My love of dogs has seen me travel a few miles over the years, not just trips around the UK but also as far afield as Australia and the US amongst other places. Back when I kept bull terriers, me and my mates would travel the length and breadth of Britain to go and see dogs and we’d spend many an hour on the road discussing the merits of one type over another. I had an Audi 80 back then, and it was my pride and joy. I’d loved these cars for years, never thinking I’d ever be able to afford one. I’d had to be content running around in my 1200cc Vauxhall Nova, looking longingly as these Audis rushed past me as I struggled to hold 70mph going up the hill on the way from East Ham back to Kent. Then one day a miracle happened. I got a bonus at work which was actually based on how long I’d been with the company, rather than anything substantive like how good a worker I actually was! Oh yes, my ship had come in! I was always skint (still am), so I should have put that money aside for the rent, or bills, or for the odd occasion when I had to go and catch my dinner if I wanted to eat – it didn’t happen very often, but there were occasions. I am sure you know where this is going…..I spent every single penny on a new, shiny black Audi 80! That car was fantastic…..for about a year. If I’d had a practical mind, I would have bought the estate version. That way I could have kept the dogs in the boot where they belonged. But an estate doesn’t look half as good as a saloon, and it was this that I purchased. To cut a long story short, the long journeys were not only boring for me and my passengers, but for the dogs as well. While we discussed Psycho line dogs versus Stormer; or the relative merits of Nuttall and Middleton etc., the dogs were busy in the back…..chewing. They chewed through the door handles, the seat belts, arm rest etc. The interior was absolutely covered with dog hair, blood, spit and shit. This latter secretion was due to Kesh eating a maggot ridden, long deceased old rat and getting the worst case of “Delhi Belly” I have ever seen. Allow me to digress even further than I already have….
I’d spent a leisurely afternoon raking around the orchards that surrounded my house. Accompanying me was a young Kesh and an even younger Nell. We’d done nothing serious all day; just chasing the odd squirrel and scaring bunnies away. As we neared home, we came upon a stone trough that sat next to a narrow lane that ran between a huge pear orchard on the right and a smaller plum orchard on the left. The trough was overgrown indicating its age, and I began ruminating on when there might have been animals there to warrant its existence. Being the dirty, filthy scavenging b*****d that he was, Kesh had found some rotting carcass and began chewing on it. Shouting at him to leave it, I ran over, but he’d wolfed the lot down. Dirty bloody dog! There were maggots on the floor around him that had fallen from the decaying rat, and he stunk to high heaven! Having had dogs eat some pretty horrid things before, I just shrugged it off and we all carried on our merry way back home.
The trouble came later that night. If you read one of my recent articles about my troubles with the RSPCA, then you’ll remember that my dogs lived in with me at the time, in my shoebox of a house. I kept a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs to stop the dogs from getting upstairs, but it didn’t fit. Well, I say it didn’t fit but it would be closer to the truth to say I didn’t actually fit it properly. It just sort of leant up against the wall. At some point during the night, long after I’d gone to bed, young Kesh had started to get a reaction from this rat. I was oblivious to all of this as I was snoring away upstairs. Clearly this stomach upset was causing Kesh some concern and he thought it fit that he came and let me know. Somehow, he got past my ingenious Maginot-esque line of defence and shot upstairs into my bedroom. It was when he jumped on my bed that I awoke, and I opened my eyes to see a clearly distraught bull terrier doing the wall of death around the room like a rapidly deflating balloon, while all the time spraying foul, black liquid from his arse! He was whining; I was screaming and the neighbours must have thought a murder was taking place! So there I was; naked; standing on my bed trying to catch a bull terrier that was busy decorating my magnolia bedroom with the most God-forsaken filth imaginable. An enduring image. It was on the duvet, the carpet, up the walls, and by the time I caught the little b*****d, it was all over me too. I ran down the narrow stairs and chucked him out of the kitchen door into the garden. I was dry-reaching with the smell so I ran back up the stairs and jumped into the shower; all the time praying that next door hadn’t chosen this exact moment to flush their toilet. Once I’d gotten the worst of it off, I threw some clothes on and grabbed my car keys. Off to the emergency vets with you, my lad! Needless to say, Kesh carried on his decorating all over the back of the car……which explained why my Audi always had a peculiar odour of air freshener….and shit.
Anyway, this article isn’t about cars or crap, it’s about collie crosses. Bearded collie crosses to be exact. So, there we were – me and my mate; trundling up to Lincolnshire one morning in the shit smelling Audi with no door handles or seat belts (I think we were going to one of Darren Gallagher’s shows), when I was asked what I thought about collie crosses. “No idea mate” was my reply, as I’d had no experience of them whatsoever. My limited experience was of a Bedlington/Whippet cross and a Deerhoundy type thing that my old man brought home in 1981. I was a bull terrier man, so collie crosses didn’t even come up on my radar. That was all to change though.
Please bear in mind that the following lines are describing only my experiences with these types, so don’t take it as gospel. I have very limited experience with Border collie crosses so I won’t even begin to tackle that subject. Maybe one of the readers could jot down their experiences in a similar article?
So where do I start? With a half cross. Well, that’s not strictly true. Van is not a genuine first cross, or a genuine half cross; she’s roughly a half cross. Without delving into percentages and fractions that would make a mathematician weep, she occupied the ground between a half cross and a reverse 3/8 5/8, making her 9/16 collie. So as I said, roughly a half cross. She came to me from my cousin who owned the dam and she fitted in well with her new kennel mates. I’d moved house at this point, away from my tiny cottage, to a much larger house in the centre of a large town. Van had the roam of the garden but came in at night due to my fear of theft. Now the first thing she did was to decorate the dining room a la Kesh. And could I break her from it? Could I hell. Now I’d heard that collie crosses were smart. You’ve probably heard it too, but this bitch was impossible to house train – impossible. I’d got myself a crate and used that. She’d wait until I let her out into the garden, where she went about her business, and then she’d come back in and do it all over again in the dining room. Now people have said to me that bull terriers are stupid and have little to offer, but I have never found that to be the case. I have always thought they were very intelligent, and I never had trouble with mine. So there I was; two smart bulls and an untrainable collie cross. I was at my wits end with this bitch and I really didn’t know what to do. Every method, however bizarre, was tried…and then one day, she just stopped. And she has never, to this day, soiled in the house again. She must have just decided she’d had enough fun with me and that she’d move on to something else. This was not to be the only time that she displayed this trait of doing things when she wanted to do them.
Now the comparison I am going to use in this article is Van’s son. She was put to a smashing greyhound, making Jasper roughly a ¾ bred. Maths fans can work out the percentages themselves for an extra point. Jasper is living proof that whenever people talk about collie crosses as a generic entity, they really should put a sock in it. Jasper is as different to his mother as he is to an entirely other breed. Sure, they look kind of similar, but that’s about where it ends. In that Rum and Stags article that I wrote a while back, I detailed my dislike of people lazily using generalisations to describe breeds and if you’d only known Van, then a collie cross to you would be one thing. By the same token, if you’d only known Jasper, you’d have a very different picture of the type.
So how were the early months with Jasper? Great! I sat beside the whelping box, beer in hand, as Van squeezed the little bugger out. Come to think of it, I was there when he was conceived too, as I had to hold Van still (she was a maiden). He was never any bother as a pup; very calm, never barked and friendly to boot. He didn’t display the cunning of Rosy (his litter sister), who from a very early age worked out how to get out of the whelping box. When the other pups worked out how to do this at a much later date, she would get back in the whelping box in order to get some alone time. Jasper was what I would term straight forward. No guile; no artifice; just a genuine, up front, honest dog. You might think how I can attribute values such as honesty to a dog, so let me explain a bit.
Van is a criminal mastermind; a Machiavellian, evil genius. It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, then everything seemed to fit into place. Like a teenager, you had to manipulate her in order to get her to do things, or you ran the risk that she would manipulate you. The more I entreated her to do a particular task, the more she would refuse to do it. Take retrieving for example. I did this by the book – narrow corridor, kept it simple, and didn’t overdo it. We then progressed to a rabbit skin dummy in the garden. All was well and I even videoed the retrieves on my mobile phone so that I could share my progress with my mates. I was chuffed to bits. So the logical progression was to take this training and put it into practice. This wasn’t done as a pup you understand; we waited until she was ready for work. So there we were, stood with our backs to a hedge on one of my farms; light shining on a sitter and dog straining to go. Off she went and chased the bunny back to the hedge. Move on. Same scenario. Dog slipped but this time she struck well and caught her first bunny. The anticipation I felt for what was to be the perfect entry and retrieve was massive. I crouched down, and opened my arms wide…..and waited…..and waited. Something had gone wrong here. This was played out over and over again, daytime and night and my frustration turned to anger on occasions. We went back to the drawing board so many times it wasn’t funny. And when I finally reconciled myself to having a non-retrieving collie cross, what does she do? Starts retrieving perfectly! She had a knack of pushing me so close to the very edge time and time again, and just before we got to the precipice, she’d do exactly what I wanted. I think it was a case of me giving up on her that made her do what I wanted. Beardie crosses have a certain reputation for being stubborn, and boy, was this girl stubborn! The more I pushed her, the less she’d respond. The more I left her alone, the more she’d do. This gave rise to the realisation that she was the embodiment of that saying I’ve heard so many times….the dog won’t work for you, but it will work with you. She wasn’t aloof by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it; she was a very loving, friendly dog that craved human attention. It was just that when it came to hunting, she knew what she wanted to do, and if that coincided with what I wanted her to do, then great! I genuinely think that in her mind, every time that we went back to the proverbial drawing board, she thought I was punishing her. Once I stopped (having given up!), she must have thought “great, now we are back to normal again.” As I said above, she started retrieving like a pro and we’ve never looked back.
If you look at Jasper’s retrieving, it’s a totally different ballgame. I can honestly say that I’ve spent about 10 minutes on the front lawn with him and a ball, and that’s been it. It was like one of those Janet and John books that we had as bairns. This is dog. This is ball. Dog chase ball. Dog bring back ball. Job done. As I said, he’s very straight forward so you show him something and he’s not sitting there thinking “what’s in this for me? Just why exactly is it that you want me to chase the ball?” All he’s thinking is “chuck it again! chuck it again!” A very easy dog to train – well “train” is the wrong word as I didn’t really train him, as I didn’t need to. Since day one, the dog has done everything I have ever told him to, and I couldn’t ask for a more obedient hound. As well as not doing much training because of his ease of picking it up, the other reason I didn’t do too much with him was because it’s physically impossible to retrieve the quarry that he was going to be used on. So I didn’t bother. So how did he go in the field? Again, great! First time he took a hare on the lamp, I switched the Clulite off, with a mind to walking over to him. Before I knew it though, he was back by my side, quarry in mouth. Good lad. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he’s a genius; he just picks things up quickly.
I won’t insult your intelligence by comparing the speed of the two types, as that would be just too obvious. The great feet of the Beardie came through from Van, and if anything, Jasper’s feet are as good, if not slightly better than his mothers. We run some atrocious ground and any misgiving I had about a greyhound saturated dog having troublesome feet, was effectively wiped away when I started working this dog. I always thought Van would cope, but I got a very pleasant surprise when he turned out as well as he did.
As well as being a sneaky, conniving thief, Van also has her peculiarities which manifest themselves as something akin to obsessive/compulsive disorders in humans. I’ve written before about her compulsion to run the length of my old garden (120ft) in England and bark at a fence, which was entirely due to her having seen a cat there once. She also barks when I come from work, which drives me crazy. Another peculiarity is that she will only bark when someone she knows comes to the garden gate. If you’re a stranger intent on doing me or my family harm, she won’t raise a murmur. Hardly the epitome of a useful alarm dog, but then that’s not why I keep her.
The hunt in Van is big, and always has been. She has been a real workhorse for me over the years; working in tandem with Kesh for many of them. They were the unsung heroes; the “water carriers” as Eric Cantona once famously described Didier Deschamps as. The plaudits often went to Nell, and for a while, Meg, as they were the sharp end dogs. But we’d have had many a blank day without the workhorses. Jasper’s hunt is not as big as his dam’s, but it’s decent. I was worried about it in the early days, as he’d got into the habit of letting Van do all the work. This was cured in short order by isolating him by taking him out on his own. Now he is always bushing himself and whilst he may not be as good as Van, he puts the effort in. The one area where I really benefit with him is that not only does he work hard, he’s also the killer; the sharp end dog too. He is brutal if I’m honest. No hesitation, no contemplation. A hard strike and straight in. Maybe that’s served him well as he’s been relatively free of damage or injury in his three years so far. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Van is hesitant. She was primarily a rabbit dog, although she tried her hand at everything we put in front of her. She was described as “torturous” on courses as she would be relentless in her pursuit. Maybe a harder striker would have made for more spectacular catches, but she did ok for me.
One thing they had in common was both were early starters, so handler discretion is called for. I wrote a comparison in one of Darcy’s books about the collie cross versus wheaten cross, and in that I detailed that how the former type is raring to go from an early age, whilst the latter didn’t even want to know. I’m a firm believer in getting the dogs out early; not necessarily working, but out so that they get an idea of what will be required of them. Both of these dogs could so easily be ruined in inexperienced hands; not that I had any experience when I got hold of Van.
I could go into the more obvious physical differences between a half and three quarter cross, but it’s not worth my time or yours. You can see those for yourself. What is apparent to me is that I thought I was going to get a dog like Jasper, when I took charge of Van. What I got was a world away from him. A complex animal with more moods than a schizophrenic woman. This dog made me re-assess everything I’d thought about dogs, training and entering. She was a struggle for me, I don’t mind admitting that, and it took me a while to come to terms with her. Once I had, she was a joy to work with. Now, if I’d had Jasper first, instead of vice versa, then I would have thought I was possibly the best dog trainer in the world! I would have an entirely different impression of collie crosses, and maybe lurchers in general. I would have been deluding myself, obviously, as it’s abundantly clear that it was the dog, and not me, that made training easy. If I could have my time again, and pick which way around I had Van and Jasp, would I have done it differently? Absolutely not. Van gave me an education that otherwise I might have missed out on. Without a shadow of a doubt, she made me a better dog man – not a good one; just a better one. Like I said at the start, these are just my experiences so maybe not all Beardie crosses are like this? I’ve lost a bit of hair through pulling it out, and what I have left is a little bit greyer, but I’ve learnt so much from her. It’s possibly made me appreciate Jasper that much more too.
So what can you take from this article?
1. Approach each dog as an individual and take it as it comes. You might get a Van when you were after a Jasper, or vice versa.
2. If you are having trouble, try and speak to as many lads as possible and ask them about their experiences. You might think you’re lumbered with a psycho, untrainable dog but chances are others have been in the same boat as you at some point. Lloydy helped me immensely with the retrieving side of things.
3. Shit is easier to get off leather seats than cloth ones, but if given the chance, buy an estate.
4. Most importantly, never buy a car off me.