By Annie Phenix, Certified Behaviourist and Fear Free Professional
My husband and I share our lives with two amazing dogs – I fondly call them our ‘hooligans.’ Finn and Cooper are full brothers and their DNA tells us that they are a mix of Cattle Dog and Border Collie. That’s lucky for me as these are two of my favorite breeds and they even have a little German Shepherd thrown in as the Dog Gods know how I love GSDs, too.
I call Finn my “white” heeler. He is, of course, a red heeler but he is more white than red. Also I like to poke dog world ‘bears’ from time to time and maybe I know that some breed aficionados would want to hang me for suggesting I have a white heeler. What can I say? It’s the pugnacious heeler in me that makes me say these things.
His brother Cooper is a traditional looking Blue Heeler and he comes with a lot of that “honey badger- I-don’t-care-what-you-want- from-me” energy that I love so much. Finn has more Border Collie in his genetic profile and his coat is sleek and soft and he has more neurotic behaviors and he very, very much cares what I want and – more specifically – where I am all times and what am I doing and can he be a part of whatever it is that I am doing, please. Rough-coated Cooper is content to live life on his terms and I am a part of his life but I am not his whole life. I love them equally just for who they are.
Any who … I wanted to talk about our walks with these hooligans. Our daily walk with two different dogs who are full siblings look nothing alike for each dog. Here’s what I mean: Finn loves to check in with us on every walk. He looks back and into our eyes and we smile and tell him “good boy!” and he smiles big and wags his tail big and continues on his walk. He does this countless times on every walk. Cooper, on the other, can’t be bothered to offer a single check in. He is BUSY. He is on a MISSION. He has important pee mails to inspect and leave behind. Should he ever accidentally look back at us, we give him extra big “atta boys” but he could take or leave our praise. We are a part of his life but we are not his whole life. Finn, on the other paw, wants to connect and he craves reassurance that we are okay, he is okay, the world is okay, etc. He checks on his flock constantly. Cooper has no f*cks to give and that is okay by me. BTW, Finn is an intact male dog and Cooper is neutered (form your own bias/conclusions here).
Finn also likes routine. He wants today’s walk to look like yesterday’s walk. The photo above is from a recent walk where I was lagging behind the hooligans and my husband as I wanted to take some photographic evidence of the insane amount of snow we’ve had this winter in Utah. I got behind the crew and Finn noticed. Cooper didn’t notice – he was BUSY. Finn stopped at the top of the hill and you can see some concern in his body language and face. I am not normally this far behind on our walks. Am I okay? Do I need Finn’s help? Is a sheep from the flock missing? I have no doubt that if my husband released Finn from the leash he would run to me and we would be re-united in a joyous celebration as though we’d been separated for months. If he let Cooper off leash, I have no doubt that Cooper would zoom out straight ahead and away from us – he has things to do. I love them both for who they are – I really do!
The point of me bothering to write this and take up time from your busy life if you are still reading is this: So very much happens in micro moments on our daily walks and that very same walk if a different experience for each of our dogs even though they are brothers. If I was a control freak of a dog owner and I marched these two at a perfect Gestapo heel, I might look really cool to other owners who like complete acquiescence in their dogs but neither myself or the hooligans would have any fun on such a march. Cooper enjoys his walks for himself and we make sure his unique Cooper sensibilities, preferences and needs are met. Finn enjoys a more group walk where we are all in tune and well connected. I took the time to get to know my hooligans and it is my responsibility to meet their needs. It is not their responsibility to make me the envy of every military-heeling-dog-owning dictator in the neighborhood. Dogs have such short lives so for God’s sake, let them enjoy their walks.
As a small aside, Cooper is a very loving and snuggly dog at home. He is not aloof and he is tune in with us and he loves to work closely with us at home. He is a silly billy and he helps keep his more concerned brother in a relaxed state and he is a gift in our lives, just a Finn is. Would Cooper make a wonderful working dog on a cattle ranch? Yes. It would be on me to teach him how and when to listen to me as the cattle rancher and to fine tune his natural abilities with no pain in his training but it would be necessary to teach him what I needed from him. It is his very toughness and strong nature that makes him a brilliant cattle dog. Would Finn make a good working dog? Yes. He is i-n-t-e-n-s-e about everything in life and he is a supreme athlete besides. I would need to ensure his sensitive needs are taken care of and given extra care to. And as I write these things I have to ask myself: does it matter if they would be good working dogs? Why does it matter?
It matters to me in that I know how these dogs (get to!) choose to live their lives and it is on me to make sure they live happy, secure and satisfied dog lives – whether that means honoring their needs on their walks or moving to a ranch and getting cattle for them to move. It does matter that these two dogs were, in fact, bred as working line dogs and as such, they have genetic needs I have to meet for them to live a life well lived. Thankfully that doesn’t mean I have to move and buy a ranch with cattle for them – their very specific needs can be met on the daily with such a simple pleasure as a good walk – but we have to be paying attention to them on that very walk and throughout all of their days.
Annie Phenix is a Certified Behaviourist, a Certified Fear Free Professional and a member of the Pet Professional Guild. She is the best-selling author of two canine behavior books – The Midnight Dog Walkers (2016) and Positive Training for Aggressive and Reactive Dogs (Summer 2023). Her dogs live a safe and secure, well-adjusted, happy life and they make her laugh every day with their antics.