No dogs allowed. John said they would eat his tortoises. My husband was a whale biologist-cum-herpetologist and many of the former residents of our California beach bungalow reflected this interest. In reptiles, that is, not whales, thank goodness. As for me, I preferred furry four-legged mammals, cats mostly, but after John died, I feared life itself and thought only a dog would keep me safe. He’d be a German Shepard, Doberman Pincher, Rottweiler mix I’d name Killer. I had more than one chore in mind for this beast. He’d also be the fur ball that would glue our family back together.
Our kids were six and eight when John was diagnosed with ALS. By the time he died, they hadn’t lost one parent, but two—two because, during the 1,212 days it took for ALS to suffocate their father, I devoted myself almost exclusively to his care, leaving their needs–help with homework and rides between school, sports and church– largely to others in our close-knit community.
John and I rationalized that this arrangement allowed the kids to retain a semblance of a normal childhood, but, in truth, it never occurred to me to do anything but focus on John now that he needed me. Yes, we adored our kids, doted on them, cooed over them even, but a family bed never had a chance in our home.
My dog, Killer, never materialized. Instead, I traded $250 and 80 pounds of tortoises—two only—for a pair of Border Collie pups who remained the main ingredient in my plan to restore our family unit. It seemed simple to me. The fluff-balls of orange, white, and grey fur needed love and care. We needed to reconnect. Put us together and Poof!, our family reunited.
While driving home from the rescue agency, the pups nestling in the kids’ laps, a wretched stench filled the car. My son Nico, bless him, had the foresight to plop the fuzzy blue merle back into the box narrowly averting an unthinkably disgusting disaster.
Screeches of “Gross!” and “Eww! It stinks. Get me out of here!” permeated the minivan’s cabin as thickly as the bitter smell that stung our nostrils even when we pinched them closed. “Just open the windows. We’re almost home,” I said, stomping down on the accelerator.
Early on there were glimmers my plan would work. The kids taught the 7-week-old pups to sit and stay within a half hour of getting them home. A pretty amazing feat until you remember that these dogs are border collies (BCs), purportedly the smartest dogs on the planet. Scientific studies document one BC possessing a toddler’s vocabulary of more than 1,000 words and capable of deductive reasoning. Our pups might not have been that smart, but after a short time spent watching a Frisbee dog demonstration, they nailed the catch and retrieve game upon my very first throw. When people ask how I taught them to play Frisbee, I shrug and say, “They taught themselves.”
My daughter Marlene named her short-haired, red dog Ginger. I call her my Hollywood Girl because her eyes (one blue, one brown) are ringed with narrow bands of black fur that look like a makeup artist applied eyeliner before taking an extra few minutes to paint her delicate lashes pure white.
Nico opted for a more traditional border collie name not only because it carried an allusion to the breed’s ancestral Scottish Isles home and a nod to the shepherds whose dogs had short one syllable names with lots of hard consonants in them—Jed, Tweed, Meg, Fly— names distinguishable by the dogs working far afield, but also to our pup’s lush blue merle coat. He named her Skye.
Having owned only one dog in childhood, I didn’t know that BCs need work the way a windmill needs to turn if it is to keep the floodwaters at bay. Without work, collies mine couches for stuffing and figure out how to unlatch gates in pursuit of interesting activities. Seeking to avert disaster, we walked them daily and dog training began immediately. Before long they knew all the basics.
While our training schedule paved my days with normalcy, it did nothing to stave the demons visiting me each night when, with the dishes washed and the kids in bed, I settled in front of my computer in the bedroom John and I had shared. The dogs slept at my feet while I played solitaire and refilled my chardonnay glass, ineffectively trying to escape the inescapable: if our kids could have had but one parent, it should have been John. He would have done much more than hire tutors to help them with math and science. He would have taught them ingenuity, perseverance and how to laugh. They would have laughed a lot.
Inevitably, my thoughts returned to the months of nights I’d risen to move John whenever he let me know with a soft moan that the bones in his thin body ached from lying in one spot too long. Most nights he called to me every 20 to 50 minutes, insisting on participating in this task with the last bit of strength left in legs that no longer obeyed his commands. He did it with brainpower, not brawn.
He told me the human body is full of pulleys, fulcrums and levers, the same simple machines he used to haul whale carcasses off the beach and to his lab for scientific study. He told me how to bend his knees and position his feet so he could push while I cradled his head in the crook of my arm and lifted his torso as he turned. I had no idea how heavy a leg or head is until I tried to move one that has no power of its own. While these nightly ministrations left me sleep deprived, I would no more have ignored John’s nocturnal requests than deprive him of water.
Our neighbors, curious about the activity in our small house, came in throngs to inspect our little balls of fur. They were probably coming to check on me, too, wondering why a single parent who dropped from a size 8 dress to a 0 and whose dark eye circles were anything but glamorous, got not one high-maintenance dog, but two, while also embarking on a major home expansion project and commuting an hour each way to a full-time banking job in downtown Los Angeles. Psychologists call this displacement activity. I thought I was moving on. After all, hadn’t I cried enough? Hadn’t I grieved each and every one of my husband’s losses as he suffered them beginning with his need for a walker and ending in the ICU when I scribed the letters he indicated with a blink as I recited the alphabet: “I want to live two more weeks?”
Within a few short months my ingenious plan to repair our family bonds began unraveling like a spool of wool tethered to a kitten’s tail. The kids’ lost interest in the dogs but, I, having quit work to be more present for them, had time to spend. I supplemented our walks with bursts of activity: illegal predawn forays in the park where we chased balls, or jogs on the beach. I secretly rejoiced in seeing fresh paw prints in the wet sand, canine stars I thought of them, fleeting messages of abandon written on a landscape of change. I felt more alive during my dawns of salt air and sweet smelling grass than at any other time of day.
Still, Ginger and Skye needed more than exercise alone: they needed a job.
I researched fly ball, agility, Frisbee—anything that would rekindle the kids’ interest in the pups while slaking the breeds’ legendary drive. Somewhere, I read about shepherding and a ranch that gave instinct tests. I knew nothing of ranching and couldn’t imagine a life birthing farm animals or pounding fence posts into dry earth, yet this crazy idea drew me to it like an anchor to a winch. For hundreds of years sheepdogs have worked in the field, watching over their flocks, bred for brains without regard to muzzle shape, coat length or color. Could my subconscious possibly have pulled me toward herding because it allowed me to link my dogs to their heritage in a way I could not do for my children?
One morning, I packed our puppies into the car and took them to the ranch for that test. The trainer, Terry, handed me a shepherds’ crook. Palming the smooth rod, I squelched a laugh. You must be kidding, I thought. These things are only for the movies, right? Before I could properly collect myself, Terry proceeded to tell me that the crook is not a pointer (as I supposed), but a block, like a fence that keeps the dogs from going in the direction in which my now crook-enhanced extra long arm would extend.
She put Ginger and me in the round pen with a few big ewes. The instant that little pup’s paws hit the ground, her feet spun like the roadrunner’s in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. She bolted for the sheep who jumped in panic then raced toward me. With 800 pounds of wool careening my way, I leapt for the fence fully intending to catapult over it until Terry yelled, “Make her walk!” Walk? If I didn’t run, I’d wind up being ground into the dirt by mutton or mutt, but I took a deep breath and slowed. Marching before the ewes like a cheerleader with a long, frill-less pom-pom, I stuck the crook out in this, then in that, direction.
Ginger ran and ran and ran until her tongue lolled from heat and pure exhilaration, but Skye stood motionless beside me when it was her turn. “Get her moving,” Terry said and I did. At the end of the test, Terry decreed both dogs trainable. She didn’t say the same about me.
Nonetheless, I began making the 226-mile round trip to San Diego to chase dogs and flocks of sheep across hot, dusty fields. Weekends, I dragged the kids with me. We talked about school and friends and listened to soundtracks from Wicked and Pachelbel. During the drive home, I rewarded them with a stop at In ‘N’ Out for burgers, fries, and chocolate milkshakes.
John and I believed in bribes. My plan was back on track.
Terry taught me the fundamentals, the most basic of which is the clockwise and counterclockwise directional command. The need to figure out which way the clock turned while simultaneously stumbling breathlessly before sheep and dogs nearly ended my shepherding career especially when I heard the nonsensical commands I needed to use: “Go-Bye” means clockwise. “Away-to-me” counterclockwise. How would I ever remember that when I couldn’t even remember if we needed milk?
As we progressed, Terry added to our repertoire: “Walk up. Get out. There.” My favorite, “Take-Time,” is less of a command than a suggestion, because it releases the dog to figure out its own best move— proceed, stop, slow, or back away. It’s mesmerizing to watch a well-trained dog work its stock— circling smoothly, reading the animals, finding the perfect balance point that lets her keep the herd under her control without pushing them into flight. Border collies are bred to think, and they do it well.
Good thing, too, because thinking wasn’t the best way for me to spend my idle time. Like the morning I spied an ever-exuberant Nico chasing chickens and his deep-thinking sister befriending the barnyard cat. Their innocent behavior triggered a startling insight and a throat-full of stomach acid that nearly felled me. They were growing up. Without a dad. I ached for them.
The one time I asked John to make them a keepsake video, his face contorted with pain and his body heaved against sobs of despair he dared not acknowledge. He opened his mouth in agony, trying to speak, but ALS had stolen his voice. He shook his head, “No.” He could not bear to think of the kids without him.
ALS is a disease of no hope. No amount of surgery, chemo, radiation, experimental drugs, faith or brilliant doctoring can change the wretched hopelessness with which it sucks the breath from its chosen. Admitting this would have undermined the delusion that our own outcome could somehow be different than everyone else’s. Unwilling to betray him, I never asked him to write notes that I could read to the kids at their 16th, or 18th, or 21st birthdays. I closed that door, leaving the absurd rabbit hole of hope wide open. From then on, we lived breath by breath.
After a couple of months, the dogs were “pushing” sheep through gates and zigzag obstacles. The sisters remained true to their instinct tests, their herding styles as different as Budweiser and Dom Pérignon. Ginger chased at high speed, scattering sheep like dust, whereas Skye, overly cautious, often lay on her belly staring intently at her flock. In shepherd-speak, Ginger was keen, Skye “sticky,” — with too much of that famous border collie “eye”— but biddable, making her easier to train than my Hollywood redhead. “Reds can be witches,” Terry warned. True to color, Ginger did what Ginger wanted even when Ginger knew better.
Soon we joined a select group of herders for binge weekend shepherding camp. Marlene opted for sleepovers and neighborly dinners at home while Nico and I slept with the dogs in our minivan. The nightly barbecues with the other campers under the big tree next to Terry’s rose garden and the sounds of coyotes howling through the night were sheep camp bonuses, but the best part was dawn and dusk, when we watched a pack of 25 black and white dogs streak across country hillsides stained pink from sun. My friends thought me crazy, but shepherding grounded me in fresh farm eggs and wide-open, telephone-line-free skies. There were no dolphins, whales, or sea stars here.
The morning of our first judged trial, the October sun burned and the air smelled of sheep and Tri-tip barbecue. When I entered the pen, my leash-less dog walking obediently by my side, the now familiar ranch sounds and smells—the reek of manure, Baa’ing of sheep and the occasional piercing call of a red-tailed hawk—faded to nothing. Standing at the orange pylon, mindful of the timer that would begin the moment I sent her out, I focused on my dog and the white fences we would navigate.
“Walk up,” I whispered. She advanced. “Go-Bye.” She arced clockwise. “Lie down.” She dropped to the soft dirt directly behind the flock. With another hushed “Walk up,” she prowled forward in classic form: head low to the ground, ears up, alert, one white paw placed precisely in front of the other. The ewes gave to her pressure. We proceeded to the next obstacle and then to the next. Neither dog missed a fence or zagged when she should have zigged. Twice, with time to spare, dog and handler penned the sheep behind a wide swinging gate.
When I gave the “That’ll do” quit command, I knelt in the dust to hug my dog. It was more show of affection than proper rules of shepherding encourage, but the soft rounds of applause at the end of our runs and the “Good looking dog. Nice work,” coming from the audience indicated my forgiveness. Joy filled me the same way pregnancy had.
Accepting our ribbons, I wondered if John would have enjoyed this day as much as I did; then I froze, appalled at myself. He would have been ecstatic. Just to be here.
Over the next year the dogs and I continued to compete, though the payoff wasn’t so much the ribbons, but the obvious pleasure they took from a job well done. Upon returning to my banking job, weekend herding resumed. The kids, now 12 and 14, wanted nothing more than to stay home, but I wondered if leaving them would be irresponsible. I considered my options, deciding I would get on the road before dawn, home a few hours after they awoke. Reasonable enough. I thought.
Their infractions were small at first: the piles of mac ‘n’ cheese dishes left in the sink because they couldn’t agree whose turn it was to wash them, the sound of slamming bedroom doors audible when I got home earlier than expected, hysterical phone calls while en route to the ranch. With each kid gripping a phone receiver like a weapon, they screamed the atrocities committed by one against the other. “Calm down. Tell me what happened…. Don’t yell,” I said, yelling myself and watching the odometer climb— 70, 75, 80 miles per hour. Nothing I said, or shouted, calmed them down, but turning around when I was 90 miles away from home seemed pointless, too. “Work it out,” I said. “And leave me alone.”
The day a fist went through a French door windowpane, I clamped down, curtailing TV time and suspending allowances, yet to my dissatisfaction, no commensurate reduction in frantic cellphone minutes ensued.
I kept herding until the morning I came home to learn that the kids’ fierce yelling prompted a neighbor to threaten calling the police. Luckily, another neighbor intervened, sparing the kids from incarceration. That afternoon, following the kids’ confessions to me, I had them pen notes of apologies to both neighbors. As I watched them in the quiet of the kitchen, I realized that I should have written one, too, to my children, for shirking my parental duties in favor of a shepherding habit. All they wanted was for me to spend as much time with them as I did with the dogs.
These days, whenever I put on that particular pair of shoes that must still smell of lambs and hay, the dogs crook their heads, gazing at me with their eager, intent border collie eye as though to ask, “Sheep?” Reliably, my spirits pitch to the floor and my shoulders sag under the weight of a wet wool blanket of guilt. My reparation was my dogs’ undeserved punishment.
“Sorry,” I say, “You have a new job now. Me.”
It’s a job they take seriously. They follow me from room to room. They sleep beneath my desk while I work, content at my feet, or under the kitchen table (Skye), or in the way of the sink, the dishwasher, the stove, anywhere inconvenient for me while I cook (Ginger, of course). They walk miles with me over rough mountain terrain returning home, stiff, barely able to move, but they don’t complain or talk back. These dogs, my Hollywood Girl and Skye, worked hard to save my family and me. They understood the shepherds’ “take-time” command and they taught me how to bring our flock together.