It’s time to go public: I have a new(ish) dog.
I wrote a few years ago in this column about losing my beloved Belgian Tervuren shepherd dog, Mai Coh, to old age. After a couple of years, I decided it was time to get another dog — specifically, a Terv because the breed characteristics were such a good fit for my needs.
I checked out some breeder options at the Terv specialty show that year but came away depressed after finding out about a growing list of health concerns. Some Terv owners and breeders I talked with at the show indicated, not surprisingly, that the issues stem from the low number of Tervs in the United States, and inbreeding resulting from this.
The day I came back from the show, I started to look at other options, focusing on herding breeds. Serendipitously, I found the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League (RAWL) had just acquired Mollie, a three-year-old collie, or mostly collie (the jury’s still out). Readers of this column may already be familiar with Mollie’s nose, a photo of which appeared in a column I wrote on dogs’ acute sense of smell (Dec. 15, 2015).
While obviously having herding genes, Mollie differed from Mai Coh in some important respects, and it took a while for both of us to bond and start becoming a pack of two. It didn’t help that, several months after adopting Mollie, I found out that she had a more checkered past than RAWL and I were aware of. She had come from a shelter in a neighboring county, and the only information RAWL had received about why she was “relinquished” was that she had chased horses, biting one’s tail.
Some of the traits I had liked about Mai Coh are common among many herding breeds, including loyalty, high aptitude for learning and intelligence in working with humans to herd livestock. But herding livestock well requires a high prey drive, which can be a problem if a dog is not properly trained and managed. After training Mai Coh to get her herding instincts under control, I thought I could handle that aspect of Mollie’s behavior. And with no livestock where I live, that wasn’t an immediate concern.
While I didn’t exactly turn Mai Coh into an obedience champion, she had good manners around people and most animals, especially domesticated ones, much of which came from her innate disposition and basic training she had received from the breeder as a pup. I took her to a Terv herding training clinic not long after I got her to get the tools to finish off her training.
When allowed to play with horses where we lived, she was enthusiastic but gentle and, after the herding training, quickly came when called. And when I asked to herd the few times I needed her to do so — as when a high-strung colt got separated from his mom — she was patient and careful, working with me as a team. Because of her breeding, she was also my “Velcro” dog, rarely leaving my side for more than a few minutes.
But Mollie is not Mai Coh, as I soon found out. Quite by accident, a few months after I’d adopted Mollie, I ran into an animal control officer from the county she had come from who had adopted her after he’d picked her up as a stray. At the time, she was eight months old and had a broken hip, he said.
The officer ended up giving her up, he said, mostly for killing chickens, escaping over a six-foot fence, and chewing through a door. He and I agreed that she was young and bored at the time. She obviously also had not gotten the basic training she needed.
Had I made a serious mistake in taking her on? Whatever her past, I was determined that she would never be given up again — that we’d work out her issues together. The main one, as I found out not too long after I adopted her, was impulse control and her fixation on driving off perceived threats, especially predators, such as bears, foxes, but she also went after noisy lawnmowers and other loud machinery. I wasn’t worried about her taking on predators, which she’s shown she can handle, without physically engaging them. Instead, she intimidates them through loud, persistent barking, which not only annoys the wild animal but also we humans living on the property. In exposing her, on lead, to livestock, I found that she has no interest in them when they are not moving.
Mollie is a great dog at heart. She loves people, especially kids, although she doesn’t have a great sense of her own size and strength, or of personal space in general. She will enthusiastically jam her large nose into the face of kids, dogs and other living things, so we’ve been working on that. Mollie is otherwise good with dogs of any size, playing exuberantly without being too rough, and she’s even good with cats. A young one once playfully went after Mollie’s tail, then attached herself to the dog’s butt, and all Mollie did was look puzzled and tried to move away.
While Mollie and I got on well from the start, for a long time I wondered if we’d ever truly bond sufficiently to form a true “pack of two.” I was missing Mai Coh and, while I expected my relationship with Mollie would be different, I worried about her past and how much that would come into play.
This fall, something clicked with Mollie — she finally seemed to bond with me, which in turn helped me bond more to her. Now, at five years old, she’s not quite so intense as when I adopted her. Off the property, she has become a good hiking companion, off lead or on, and comes when called, although I still am not totally sure of her reliability.
While Mollie has mostly settled into a routine at home, her forays up the mountain to drive off predators are still not under control. I’m sure she could be so much better in general, and safer, with more training, so I’m trying some new training strategies for that. She has a lot of energy, power and athleticism that could be harnessed for activities that are more useful and fun for both of us than annoying wildlife.
© 2017 Pam Owen