41: A Collie Without a Herd

41: A Collie Without a Herd

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: I Can't Believe My Dog Did That!

A Collie Without a Herd

Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.

~Robert A. Heinlein

Spicy, a black-and-white Border Collie puppy, came to live with us at the age of six weeks and immediately began searching for a herd. Although we raise cattle on our Central Texas farm, we’ve streamlined our cattle handling facilities so a pickup truck and a few bales of hay or buckets of Range Cubes do the work once required of cowboys on horses and working cow dogs. Believe me, it’s much easier to lure the thousand-pound beasts into pens with treats than it is to chase them over hundreds of acres of land, a practice which works best in old Western movies.

At first, Spicy dedicated herself to herding our four grandchildren, the youngest of whom, a clumsy two-year-old, tripped over her and squashed her flat under his diaper-swathed backside many times before Spicy accepted the fact that grandchildren do not possess a herd mentality. Her brief contacts with the weanling heifers in the pen below the house were just as frustrating. Full of high-protein feed and rambunctiousness, they chased her gleefully across the pen with their tails in the air.

Border Collies are born with the instinct to herd other animals. The good ones have an inborn trait called the “collie eye” — they fix the target animals with an unwavering stare that communicates their dominance, and then move them wherever the handler (or the dog) wants them to go, ducking and dodging with agile grace to keep the unruly creatures together. Anyone who has watched a sheepherding demonstration at the fair has witnessed the Border Collie’s uncanny ability to know which way the sheep are going to turn before they do.

We worked with Spicy on basic obedience lessons and she learned amazingly fast, but her life wasn’t complete without something to herd, and we have no sheep or goats, not even a flock of ducks, which are sometimes used to train Border Collies. Although she loved people, she wasn’t interested in fetching balls or sticks or any of the other favorite puppy pastimes. Finally, in desperation, she focused her attention on Pepper, a tortoiseshell cat. Pepper was a rescue cat, eternally grateful to be free of the shelter cage that had been her home before our daughter adopted her. As long as she didn’t have to go back to the shelter, Pepper was cool with anything.

When I first noticed Spicy crouching in front of Pepper and giving her the “collie eye,” I laughed. But I was a bit concerned that Pepper might run, encouraging Spicy to chase her. Pepper sized up the situation, arched her back, and rubbed under Spicy’s chin, purring. She was happy to have attention — even from a dog. From that day forward, Pepper rarely went anywhere without Spicy at her side, glaring at her with an intensity that Pepper totally ignored. Tail in the air, she continued to her planned destination as though the black-and-white blur dancing around her didn’t exist. Spicy raced from one side of the strolling cat to the other, pretending that Pepper was headed exactly where Spicy wanted her to go. Obviously, she didn’t understand that “herding cats” is impossible.

As Spicy outgrew the playful puppy stage, I thought she might see the pointlessness of trying to herd a cat, but at the age of eight, her fascination with this pastime is just as strong. Pepper has a few carefully selected perches where she can escape when she’s fed up with playing the part of the sheep, but mostly it’s a symbiotic relationship. Pepper seems to view Spicy as her own personal escort and protector, a large, black-and-white lady-in-waiting, perhaps proving the truth of the old saying: “Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as Gods. Cats have never forgotten this.”

~Martha Deeringer

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