Fifty Years of Living with Border Collies (Part 2)
14 Sep

Fifty Years of Living with Border Collies (Part 2)

Posted By: Roger

If you read my last newsletter you may recall my first 2 Border collie friends Gwynty and Bess way before Baavet was even a glint in my eye!  When Bess died we took a break from our Careers and Border collies and did a “Gap year” with a bike trip, that’s bicycle trip around New Zealand and Australia, calling into Malaysia and India on the way.

On our return from our “Gap year trip” we set to building a house on the acre of land I had lived on in a mobile home for 18 years.  We just had a briccy and a carpenter to build a 2 bed roomed bungalow which is a short story in itself of the sort of  current media “self build” generation. We went on to sell this detached house, in Warwickshire and we were able to buy a 36 acre farm in North Wales where my love affair with Border Collies started again.

This is what we now call Baavet land which has grown to become 85 acres. It has never been an economically viable farm, hence over the years diversifying into other things, like adventure activities, self catering holidays and eventually Baavet.  But you can’t have a farm without a Border collie, can you? Well I can’t.

Gwen’s Story

We went to the local dog shelter, just to look; but of course we came away with a Border collie. She was about 9 months old and she had been found walking the streets of Porthmadog but was probably from a local farm.

She was sick in the car on the way home but we thought it was just her being travel sick. But on her second night with us she was passing blood so rushed to the vets in the middle of the night, and our vet was 17 miles away (such is living in rural North Wales). She was so ill we had to leave her there.  She was diagnosed with Parvo virus, with only a fifty/ fifty chance of survival.  We waited for a week before finding out that she had survived. This was the first of many of her 9 lives; she proved to be a tough old boot!

She survived, but over the following months when we thought we would enjoy the company of a new young dog on our farm and take her out for walks on the mountain, we found instead that we had a very neurotic dog on our hands. She would hide in a cardboard box in the house and she didn’t want to go out. We couldn’t put her on a lead because she would roll on her back and whimper. She was terrified of our van. If there were loud bags, anything that resembled gunfire or fireworks, she would run home or just run!  And she didn’t really like me; in fact she was scared of all men. I even talked in a high pitched voice and we laughed a lot, she really responded well to laughing! Don’t we all? We tried puppy training and finally phoned a dog psychiatrist for help.

Obviously some nasty things must have happened to her before she came to us. Lesley applied tons of TLC but then took the dog psychiatrists’ advice, and dragged her along the ground on the lead until she finally got up and walked. Then and only then did things get better.

So we had our farm dog, she would now go on a lead and we could take her into the hills, but we had given up hope of training her to work sheep.

However despite all of her problems there was something very positive about Gwen that I didn’t mention; she was incredibly obedient as long as she wasn’t frightened, and I could stop her on a sixpence (for those who don’t know, that’s a very small coin in old money!)

A farmer friend of mine once told me you only get one really good sheep dog in your life and as an example of this he went on to tell me about his special dog. And this is a true story!

This farmer, Will is his name, had a very, very special dog. After a couple of years training, if he wanted the sheep rounded up, he would take it out to the foot of the hills and say ‘off you go’, and he would leave the dog to go on its own, meanwhile he would go home and have a cup of tea while he waited for the dog to come back with the flock.

Eventually as time went by the dog got so good at this that Will didn’t even need to go out with the dog he just opened the farm door and said “off you go, get the sheep” and off the dog would go!  And come back later with the sheep in tow.

We had had Gwen for over a year and she had never really taken any notice of sheep, in fact she would try to avoid them out on the mountain. If there was a sheep in front of us Gwen would stop and wait for the sheep to move before going on.

Then one day we were coming down from the mountains in our van, with Gwen in the back, when we met a group of farmers gathering sheep. We were forced to stop with sheep all around us. The farmers were whistling and shouting their dogs. At this point Gwen became very excited dashing up and down the back of the van and jumping up and down at the window. This was really quite strange but not really strange if you know anything about Border collies. They don’t all make good sheep dogs; you can’t just make any dog be a working sheep dog. That may sound strange but what you need is a “keen dog”, a dog that immediately wants to get at the sheep on pure instinct, you then use that raw keenness and train them to work with you.

I immediately recognised that Gwen was just showing her raw keenness in the van at the sound of farmers whistling and sheep milling around. 

A couple of days later I went down to the village to a farmer I knew, Robin the Milk. (That’s because he delivers milk!) Yes, everyone has a nickname in Wales so you know who they are. So I asked Robin the milk, if Gwen could go and run with his dog working his sheep. He very kindly said she could.

The next day I took Gwen, the once very neurotic dog that hadn’t bothered with sheep, down to his farm. We walked out with his dog into a very large field with a large number of sheep in it. Robin whistled instructions to his dog which shot off to round up the sheep. I had Gwen on a lead but she was straining to go out to the sheep. Robin got his dog to move the sheep this way and then that around the field, whistling and shouting instructions to the dog all the time. Gwen was getting frantic. “Can I let her go” I said.

 “Okay,” said Robin which was very good of him because normally a new dog would just run straight at the sheep and scatter them all over the place and cause havoc.  But Gwen didn’t do that, instead she just fell in alongside Robin’s dog and shadowed its every move. As Robin shouted commands his dog moved first left then right moving the sheep around the field and Gwen just followed its every move like a shadow.

Then after a while, and quite suddenly, she did something even more amazing, instead of shadowing Robin’s dog it was as if she said to herself,

“Oh I get the hang of this” and she took up the correct position a second dog takes when 2 trained dogs work together.

The dogs will work opposite each other either side of the flock and keep the sheep between them.  It’s called the brace position.

I was amazed and shocked. She had had no training and there she was working the sheep in tandem with another trained dog. Robin continued to work the dogs and the sheep around the field for some time before calling his dog back and Gwen came too…. I was thrilled.

I went home to Lesley with the good news. but she didn’t believe me. So I said “Okay we will go back tomorrow and show you”

So we did and Gwen performed just the same. But Lesley said, “She isn’t working the sheep she is just copying the other dog”.

Of course she was copying the other dog! But what a fast learner! And from that day to this she has worked sheep without any formal training. In fact it’s me that lets her down because I get my ‘comeby’s’ and ‘away’s’  mixed up so when we were working the sheep she would turn and give me a dirty look as if to say “Okay which way do you want me to go!”

But the other trick she had was turning her sheep dog skills on and off. She could move among sheep and completely ignore them unless I give her a command at which point she would have a complete character change and become a highly focused sheep dog.

So the old farmers tale that says you may have many dogs in your life but you only really get one great dog, perhaps Gwen was that once in a life time special sheepdog dog.


But that was just the beginning of 16 wonderful years of adventures with Gwen.  I have spent some time dealing with Gwen’s problems because I know they are very common when trying to rehome a collie, or any dog for that matter,  and I just want to give those who try some hope that things can turn out well and that they will reward you forever.

However we did have one big problem but not of her making, she developed epilepsy which took some time for us to control. We tried special healthy diet; she was put on Phenobarbital by a vet but this was so strong and it had nasty side effects, it left her quite disabled. As a result we didn’t dare take her abroad and we couldn’t leave her with anyone if we wanted to go away, that is until one day we had a couple of adventure activity clients for the weekend. (We were running Outdoor adventure activities as an extra activity from the farm at the time). As with many people who met Gwen, one of the guys fell in love with her and threatened to kidnap her and take her back home with him.

So I jokingly said “Well you can come and look after her for a couple of weeks if you want”

“Fine,” he said I will and bring my wife who also suffers from epilepsy”

And they came and we had our first holiday abroad for some years.

The fits became more frequent as time went by and it was so distressing for her as well as us. When she came out of the fit she didn’t know where she was. Then she started fitting and not coming around this was usually late at night. On several occasions we raced through the night to the emergency vet because she had to be knocked out to stop the fitting. On one occasion we happened to meet a new young vet who asked if we had tried potassium bromide which had no side effects. We hadn’t. He said it was an old method of controlling epilepsy and it didn’t work on all dogs, but luckily for us, and Gwen, it worked for many years. So much so, that we felt confident in taking her abroad and also leaving her with other people if we wanted to fly abroad to go climbing.

By this time we had renovated some barns into self catering and amongst our visitors was a family with 3 children. They enjoyed the farm and the area so much they became regular visitors. The youngest  girl, Charlotte, who was about 10 when they first came, also fell in love with Gwen and would send Xmas cards to her. And guess what; later on she would come with her Mum, Rita and they would come to look after Gwen for us if we went on holiday. This was a long standing friendship with the family to this day.

So Gwen was great on the farm with sheep; she was great with visitors and she loved our adventure activities; and she loved being out on the mountains.

One of the activities we took people on was underground exploration of old slate caverns. She loved this and seemed quite happy in the dark. However there was one difficult section I didn’t take her through because it involved climbing and tight squeezes. So I would take her a different way and leave her in a tunnel with a torch, tell her to stay, and then I went back to the group and completed the difficult section and met up with Gwen later. Now if any in the group were unhappy at this difficult section I would leave them in a large cavern with Gwen while I took the rest through and end up way above Gwen and her party. I would shout down to tell Gwen to bring them zig zaging up a long slope. I could tell her to stop and wait for her protégés as she led them up the slope, she was that good. Whatever activity we did we never had to worry about her she was always there.

She was excellent at knowing exactly where she was out on our treks and walks and if we had gone a new way but then crossed a path we had been on before she would know where she was. In fact I have to admit sometimes when I had groups out on the mountain and if a mist came down and I wasn’t sure which way to go rather than get a map out I would often just quietly say which way Gwen?

  I also ran basic navigation courses and of course Gwen was always there and she knew all the routes we took. No one on the courses ever twigged the dog knew the way and you could just follow the dog!

There were so many stories of her exploits, it needs a small book!

But as always the wonderful journey had to end. She managed to get to 16 when the medication for the epilepsy no longer worked and the vets were unable to stop her fitting. So we had to make that terrible decision at the vets to stop her trauma and put her to sleep. But then your own trauma starts as the heartbreak sets in. We took her home from the vet determined to bury her on the farm.

 There was a terrible storm, as though nature were grieving too, in heavy rain and wind we dug her grave in the orchard. But we hit a big stone, but it was too late and difficult to dig elsewhere, so we struggled to get the stone out as the rain lashed down. We then placed her on her own very special Italian leather Baavet doggy duvet and carefully covered her over. The large stone became her headstone.

And then the storm suddenly finished and nature became quiet again.

We were distraught and sometimes you wonder, is it worth the pain, but then you remember the great times along the way and we still had Moss...... and that’s another story.


Thanks for reading

Roger Payne

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