72: Destiny

72: Destiny

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


The purpose of life is a life of purpose.

~Robert Byrne

For many years I had been privileged to take in old abused dogs that were rescued from a life of cruelty and misery. This was no great self-sacrifice on my part. It was as gratifying for me as for the victims. The dogs came from many sources and were just as likely to be a Great Dane as a Toy Poodle or a mixed breed of unknown parentage. I loved them all.

I grew up in England in the 1920s and always had a variety of pets, from horses to white mice, so I was well accustomed to caring for animals. Our home was on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, not far from veterinarians Alf Wight and Donald Sinclair, better known as James Herriot and Siegfried Farnon of All Creatures Great and Small. Alf Wight and I were friends long before he wrote his beloved books, and I greatly admired the work he did.

From early childhood I loved the herding dogs who lived and worked all around us. One of the highlights of my life was to watch the fleet Border Collies as they competed against each other in sheep-dog trials that were held each year at the county fair. A farmer’s life in the “old days” was one of drudgery and hard work from dawn to dusk, and the sheepdog’s life was often no better. When they became too old or sick to work, they were more than likely to be shot by their masters. This distressed me, and no doubt formed the basis of my rescue efforts in later years.

The Second World War came and went. England changed, and life as I had known it changed forever. Eventually I emigrated to America, married, and became involved in the rescue of abused animals, especially elderly dogs that had suffered wretched lives. But I couldn’t forget the faithful, hardworking sheepdogs of my childhood, many of which suffered harsh treatment at the hands of their masters. Each time I returned to England on vacation, I tried to find one that had toiled all its life and bring it back with me to America so I could give it love and comfort for the rest of its life. I searched diligently in the farming communities, contacting old farmers I had known many years before. I phoned British rescue groups and, at one point, even advertised in the paper. The only offers I received were not what I had in mind. Puppies, young dogs in training, and dogs that had never worked were available for money. I finally gave up.

Years later, when I decided I was getting too old to take any more needy dogs. Max, an Old English Sheepdog, and Meg, an Australian Cattle Dog, were the only canine survivors in the household.

“Absolutely no more rescues!” I told myself, meaning every word.

It’s strange how things you wish for sometimes happen in the most unexpected ways. When you have already accepted the inevitability of failure, a different — and sometimes even better — solution presents itself.

One day the phone rang. The call was from a local animal shelter and I knew at once what was coming.

“We have a case of extreme cruelty,” began the supervisor at the other end, after the initial pleasantries. “We have just taken in more than twenty breeding dogs from a puppy mill, all of them in terrible condition. They were in little cages, living on top of wire, with no food or water. The whole place has been shut down. We have a dog I think you would like to work with. She is about eight years old and must have been badly abused. She is so terrified of everybody and everything that she is not eligible for adoption. If you won’t take her, she will have to be destroyed.”

“What breed is she?” I asked, curious now, even though I knew I would take her anyway. The next words were the culmination of my half-forgotten dream.

“A Border Collie,” the woman replied.

The next day my son and I went to the shelter to bring Jess to her forever home. She was a wispy little creature that crept into the waiting room at the heels of the supervisor, crouching close to the floor. When she was led across the room to where we were sitting, she immediately rolled onto her back in humble submission. There were many signs of deprivation in her bony frame, which clearly indicated neglect to the point of starvation. She had been given an early morning bath at the shelter, but the pungent odor of urine and feces clung to her body, a silent reminder that she had been forced to live in a cage, perhaps for years, in filth and misery.

When I gently stroked her, she sat up and put her head on my knee, her whole body shaking. She was terrified and confused, but ready to follow anyone who had a kind word for her. It was easy to recognize a sweet, gentle disposition in spite of her overwhelming terror.

By the end of three months her emaciated body had filled out, her previously sparse coat was thick and shiny, and she no longer cowered fearfully at the sight of a stranger. Jess was on the road to health and happiness.

As she recovered her strength and became one of the family, I noticed how closely she watched Max and Meg — sometimes lying with her chin on the ground and her eyes following every move they made. Occasionally, a reluctant Meg was herded around the lawn or a surprised Max was guided over to me, with Jess running back and forth at his heels, urging him on. It seemed to me that this behavior was far more advanced than the natural instinct ingrained into every Border Collie, so I began searching for a farmer who had a flock of sheep. I finally found one forty miles away and arranged to have him try her out. After I explained that she had been a breeding female in a puppy mill he was very skeptical.

“Don’t expect much,” he said. “She will probably follow the sheep, because that is her natural instinct. But to be a herding dog she’d have to be trained.”

He demonstrated this with one of his own trained Australian Shepherds.

But as soon as Jess saw the sheep her whole demeanor changed. She was alert, focused, and ready for action. To my utter astonishment, as well as that of the farmer, she followed his instructions flawlessly, responding to verbal commands, whistles, and his hand signals. She guided the sheep effortlessly in whichever direction he indicated, finally assisting him in penning the flock.

“You’ve got yourself a top working dog,” he said with admiration. “Probably worth three thousand dollars.”

I looked at Jess, lying contentedly by my side. “I wouldn’t part with her for a million,” I said.

~Monica Agnew-Kinnaman

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