Raising the Perfect Dog
How do you prepare a mischievous border collie puppy to be a trustworthy adventure companion? Teach him tolerance, spoil him with affection, and avoid the leash.
IN THE LIVING ROOM of my parents’ house in Littleton, Colorado, stands a nineteenth-century grandfather clock from England. The wood has a deep burgundy luster, and a painted swan that used to rock to and fro with the turning of the hands. Until this past spring, the clock chimed every 15 minutes. But thanks to my border collie puppy, Danny, who was three months old when I left him there while on a week-long trip to San Diego, the swan is stalled mid-rock and the clock is silent.
Danny could hear the clock chime from anywhere in the house. When he did, he’d jerk his head up from a piece of rawhide or one of my running shoes, listen for a confirming second chime, then take off at full speed. A foot off the ground at 20 miles per hour, he’d sail into the living room and slam into the clock with a full-body chest bump. He would then crouch and scamper in front it, barking as though he were trying to turn a mother cow, until the chiming stopped.
The sequence was disruptive, to say the least—mostly to the delicate mechanisms inside the clock. Mom and dad could hardly believe his intensity or speed, and when I returned from my trip, the heirloom had been permanently silenced. In addition, Danny had split a terra cotta vase, chewed the spines on a number of encyclopedia volumes, and dismantled a drip-irrigation system on the patio.
“I read that border collies are the worst breed of dog to have in the house,” my dad told my brother over the phone while Danny swam in the lily pad garden and I pretended not to listen in. “Danny is certainly living up to that.”
Worst breed in the house—that’s exactly the breed I want: A dog that’s better outdoors than indoors. A dog that can handle snow drifts and scree fields, that’s smart enough to avoid guy lines and porcupines, and that has enough drive to walk uphill all day. I’m looking at Danny to be my companion in the field. Now, as he approaches his first birthday, he’s showing signs of being a good fit for the job. Surprisingly enough, the common-sense preparation I’ve bumbled through for the last eight months, much of the time worried that my dog was out-thinking me, seems to have worked.
I made it easy on myself by getting what a trainer would call “good material to work with.” An American bulldog doesn’t have the legs for what I have in mind. Huskies run through the forest as easily as wolves but have never been bred for obedience. A German shepherd is too large for the front seat of my truck.
As soon as I brought Danny home, I started exposing him to aspects of the kind life I wanted for him. I set up a tent in the backyard, laid his bed in the open vestibule, and read a book nearby. We spent the evening hours in the woods during a gentle rain. I watched him hobble with cactus spines in his paws until he learned to jerk them out with his teeth and avoid cactus. I was preconditioning the puppy to be my dog.
The first night we slept under the stars on the banks of Northern New Mexico’s Rio Chama, I could see the payoff. Danny prefers a muddy night in camp to an evening in front of the TV. He’s taken our early adventures together in stride, just as I’ve put up with his destruction of my property. We’re now at the point where he can go for longer hikes, spend multiple days in the backcountry, and I can feel confident we’ll both be happy. Puppyhood may suck, but watching my dog grow into the role I’d envisioned him for is worth all the running shoes I’ll ever own.
I BOUGHT DANNY on December 31, 2012, from Wagner Border Collies in northern Colorado. His litter was seven weeks old, looked like a mob of baby skunks, and was living in what had to be the coldest kennel in the state. At 2 P.M. the thermometer read five degrees Fahrenheit in the sun. Ice casts of water dishes lay scattered on the snow in front of kennels for 17 border collies. Not one dog in the place looked cold.
I have yet to see Danny shiver. Whether that’s a function of his infancy in an icebox, I don’t know. But it couldn’t have hurt. Herding dogs are tough. The nature of their job requires it. They get kicked by cows, they duck under barded wire fences, and most have never seen a Milk Bone.
More importantly, herding dogs have to be intelligent and obedient. In addition to their border collie program, Bob and Jan Wagner run Wagner Ranch, where dogs work alongside cowboys to handle a herd of Charolais cattle. Like most breeders, the Wagners try to encourage certain traits in their dogs.
“We want our dogs to be smart,” says Bob Wagner. “We need them to work with us as a team, and the smart dogs know what we want. I don’t know how they do, but they do.”
In human terms, I would say Danny has the intelligence of a mischievous two-year-old. He can open both the front door to the house and the backdoor to the porch. I’m afraid to leave the keys in the tractor ignition for fear that Danny might jump in the driver’s seat and mimic what he’s seen me do. The flip side is that he can read my expressions and body language. If Danny is 200 yards away squaring off with a cow elk, I need to be able to defuse the situation without screaming.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been around farm and ranch dogs all my life, but I avoid leashing Danny if at all possible. I don’t even like him wearing a collar because I think it affects his coat. I stick to these principals even when we head out to the hills. Chasing wildlife is not only bad manners, it can be dangerous for the dog. So Danny must listen when I tell him to forget the elk. If he doesn’t, he gets left at home. If I tell Danny not to paw at the door of the tent, I expect him to remember that for the rest of his life. I’ll likely never tap the full extent of his brainpower but I like to know the mental potential and capacity is there.
In the same way that an adolescent dog grows into its body, Danny is growing into his intelligence. When he first saw moving vehicles he acted like they were oversized sheep that needed herding. His focus was a little scary and completely unshakable. He would throw himself to the ground, flat as a stalking lioness, and track the vehicles with his yellow eyes. If I continued walking, Danny would rather be dragged than take his eyes off a car.
Danny is better about cars now. He still flattens himself to the ground and refuses to move, but he spends more time looking and responding to me than he does creating and solving his own problems. A little maturity is a welcome sign, but at the same time, it means the window is closing on the most impressionable period of his life.
ON OUR LAST FISHING TRIP, I saved Danny’s life. We were on Southern Colorado’s Conejos River, along its lower, wider stretches. Cottonwood and fir logs had piled in large jams at the river’s cut-bank corners. For four hours that morning, Danny had contented himself on the bank and in the shallows while I cast dry flies into the foam lines.
About noon I was de-rigging my rod when I saw Danny, upstream of me, wade into a fast chute of water. The current began to move him downstream as he paddled hard for the near bank. He turned to swim upstream—a novice and dangerous mistake. Swimming against the current, he was being pulled towards a logjam. I lost sight of him behind the pile of logs. I dropped my rod, unclipped my hip pack and started up the bank, hoping I wouldn’t have to swim for him.
When Danny hit the logjam, he wrapped his front legs over a partially submerged piece of wood. The water started pulling him under the jam. I broke through the opposite side of the deadfall, puncturing my waders, and scrambled out to where he clung for his life. I lifted him out of the water with both hands.
Danny was scared and glad to see me, but I don’t think he knew he was about to drown. He doesn’t seem to have any residual fear of rivers or logjams. But I do. I should have seen and prevented the situation before it developed. We’d been camped on the upper sections of the river for two days, and he’d been on fishing trips before, but this was bigger water. Without realizing it, I had overexposed my dog.
Tony Banuelos is head trainer for the K-9 unit at Arizona’s Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office, one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country. Banuelos and his crew spend months preparing the dogs to tolerate gunshots, flash bangs, and helicopters. Most of the dogs—German-Czech shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Labradors, and golden retrievers—come to Arizona at a year to two years old from countryside breeders in Europe. They’ve never seen a skyscraper and many have never been in a vehicle. Though they have a foundation of training, they’re a long way from being able to work with a SWAT Team in downtown Phoenix. Banuelos’s first job is to desensitize them to their workplace.
“We put new dogs through tests to see how they react in different environments to different situations,” he says. “We’ll have a new handler grab them right out of their kennel. We expose them to loud noises. I watch their body—what are their ears doing? Is their tail wagging? Is the dog scared? Then we gradually bring them along based on what they can accept.”
Most of us don’t need a dog that’s willing to walk through the rotor wash of a Black Hawk helicopter. But we can all appreciate an animal that acts sensibly in a new environment. Some of that tolerance and level-headedness will be natural to the individual dog, but a lot of it can be nurtured: you show the dog something new, remain confident that he’ll live through it, and reward him when he comes out the other side.
This applies to even seemingly benign situations. Every National Forest campground I’ve ever been to requires dogs to be leashed. For me, that means tying Danny to a tree or picnic table. Because he’s so sensitive, this would result in hours of whimpering and barking if he had zero preparation. So I tied him to my desk chair at home following walks. After a month of half-hour sessions, I could park him with only a strand of dental floss holding him and he’d sit there for hours.
I’M NOT MARRIED, don’t have any children, and I ran off my last girlfriend (sort of … you might also say “we parted ways”). The point is that I have the time and energy to develop a high-maintenance animal like Danny into a dog that’s not only behaves properly in the backcountry, but enhances my experience through his companionship.
If I walk Danny less than three miles a day, he’s hard to be around. He runs large circles in my small house and works me like he would livestock. He bites my ankles and knees. He knows that when I’m on the phone I won’t yell at him for latching on to my leg and gripping my shin with his teeth. In general, I keep the discipline to a minimum, and it’s safe to say that I tolerate more than most people would be comfortable with. For one, Danny sleeps in the bed with me most nights, as have all my dogs, which has nothing to do with my girlfriend situation but everything to do with his obedience. I spoil him with affection. This past winter, I slept with the bedroom windows open and would let him crawl under the sheets and sleep next to my chest. He knows how good life can be when he’s on the good-behavior side of the line.
Being part of the team—or the pack as he likely sees it—is Danny’s highest priority. When he contradicts me, he’s out. To lay the groundwork for this, I followed the advice a dog trainer friend of mine and ditched him in an unfamiliar (but safe) environment. In the first weeks after I got Danny, I took him to the woods and waited until he was preoccupied, then hid behind a tree. I didn’t move or make a sound until Danny came looking for me. I wanted him to worry that he’d been abandoned, and when he finally found me, I praised him and gave him a piece of rare steak. After doing this to him a second time, he was less likely to take his eyes off me, and when he saw me start to walk away he quickly hurried to my side.
With those two motivations—the desire to be with me and be accepted by me—solidly in place, Danny is psychologically ready for farther horizons. I won’t take him on longer hikes until he’s a year old to avoid damaging the soft cartilage in his joints, but I already trust him. Come the New Year, I won’t hesitate to take him through elk calving grounds or aspen groves frequented by bears.
When I start packing the truck full of gear, Danny knows we’re headed for the wilderness. He also knows that bad behavior will get him benched. His antics will always be there, and I want him to be the individual that he is, but my commands reign supreme. Though he’s a long way from being a trained dog, he’s got the tools and foundation to be my backcountry co-pilot. And there’s no one I’d rather have at my side when in God’s country than Danny.
Will Grant wrote about racing in the Mongol Derby horse race for Outside magazine’s May 2013 issue.