As a childless woman careening toward 50, it’s not lost on me that Laddie, my border collie, is a child substitute. Laddie means “boy” in Scots dialect. The son I never had. The fact that he’s “just a dog” doesn’t detract from the unconditional love and joy the relationship has brought me.
Laddie is a rescue dog. He joined our pack of two—my partner, Grant, and me—in early January 2005, when he was about two years old. After his adoption, we gleaned his pedigree from the local grapevine in our adopted hometown of Wakaw, in central Saskatchewan. Laddie was first scooped up by an area farmer from a humble box of puppies at the gas station in nearby St. Louis, so he likely has brothers and sisters who work on area farms. But before he came to join our family, who knows where he’d gotten to—he was beaten, mistreated and abandoned for dead with nobody offering him food or shelter in a Saskatchewan winter.
It was the Christmas season and the town librarian saw Laddie hanging out on the dirt road near her lake home, wagging at strangers. She knew he wouldn’t last the winter outside alone, so she opened her truck door and in he jumped. When Grant went to return our library books in early January, she asked: “Would you like to adopt a dog?” Before he had left our house on that fateful day, Grant had been puzzling over ways to console me as I made the challenging social adjustment to life in a small town. We’d just moved here from Calgary so we could continue our freelance writing business from a more cost-effective home base. He came home and asked, “Do you want a dog?”
“You bet!” I replied. It was the first time in a while that I’d had a smile on my face.
Adjusting to a new family
When we brought our outdoor farm dog home, he had no idea how to live in a house. So we had to tell him where to lie down and teach him how to drink water and food out of his dish—presumably because he had been hydrating himself with mouthfuls of snow and eating out of garbage cans and bird feeders. A closer inspection revealed an infected tooth. We were pretty broke that first winter, but we forked out the dental surgery fee anyway. Grant started to build trust with Laddie the day of the surgery, when he gently carried him in his arms from the vet’s to our car.
Grant also trained Laddie off-leash. It took months to teach him to come back on command. On many protracted walks, we’d watch helplessly as Laddie disappeared into a field of oats and just kept running while we called for him until we were hoarse. He always came back eventually, but it was frustrating. Then a friendly woman at a Saskatoon dog park told us this hyperactive breed responds to sharp claps or whistles. We tried it, and it worked.
Border collies are a working breed and are rated number one for working intelligence. They were originally bred to toil alongside farmers and ranchers, so they really bond with their owners. (The woman in the dog park told us her childhood border collie could distinguish between their milking cows and would round them up—without being told—and return them to the barn right on schedule.) You can spot a border collie by the distinctive herding posture they sometimes adopt—head held low to the ground, and walking in an almost cat-like, creeping motion—and their mischievous traits.
Laddie has fostered a unique relationship with each of us. He likes to ride shotgun whenever Grant goes to the dump on Saturday mornings, leaning over and putting his head on my partner’s shoulder as if they are on a special date. As I’m less rule-bound than Grant, Lad is more playful and bossy in my company; he likes to nip at my sleeve when we set out for a long walk. Yet when Grant has him on the lead, Laddie prances ahead proudly and obediently.
When I’m in the city with Laddie, I often end up deep in conversation with another dog lover at a pet-friendly home-improvement store. One kind staffer, a newcomer from Ontario, leaned down to pet the Lad and asked me, “How long do you think they live? I just love my border collie, Katie. She’s my girl.” I told her that the average lifespan for a border collie is 12 years (Laddie is nine).
“Retired” working breeds like Laddie still need tons of exercise. His ears perk up as soon as the “walk” question is put forward. In exchange for our daily walks and jaunts to the post office, Laddie bolsters me when I’ve had one too many writing rejections. He also welcomes the neighborhood kids by rolling over on his back in our front yard (translation: please rub my belly). Laddie wags at everyone we meet, and runs up the front steps of friends’ houses to greet them—even if they aren’t at home.
How our lives have changed
In his seven years in our home, Laddie has bonded with his adopted pack. Each evening, he likes to climb up on our leather sofa and “cuddle.” When the TV clicks off, he’s up and moving and heads off to sleep on our office floor. If we make too much noise and he wants to sleep, he groans from the office like a grumpy elderly relative. In other words, he’s one of us.
I could never have anticipated just how big an impact this humble rescue dog, one who has every reason to hate humans, has had on our lives and my personal outlook. Laddie has demonstrated patience, humility, openness, forgiveness and unconditional love.
Whenever I catch myself feeling petty, frustrated or irked at life, I just take Laddie on a walk and witness him greet everyone with the same friendly wag, and I understand he’s also a great teacher. Yes, life threw him some early curveballs, but he’s still trusting and open despite his history.
Lad has also assumed the role of marriage counsellor. Some days, it can be a real strain living and working from home together. Since we live far away from our families, Grant and I must rely on each other for everything, and this puts added pressure on our relationship. If we start to bicker, Laddie stands between the two of us and barks. I like to think he’s herding us into good behavior and holding us accountable.
Laddie has a real stake in the viability of this little family of three. He likes to remind us just how good we all have it. And he’s right. These remarkable days we share together are precious. I plan to savor every long walk, keep plenty of treats in my jacket pocket and give Laddie all the tummy rubs he demands. It’s the least I can do for my border collie friend.
September 2012 issue of Best Health magazine