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From Whence She Came

The harvest moon rises as a young border collie follows a scent through a field, recently picked clean of its haul. Thinking, sniffing, poking along … she makes her way over the furrows, not realizing how far she’s wandered from home. As darkness settles, a growing chill shakes her focus. She can’t see or hear anything familiar. She spends a long, cold night alone and waits.

The events that unfold next and in the coming days do little to assuage her fears. Strange man. Truck. Cage. Concrete floors. Barking dogs. Too much noise. Then, strange house. Nice people. Long car ride. Another strange place. Doctors, shots, surgery.

And, then she met me. I named her Lilly.

I honestly don’t know much about Lilly’s life before we adopted her from the shelter. I’ve imagined this scenario based on what I was told by shelter staff and on what I now know about how Lilly perceives her world – much like an autistic child, easily overwhelmed by noise, movement, and new situations.

Lilly spent time in an old-fashioned, dog-pound-type shelter in rural, Eastern Colorado. She also lived with a foster family in the local border collie rescue network for a bit. (I have them to thank for her impeccable housetraining.) Through a transfer, she ended up at a modern humane society near me.

She passed her evaluations, got spayed, then I adopted her the very next day.

People often ask why Lilly is so shy, so fearful. It’s easy to assume it had something to do with her life before us.

She’s absolutely terrified of paper rustling. The first time I tore a page from a notepad, I thought she would jump out of her skin. Did someone swat her with a newspaper for piddling on the carpet?

She hates to be pursued and picked up, cowering and shuffling along the ground like a little black-and-white hovercraft. Does that mean she was beaten?

Such skittishness is frowned upon in true working dogs. Was she cast aside, unwanted?

She can jump higher than my head without even trying. Is she merely an accomplished escape artist who gets bored?

Honestly, I do not know.

Then, again, what do we really know about the dogs in our lives? People with well-bred and pampered border collies joke about their dogs’ random fears – scotch tape, newspaper ads with animals on them, umbrellas … you name it.

Tell certain folks you live with a border collie, and be prepared for mock sympathy: “I’m so sorry.” People who know them know they can be a touch past crazy.

So, maybe Lilly simply is as she is.

An animal communicator talked to Lilly a while back. She asked about Lilly’s life pre-me. Her take was that perhaps Lilly’s first home included a young boy, who loved her but was not allowed to keep her.

The transcript of the session goes on to say: “Lilly has found her home, and rather than looking back, she looks to the future. She holds no grudge, no bad feelings. It appears she was happy in the shelter (to a point) and always knew that you would pick her up!”

And: “Your energy is good for her. She feels as though she has found her place … She really knows her role and embraces it fully. She feels that it will lead to greater messages for others along the way. Do not be surprised when she brings new things your way.”

Living with a brilliant, fearful dog brings life itself to a new level. There is the story and the story. Lilly is both. That, in part, is why I still hold a glimmer of hope about what’s possible. Surely, Lilly isn’t here to teach me about failure. I get plenty of that in my life as a writer.

Why Champion of My Heart?

When we adopted Lilly from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in October 2004, I harbored no visions of canine championships of any sort. Honestly, I didn’t know such options existed for dogs other than “show dogs.” I joke that before Lilly my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety. No offense.

On the advice of one of the humane society’s volunteers, who also works with Rocky Mountain Border Collie Rescue, we looked into formal obedience training and then agility training for Lilly. Such a high-energy girl, even at 6 months old, needed an outlet for all that brain power and pent up speed.

Lilly thrived in her classes. She learned. She mastered. She worked hard.

I met great people, amazing dogs, and learned about the competitive options open to dogs of all kinds – in obedience, in rally, in agility, and other areas. And, I bought into the dream.

There’s even a Yahoo group for people who do agility (the doggie obstacle course sport) with issue-prone rescued dogs. Titles, titles … everywhere.

I’ll admit that I mist up as I watch friends and their dogs earn championship titles. It’s an emotional moment … the crowd goes dead quiet as the handler-dog team step to the start line on what could be their final run to earn the championship title. Everyone holds their breath as the dog speeds over jumps, through tunnels, and across teeter-totters. Waiting. Hoping for perfection (because at that level zero mistakes allowed). The goal? Clean run.

We watch the dog, but we also watch the judge, hoping her hands don’t fly into the air signaling a mistake.

It’s over in less than a minute.

Often the final obstacle is a jump with PVC bars, marking the height. As the dog clears that final bar, without knocking it down, the crowd erupts in cheers. Then, the handler grabs the final bar (often painted gold for the occasion) and turns to run a victory lap around the course with dog flying high.

Typically dogs go straight to their leashes after an agility run, so they get this funny, confused look on their faces when mommy or daddy turns and runs the other way back onto the course. But, they love the sport so much that they happily oblige with an encore.

In tales I will soon share, I’ll explain why I’ve (nearly) accepted that Lilly and I may never experience such victory, despite her early promise in training. Ultimately, I hope to deliver a bigger story of redemption, of a literal underdog who makes good, but only time (and hard work) will tell.

Until then, I’ve bestowed Lilly with the title CHOMH (champion of my heart).

Next up … From whence she came.

In the beginning …

It’s Friday, April 13, perhaps not the most auspicious day to launch a blog, to start a new venture. Then again, trusting the power of passion works for me, and today, I felt exponentially compelled (after months of pondering) to begin telling the tale of my life with the beautiful, brilliant, and always challenging Lilly Elizabeth, a rescued border collie with whom I share every minute (since I’m a writer who works at home).

Lest you think my life overly dog-centric, I’ll add that my lively little family includes my darling husband Tom and his amazingly sweet lab/greyhound mix Ginko Cornelius. That is how it works here at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains — 2 boys (Tom & Ginko), 2 girls (Rox & Lilly). The end.

We live in a high mountain valley in Colorado and joke that it’s a gated community since many folks lock their cattle gates. It’s scenic and quiet, and to brag just a bit, I cannot see a single man-made thing from my office window.

My intention is not so much to diary-blog as it is to play with the personal essay as storytelling vehicle, where the is the story … and THE story.

We will see how it goes.

Next up — why I called it Champion of My Heart.

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