Meet Elly Mae. She is the love of my life, but don’t tell my wife; she might not understand. Dogs are a big part of my life, and always have been. The only time I can remember living without a furry friend was 8 years ago, when we lived in Hawaii for a little bit more than a year. My girl was left with my daughter, and I saw her only when we went back to visit. Elly Mae, or Mabel as I call her, is a Border Collie, a breed made up of canine geniuses. She is my constant companion, and spends her days at my side, by her choice, I might add. I think she considers herself my primary caregiver, and she’s not far wrong. The months that I spent pretty much confined to bed, she made sure she could see me at all times. If I moved, she moved.
The purpose of my post is not to wax rhapsodic about the qualities and intelligence of Elly Mae, although I could do it without much of an effort. In the story I am working on, dogs are mentioned briefly, and that got me wondering about the prevalence of canines as working animals in Regency England. I know that dogs were kept as pets, and/or status symbols, in London, but what about the rest of England?
It was common to find working dogs on country estates, especially if the owner was enamored of hunting. The gamekeeper would have some breeds trained specifically to retrieve game, which was most often birds. Some of the more common dogs were Spaniels, who were separated into water and ground retrievers, each trained for specific tasks.
What caught my interest was an article I read extolling the virtues of the Border Collie breed. Today, in order for your Border Collie to be recognized as a pure bred for show, you must be able to trace it’s ancestry directly back to one dog, named Old Hemp, but that only traces the breed’s history back to the late 19th century. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Queen Victoria was a Border Collie fan, and owned some in the early 1860’s!
They originated in the border area around England and Scotland, where they were bred and trained to herd sheep, a trait that is still hard-wired into every. single. one. of. them. They can be directed without vocal commands, using only whistles or hand gestures. When I walk Elly Mae, I do it without a leash, because I know her and trust her. If she gets too far ahead of me, all I need do is whistle and point, and she comes right back to my side. When I tell her it’s time to go home, she turns around and leads the way back to the house, without additional direction from me.
The incredible intelligence of these animals made them extremely useful in the rural countryside of Scotland and England. The master could set the dogs loose with the flock at the beginning of the day and, for all intents and purposes, forget about them, knowing that they would keep the sheep from wandering off, and even bring the flock back to the home paddock at day’s end. For all of the doubters about the animal’s ability to do this, my Border Collie before Ellie Mae was a male named Elliott( I know, not much imagination in naming. She was named in honor of him).
I worked construction, and quit at the same time every day, which would put me back home right around 5pm. Elliott would assume his spot at 4:45 and wait by the front closet for me to arrive. He did this without fail for ten years! If you want to see for yourself just how smart these dogs can be, go to YouTube and look for a video titled: Extreme Sheep Herding-With Lights! I think you’ll be amazed. It’s less than 3 minutes in length but extremely entertaining.
With Border Collies, the livestock, usually sheep, was much easier to care for. Knowing that they were prized by English Royalty makes it easy to assume that the queen didn’t just stumble upon this amazing dog. As with many instances in the world, both past and present, it would not surprise me to discover that the breed slowly made its way south from Scotland, purchased and/or bred by estate masters or gamekeepers who were introduced to the dog’s genius and ease of training.
Between 2 daughters and myself, we have over the years adopted 7 of them, and I can honestly say that when I have to say goodbye to Mabel, I will look for another to replace her. Of course the dog will not be a perfect replica, because this type of dog, more than any other I have ever seen, has very unique personalities. Each one is a canine person in its own right. As a breed, they are not for the faint of heart. They have boundless energy and in a roomful of humans, they are often the smartest of the bunch, and yes, this includes me. They are easy to train but can be difficult to break of bad habits. They are inquisitive, sometimes too much, but they are highly entertaining.
After living with this breed for 20+ years, I can understand why they were so highly regarded and prized in England and Scotland. There really is, for me at least, no better breed of dog in the world. As far as I am concerned, the only acceptable replacement for a Border Collie is another Border Collie.
To anybody wondering about Elly Mae’s ears standing at half mast, she normally has them laying down, but I wanted them up so I could take her picture. To get her to raise them, I said one word: “Frisbee”. This caught her attention because to her, there is nothing better than a day, or a year, spent chasing one. Of course the down side to my little trick is that until I take her to the park and throw the darn thing for her, she will remind me of my foolishness in raising the subject. If I don’t do it today, she will expect it tomorrow, or the next day if I procrastinate. This will continue until she gets her play time. It’s my own fault for wanting a certain picture of my sweetheart, I guess.
Looking back over what I have written, it appears I did go on a bit about my pup. If I bored you, take cheer. I could have filled volumes with what I have seen these dogs do, like my eldest daughter’s dog Emma, who likes to watch TV, so much so that she learned how to turn it on! There’s nothing quite like coming home to see a dog, sitting in front of the boob tube with her ears standing at attention and her head going from side to side as she follows the action on the screen.
And, to no one’s surprise, she seems to prefer programs with a lot of, as you should have guessed, sheep in them.