When there was nothing on the telly and he was looking for something to do in the evenings Mac would sit in the middle of the room to cover all the bases and communicate with his eyes. If he wanted a bonio he’d stare from me to the box. If he wanted one of our biscuits he’d stare at the barrel. If he wanted a dog chew he’d stare at the shelf on which they were kept. If he stared at the door to the hall he wanted a ball (kept in a plastic bag hanging from the hat stand) or to go outside.
This form of communication evolved from before he lived with me. To begin with he would simply sit and stare at you, which involved a variation on twenty questions. Do you want a biscuit? Do you want to go out? Do you want a sticky? You then had to gauge his desire from his reaction. If his ears shot up and his head tilted slightly, the answer was yes, but as he’d say yes to a biscuit anyway, it was difficult to gauge his primary requirement. He figured out for himself that humans were dumb and it was much easier and quicker to point.
I once accidentally left the bag I took on our walks at Mac’s house. Knowing it would be a week before I returned, Sue stuffed it into the cupboard under the stairs. For two days Mac kept a constant vigil, convinced I was living under their stairs. She got so fed up of his whining and scratching she left the door open for the rest of the week so he could see for himself it was only the bag.
Border collies seem to be able to think out of the box. A simple task or straightforward situation can turn into a highly complex mission, which makes perfect sense to the dog but seems totally stupid to everyone else. For instance, Mac’s former master’s parents lived on the far side of our estate. One day he got into his head to pay me an unannounced visit. How he managed to navigate the convoluted half-mile route without ever having done it before, even by car, only he knows. After the first visit, an urgent scratching on the front door became a regular occurrence.
Not so long ago I drove to our local library, which is attached to a school, and climbed out the car. A Border collie came round the corner with a sandwich in his mouth. Any other dog on the planet finds a discarded sandwich he eats it there and then. End of story.
When I came out the library twenty minutes later, the collie appeared again from the same direction with another sarnie in his mouth. I thought this worthy of comment, so I spoke to the dog. He halted politely and looked at me for a second. Inside the balloon it said “Sorry, pal, I’d love to stop and chat, but as you can see I’m in the middle of something important. Another time, perhaps?”
The end result is the same, the food gets eaten, but not until the logistics have been taken care of.
The nearest I ever came to oneness with Mac happened in the same Monsal Head car park as the ice cream debacle (Dog Tail 2). We had returned from a winter walk at dusk with snow beginning to settle. We sat in my battered old Mini with the heater on full blast, waiting for the air to warm and the windscreen to clear. There were no other cars.
There was a tea shop next to the hotel which served refreshments at the front door, which was split like a stable door. I could see a light through the rearview mirror. Though soaked to the skin and freezing to death, I thought it worthwhile getting out of the car on the off chance they were still serving. I knocked on the door and the top half opened. ‘We weren’t expecting anymore customers,’ the woman said.
‘Any chance of two mugs of tea, please?’ I asked hopefully.
I climbed back into the car and took a big gulp of hot tea. You must have experienced that sensation of swallowing hot tea on a cold day? The liquid hits your stomach with a jolt and sort of expands, sending a warm glow through your whole being. I groaned in contentment and took another swallow.
I then hooked my left arm over the back seat and heard Mac begin to lap. He kept going until his snout was inside and he’d drained it. I felt him pull away and was just about to pull my arm back when I heard an identical groan of pleasure. I looked back and saw him slouched in the seat, eyes unfocused and half-closed, knowing from the expression on his face that the tea had had exactly the same effect on him as it had on me. He sank down on the seat and went to sleep. Muggins, of course, had to run back across the car park and return the mugs.
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