“All equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak”

Sitting here in the office, looking out at blue sky and bright sunshine, it's hard to imagine the weather conditions of this morning

In common with much of the UK, Worcestershire was being buffeted by strong winds, gale force gusts and heavy rain when we went out to walk the dogs. By a fair process of task-sharing ("You stay and do the yard, I'm going out with the dogs. Is That OK?" and I disappeared through the gate before Andy was really aware he was exercising his democratic rights) I took 22 assorted dogs to brave the weather. (Dulcie, Gloria and Glyn were confined to the yard on the grounds that they lack self-control, and were left to help Andy with the chores. I'm sure they threw themselves into the task manfully. From the orchard it certainly sounded as if they were shouting encouragement to each other - or maybe to Andy.)

Alfie the Chihuahua chooses to catch up with his beauty sleep - not that he needs it, of course
"They all serve who only stand (or lie) and wait" - Alfie goes back to bed

My Boys, Chester and Alfie, had poked their noses out into the wet and explained that, having not had a good night, what with the noisy weather and the puppies next door, they felt their energies would be better used in catching up with some sleep by the radiator. They have so much responsibility, I could see their point.

A firm believer that there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, it never occurred to me that I was taking any risks. The first 20 minutes or so were wet and blowy, but not cold, so I just stuffed my hands into my pockets, kept my head down and strode out while the dogs rushed around excitedly, thoroughly enjoying the windy chaos. Dogs, horses and children, all get excited and skittish when it's windy. We were a couple of good long fields from home when I realised that the rain was thicker, colder and sharper, and was being blown directly into my face. I looked up and was astonished to see that the weather had deteriorated while I wasn't looking. I couldn't see the hedge at the far side of the field, and the rain was horizontal, heavy and painful!

It was difficult to walk into the rain (the direction of home) and the puppies were quite distressed by it, so I turned my back to it while I considered what to do. What happened next was quite moving.

Mel hates heavy rain, always has, so I wasn't surprised to see her head for the distant shelter of a hedge and ditch, followed by Kay, but the remaining dogs gathered around me. The puppies tucked themselves underneath the adolescent dogs, either standing or lying down, according to size, and the "teenagers", not always terribly gentle or patient with puppies, were quiet and content to let them. Then the adolescent dogs (with the exception of Oscar) huddled into a group around my legs with their puppies in place, and the remaining adult dogs, Max and Mick, plus Oscar, lay down and arranged themselves on the outside - apparently protecting the puppies. They looked miserable, and were clearly getting soaked, but I can't see any other reason (except one) why these three dogs, who are NOT the best of mates - all quite strong, macho characters - would submit to lying nose to nose or tail, perfectly quiet and still.

The other possible reason was that they were simply waiting for me, as the grown-up, to make a decision and get us all out of this mess!

So I made a decision. I scooped up the smallest and most distressed looking puppy and told everyone we heading for home by the shortest possible route. It was quite a battle, but the wind and rain were abating by the time we reached the yard. It felt as though we'd all come through some great adventure in a pretty heroic sort of way, fighting the odds and all pulling together. Looking back, well, we just got caught in a heavy downpour, but I'll never forget all those dogs gathering around to shelter the puppies. It was quite humbling.

NB: The title is from George Orwell's Animal Farm. I wish I had a photo I could share of Max's wet, resigned and stalwart face, pressed against Oscar's. Both dogs are probably very pleased that I don't!

Welcome return to form for Alfie

Regular readers of this column (as they say in The Guardian) will recall that a convincing sign of Alfie's chest infection - read the full story here - was his complete disinterest in an open bag of pigs' ears that I left in the car with him. Today, his behaviour has finally returned to something more recognisable.

Tan longhaired Chihuahua Alfie gazes wisely into the distance
Looking out for trouble - and the odd sprout

My car has a habit of locking its boot at the most inopportune moments so today, when I staggered out to it from the local farm shop bearing a tray of home made steak pies, cakes and cheese, I had to quickly put it into the back of the car (with Alfie) before dashing back in to collect the rest of the shopping. It can only have taken a minute or so, but when I got back to the car he was standing (bless him) with his front feet in a steak pie, while battling furiously to get the Cotswold Blue out of its wrapper.

When we got home he was still anxious about the cheese, but was happily distracted by a dropped sprout (I know, because I found some of it - not much of it - under the dining table about an hour later).

You just have to love him - it makes living with him so much easier.

Both Alfie and Chester have prominent roles in the new "Still Off Duty" DVD, as befits their status in The Pack, and talking of The Pack we're including a chapter about pack behavior as we see it every day in our varied group of dogs. It's not the definitive guide to dog behaviour by any means, but we're privileged to be able to keep so many dogs and watch them socialising, and we know from visitors to our Sheepdog Experience days that people are fascinated by what we're lucky enough to take for granted.

Two adolescent collies are vying for a better position in the middle of the pack, and most of the other dogs seem to have a view on who deserves to win.
With friends like that...Max and Kevin lived together amicably before and after this frank exchange of views

Part of this chapter has involved some "should we, shouldn't we" agonising. It involves a fight between a couple of adolescent males that draws in other dogs who eventually break it up and act as peacekeepers. We know that no harm was done, and that the dogs involved lived amicably together before and after the fight, but it looks and sounds so aggressive!

We're concerned that people could be upset by it, though it all gets explained (David Attenborough shows far worse probably without losing any sleep).

The more we watch it, the more interesting it is to us. I'm wondering now if, by leaving it to the senior dogs to finish it, we (that is, Andy and I) are perhaps seen as having let the group down. Surely, it's for the Pack Leader to maintain discipline? I can't honestly say that there seemed to be any change in the dogs' attitude to us after the event, but you don't know what they talk about after you've put them to bed at night, do you?

The puppies, duly wormed and with their eyes (finally) open (the boys took the longest) are starting to wobble around the nest and already seem to be looking for ways out. There's always one troublemaker, and so far it seems to be a chunky black and white bitch puppy whom we've had to "rescue" several times because she's got out into the kennel area and then kicked up a fuss because she wasn't where she wanted to be.

The maternity unit is directly in front of the kitchen window (and if I ever had time to clean the windows it would be a great view). This means we can monitor the pups and hear what's going on - even if we can't always see it. Yesterday there was suddenly a tremendous screaming from the pen; it sounded as if a puppy was in great pain or peril.

I dashed out to see what was happening, and although I could trace the noise I couldn't see a puppy. I called the bitch out onto the yard to take a better look. She looked worried too, and even more worried when the noise followed her.

I couldn't believe what I found. That same bitch puppy had somehow got a front leg twisted up with the long fur of her mum's back leg. It was like a tourniquet, tightly bound and cutting into the leg that the puppy was hanging by. Easily and quickly resolved, I just cut it off (the hair, not the leg!) and there seems to be no lasting damage, but of course I can't help thinking about the What Ifs. What if we hadn't been at home? Or what if the bitch had panicked and tried to jump out of the yard (even Border collies aren't always thinkers). And, of course, "what if" I'd taken the trouble to trim all that long leg hair away before the puppies were born, as I'd intended.

Bet I get round to it next time!

Finding grass in unexpected places…

I promise never to mention the weather again (probably) but we've had some damp cloudy days, and a few good heavy showers, this week and it's amazing how much more green everywhere's looking. Typical! In a week when we could have used a few dry days to do some filming...

Red, long coated Chihuahua dog wearing stylish diamong studded collar
Alfie, now restored to his true glory, proudly wearing his collar

Considering it's been a summer of very little grazing, we seem to have had more than our fair share of grass-related injuries in the dogs.

Since Fleck's grass seed incident we've also had an ongoing problem with Alfie, the Chihuahua. He's had a chest infection (or something) for several weeks, and on a few occasions suffered awful gagging/coughing/reverse sneezing fits and breathing difficulties.

Several courses of antibiotics each appeared to have solved the problem, but it kept coming back - each time worse than the last. Last Friday night I was quite sure he wouldn't make it to the vet in the morning, so wasn't surprised that she asked to keep him for an hour or two for a chest X-ray. It revealed an unidentified mass on, or in, his trachea and he was scheduled to go back for more X-rays and an endoscopy.

Of course, I feared the worst.

To my immense relief (and to Andy's, despite what he claims about The Boys) the endoscopy revealed a very long piece of grass trapped beneath Alfie's soft palate, causing  a build-up of mucus and infection. We have it in a sample jar in the office. The grass is longer than Alfie's actual head, so Lord knows how he managed to fit it in!

Alfie's returning to his old self now and, just as when Fleck was suffering with her grass seed, we now see that he hasn't been feeling well for some time: there have been mornings when he couldn't even be bothered to bark at the postman! The day he completely ignored a very large, open, bag of pigs' ears in the back of the car was the day I realised he must be suffering.

The thought that we might lose Alfie has made Andy really appreciate the little chap. Must have done because, despite the barking, Andy hasn't yet threatened to put the grass stalk back where it came from.

Chester is a black and white, long coated cross breed with Papillon ears
In the interests of editorial impartiality - Chester, our Papillon-Chihuahua cross (or Mongrel, as Alfie insists on calling him)

We still think of Carew, Ezra and friends as The Puppies, but by this time next week they'll seem like huge gangly teenagers because we're expecting a new litter on Friday.

It's a bit late in the year for us; we like to have puppies in spring, when the weather's getting warmer and they can spend long days exploring outside, but it's still exciting. I've never met a new litter of border collie puppies that I didn't like (whether mine or someone else's).

Stand by for wall-to-wall puppy photos! We may even manage to squeeze them into the new DVD.

Barking mad – a lesson in dog training

Three mainly white border collie puppies

I was thinking about dog training - on Saturday night, actually. Gill has long believed that the best thing to do about bad behaviour is to make it unrewarding, usually by simply ignoring it. This works well in the case of a first offence, especially with puppies that are really only craving attention. (This only applies to Border collies of course; she doesn’t try it with me. I look so cute when I’m misbehaving that ignoring me just isn’t an option.)

Well on Saturday night one of the outside dogs was making a fuss, and barking. She was ignored for ages, but didn’t stop. Andy went to make sure there was nothing wrong, and there didn’t seem to be, but she continued to bark and I was getting quite tense I can tell you. I need my sleep.

Eventually Andy wondered if she was complaining because she was hungry. She wasn’t fed when the other dogs were fed that evening, because she hadn’t eaten her breakfast. He took her a very late supper; she ate it, and then settled down for the night (and so could we).

But it got me to thinking. “Bark, bark, bark” = food. Hmm…

I looked at Chester, but before I could say a word he said, “If you do, you’re on your own, Big Guy” and tucked his head under the blanket. Of course, I didn’t (I’m watching my waist line) but I thought that any dog with half a brain isn’t going to forget a lesson like that in a hurry.

I was forgetting - this is a collie we’re talking about. Sunday night came, and she didn’t make a peep!

It’s still true that it’s as easy to teach bad habits as good habits to a collie, but as Andy tries to explain in his DVD, sometimes you have to relax, let things go the dog’s way and see what happens.  He’s always saying, “Have faith in your dog” and in this case, the dog seems to have repaid him.

But what a wasted opportunity!

Training sheepdogs . . .

I may have suggested before that I don’t always agree with Gill and Andy’s training methods. Well, to be fair it’s the whole idea of training that I disagree with, but given my privileged position within the household training is something I’ve managed to avoid, pretty much.

You’ll often hear dog trainers say that the key to training is timing. That’s so true. Chester is in awe of my timing. I train people so well that I can completely ignore them when they call me. Of course I hear them, but I turn my back and look intelligently absorbed by whatever is around me.  If I start to walk towards them and they get excited (and why wouldn’t they?) and call my name, then I just turn smartly the other way. But I know just how long to wait. The instant they’re starting to feel put out and ignored, and perhaps contemplating ‘the long lead’ for the next walk, I go galloping back to them at top speed, fur flowing majestically behind me. I look as though I couldn’t possibly wait another second for their company and they, poor things, fall for it every time.

“Butter wouldn’t melt,” apparently. I don’t have a clue what it means, but they say it every time.

Those puppies!

Gill took me to see Jill’s puppies last night. They were 16 days old, and to celebrate they had their third consecutive day of worming. Poor little grubs, but their eyes are open now and what am I saying, “little”?  They’re HUGE! The bigger of the girls is almost as big and heavy as me, I think. I’ll have to keep an eye on them and make sure they understand the rules around here before they try to give me any trouble.

I think we should call them Lucky and Chance, after what happened to their siblings. The Romans had a Goddess of Chance, called Fortuna, but I don’t think that’s a very easy name to shout. Sheepdogs should have short names that you can use while they’re working (so says the International Sheep Dog Society) which is why Gill and Andy give their dogs names like Dennis, Tony, Mog and Mo. It just proves that even short names aren’t always sensible. Mog! I ask you!

A dog friendly pub in Caunsall?

A couple of weeks ago I was taken out for lunch by Gill and my doting aunties. They live in Stourbridge, and as we drove over I thought I could guess how this would turn out. You see their idea of a good lunch usually involves mussels and white wine, and the sort of restaurant that doesn’t understand how a cultured Chihuahua will add to the ambience of any establishment. I wasn’t worried about waiting in the car, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. So imagine my surprise when we pulled up outside The Anchor Inn in Caunsall and I was allowed inside.

There are lots of places where dogs aren’t welcome (and given the behaviour of so many dogs, it can’t be wondered at) but at The Anchor on Saturday lunchtime a dog seemed de rigueur. I shared the room with a Labrador and two muddy Jack Russell terriers, and there were more dogs in the next room. It was lovely and warm, and small dogs like me can lean against the heating pipes under the seats and just come out when someone drops something. Perfect.

There weren’t any mussels, which suited me because I’m not keen on seafood (though Chester would sell his soul for a couple of prawns) but The Anchor is famous for its cobs (rolls or baps, depending on which part of the country you’re in). That’s it. The entire menu is cheese, ham or beef cobs* and people flock from across Worcestershire to eat them. They even do takeaways. My aunty Chris knows people who’ve had Anchor takeaways for birthday parties and even funeral gatherings! And having sampled the beef (home cooked brisket that melts in the mouth) I can understand why.

If you want to visit The Anchor Inn (with a well behaved dog or two is probably best) then it’s very close to the canal, which makes a lovely walk for all of you. You can find it here http://www.theanchorinncaunsall.co.uk/location.htm

Gill and Andy are often asked about dog friendly pubs and hotels and, although this one isn’t very close to home, Gill says we’ll be going again and we both recommend it.

*Other fillings may be available, but these are the ones that interested me!

The injustice of it all . . .

You know I'm not a great fan of border collies, and even less, of sheepdogs, but the puppy disaster that happened to Jill and Eli's litter shocked us all.

I wanted to write something on the blog but just didn't know what to put. Now, things have settled down, the puppies' eyes are open and they are growing very fast. Of course, this is because they are getting the milk their brothers and sisters should have had.

Now, whilst I have every sympathy with Jill and her babies, I can't help feeling it's rather unfair that when puppies get fat, everyone thinks it's a good thing but if they start to get bigger, I'm constantly reminded about it and (far worse) I'm put on a diet.