"You'll just need to get a sheepdog!" hollered the vet from the top of the field. After yet another unsuccessful 'rugby tackle' on a frisky ram.
That was how it all started.
I had purchased a farmhouse in the Scottish Borders, together with some of the 'occupants', in fact 41 sheep, as their 'ancestors' had been on the land for generations.
I already had 4 goats and a 'pet sheep', and they had never proved any bother.
I had never required the services of a working dog. I had a spaniel but he was, and still remains, completely uninterested in livestock!
The vet had been out on a couple of occasions, and each time it had been a test of skill more akin to an audition for the Scottish Rugby Squad than a consultation!
I asked him for advice on a working dog, as I had no experience of them at all.
He said that the Border Collie was a unique breed and it would be better to get advice from people that know the dogs inside out.
He suggested that I contact Border Collie Rescue, as they had many homeless / jobless dogs, due to the aftermath of Foot and Mouth disease and they may be looking for new homes and owners.
Aided by the wonders of modern technology, I looked up 'Border Collie Rescue' on the Internet and found the site very informative.
I sent an e.mail to them explaining my situation. I had many questions.
Would I be eligible as I have never had a working dog before? Could I be trained to work with a dog? Would a dog be interested in working with just a few sheep instead of hundreds?
I got an immediate reply to my request which said that they had many dogs, but it was sometimes difficult to match the right people to the right dog. They would send me out an application form and, upon its return, keep my details and contact me should a suitable dog be found.
I didn't hold out much hope as I had heard that hundreds of people wanted dogs from Border Collie Rescue, but my sprits were lifted when I got a call saying they thought they may have the perfect dog for me.
His name was Ben, he had a brother called Boz who had already been successfully re-homed and they thought that Ben may suit and be my new working colleague!
Firstly, I was to have a home check! I hoped that I would pass!
My happiness was doubled when I found out that my home-checker would be Viv Billingham-Parkes, award winning dog trialist; shepherdess; working dog trainer and author.
Phill Drabble once described her as a "Dresden china shepherdess, tough as whipcord!" This would be an interesting meeting.
I need not have worried about the home check. Viv was a delight.
Her gift to me on arrival was a dog whistle!
We chatted about Border Collies in great detail. It was hard to take it all in.
Would I be suitable for such an intelligent working dog as a Border Collie?
We also took a good walk around all the property, checking fences, the barn and the land around with some of Viv's own working dogs for company.
I was impressed by the way that she handled them. Not a harsh raised voice, but commands spoken kindly - but with authority, and whistles of which any Song Thrush would have been jealous. Could I be like this if I had a dog - I was determined to try.
As she lived only a few miles away, I asked Viv if she would be prepared to train me to work with a dog and she agreed. This was to be the start of a much treasured friendship.
Ben arrived with Viv on the 18th December 2001. I will never forget the day - a week before Christmas.
He jumped out of the jeep, rather timidly. His ears were close back on his head and he looked a little scared, as anyone would when meeting new people.
He had longish hair and beautiful black and white markings. His tail was long and bushy - black with a white tip.
He came into the house and sat very close to Viv.. He obviously trusted her implicitly as she had brought him up from North Yorkshire where he had been fostered, and he had stayed with her the previous night.
We sat and chatted quietly.
Ben in training
Jamie, my elderly Spaniel was slightly concerned about this incomer, but he then settled down in his bed and proceeded to monitor Ben with one eye open!
Viv showed me how to make a long lead which would give Ben enough space to roam and be under control too. He was, as Viv had christened him, 'a proper little Gentleman'!
That night, after dinner, a warm muzzle came to rest on my knee, and as I looked down, two enormous deep brown eyes stared lovingly back!
I knew we were made for each other.
Since those early days we have progressed a lot. Ben already knew about sheep and the way their minds 'worked'.
I only had experience of 4 goats and a 'pet' sheep, incidentally called Benjamin.
Viv had been coming over to train me and Ben and we became a great team.
He enjoys working the sheep and occasionally Viv let her collies join in.
Seeing them work as a team is fantastic.
Ben has a good relationship with the other dogs.
Margot and Ben
Every afternoon, sun, rain, hail or snow, we 'relax' and take a long walk over the hills around the house. the scenery is beautiful and the skies can be breathtaking.
It needs to be said that the expertise of Border Collie Rescue and Viv has made having Ben a real joy.
They are always there to answer any questions.
I am eternally grateful to them for allowing me to 'adopt' Ben.
Ben and I often sit on our favourite rock, high over the farmhouse and just look and appreciate the surroundings.
To be able to live and work in such an idyllic spot is a privilege.
We are surely very lucky to have been brought together.
Margot McMurdo and Ben
Border Collie Rescue notes and observations
Ben, and his brother Boz, came in together under the Foot and Mouth program from a farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains on the Wales/England Borders.
They were from I.S.D.S. registered lines and both showed very nervous dispositions, in part due to their breeding and in part due to their socialisation, which was restricted due to isolation under the disease control measures.
In order to get to the farm, we had to pass through two separate disinfection points where our vehicle was completely sprayed from top to bottom on the way in and out by MAFF employees. It was a valley under siege.
Both dogs had limited experience of life and required careful handling as they 'spooked' at any sudden movement.
The farming family had made sure they were well socialised around humans and both were very friendly dogs - once they got to know you.
However strangers were treated with great suspicion.
Neither dog had responded well to initial training and the original breeder had passed them on.
During their stay within BCR we first had to address their nervous disposition, before we could start to assess their potential around stock.
Part of their problem could be dealt with by careful exposure to new stimuli and by boosting their self confidence and feeling of security, but part of their problem was rooted in their breeding and this was an inbred fault that no amount of countermeasures could overcome, requiring a more long term approach which we would take into consideration when eventually re-homing them.
Ben was the most nervous of the two.
Boz had a stronger herding drive and this helped to speed up the re-habitation process
By giving him what he most desired and by careful handling, BCR volunteers were able to help him overcome his lack of confidence. He was re-homed to work stock with a lady handler near Craven Arms in Shropshire.
A quiet environment with a gentle handler that could continue to bring out the best in him.
Even the topography of the surrounding landscape was considered when re-homing and the place he went to was similar hill country to where he was brought up and reflected what he was used to.
Ben needed more time - and with dogs of this nature, time is very important - pressure was part of his problem - he needed to be able to feel his own way and let us know when he was ready at every stage of the process.
It is a natural inclination to feel so sorry for dogs with such nervous dispositions and some people could easily make the mistake of smothering them with lots of TLC and protecting them from exposure to things that make them fearful, however to do this will only make things worse.
Sympathy tones and overprotective measures only re-enforce their conviction that there is something to fear.
What we need to do is to allow them to gain confidence in themselves rather than a dependence on us for re-assurance when they 'spook'. By keeping our tone flat and neutral we can indicate that there is, in fact, nothing to fear at all.
Slow, but steady progress was made with Ben. He eventually gained enough confidence to be able to be out in the open without flinching and wincing at every noise and bolting back to shelter. We could then start serious livestock assessment as he became able to focus on the stock and at that point his natural drive and instinct slowly kicked in.
It had been so deeply repressed in the initial instance that it would have been easy to simply label him a non-worker and see his future only as a pet. If we had made that mistake he would have been in for a very difficult time indeed. He may have become a bolder and more confident dog, but he would have been very frustrated with no mission or purpose to
fulfill his natural drive.
Any discipline that required a degrees of hyperactivity would have set him back - he needed a calm and quiet lifestyle, free of excessive stimulation.
We also needed a handler that could understand these points and continue with his 'therapy'.
This is why we think it important to understand the character of applicants when we are seeking to match a dog - this is why we ask so many questions and hope for honest answers. This is why we check and then check again.
In Margot we found a lady who's own life experiences enabled her to understand what was making Ben tick and who would therefore be able to understand what it was he needed to become 'whole' and fulfilled. She had a quiet approach.
She kept a small number of sheep, so there was no pressure in the work that he would be needed for. Her home environment was quiet and the landscape was of a type familiar to Ben.
When interviewed we realised that she felt a responsibility for the stock she had 'inherited' with the holding and had their psychological welfare at heart, as well as their physical needs.
She seemed right for Ben and Ben for her.
As we always are - we were completely open with her about Ben's problems and passed on as much information as we had about his background and needs.
We knew that she was not an experienced sheepdog handler, but this was something she could learn about and Ben needed an approach than an experienced handler may have found frustrating.
It may interest you to know that during his stay in BCR Ben had expert attention and individual input from five experienced sheepdog handlers - two of whom were professional trainers.
When he first came
in Ben was too shy
make eye contact.
He was seen by three; veterinary practitioners and two behaviourists.
11 other lay members of BCR who helped in the process, handled him and coaxed him through his socialising and re-habilitation.
In all, observations and the varying input and effort of 21 BCR volunteers went into his rescue, assessment, research, care, re-habilitation and re-homing from beginning to end.
If you are interested in adopting a Border Collie from us,
please phone 0845 604 4941 during office hours.
(2 pm to 5 pm weekdays)
Please do not write to us or email us about adoption - we want to speak to you before we start the process.