but you can’t play fetch with him because of his shoulder, and walking and loping is just not the same as hard running. And oh, how he loves to run. There is little that seems to make him happier. He is just like his uncle Luke in that regard, of whom I wrote, in The Other End of the Leash: “He ran with the grace of a finely crafted sailboat coursing over deep water–no friction, no drumbeat of hooves on the soil–but with a smooth effortless glide that lifted my heart every time I watched it.”
Enter Maggie, from sheepdog handler and trainer Diane Deal at Orchard Run Border Collies. Diane and I have been talking since early last fall about whether Maggie would be the right dog for me and Willie. Lots of phone conversations. Photos. Videos. It turns out that Diane and I share a lot, including our love and respect for dogs. Diane immediately understood how important it was to make the right match, for the sake of both dogs. And in every conversation, it seemed like Maggie would be a good fit. She loves people, is sweet, responsive, gets along well with all the other dogs–both Diane’s dogs and dogs in for training–and has had several months of work on sheep and was coming along nicely. Oh, and did I mention? Maggie’s sire, Riggs, won the Nationals in 2010. In addition, Diane is also a great sheep dog trainer and I knew she’d be an excellent resource for me when I needed advice about our work on sheep.
After months of talking, it was finally time to meet Maggie. I was so nervous I could barely think, but Jim and I adored her within five minutes. But what about Willie? It is true that I need another good working sheep dog; Willie will be eight soon, and has a lot of physical challenges. But primarily I wanted a playmate for Willie. A dog he could run and play with, a dog who could keep him in good condition, and a dog who would give me the gift of watching it play with another dog. I love watching dogs play; it is one of my greatest joys in life, and I’ve missed watching dogs play ever since Lassie died, years ago. But would Willie and Maggie get along? Willie isn’t the easiest dog to match up, and that’s an understatement.
We introduced Willie to Maggie in a huge, fenced field, about a half an hour from our farm. Willie looked enamored, and trotted toward Maggie with his head and tail up, but clearly friendly. Perhaps with a bit of a swagger. If he’d been a guy he’d have had a gold chain around his neck and tried to buy Maggie a drink. And if Maggie had been a woman she’d have run out of the bar and driven away. Maggie looked terrified at Willie’s approach, and ran a good 30 yards away. Willie, bless him, stopped and took off all the pressure by sniffing the field. Jim and I tried our best to ignore them, and kept on walking. Every time Willie approached, Maggie withdrew, which Willie honored (good boy!) and continued exploring the field. The fourth time he walked toward her she stood her ground and began to trot parallel to him. Then Willie stopped and turned his head toward her. She cocked her head the slightest bit–perhaps a quarter of an inch. And then Willie dropped his shoulders, just the slightest bit… And suddenly, like two guys at a stoplight in muscle cars, the game was on. They burst forward, side by side, and ran and ran and ran in huge looping circles while tears streamed down my face and I repeated, somewhat idiotically, “Look Jim! Oh look, look at them run!”
That was not the end of the story. It took two weeks for Willie and Maggie to be comfortable together in the house. Lots of managing, lots of gates, lots of parallel leash walks in unfamiliar places. A couple of snarky moments. I’ll write a detailed blog later about how I managed their first two weeks together, in hopes it will be helpful for others in a similar situation. In brief, I followed all of my own advice from Love Has No Age Limit, the book Dr. Karen London and I wrote about bringing a new dog into your home. Currently, three weeks after her arrival, Maggie and Willie are the best of friends. I call her my new personal trainer, because we are all taking frequent long walks in the hills above the farmhouse. Willie has to be managed because they run so hard that he comes up lame on his bum shoulder, and so sometimes Maggie goes on walks without him. Maggie, of course, is not perfect, and has a lot to learn. She is, after all, just a kid, and in a new environment to boot. In spite of meeting lots of dogs where she grew up, she appears to be afraid of unfamiliar dogs once away from her familiar pack at home, so I have my work cut out for me there. She recovers beautifully though, and reads Willie as any dog imaginable. Some nights Willie is either very tired or in a bit of pain, and she leaves him alone and comes over to me to play with her toys. She is, quite simply, the perfect dog for Willie, and that makes her the perfect dog for me.
Here is a video of the BCs playing in the high pasture. It comes with my gratitude to Diane Deal for doing such a wonderful job raising Maggie, the new love of my life, and a dog destined to become a very, very special friend.