Saturday, March 7, 2009


Last Saturday we drove an hour west of St. Louis to pick up Bear at a McDonald's along the highway. Bear is a three-year-old Border Collie who had just been plucked from a private dog shelter by the dedicated, kind-hearted souls at Mo-Kan Border Collie Rescue. Robin, the woman behind his rescue, found out that Bear had spent virtually his whole life to date in the kennel. He apparently has a minor thyroid problem, but is otherwise healthy.

Merry joined Border Collie Rescue only a short time ago. A local volunteer came to our house to check it out and determined we would be appropriate as foster humans for dogs waiting for adoption. I was somewhat surprised that a dog was placed with us so soon. We debated for a few days whether we were ready, then decided that now was as good a time as ever. Thus, we found ourselves at the McDonald's transferring a somewhat shocked black and white dog to a crate in the back of Merry's Subaru.

Our first challenge was introducing Bear to Joli. We decided to begin by walking them together around the neighborhood before letting Bear in the house. This was a good plan and it would have worked, too, if the handle on the leash we used hadn't broken the first second as Merry got Bear out of the car. This led to a scramble to hold onto Bear while a different leash was located. Then it was off around the block. To our pleasant surprise he walked very well on a lead, even though he got tangled up a few times. As our blood pressures returned to normal, we seemed off to a pretty good start.

We kept a close watch on him in the house. Here's an excerpt from Merry's first report back to Robin:

He is a pretty good boy in the house. We've interrupted him marking in the house a couple times. He mainly wants to stay close. He wants lots of pats and scratches and will lay on his back for tummy rubs. He is not very civilized. He knows sit pretty well, and comes pretty well when he remembers he should be coming when called. We are working on sit and lay down. Stay is out of the question so far. We are working also on come out of the crate or to go through the door. We don't think he knows his name yet.”

We've had him a week now. Merry works with him every day. We see small bits of civilization becoming part of his behavior set. For example, I was quite surprised on last Sunday to discover that Bear had not played much with toys. I threw him a tennis ball and he just looked puzzled. I tried a squeaky toy. Same result. So we had him watch as we played with Joli and made sure there were toys in the yard when the dogs were out. Here's Merry's report to Robin on his progress:

Yesterday outside he discovered the big ball with the rope. He watched Joli run for it and after a while, when he got the chance, he grabbed it and ran around with it. Tore around! He is an incredibly graceful runner and jumper. Really light on his feet.”

Perhaps the most interesting challenge could be called “Bear's Liminal Problem.” The most difficult time for Bear (and us) is when he needs to make a transition from one way of being (say in his crate) to another (loose in the house), or vice versa. Here's Merry again:

Anytime we go out or upstairs or downstairs, he needs prep, and it is best if Joli is not in the scene. For instance, going up to go in his crate for the night has been hard. He ran by the crate, ran into this room, that room. Last night I tried coming upstairs with him and not going straight to the crate. [lightbulb!] We hung out on the couch nearby, him getting lots of pats and scratches, generally making out. Then when I asked him to get into the crate, he popped right in!”

I experienced this problem first hand a few days ago. I just got home from work and as is my habit hitched up Joli for her evening walk. We've been doing this virtually every day for at least ten years, so I was on automatic pilot. I opened the door, let Joli out and suddenly Bear was past me and out the door. A second before he had been nowhere around. Joli blocked him and I grabbed him by the neck fur. He's so strong he pulled me to my knees before I could stop him. Ouch.

This event and the general problem Bear has with learning how to gracefully make transitions put me in mind of how anyone learns to go from one mental state to the next without being utterly confused. While we are on the threshold between two mental states we are particularly open and vulnerable. There exists a fairly large body of literature on liminality in philosophy, anthropology and neuroscience. I never thought it might apply to dog training.

As for Bear, he will be at our house for another week at least. Then he's scheduled to go to another foster home. I'm off for a week hearing cases in Cape Girardeau. Merry will stay here and work with Bear some more. You can check on the status of Bear by looking at his bio found at

For those of you who love BC's and want to see how Merry first got interested in rescue, check out one of the very best BC sites on the web at

One final note: I want to thank everyone who responded to my cry for help in last week's post. I needed the boost. I've decided to follow the advice of several of you [Thank you George, Merry, Kate, Scott & Glenn] and start a blog archive on the web. I've signed up with Blogger and by next week I expect to have the archive ready for public viewing.

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