About a month ago my little guy Felix turned two. I expect to continue to learn about him every day for the rest of his life, but at two, I think we finally start to know who our dogs are. They are no longer babies, and not yet adults. They exhibit more adult behaviors, they have more adult needs and interests, and they are more self-sufficient. If we pay attention, we see their personalities becoming solid; their responses to any given scenario becoming constant; and their passions becoming more intense.
Felix is no different and I think a few of the things I have learned about him might be helpful for others raising border collies or any intense breeds, so here they are:
The Mind is Like a Muscle
The mind needs what muscles need; push it to its limits and it will strengthen. Push it too far and you’ll damage it. Stretching it is healthy; straining it not so much. Felix has always needed time to be ready to learn the tasks I present him with, but without exception, when he is ready he learns quickly and easily. He never lacks for enthusiasm. If he isn’t ready to learn something he will show me with confusion, stagnation, or disinterest. This is typically as subtle as being slow to return his toy, or taking an extra few seconds to search the ground for cookies after I toss one for him. I would never want to see more blatant signs that he is not ready; if that happens I have not done my job as a trainer. I continue to stretch his mind, and he continues to stretch mine. We are good for each other here.
Passions Are Tough to Undo
Being passionately enthusiastic about something is just as hard to undo as being passionately afraid. Felix is a passionate guy; there is little he is neutral about. I have done a good job of building a passion for toys, a passion for food (yes, eating is an operant behavior–if you have a border collie that isn’t hot on food, keep that in mind), and most importantly a passion for learning. If I haven’t done a training session with him he will tell me, loud and clear, that he will require a lesson before he will allow me to relax for the evening. We can create a monster if we always give in to our dogs’ requests to work; thus far Felix only demands training if I have slacked that day, so I consider it fair and don’t worry about it. There are a few things that frighten him; things falling over or being dropped is at the top of the list. This fear stems from a particular unfortunate incident with a loose metal baby gate during a fear period; it is not debilitating but will probably always exist. I keep it in mind and avoid situations where there might be a lot of things falling over (during set up and tear down at agility trials, for instance). I did enough work on this that I feel comfortable that he can deal with something falling over in a working situation, and having knocked over enough jump wings in the meantime, I can say I am happy with the results. What our dogs feel passionate about tends to show up in earnest around this age which is why most aggression problems rear their heads here. Felix is passionate about water. I have nothing to do with this, and yet, he sees/smells/hears a body of water on a walk and he becomes desperate to get to it. Countering that passion would be nonsense, so I work with it. I ask him if he can do a behavior for me, and when he says yes I let him run to the water. If your dog is passionate about squirrels, the food on your counters, or anything else that may not be helpful to you, my highest advice is to work with it rather than against it.
This is the time that our dogs’ preferred coping mechanisms for daily stressors also start to become consistent. The thought that our dogs will never require coping mechanisms because they should never feel that stressed is fallacy. That stress-free world does not exist for us, and it doesn’t exist for our dogs either. Some dogs are wired to be higher-stress than others, and the dogs we choose for sports are at the top of that list. Why do these things go together? Because they are passionate beasts that live in extreme states. The duller the dog the lower stress they are; and the last thing we want in a sport companion is dullness. Pay attention to your young dog’s coping mechanisms. Does he cling to you? Get snarky? Seek a hiding spot? Chew stuff up? Forage for food? Bark at stuff? Whatever it is, time to give your dog an acceptable way to access his coping mechanism now. If I drop a pan in the kitchen that will scare Felix and he will hide for a little while (not long). I find that to be not only an acceptable coping mechanism but an easy one to provide. If when I dropped a pan he alarm barked, bit me, bit one of his siblings, or started gnawing on my coffee table, we’d have to work something else out; something that still served the purpose of coping for him. Luckily, that’s not the case. But other times when he might choose barking or another undesirable coping mechanism I can send him to his hiding spot on cue, reinforce that behavior, and carry on. Over time, I have watched him choose his hiding spot (which is his crate or a spot in my bedroom; we are not talking about a dog that hides in the far reaches of the earth) when he may have chosen other mechanisms, and I think that’s a good result. When Idgie is stressed she likes to forage (counter surfing, opening cabinets, etc.) so I give her a puzzle toy if things are hard. Ghost likes to bark, so we ask her for cues in exchange for food treats. Recognize that a lot of the behaviors we don’t care for are just coping mechanisms for our dogs and that we should be helping them to cope in acceptable ways; not trying to remove their access to coping.
I am really excited that Felix is growing up, and I have some fun stuff in store for him. He went to his first trial where he ran in the new USDAA miscellaneous classes and got to make his own course and have a toy in the ring. Soon, he will run “for real” and I will evaluate whether I think he is ready to start competing or not. As Dr. Susan Friedman says, behavior is always a study of one. We should not compare our young dogs to our past dogs, or our friends’ dogs. We must only observe their behavior and respond accordingly. Most of all, we should cherish them. As I look at Idgie’s career beginning to wind down that part feels more important than ever.