I had heard about border collies, but I had never met one until a winter’s day in 1990 when I was taking vegetable scraps to the garden compost bin and caught a flash of black and white disappearing into the surrounding woods. I waited for a few moments, but there were no more flashes, no sounds to break the silence on the mountainside where my wife and I live, and I returned up the slope to our house.
Several hours later, while pursuing outside chores, I spotted, 50 yards away, the outline of a dog silhouetted against a tree. As I approached it faded away, so I returned to the house, filled a bowl with dog food, and took it down to the garden. There was no sign of the visitor, but I had a feeling of being watched as I set the bowl down and left. Two hours later, the bowl was glisteningly empty. The next morning I brought out another bowlful, and a thin, half-grown border collie allowed himself to be seen in our side yard. I put the bowl down and backed off five yards; he came forward. I moved in and he backed off, keeping the five yards between us. I walked away and he ate, eagerly if a bit warily, and then retreated, without quite disappearing, into the woods.
That evening the collie came to meet me, ate while I stood by, and afterward allowed me to touch him, pat his head, pull out a few burrs. Soon he was on our deck and asking to come inside, apparently acclimated to houses and people. We wondered what accident, what inattention or perhaps cruelty, had brought him to our door. It did not strike us at the time as a fortunate occurrence.
Having recently seen two beagles through their last days, and having just adopted a nervous Airedale, we had no need for another dog. Thus we checked lists of missing animals, posted notices, cleaned the collie down to what proved to be a silky coat of shiny black and brilliant white, and took him to the vet. In addition to performing a checkup and giving shots, our vet told us about an elderly lady whose dog had recently died and who needed a companion and watchdog for her country home. It seemed like a perfect match. She carried the collie off on a Friday afternoon, pleased with his alert and amiable manner, and willing to forgive the high-spirited rambunctiousness that loosened some threads on her jacket sleeve when she first got out of her car. My wife, Jean, and I shook hands, a low-five, congratulating ourselves on another successful animal rescue operation in what for us and for many county residents is an ongoing avocation.
On Monday morning they were back, the collie with his bright eye and puppyish bounce, his weekend mistress with a sad tale to relate. Well, yes, he watched her place all right, but he also watched her neighbors’ place and discovered their cattle and chased them all to kingdom come. Then he rolled in their cowpies, came back to her house and tore around, and the rugs he didn’t get dirty he chewed on. “He is,” she concluded, “too many for me.”
Too many for her meant one more for us. Although we made a few halfhearted attempts to place the collie, the die was apparently cast. He charmed us with his instant friendship, his alertness and curiosity, the confidence with which he entered our home and our lives and looked around as if to say, “Hey, I like it. I’ll stay.” After a day or two, we gave him a Scots name, James, and that was the end of the placement effort. As we had learned when our children pleaded to keep a stray cat or dog for “just a day or two,” the act of naming is an act of commitment, a crossing of the line between stray and pack member. For better or worse, Jamie was now part of our pack and we set about to see just how he would fit in. We had no idea, at first, what we were getting into, how he would enrich our lives and deepen our understanding of our fellow creatures. We had had many dogs and cats, all cherished, but this particular dog would turn out to have a level of intelligence that made him different from the others.
We quickly noticed how active and observant Jamie was. In his stage of late puppyhood, everything had to be smelled, tasted, occasionally ripped up. Enormously energetic, he charged around the house and around the mountain we live on, and stuck his furry muzzle into whatever we were doing. He learned the usual stay-come-sit-lie-shake commands easily, almost nonchalantly, sometimes with just one or two repetitions of a word or phrase. “Sure,” he seemed to say, “I can do that. No problem. What’s next.” We began to revise our notions about training dogs, which had been based previously on pounds of dog cookies and tons of patience.
As he matured, Jamie lost none of his energy. When we opened the door to go outside, he would jump straight up in the air, three or four times, in an overflow of high spirits and anticipation. He accompanied us everywhere we would let him, whether we were on foot, mountain bike, or in the car or pickup truck; and he participated in our activities in whatever ways he could. It was amusing, one time when we were stripping poplar logs for an outdoor platform, to see him join in, grabbing loose ends of bark with his teeth and pulling them off. A few months later, on a fall afternoon, Jean and I were working outside, cutting up a tree that had fallen across our driveway. Jean had lost one of her work gloves in the litter of branches, leaves, and sawdust, and we were searching for it. Jamie joined us as usual, sniffing and cavorting around. “All right,” I said, showing him the other glove, “stop fooling and give us some help. Glove. Find glove.” Jamie stopped, cocked his head to one side, and looked at us; then he started to smell along the driveway in earnest. Thirty seconds later, wagging his tail and looking pleased with himself, he brought us the missing glove, which had been partially hidden by a sawed log.
Some weeks later he and I took a hike up a road on a neighboring mountain. It was a sharp, blue fall day and the sun felt so good that I lay on my back, Jamie by my side, on an upper turn of the grass roadway and watched a turkey vulture wheeling high in the sky. It came lower and lower, then there were two or three vultures lower still, then more vultures, now skimming just over the treetops. My idle thoughts evaporated as I came to the startling realization that we were being sized up as possible roadkill. Jamie too looked uneasy and we jumped to our feet and started down the mile-long return hike. About halfway down, I discovered that in our haste I had left my gloves, which I had been using for a pillow. “Jamie,” I said, with a sudden inspiration, “find my gloves. Find gloves.” Pleased to be asked, he snuffled enthusiastically but randomly along the roadside. I stopped and held him, pointing up the road. “Find gloves up there.” He snuffled some more, while I continued to point, and then suddenly took off, running fast and straight, up the road and out of sight. Moments later he came bouncing back, tail high in triumph, holding both gloves in his mouth. He enjoyed the praise and the patting I gave him so much that several times on the way home he came up to me, softly taking my gloved hand in his mouth, asking if he could carry a glove or two for a while.
Work gloves became a favorite item with Jamie, and they provided the opportunity for him to display more sophisticated talents. Our previous dogs had learned words, usually a dozen or so, but tended to recognize them only when they were spoken as individual words, not in sentences. Jamie knew scores of words and phrases, at least a hundred, and he could pick them out of sentences as well as understand some short sentences in their entirety. If, while sitting on the deck, we told him to “find the gloves at the truck,” he would trot down the stairs, hunt around the pickup truck, pick the gloves off the fender or tailgate, and bring them back to us. Even more unusual was the fact that he understood concepts as well as words. Sometimes in his rush to collect my gloves for a walk, he would return from the closet with only one. When asked, he would run and fetch the other. This activity led to a new level of discrimination. If Jamie appeared with one glove, dropped it in front of me, and I told him to “find the other glove,” he would promptly do that. But if instead I told him to “find both gloves,” he would pick up the first one, carry it to where the second glove was, lay it carefully on top, then pick them up together in his mouth and return. It was clear that Jamie understood the concept of both, for one day when I told him to find the gloves for a walk, he raced off, couldn’t locate them, and tore back in desperation carrying the first thing he could find, which happened to be a sock. On a hunch, I told him to “find both socks.” He picked the sock up, rushed off, and returned with the pair.
Gloves were important to Jamie because they represented something he could do. Border collies are bred to be working dogs, and they enjoy their work. Shepherds report that their dogs would rather herd sheep than eat, that they won’t stop for a meal until a job is finished. As we came to understand the importance of work in the life of a herd dog, we almost began to regret not having sheep, and we looked for compensatory jobs. One of Jamie’s favorites turned out to be bringing in the mail. It is a half mile out our driveway to our mail box, and a round trip to get the mail makes a pleasant walk. Jamie was interested in postal affairs from the beginning. He would stand on his back legs to look in the mailbox when we opened it, sniff the mail, and occasionally try to mouth it. When I offered him a stack of letters to carry, he gave it a try for 50 yards or so, but the letters slid around and he lost his grip on them. A few days later a small package of CDs was delivered, and he took it eagerly in his mouth and carried it most of the way back. When a rolled-up calendar came in the mail Jamie carried that all the way back to the house. Soon a daily pattern was established, and his designated job was carrying some of the mail— preferably a small package, though anything rolled up or letters held together by a rubber band would do. He was so fond of the double pleasure of this working walk that we stored small empty boxes and cardboard tubes in the back of the mailbox for Sundays and holidays, much to the puzzlement of our mailman.
Bringing in the mail was serious business. On the way out Jamie raced and romped, deviating to chase chipmunks, investigate woodchuck holes, or flush a ruffed grouse or a covey of wild turkeys. He especially liked the latter, since there was so much fuss and feathers in their lumbering takeoff, which they accomplished by pitching heavily down an incline next to the driveway. But once packaged— the word had a new meaning for us—he was all business, marching straight back, spurning small talk and petting. “Don’t stop me,” he seemed to be saying, “I’m busy.” This ritual ended with an offering at the window seat, Jamie’s command post, where he invariably took his mail for unloading. We had made the mistake of rewarding him with a bit of cookie the first few times, and he quickly made that permanent. No cookie for him, no package for us. Not only that, he instituted a statute of limitations. If you gave him a cookie and neglected to pick up the package, after about 10 seconds he clamped his jaws down on it again, which required another bit of cookie to unlock. We came to understand that dog cookies are the money of the canine world—immediately useful, and also symbolic of individual success and social approval.
When we ran out of jobs, we resorted to variations and games to keep Jamie occupied and sharp. He would help us unpack when we returned from town with the groceries, making trip after trip between car and kitchen. There was no tariff for unloading groceries, or anything else except the mail. He would simply drop one package and race back for another, though one time he removed a package, a bar of chocolate, from the kitchen table and carried it to the den where he unwrapped it himself. Once we gave him an extra large package which he could not manage on the long, steep wooden stairs leading up to the deck. After dropping the package twice, he picked it up, backed off, looked around, and then walked up the slope adjacent to the house and around to the shorter and easier back steps. After that he took all large deliveries to the back. Another time, when he brought in a postal package and headed for his window seat as usual, I thought I would see if I could get him to deposit it in the big box of his things that we kept in the front hall closet. I steered him over to the box, and told him to drop the package. With only one repetition, he had it figured out. Not only that, he soon began to work the system. He would bring his package over to the box, drop it in, and receive his cookie. Then he would return to the box, sort through the contents like someone musing over a Whitman’s Sampler, select a different package, and pull it out so he could return it for another cookie. A favorite inside game involved a wicker basket with a handle over the top. Putting in the basket several things he knew the names of—a ball, a brush, a sock—we would place it out of sight in another room. Then we would ask him to retrieve the items, one at a time. As a finale, he would bring us the empty basket, we would put the previously retrieved items back in, and he would carry it off to the designated storage closet.
These chores and tricks persuaded us that we were dealing with a level of intelligence we had not encountered in non-human species before, and we decided to investigate it further. We read Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs, which gives the results of a survey of obedience trial judges who ranked 133 breeds in terms of “obedience and working intelligence.” Border collies were listed first, followed by poodles, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Doberman pinschers. Coren comments that “the herding dogs tended to score the highest, and the hounds the lowest; however, there are brighter and duller breeds within each of the groups of dogs.” He also includes a canine IQ test of “adaptive intelligence”— learning ability, memory, and problem solving—which Coren contrasts to genetically hard-wired “instinctive intelligence.” We decided to put Jamie to the test, which consisted of a series of situations to comprehend and problems to solve. Here are the instructions for one of the simpler problems:
Jamie showed an intense interest in the preparations and had to be held back. It wasn’t necessary to let him sniff the cookie or stare at it. Without any exaggerated acting or encouragement, we simply threw the towel over the cookie and let him go. Jamie dove for the towel and ripped it off to get at the cookie. Time—four seconds. In the 11 tests that we administered, he scored 51.5 points out of a maximum possible score of 55.
Show the dog a fairly substantial tidbit—a dog biscuit is perfect. Let the dog sniff the tidbit, and make sure that it looks at it for about five seconds. Then, with great exaggerated acting, place the food on the floor, and, while the dog watches, throw [a] towel over it. Start the stopwatch, and encourage the dog to get the bait. If it retrieves it in fifteen seconds or less, score 5; getting it in fifteen to thirty seconds scores 4; in thirty to sixty seconds scores 3; in one to two minutes scores 2. If the dog tries to retrieve the tidbit but gives up, score 1. If the dog doesn’t even try to retrieve it within two minutes, score 0.
The relish with which Jamie went through these different exercises demonstrated another side of his intellectual personality—his pleasure in novelty. While he enjoyed routines and rituals, especially complicated ones, the repetition of simple tasks bored him. Unlike dogs who will chase a ball or a Frisbee as long as they can get a human to throw it, Jamie would retrieve a ball half a dozen times, and then deposit it somewhere, as if to say “All right, we’ve done that. Let’s try something else.” He delighted in variety and surprise, and would immediately see the possibilities of a game if I broke convention by hiding from him on a walk or crawling across the floor on my hands and knees. This ability to perceive and apparently enjoy the disjunction between the normal and the unexpected answered a question we had long debated: dogs do have a sense of humor.
Jamie’s penchant for innovations led him to add his own to those we created. One day, returning from a walk on a trail that curves downhill to a creek, I started to run. Jamie leapt after me and we raced down the hill to the creek. That became the standard finish for that particular trail. At the top of the hill I would call out “I’ll race you around the bend,” and we would tear down together. If he beat me, which was most of the time, he would stop immediately after crossing the creek, turn and wait facing me, panting with what seemed like a grin. Then he introduced a new twist, loitering for a moment at the start, giving me enough of a lead so he could pass me just before leaping the creek. The closer the race the better he liked winning it. Jamie also introduced subtle variations into the household routine. He enjoyed rummaging in wastebaskets for pieces of cardboard to chew. That was an activity we discouraged, so he worked out a compromise, a kind of legalized illegality. He would fish something out of a basket, and parade by obviously, looking at us as he did so. If we told him to drop it, he would; but if we didn’t—he was giving us fair warning—it was his to chew.
Jamie’s intelligence strengthened the bond between us, for it allowed him to understand and participate in our lives, and share his own, in a way that we had never experienced before with other animals. He quickly learned dress codes and would remain motionless on his window seat, chin on paws, if I headed for the front door wearing a tie or carrying a briefcase. He observed how we did things and knew the advantages of hands, happy to have us hold an ear of corn for him and turn it so he could nip off the kernels in rows. When he had a thorn or a painful iceball in his paw, he would stop, look at us, and raise the problem paw to be treated. If he were inside the gates that enclosed the deck when I drove up the driveway, he would turn his back to me, face the house, and bark at Jean to unfasten the gate so he could race down and greet me. Having seen us use Kleenex, he would, when a fit of deviltry struck him, pull out all the tissues, one at a time, and then chew on the box.
And we learned to pay attention to him, for he could tell us if other animals or humans or vehicles were around, find missing glasses cases and overgrown trails, and corral hunting dogs that strayed across our property. One early evening in the spring, while hiking with Jamie up a road on a neighboring mountain, I hung on a branch a superfluous jacket that I was tired of carrying. We went almost to the summit, and returned at a fast pace as the twilight came on and we became increasingly late for dinner. As I hurried along, I discovered that Jamie was no longer at my side. Looking around, I saw him 30 yards back, standing in the roadway. I waited for a moment—these walks were governed by his agenda as well as mine—and then whistled and continued on, only to find that he hadn’t moved. A bit irritated, I called sharply, and when he still would not budge, I marched back to where he stood. As I came up to him in the dusk, thinking to give him a piece of my mind, I could just barely make out the jacket he was planted next to.
People would ask us if Jamie obeyed, and we found that a difficult question to answer. Well, yes, of course. Often he anticipated what we wanted him to do and accomplished it even before we asked. On the other hand, he was a free spirit, an independent thinker, with his own projects and reasons. “I’ll take the upper trail,” he would sometimes seem to say, “and meet you at the intersection.” Terms like “obey,” “mind,” “train,” and “discipline” seemed inappropriate. It was as if you were to ask a second baseman if the shortstop on his team “obeyed.” The second baseman would probably scratch his head and say something about their working together pretty well, even if the shortstop occasionally threw the ball into right field.
Jamie was a team player and he wanted to please us, but he had an occasional errant throw to the outfield. Many dogs, herd dogs especially, enjoy rolling on a half-decayed carcass or a ripe mound of deer droppings. I would not trust one with Limburger cheese left on a low coffee table. Some experts explain this behavior as an attempt to mask the dog’s predator odor so it can move more easily among cattle or sheep. Whatever the reason, the habit is inconvenient in a dog who likes the run of a house and wants to sleep on your bed. We quickly put this behavior into the “no” category. Jamie knew we didn’t like it and he wouldn’t do it when we were nearby. But the instinct, the desire, was still strong.
One day a telephone company truck stopped at the intersection of our driveway and the county road just as Jamie and I had reached that point in our walk. The maintenance man got out, and we began to talk electronics while standing on the driver’s side of the panel truck. Jamie checked the truck out in his usual manner, sniffing the tires, which, from his point of view, were mobile marking posts for dogs. He started with the left front tire, where we were standing, and strolled around the front of the truck to the other side. A few minutes later he reappeared at the back of the truck, apparently having completed his circumnavigation, and started sniffing the left rear tire. But he was looking at me rather than at the tire and his chest seemed to be heaving. Suddenly his tongue, which had been held tightly in his mouth, rolled out. It was bright red, he was now openly panting, and I saw what appeared to be a streak of mud down his flank. My nose identified the mud as unusually fragrant, and then I understood. Jamie had gone around the truck and used it as cover while he raced down the side of the road and got a shoulder into a mucky carcass. Then he had run back, slowed down, and strolled around the end of the truck pretending that he had been sniffing tires the whole time.
Our life with Jamie was organized by mutual understanding, rather than by lessons in obedience. Socks tied in a knot were his to chew; others belonged to us and were off limits. When he wanted fresh cool water he would stand at his dish, take one tentative lick, and stare at us. On days when I was home in the morning, Jamie would appear at the study door about ten o’clock and lie down with a patient look, as if to say, “I’m ready for a walk whenever you are.” After ten minutes he would come over to my chair, sit next to me, and put his head on the chair arm or in my lap. “It’s about time.” If that didn’t disengage me, in another five minutes he would stand on his hind legs and put his front paws on top of my hands. “Let’s go NOW!” Since his right paw sometimes caught the Ctrl/Alt corner of my computer keyboard, that tactic always worked.
One of our most complex rituals would commence after Jamie had rolled in something foul. When I discovered what he had done, I would tell him, sharply, to stay. He would freeze and I would walk up to him, tell him he was a “bad dog,” and give him a symbolic light tap on the flank. The phrase had such a devastating effect on him that we rarely used it, and in this situation I would soften it by playfully drawling it out—”baaaad dog.” The instant I touched him Jamie would explode into action, relieving the tension by racing around me in large circles. Then suddenly he would cut sharply into the center and leap straight at me. This behavior got a little rough—a 40-pound dog airborne at 20 mph is a formidable projectile—so we worked out two accommodations. He learned to leap to one side, the trick being to come as close as possible without hitting me. And as he went flying by I would hand him a stick to satisfy his urge to bite something. He would then reenter his circular racetrack, tossing the stick in the air and trying to catch it on the run. From Jamie’s point of view the circle game ended the problem of his having perfumed himself, and thus he was, or pretended to be, surprised when we went to the house and I announced that it was time for a bath. Dejected when he heard the word “bath,” he would march stoically up the stairs and jump into the bathtub to await his fate. When it was over, he broke into a milder version of the circle tear, racing around the house with a towel and tossing it in the air.
An alert and energetic dog makes a boon companion for an active owner, but being a dog’s care giver—a term that is replacing “owner” for the politically punctilious—is not always easy or convenient. Leaving a dog, especially a thoughtful one, at a kennel, off its territory and away from its pack, seems like incarceration. That meant Jamie either went with us on trips, or stayed at home with a house sitter. A dog’s strong social instincts dictate that it needs companions, either canine or human, during the day. Jamie seemed to feel that the two other dogs we had at times during his tenure with us were not especially good companions—one the nervous Airedale that in his view was not to be trusted, the other a young female German shepherd that was not to be taken seriously. They tended to spoil his walks with us, and Jamie was happiest when he was our only dog. He seemed to see himself as one of us, a kind of four-legged, short-statured, fur-covered human. Other dogs were, well, just dogs. If he could have organized an expedition in our pickup truck, he would have designated me as the driver, put Jean in the middle of the front seat, given himself the passenger’s side window, and stuffed any other dogs back on the cargo bed.
This close inter-species bond—perhaps a result of the long working partnership herd dogs have had with humans—led Jamie, in the late afternoons of weekdays, to post himself on the window seat and await my return so he could greet me, help me unpack, and share a walk. When I was late he stayed at his post, through sunset and into the night if necessary, and I left some meetings early so as not to disappoint him. Friendship is a two-way street, and I had never before been so far down the street of friendship with a member of another species. Thus I was astounded to come across the “Note to the Reader” at the end of Donald McCaig’s Nop’s Hope:
When I protested to McCaig, a sheep rancher and author who lives in Virginia’s Highland County, he replied:
Border Collies are not bred to be pets and those decent, caring, well-meaning people who buy a Border Collie pup for a pet are courting sorrow.
Listen, I love these dogs, they help me make a living on my ranch and in my books, and I don’t want to see them mistreated. Of course they make wonderful pets, but most Americans aren’t smart enough to know it. They’ll let a dog out in the morning for a pee and a poop and then close it up all day in a house or apartment and complain when they come home at night and find a shoe chewed on. The more intelligent a dog is, the lower its threshold for boredom, the more likely it is to get into what brainless owners call “trouble.”
Jamie sometimes stirred in his sleep, making muffled yips while his legs twitched, and we wondered where he was in his dreams— perhaps chasing or being chased, or driving a flock down some windy Scottish highland. On a few occasions, some three or four times in his life and only when he was soundly asleep, he pointed his nose toward the ceiling and emitted a long, pure, rising then falling wolf howl. This startling sound suggested that somehow in his midnight imagination he had crossed the narrow dog/wolf divide, reached back several millennia, and was bonding with his wild comrades. That conjecture led to a question: are border collies as intelligent as wolves? Although wolf brains are one sixth larger than those in dogs of equal size, it seems reasonable to assume that herd dogs may approach the intelligence of wolves, since they have retained the wilderness skills of hunting and killing, now muted to herding and controlling; and since, like wolves, they have to work for a living.
Dogs are only one step away from wolves, and the wolf research conducted in recent decades by David Mech and others has enabled many dog owners to understand better the domesticated pets stretched out in their living rooms. Dogs are so closely related to wolves that any dog could mate with a wolf and produce fertile offspring, however farfetched that might seem with respect to Chihuahuas or toy poodles. All of the 400 or so breeds of dogs are the result of the genetic manipulation of wolves, or wolf progenitors, conducted by humans. A Walt Disney version of this process might show a hungry lone wolf with a hurt paw limping into the firelight of a human encampment at the dawn of civilization. But it is unlikely that adult wild wolves volunteered for domesticity or that early man tamed them. He probably stumbled across a wolf den, pulled out the puppies, kept the docile ones and clubbed the rest. Thousands of years of selective breeding for amiability and human work, and later for appearance, produced the dog varieties we know today. Border collies have been less dumbed down than many other breeds, since they have traditionally been bred for intelligence and ability, not for looks. Because they come in different sizes, colors, and ear styles, border collies were not recognized for many years by the American Kennel Club as a legitimate “show” breed, although they were allowed to compete in AKC obedience and tracking trials in the “Miscellaneous Class” category. As tests of skill were added to competitions in order to counter the criticism that dog shows are simply canine swimsuit events, border collies were often called in to teach the other dogs how to do it. In 1995, the AKC officially recognized the border collie and defined a uniform “breed standard” by which the dogs would be judged in the show ring, an action strongly opposed by the United States Border Collie Club and many handlers and owners, who maintain that these dogs should be “bred and valued for their abilities, not their appearance.” The Border Collie Club and its allies argue that the system established under AKC hegemony—inbreeding, designation of “champions” based on superficial characteristics, large registration fees and profits, with resulting commercial and sometimes irresponsible “puppy mills”— shouldn’t happen to a dog.
Dog and wolf experts agree that all dogs, whatever their abilities, can be distinguished from wolves in that humans have bred dogs for docility, playfulness, loyalty, obedience, affection. These are qualities we also value in our offspring, as wolves do in theirs. The bowing, deferential, from-the-ground-up invitation to play that a dog uses with a human is identical to the gestures young wolves make to adults. But juvenile wolves grow up. One look at the adult gray wolves pacing in the Washington National Zoo makes it clear that you would not invite them home to your fireside, and that if you did they wouldn’t come. In a behavioral sense, dogs never grow up; they remain playful and subordinate all their lives, and that’s partly why we like them. Thus dogs can be seen as sportive, immature wolves; conversely a wolf might be thought of as a serious dog, one who doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from and has to be constantly on the lookout, investigating animal signs, calculating kill chances, watching the weather, training the young, perfecting teamwork, repelling invaders.
With his ability to make his actions and ideas more explicit than our other pets, Jamie helped us to understand the behavior that connected him to the forebears that howled in his dreams. Wolves, like dogs and humans, live in packs—family groups that extend over several generations. Two rules govern pack life. The first is that the pack is a team, a unit that lives and works together. Each member keeps renewing his/her membership, reconnecting with the others. Wolves begin the day with greetings, physical contact, nose and mouth lickings, and every pack member returning from a sortie is regreeted upon return. An early riser, Jamie would lie near the bed in the morning, waiting for me to roll over or open an eye—the signal for him to jump up and lick my face and have his head patted and ears rubbed in return. When Jean or I came back from even a brief errand around home, he would sniff us, and want to be touched, checking what we had been up to. Returning at the end of a day in town or from a trip produced a 21-gun reunion, complete with bouncing, circle racing, package carrying, and face licking.
A pack sticks together, and one of the few times Jamie seemed puzzled was when Jean and I separated on a walk, to pursue individual errands unintelligible to dogs. He would look intently at each of us and then sit down at the point of separation, apparently wondering why we had broken the rules and waiting for us to reunite. When we sat in the living room talking, Jamie would select something from his basket of odds and ends and chew it on his window seat, all of us “chewing the fat” together. And a pack sleeps together, as Jamie made clear from the beginning. He liked the bed, though a nearby bedroom chair was fine, or even the floor; and he crawled under the bed during nighttime thunderstorms. He could forego amenity as long as he had proximity.
The second rule of pack behavior concerns its organization. A wolf pack, composed of adults and juveniles, has a tightly enforced hierarchy of leaders and followers. The alpha male and female, often mated for life, are the only ones in the pack who breed. Benign dictators, they make many other decisions as well, using their power for the good of the group. An alpha male will bring his kill back to his mate, and she in turn will share it with the pups. Adult wolves have stomachs that enable them to carry food over long distances and regurgitate it back at the den. Apparently licking the muzzle of a returning parent stimulates regurgitation, which may be why dogs are such face lickers.
Jamie immediately accepted our alpha status, and established himself as second in command, a sort of lieutenant colonel. He viewed our grown children, house sitters, and overnight guests as temporary pack members of impressive but indeterminate rank. Human visitors that we acted friendly to were accepted with a smell check. Those that we did not welcome were stopped. Other dogs and all other animals were his subordinates, a position he often reinforced simply with his eyes. We had noticed that our previous dogs usually could not hold our gaze, looking away after a second or so, perhaps as a sign of subordination. But Jamie looked directly into our eyes, as if, almost an equal, he were trying to understand exactly what we were expressing. He stared down our other dogs, cowing the Airedale into grouchy submission and inspiring the young female shepherd— who happily, gaily accepted his leadership—into rushing over to lick his mouth, something Jamie tolerated but did not enjoy. His eye contact seemed to reflect his relatively high status in the pack as well as the inherited fear-inducing stare of a predator, which has passed down directly from wolves to herd dogs. The trickiest maneuver in sheep herding trials comes at the end, when the dog, after steering the group of five or so around the course, has to hold steady and then separate the sheep, running between them while they remain motionless. To do this the dog positions himself in front of the sheep, who, being sheep, usually face the same way together. Then the dog stares them into momentary paralysis and makes his run.
There was one occasional, playful exception to the hierarchy of our little pack. If I lay on my back on the grass, Jamie would come over, lick my face, and then stand with his front feet, sometimes all four, on my chest. Performing his version of “king of the mountain,” he would stretch as high up as he could and look off into the distance, apparently enjoying some adolescent dream of glory, of leading the pack, perhaps even of driving the pickup. The preliminary face licking, as I understood it, meant that the challenge wasn’t real, and I would roll out from under his weight into a wrestling romp that seemed to return us to the normal order of things.
Different pack members have different jobs and Jamie’s most important task, as he saw it, was protecting the territory, investigating all strange creatures and unusual objects within a quarter mile of our house. On a walk Jamie was an early warning system, able to detect objects in his smellscape hidden to human sight. He once nailed a hunter who had concealed himself behind a large poplar tree. When Jamie challenged him, the hunter—now the hunted—emerged with his hands and rifle over his head and his mouth full of apologies and promises never to return. It is common wisdom, and the thesis of Elizabeth Thomas’ The Hidden Life of Dogs, that dogs are more interested in other dogs than humans. Not so with Jamie. He was very curious about strange dogs, intensely so on the home ground, and went after them like a rifle shot. But he was an aloof policeman; once he had checked the credentials of itinerant dogs and made certain they understood the local ordinances, he had no continuing interest in them and returned to whatever he had been doing with us. Deer and rabbits he simply chased a few feet to the edge of the woods, where he seemed to think they harmlessly belonged. When two beagles ran a deer across the side of our mountain, Jamie ignored the deer and stopped the dogs, holding them in place until we could collar them and telephone their owner. Bears, not so harmless, he chased into the woods a little further, sounding tough but returning rapidly to home base.
Jamie enjoyed the familiar patterns of our activities and performing his established jobs. All dogs do. What set him apart was his ability to innovate, to adapt quickly to new circumstances. In spite of his apprehension about bears and his need to drive them off, he could reconsider. On one early morning walk, we rounded a bend and saw a small bear in the driveway, ambling on all fours away from us. I spotted it first, and held Jamie, with my hand on his muzzle, as I pointed it out. “Shush,” I said quietly, and Jamie sensed that this was a new strategy. He did not run or bark or whine and the two of us tiptoed side-by-side along the driveway, following the bear, who never looked back, at a distance of 100 feet. For several minutes we had a slow three-species morning stroll. When the bear turned off the driveway into a wide hollow and slowly climbed up the mountain, Jamie and I stood still, quietly watching and sniffing it out of sight.
Outside, Jamie rarely barked. On watch inside the house, he had two warning signals. The first was an excited rapid-fire bark—”we may be being attacked”—triggered by strange people and vehicles and electric company meter readers. He had a special antipathy toward the latter, since a meter reader with an itchy trigger finger had once misread Jamie’s inspection for an attack and hit him with red pepper spray. He was so persuaded about the dangerous status of meter readers that one time when we had all returned from an outing in the car just after a meter reader had driven away, Jamie jumped out in a rush, sniffed the path to the meter box, and checked all around outside. Then he asked to be let in the house and he ran into every room to make certain no one was concealed there. Since one of our previous dogs had experienced a similar run-in with a gas delivery man, we were able to compare the reactions of the two dogs. Both developed a life-long hostility toward their antagonists that transferred to others of their land. Here, though, Jamie showed greater discrimination, reserving his enmity for meter readers, not extending it even to electric company repairmen who drove somewhat different trucks. The other dog made no such fine distinctions, and set himself implacably against all uniformed humans—gas, electric, and telephone company employees, as well as postmen and policemen.
Jamie’s other inside bark was less intense, more sporadic, interrogative. It usually came from his window seat when he spotted something outside—perhaps a transiting deer or a carton or piece of clothing left outside by mistake. This bark was really for us. It meant “Hey, I see something out there; the pack leader better check it out.” He would stop this informational barking as soon as we acknowledged it, either by coming to look with him or by saying that we understood. Rather than telling him to Stop Barking, we found ourselves saying “Thank you, I see it. I’ll take it from here.” Some dogs may bark from confinement or boredom, but Jamie barked because he had something to communicate.
Jamie’s last day came at the end of October, 1997. His liver was failing, and he could be kept alive only by having fluid drained from his abdomen. As his discomforts turned to pain, we decided he had to be put down—a decision mitigated only slightly by the curious irony that our laws allow the deaths of the terminally ill of other species to be more rational, better timed, more humane, than those of humans. On the afternoon of that last day, I came home early, bringing our vet who had agreed to euthanize him at home. Masking his misery, Jamie came trotting out to meet us with tail wagging, and he gamely carried a package part way as we came up the steps and went into the house together. Awkwardly, not quite knowing what to do or say, I sat down on the window seat. With help, Jamie climbed up one last time, and, exhausted, stretched out with his head on my lap and closed his eyes.
It was there, on his territory and with his pack, that he had his final, fatal injection. And it was there I fully realized that while the intellectual gifts setting him apart from our other dogs were impressive, Jamie’s character lay as much in his heart as in his head. His other great gift to us was that given so freely by so many dogs, the gift of love. Border collies are extraordinary in that they join together unusual intelligence and unconditional devotion. It is a remarkable combination for any species.