The Dog Who Would Rather Work Than Play

 Dick Miller   

© Copyright 2014 by  Dick Miller 

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.

Photo of Flo.

Photo of Flo.

After we had to have our beloved dog Buddy put down, and after our period of grieving passed, my wife Mega and I realized that we missed the companionship that only a dog can offer and started our search.

We both hold the opinion that there are a lot of rescue dogs that need good homes, and wanted to pursue that route. Since we live in the greater Portland, OR metropolitan area, there are many shelters nearby, both public and private. We visited a number of them, gathered information from the Internet, and talked to friends. One day, Mega spotted a tiny ad in the local newspaper for a private rescue operation for Border Collies. We called them, and they told us that they had a young female mix who was available for adoption. We made arrangements to visit the following Saturday. I made Mega promise me that we would not take a dog home that first day, no matter how charmed we were. I wanted us to be absolutely sure. After all, Buddy would be a hard act to follow.

We made the hour-long drive to the rescue operation, located outside a small town in the far reaches of the county east of Portland. It was a home set on a few acres in a rural setting, with a barn, dog runs, and a large fenced area where dogs could play. We met the operators and were surprised to find that they both had full-time jobs. This extensive facility, which obviously took a great deal of time, money, and energy to run, was their passion, not their profession.

After we got acquainted with the proprietors, we seated ourselves on the deck outside their back door in order to meet Flo in the least threatening manner possible. I knew from years of dog ownership, reading, and training, to present the back of my hand for a strange dog to sniff before making any attempt to pet or otherwise reach out to her, so I had my hand dangling down at the side of my chair where the dog could approach it easily. Mega was seated nearby.

The owner opened the sliding patio door and walked out with Flo on a leash. Flo saw the two strangers sitting on the deck and started wagging her tail. The owner unclipped the leash and Flo trotted over to my chair and, without a single sniff, used her muzzle to maneuver my hand so that I could pet her head. I was won over immediately!

When it began to look like Flo would be content to spend the rest of the day getting her head petted, the owner led her over to Mega, where Flo assumed the same position, just as contentedly. After we had a chance to make sure that Flo was willing to have other parts of her body patted and rubbed, the owner led her to the large enclosure to play with the other dogs while we talked business.

We explained to the owner that, while we thought Flo was the right dog for us, we wanted 24 hours to make sure. She asked us a lot of questions about the environment in which Flo would live, our experience with dogs, and other pertinent matters, and agreed that we could have until the next day to decide.

As soon as Mega and I got back into the car, the discussion began: “Why can’t we take her today?” “It’s such a long drive out here. Why do it again?” “She might be gone tomorrow, and then you’ll be sorry!” The persuasion attempts continued over lunch, and I almost gave in, but I really did want a little time to separate the emotion of such a joyful first meeting from the hard facts of taking a rescue dog into our home for a long-term commitment.

Flo had a hard early life. The owners of the rescue operation had been informed of her existence by someone who had seen her in the woods, caring for her four pups. By the time they were able to find her and rescue her, only one pup remained. They estimated her age at about 18 months. We weren’t sure just what kinds of emotional scars and baggage she might be carrying with her to our home.

That evening, we called the rescue folks and made arrangements to pick up Flo the next day. We made the long trip again, knowing full well that it was worth it. We weren’t sure how well she would do in the car on the long trip home, considering her feral start in life. We brought along Buddy’s old bed, a blanket, and a couple of towels to make her comfortable. Flo hopped into the car without a moment’s hesitation, took one sniff at the accumulation of fluffy encumbrances, and immediately turned her back on them as if to say, “Can we go now?”

When we got home, we showed Flo where her food and water bowls were kept, on the linoleum floor of the dining area add-on (easier cleanup) and introduced her to the doggie door that allowed her to go from the house to the back yard when she chose. We had a large, fenced, natural back yard with no lawn, but with a deck; a concrete slab for the hot tub; many plants, shrubs, and trees; a couple of gravel paths; bark dust here and there; and lots of places to explore. Flo spent many an hour sunning on the deck, wandering among the bushes, and digging forbidden holes here and there when she got bored.

The next question we had was where Flo was going to sleep. We were pretty firm about not letting her sleep on one of the beds, but, aside from that, we decided to let her find her own spot. Ours was a fairly large house, built on four levels. We thought she’d be able to find a spot somewhere. Indeed she did: the first night, she settled into a spot at the foot of the flight of stairs to the top level where a small corner provided a dog-sized nook, and that was her sleeping spot for the rest of her life.

The evening of the first day, Mega decided to show off our new companion to the neighbors. Ours was a neighborhood where the folks often gather on their lawn chairs to socialize at the end of their driveways on a balmy evening, wave to passing friends, and are generally sociable. Mega leashed up Flo and took her across the street to such a driveway gathering as a prelude to a walk around the block. One of the neighbor dogs, a friendly golden retriever, was in attendance, and he wandered over, tail wagging, to say hello.

Flo was on him in a hot second, growling and snarling! Mega had never seen anything like that kind of behavior from Flo. Flo backed off immediately after having made her point, and Mega immediately threw Flo to the ground, pointed her finger at her, and shouted “NO!” right in her face. From her study on dog training, Mega had learned how important it was for the humans to make the dog realize that the human was the alpha female, not the dog. She let Flo get up and shake herself off, and then apologized profusely to the owner of the other dog. One of the other neighbors commented, “Now there is a girl who can take care of herself.” We eventually learned that Flo was very nervous around other dogs when she was on leash and they were not, because she felt vulnerable and at a disadvantage. When they were both off leash they got along famously.

Flo had her gentler side, too. One evening, as we were in our usual TV-watching position propped up on our queen-sized bed with an inert dog lying between where she could get petted, a scene with a bunch of mewling puppies came on. Flo’s head popped up and she was off the bed in a flash. She stood on her hind legs to get closer to the TV screen that sat atop the tall dresser and watched with fascination until the scene passed. My guess is that it might have reminded her of her own brood, lost so long ago, and for whom she struggled to provide.

Once we got settled in, we decided that we needed to find out how best to give Flo the exercise she needed beyond just walks around the block. She was, after all, a working dog who was used to running after stock. We tried tossing a ball. Nothing doing. How about a Frisbee? Forget it. Throw a stick? She looked at you as if to say, “You threw it, you get it.” All of the traditional dog play activities did not interest her in the slightest.

One day, we took her to the local dog park. Epiphany! Flo was in seventh heaven. Other dogs were chasing balls and Frisbees and she was chasing other dogs: not to catch them, but to herd them, to make sure they returned to where they started from. It took a little while for us to convince the owners of the other dogs that she was not chasing their dogs but simply doing what border collies do: herding. After a while, the regulars at the park came to know the black and white streak that matched their dog stride for stride in pursuit of the ball or Frisbee without ever nipping at the dog or stealing the toy.

Flo’s speed was amazing. She could keep up with the fastest dogs in the park. One day a greyhound appeared, and I thought that Flo had met her match. Not so. Flo went stride for stride with that greyhound for run after run. Granted, she visited the water bowl a little more frequently than usual that day, but I don't blame her.

There was another dog park, closer to home and a bit smaller, to which we took Flo from time to time. It had two areas: one for larger dogs, the other for smaller dogs. There were times when Flo was the only large dog in attendance and she had no one to herd. This didn't stop her! She would run alongside the fence that separated the two halves of the park while the smaller dogs chased their toys to ensure that they got back to their starting points safely.

I think that Flo’s proudest moment at the dog park came one very hot day when both the dogs and their owners were seeking the shade of a huge oak tree that stood in the middle of the park. The owners had their folding chairs packed around the trunk of that tree to benefit from its shade, and their dogs, having spent most of their energy already in the early morning hours, were lying at their owners' feet, tongues lolling as they panted. And there was Flo, trotting in a circle around the multitude gathered at the trunk of the tree, looking very proud of herself, as if she were saying, “See what a good job I have done in herding both the people and the dogs into this one spot.” Eventually, the hot sun on her black coat took its toll, and she got a long drink of water and joined the crowd in the shade.

Some of Flo’s herding behaviors were not so dramatic. Mega was a Licensed Massage Therapist who had a studio in one of the rooms at our home, so clients visited on a regular basis. Flo was the official greeter. When the doorbell rang, she would trot to the door in anticipation. Mega would often have to push her aside in order to open the door and let the client in. Flo had a pretty good knack for telling whether a person was a dog lover or not. If the client was a dog lover and reached out to pet Flo's head, she would behave as she did when we first met her, using her muzzle to make sure the person's hand found her favorite spot to get petted. If the client made no such move, Flo would back off a step or two and allow the person to enter.

After Mega and the client exchanged pleasantries and the client proceeded downstairs to the massage studio, Mega would make final preparations of warming hot packs for the massage and go downstairs herself, with Flo on her heels. After Mega closed the massage studio door, Flo would lie on the floor outside the studio until the massage was over. As soon as Mega opened the door when the massage was over, Flo jumped up and herded Mega upstairs, where Mega cleaned up and made preparations for the client to come upstairs. When Flo heard the massage studio door open again, she went downstairs and herded the client up to the living room, where she delivered the client to Mega's care. As the client chatted with Mega, drank a glass of water, and made arrangements for a follow-up appointment, Flo once again took her cue from the client. If the client was a dog lover, she often had a hard time holding on to her glass of water because of the demands of this dog who wanted her head petted. If the client was not a dog lover, Flo would often turn to Mega for attention, which made it difficult to write in her appointment book.

Although Flo made her initial approach to me when we met her for the first time, it became increasingly apparent over the years that Flo was Mega’s soul mate dog. Flo liked me well enough, even loved me, but Mega was extra special to her. Mega always claimed that it was because she fed and walked Flo more often than I, but I know there was more to it than that. The bond between Mega and Flo cannot be explained by something as simple as food and walking. There was a much deeper connection that is very difficult to put into words, but if you have had a special connection with a pet, you will understand what I'm trying to say.

As is the case with all of us, Flo grew older and more infirm. She could no longer run like the wind. She sometimes had trouble jumping up onto the bed when we invited her to watch TV with us. There were more and more gray hairs on her black muzzle. As she aged, we talked about how difficult it was going to be for both of us when Flo finally passed on. Little did we know.

One morning, Flo was not in her usual sleeping spot. We called for her, but she did not come. We began searching the house without success. Finally, we went out into the back yard, and there was Flo, lying peacefully at the foot of one of the bushes she loved to dig around. We buried her in a corner of the yard where she spent such a large part of the 12 years she shared with us. To this day, Mega and I think of her frequently with a combination of joy and sadness: joy in having had her as part of our lives, and sadness in her no longer being there.

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