Going to the Dark Side
I've been known over the last 10 years to castigate people who "take the easy path" or "sell out" in dog agility and get a Border Collie, when none of their previous dogs were Border Collies and they'd probably never have gotten a BC if they weren't trying to be competitive.
I maintain that, if more of the talented people were making more of an effort to find, train, and even breed other breeds to be outstanding agility dogs, there's be many more of them in the top echelons. Others disagree, saying that you can't beat Border Collies who've essentially been bred for centuries to the requirements for this sport, long before it was invented.
Even so, most non-BC people talk about "going to the dark side" when they finally give in and get a BC. And I've been one of the few who've done agility entirely with rescue dogs, none of them Border Collies, for my first three agility dogs. But. Anyway. It all started—
When I Was a Little Girl
Blame it on Albert Payson Terhune. Back then, I read all of his dog books, almost all of which were about Collies. The Rough kind, not the Border Collie kind. (Who knew there was more than one kind? Like Smooth-Coated ones, too! Let alone Bearded Collie and so on?!) One of the books was Gray Dawn. I had read so many books about golden collies, sable collies, all those collies who seemed to look exactly alike, that the description of a blue merle—the first I'd ever heard this term—sounded like the most beautiful dog possible.
And the cover illustration was beautiful and exciting and full of promise. None of this golden-dog-lounging-on-the-grassy-knoll nonsense. Here was a real dog.
We also had a family history of collies. My mother's family had two tricolor collies (from pedigreed working farm dogs) when she was a girl. My family adopted a Collie/Shepherd mix (who looked, really, nothing like either) when I was in about the fifth grade. It was a sure thing that I'd own a Collie or maybe a German Shepherd when I grew up. Even though I knew that blue merles were extremely rare and I'd probably never see a real one in my entire life, it stayed in the back of my heart that, one day, a blue merle collie would come into my life.
Real Real Dogs
I loved to read about dog breeds. I memorized the list of all the known breeds (ha! It was years before I realized that the hundred or so breeds recognized by the AKC--and therefore the only ones ever mentioned in public in the U.S.--represented only a fraction of the breeds available in the world, many of which have also always been available in the U.S. but unmentionable outside the power of the AKC.). I identified dog breeds in the street, in magazines, on TV. I cut out pictures of dogs from my mom's used magazines and glued them into a scrapbook by breed. Mom even gave me my own delicate porcelain Collie and German Shepherd statuettes for Christmas one year, and I treasured them.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: I grew up. I learned more about dogs in the real world. I met many Rough Collies, including my sister's, who was a sweetheart and smart and attractive in many ways but looked not really the way I had always pictured collies. Face too thin, head too narrow, eyes set too far back on the skull, body too coaty and thick-looking. And she wasn't one of the pointiest-faced ones, either.
I don't remember when I learned about Border Collies. I know that I, as an adult, saw them in action at the tremendous Golden Gate Dog Show on various occasions, herding geese or doing obedience or what have you. Somewhere along that path, I also learned about Golden Retrievers. Saw a man working his Golden through its obedience paces at a field at a nearby high school, sometime while I was in high school myself, and started asking him all kinds of questions. It might have been then that I added Golden Retriever to my possible list of future breeds, and decided that I wanted to have an Obedience Champion dog When I Grew Up.
I was twenty-one, taking (more or less permanent) time off from college to have a real job. Lived in an apartment by myself. Had recently broken up with my boyfriend of 6 years and felt truly alone at times. I came home from working swing shift in the wee dark hours of the morning one night, and a peeping person terrified me, looking in through my drapes. I called the cops, but I was scared stiff. The next day, at work, two co-workers announced that their dogs, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd, had produced a litter of puppies and they were looking for homes for them.
So, about 6 weeks later, I took home what became my first Big Yella Mixed-Breed dog. Not a collie in sight. And I remained diverted for many years.
But No Thanks to AKC
Amber was the dog who introduced me, unpleasantly, to the AKC. On my own, I read all about dogs and dog training and worked on teaching her basic obedience. I eventually signed up for an obedience class that some local AKC club offered at the County Fairgrounds one night a week. There must have been 20 dogs in that class, maybe 30, and I remember only a single instructor. And my impression was that that instructor hated people and thought they were all inherently stupid about training their dogs. And when I foolishly announced that I wanted to do well with Amber because I wanted an obedience champion, she personified the act of looking down one's nose. "Get a purebred," she told me. "Mutts can't compete." I of course wanted to know why not, since she was just another dog and just as clever as the rest of them. The answer--of course--was simply that she didn't have an AKC pedigree. No other reason. Stupid then. Stupid now. The class, instructor, and attitude turned me off to the idea of ever giving money to AKC.
Skip Ahead to 1994
So my first dog essentially fell into my lap. My second dog, Sheba, was a Siberian Husky, adopted from the pound because my new spouse thought that they were a beautiful breed. What I and we didn't know about dogs, and Huskies in particular, got filled in pretty quickly, and a lot of it was negative.
After Amber died, and when I was ready again to get another dog, I researched very carefully. We went to a couple of big dog shows, looked at lots of dogs, talked to breeders, collected flyers with breed info. Bought books and looked things up. I sent an email to a friend saying that we were starting to look and probably were going to get "an australian shepherd or border collie," so by that time--long before I knew about dog agility--I had already zeroed in on these breeds. Of course, what happened (told on Remington's page) was something completely different.
|To: stokely!mv.us.adobe.com!mlisk (Michelle Lisk (TEMP))|
Subject: Re: andrea's party
From: elf (Ellen Levy Finch)
Date: Tue, 17 May 94 10:51:24 -0800
Maybe more details than you want:
Have been doing all kinds of research on what kind of dog i might want
to try this time around. Hadn't decided for sure, but thought that
maybe an australian shepherd or border collie would be neat.
... [But...] Quite by accident[...] Went to buy dogfood (for Sheba) and
the Nike Animal Rescue Foundation (Narf! Narf!) was all set up in their
parking lot with the most desirable batch of dogs you've ever seen in
your life. Looked at a lot of border collie and/or australian shepherd
mixes, but when I saw the one that looked a lot like Amber, he made the
others kind of wash out.
On top of everything else, another sister had gotten an Australian Shepherd, a red merle, who was good-looking and smart, very smart. They were talking about breeding him. At one point I told her that, if they did breed him and the litter produced a blue merle puppy, I'd be interested. That never happened, but the pieces were falling slowly into place.
Skip Ahead to 2001
Remington was getting old. Jake was getting older. It was time to start looking for another dog to start training as my next agility dog. To summarize (maybe to tell the story some other day in more detail), Tika was not only a sweet and loving dog, but she also loved to play tug of war, and she was a gorgeous blue merle Australian Shepherd-type dog (we'll never be certain of her purity; doesn't look exactly like a "typical" aussie but I like her looks much better than I like the typical aussie). I think it was the blue merle as much as anything that kept drawing me to her. So, eventually, when she came to live with me, I said that *she* was the blue merle dog I'd always wanted.
About 3 years ago, a young lady who had been running her moderately paced Doberman and her Spaniel in my agility class with Jake and Remington convinced another up-and-coming agility handler to let her train his Border Collie, Tala. Tala was young and very fast and very driven. I think that her handler didn't quite know what to do with her, and he had another dog that he was concentrating on for agility. Silvina worked hard with Tala, a lovely, thin, blue merle girl who so obviously and desperately wanted to do the right thing and who so clearly learned quickly when the information was delivered to her in the same fast, driven, hard-working way that she herself used.
I really liked Tala. Over time, I had become less certain about Border Collies, hearing about and seeing so many instances of crazed BCs and imagining that they'd be impossible to live with. But we could all see that Tala was going to be an amazing agility dog and were taken aback at the idea that her original owner/handler couldn't figure out how to work with her. Not only was she a great athlete, but she seemed like a completely reasonable, sane dog the rest of the time. We all wanted to take her home with us! And we all watched as Silvina worked her and she got better, and better, and better— Meanwhile, Tika's constant buzz convinced me that no dog could be worse than she was to live with, and most would probably be much better, even Border Collies.
Eventually, Tala and Silvina moved on in other directions (or we did, hard to say, as everyone shifts from class to class now and then). Nancy Gyes (one of our instructors and the one who was responsible for me getting Jake) worked with Tala and competed with her for a while, and then eventually her original handler took her over and started doing very well with her. It helps that he's athletic and coordinated, too, of course.
Then, in early 2003, Remington died suddenly of cancer, much too young. I knew I'd be wanting another dog to "fill the gap", but I didn't want once again to have two dogs very close in age (Amber and Sheba only 2 years apart; Jake and Remington only 2 years apart) and getting old at the same time. So I vowed to wait. Turned out that I didn't have the heart to wait until Tika was 5 or 6; by mid-2004 I had stated that my next dog would have to be at least 4 years younger than Tika, and Tika's 4th birthday would be Valentines' Day of 2005.
So Tika and I kept taking agility classes. In mid-2004, we ended up in a class along with Tala's co-owner, Tammy. Tammy had her own two dogs to run in class, so we really hardly ever saw Tala or Greg's other dog, Coty. But I paid even more attention to them in competition, since sometimes Tammy ran them in Greg's place and I started to feel as if I knew the dogs. Both Tala and Coty excelled, but particularly Tala. It seemed that, when she and Greg were both on and connecting, no one could touch them.
People started talking about a breeding between Tala and Aiko, a large black-and-white Border Collie who won last year's Grand Prix of Dog Agility national championship. He, also, was a dog who regularly beat even the astounding dog-trainer teams in our area by 2 or 3 seconds in a run, when everything clicked. He seems to barely skim the ground between obstacles as he flies around the course. And then Tala came into heat.
I heard about all of this through Tammy in class. Every week there was another episode to the story. Seems that they were going to breed Tala to Aiko, but Aiko tested positive for something or other that made him ineligible for breeding. They didn't want to waste this heat of Tala's, so they bred her to Greg's Coty.
Meanwhile, Aiko was retested--and it turns out that the first test had been a false positive. So, with Tala still in heat, they bred her again to Aiko. (Yeah, you can do that with dogs! Puppies are not identical siblings; each is usually from a separate egg and hence each egg could theoretically be fertilized by a separate father.)
So then they had to wait--and Tala delivered 7 healthy puppies, three black-and-whites like Coty and four blue merle girls like their mom. Here's a key point--they were 2 weeks less than 4 years younger than Tika, so technically they didn't qualify according to my plan, BUT they were born on my birthday! Tammy and Greg had to send in samples to get the puppies' DNA tested to determine whether they were Coty or Aiko puppies. The stars of the agility world were standing in line for Aiko/Tala puppies, and everyone had to wait for the results. And then--they turned out all to be Coty puppies. The demand for the puppies faded.
I heard about the puppies every week and how they were doing and what they were going to do about selling them and to whom and it wasn't very clear any more. One issue was that Coty's hip tests show him as only Fair, which means that he's sound enough to be completely functional but that there are enough discrepancies from the ideal hip joints that he could pass on less-than-ideal hips to his offspring. And there's no way to tell for sure until the puppies are 2 years old.
The first four puppies went to their new homes at about 8 weeks. Tammy and Greg were thinking that they'd keep one, but they hadn't decided which. And so three remained unclaimed. They all had different color collars to make it easier to tell them apart and talk about them, and so I heard about "Grenelda (green)" and "Orangina" and all the colorful others. They were about 6 weeks old when I looked them over at an agility trial, all tumbling over each other in their exercise pen. Tika looked interested. They looked interested in Tika. But I wasn't going to get a Border Collie; I had already almost gone out to the central valley in November to look at a 3-month old litter of Kelpie/Border Collie mixes from working parents, but in the end had decided that they were too far off my goal of a 4-year separation from Tika and it was just not quite the right time in my life yet. But I was going to get another mixed breed or rescue.
I certainly wasn't going to pay for a pedigreed, AKC-registered puppy. But I felt like I knew these puppies. And I certainly knew their parents, at least on the agility field. And then, one day, my instructor looked at me--knowing that I was about in the market for a puppy--and said "You know, there are 3 lovely puppies still available from this litter." So, when the puppies were about 10 weeks old, I went down to their house to look over the three unclaimed ones. One was black and white, and I just couldn't get excited about a black and white border collie. The others were blue merles. One struggled like crazy the instant I picked her up, wouldn't hold still for me much at all. But one held still for a bit, then worked a bit at trying to get loose. Seemed like a good mix. And she was BEAUTIFUL! One blue eye, like her momma Tala.
I was doomed. I wanted another dog who was at least as good at, and enthused about, agility as Tika, but one who wouldn't be a wired over-the-top frantic dog at home, unlike Tika. Greenelda looked like she could be the one. But I wasn't going to get a Border Collie. And I was in the middle of double projects (for two different clients) and I couldn't even spare the cycles to decide for sure. So I thought about it in background for two weeks.
And then I called Tammy and said that I thought I probably wanted to take Grenelda home with me and I wanted to come on down again. So I did. And I looked them over, but Grenelda just caught my eye all over again. Tammy obligingly held "my" 3-month-old pup for a photo, then we signed the papers, and home we went. So I had a 3-month old "puppy" suddenly in my home, although she had already lost all of her puppy rolypolyness and was starting to take the shape of an adult, though lanky and still often clumsy. But she raced through the tunnels in my back yard full speed on her own, like a blaze of gray lightning, and I knew I had a future agility dog in my camp.
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