In the Beginning, there was Sparky

Mister Sparkles comes home - a little suspicious
A few weeks after the terrible tragedy on 9/11/2001, I lost a wonderful Beagle mix, Magic, to cancer, and his longtime companion Pumpkin was nearly as bereft as I was. I visited the shelter on a whim and fell in love at first sight with a male McNab Border Collie mix who’d been found wandering in the Piedmont area of Oakland. Sparky had been sitting in the pound waiting for me since right after 9/11 – I tell people he “channeled” Magic, who wanted me to take him home. I knew absolutely nothing about the Border Collie or any working breeds at that point; my experience had been with fairly laid-back breed mutts: Magic and Pumpkin and five earlier shepherd/husky mixes. I had had dogs since I was a young woman and thought I knew how to handle them. Now I know that all my other dogs minded because they loved me and figured out what I wanted, not because I knew how to train them.

As I discussed in my article published in 2005 in a San Francisco newspaper called “WooferTimes”, this breed demands a good deal of attention, interaction, and training – especially when young. Even though this did not factor into my decision to adopt him, he was exactly the right dog for me in a turbulent and traumatic time of my life. I sorely needed something to demand my attention and focus, and he was it!

He Settled In – Sort Of

 Sparky falling for Pumpkin (literally)

Because Sparky had obviously been trained and well cared for, I wondered how someone could possibly have abandoned him? (I now know it was probably exhaustion). All Sparky had to learn was his new name; he was completely housebroken and immediately able to walk off leash with a reliable “come” and was a great dog. Except.
He had so much energy and drive he drove both me and Pumpkin (and my other companions) completely crazy. Sparky wanted to do something. Anything.

And The Work Began

picture of Sparky waiting for frisbee

He’d pick up a pine cone and throw it at my feet, twist his head and look at me expectantly, and bark in a high-pitched whine. So we discovered fetch. Then frisbee. Then fetch and/or frisbee on 3-mile hikes. He still couldn’t burn off the energy. Sitting down to watch TV, he’d be at our feet with a toy, begging us to throw it.

But it was not nervous or anxious energy, just enormous drive to be doing something he thought important – herding something. So we tried Flyball – and I learned a lot about how to burn off that energy by training him all the time, keeping his mind busy. I took all sorts of dog-training classes with him, and each one taught me (and him) a bit more. All of it was “positive”” or “reward” training, and since Spark’s only bad behavior was barking for the toy, he never needed any negative or corrective training.

During that year, I had more than doubled my doggie-exercise time and spent a lot of time focused on Sparky. Pumpkin was aging quickly and started refusing to go with us (she was due for a fatal stroke in a few months). What to do? Sparky was already not very well socialized with other dogs – he wasn’t aggressive, just did not seem to care about others of his species. All of his attention was on me, or the birds or the bees or the little critters who’d wander into my yard. Luckily, he never caught anything except bees – which didn’t seem to bother him at all.

And Royalty Arrives

portrait of Princess

After a year, I decided what I needed was another Border. What was I thinking!? Looking back, I realize that at that point I felt (wrongly) that I had gained control of Sparky and could handle another just like him. After all, I was spending so much time with him, I may as well let another dog tag along. I would frequently check out Border Collie Rescue. So I found Princess.

Luckily, she was a perfect addition to the family. She’d play with Spark and help tire him out; she’d boss him when he was crossed some imaginary line; she’d tell him to settle down much more effectively than I’d been able to do. She was actually a “feral” dog, so although she bonded instantly to Spark, it took her months to warm up to me. She was frightened of everything and everyone except Sparky, so I had to treat her very carefully and could not discipline her for a year, so all training was absolutely positive, no corrections. She didn’t even get her name until I said it once casually and she responded. No other name got her attention, but she knew she was a Princess. She (still) is certainly the boss of Sparky.

We Move and Settle In

both playing in snowLife changes and progresses, and I ended up moving to Nevada City, CA. I wanted a more rural lifestyle, and the move helped me achieve that goal quickly. Both dogs immediately adapted to their new surroundings. I was working locally or at home, so I was easily able to incorporate even more exercise and spend plenty of time exploring with them, usually off-leash. A few years went by; they were getting older, too, so our whole family became rather calm in comparison to the turbulent years behind us. We are happy.

And, You Guessed It . . .

Tuxedo comes homeThe stage was set for me to think I had gained control of these boisterous dogs, and could handle another one as a foster mom. I wanted to help other dogs find loving homes, and thought I could take a rescue Border into my home, soften some of the rough edges, provide initial training. I called a friend at the local shelter, asked if there were any male Border’s needing foster homes (Prinny would not tolerate a female). When one came in, I went down to assess for fit. But that guy was way too aggressive: on our way out for a walk he lunged at another dog in the last kennel. Uh Oh. That dog was gorgeous – a long tall sleek Border Collie/Whippet mix.

Turns out Border is just the coloring – a classic bait-and-switch technique. He’s much more scent hound. Yes, I fostered him for a whole week, then just adopted him. His bad behavior started the moment I signed the papers. Oh, and he’s part klutz, too – he’s already had 6 surgeries for injuries sustained running like a wild hurricane. I named him Tuxedo at the suggestion of a friend – and “Tux” is far from the perfect dog or perfect fit for us, but I am obviously crazy anyway, right?


The Adventure Begins Again

all three on a walk

So far the progress has been slow and ragged. Tux is a strong-willed, extremely fast, and very energetic dog. I should have named him “Whirlwind.” He is easily stimulated by just about anything that moves, so it has taken quite a bit of (yes, even negative or corrective) training to get him to even mind. Add to that his absolutely overwhelming desire to meet and play with every dog, adult, or child – he is so gregarious it can frighten strangers. I have taken him to a behavior class and he is doing agility training. When agility stopped for the winter, other bad behaviors have emerged. Which tells me that instead of writing websites, I should be out training him one-on-one!

But like every other dog I’ve ever loved, he’s worth it . . .

– Stay Tuned

oreo5Update 2015:  Sparky passed away 2013, Prinny in 2014.  Meanwhile, Tuxedo has aged gracefully into a very sweet well-mannered and nearly perfect dog.
Also Oreo joined us in 2011. She’s a McNab Border Collie – as intense as Sparky was  but not nearly as strong willed – she’s been the best dog I’ve ever had!