“All equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak”

Sitting here in the office, looking out at blue sky and bright sunshine, it's hard to imagine the weather conditions of this morning

In common with much of the UK, Worcestershire was being buffeted by strong winds, gale force gusts and heavy rain when we went out to walk the dogs. By a fair process of task-sharing ("You stay and do the yard, I'm going out with the dogs. Is That OK?" and I disappeared through the gate before Andy was really aware he was exercising his democratic rights) I took 22 assorted dogs to brave the weather. (Dulcie, Gloria and Glyn were confined to the yard on the grounds that they lack self-control, and were left to help Andy with the chores. I'm sure they threw themselves into the task manfully. From the orchard it certainly sounded as if they were shouting encouragement to each other - or maybe to Andy.)

Alfie the Chihuahua chooses to catch up with his beauty sleep - not that he needs it, of course
"They all serve who only stand (or lie) and wait" - Alfie goes back to bed

My Boys, Chester and Alfie, had poked their noses out into the wet and explained that, having not had a good night, what with the noisy weather and the puppies next door, they felt their energies would be better used in catching up with some sleep by the radiator. They have so much responsibility, I could see their point.

A firm believer that there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, it never occurred to me that I was taking any risks. The first 20 minutes or so were wet and blowy, but not cold, so I just stuffed my hands into my pockets, kept my head down and strode out while the dogs rushed around excitedly, thoroughly enjoying the windy chaos. Dogs, horses and children, all get excited and skittish when it's windy. We were a couple of good long fields from home when I realised that the rain was thicker, colder and sharper, and was being blown directly into my face. I looked up and was astonished to see that the weather had deteriorated while I wasn't looking. I couldn't see the hedge at the far side of the field, and the rain was horizontal, heavy and painful!

It was difficult to walk into the rain (the direction of home) and the puppies were quite distressed by it, so I turned my back to it while I considered what to do. What happened next was quite moving.

Mel hates heavy rain, always has, so I wasn't surprised to see her head for the distant shelter of a hedge and ditch, followed by Kay, but the remaining dogs gathered around me. The puppies tucked themselves underneath the adolescent dogs, either standing or lying down, according to size, and the "teenagers", not always terribly gentle or patient with puppies, were quiet and content to let them. Then the adolescent dogs (with the exception of Oscar) huddled into a group around my legs with their puppies in place, and the remaining adult dogs, Max and Mick, plus Oscar, lay down and arranged themselves on the outside - apparently protecting the puppies. They looked miserable, and were clearly getting soaked, but I can't see any other reason (except one) why these three dogs, who are NOT the best of mates - all quite strong, macho characters - would submit to lying nose to nose or tail, perfectly quiet and still.

The other possible reason was that they were simply waiting for me, as the grown-up, to make a decision and get us all out of this mess!

So I made a decision. I scooped up the smallest and most distressed looking puppy and told everyone we heading for home by the shortest possible route. It was quite a battle, but the wind and rain were abating by the time we reached the yard. It felt as though we'd all come through some great adventure in a pretty heroic sort of way, fighting the odds and all pulling together. Looking back, well, we just got caught in a heavy downpour, but I'll never forget all those dogs gathering around to shelter the puppies. It was quite humbling.

NB: The title is from George Orwell's Animal Farm. I wish I had a photo I could share of Max's wet, resigned and stalwart face, pressed against Oscar's. Both dogs are probably very pleased that I don't!

Welcome return to form for Alfie

Regular readers of this column (as they say in The Guardian) will recall that a convincing sign of Alfie's chest infection - read the full story here - was his complete disinterest in an open bag of pigs' ears that I left in the car with him. Today, his behaviour has finally returned to something more recognisable.

Tan longhaired Chihuahua Alfie gazes wisely into the distance
Looking out for trouble - and the odd sprout

My car has a habit of locking its boot at the most inopportune moments so today, when I staggered out to it from the local farm shop bearing a tray of home made steak pies, cakes and cheese, I had to quickly put it into the back of the car (with Alfie) before dashing back in to collect the rest of the shopping. It can only have taken a minute or so, but when I got back to the car he was standing (bless him) with his front feet in a steak pie, while battling furiously to get the Cotswold Blue out of its wrapper.

When we got home he was still anxious about the cheese, but was happily distracted by a dropped sprout (I know, because I found some of it - not much of it - under the dining table about an hour later).

You just have to love him - it makes living with him so much easier.

Both Alfie and Chester have prominent roles in the new "Still Off Duty" DVD, as befits their status in The Pack, and talking of The Pack we're including a chapter about pack behavior as we see it every day in our varied group of dogs. It's not the definitive guide to dog behaviour by any means, but we're privileged to be able to keep so many dogs and watch them socialising, and we know from visitors to our Sheepdog Experience days that people are fascinated by what we're lucky enough to take for granted.

Two adolescent collies are vying for a better position in the middle of the pack, and most of the other dogs seem to have a view on who deserves to win.
With friends like that...Max and Kevin lived together amicably before and after this frank exchange of views

Part of this chapter has involved some "should we, shouldn't we" agonising. It involves a fight between a couple of adolescent males that draws in other dogs who eventually break it up and act as peacekeepers. We know that no harm was done, and that the dogs involved lived amicably together before and after the fight, but it looks and sounds so aggressive!

We're concerned that people could be upset by it, though it all gets explained (David Attenborough shows far worse probably without losing any sleep).

The more we watch it, the more interesting it is to us. I'm wondering now if, by leaving it to the senior dogs to finish it, we (that is, Andy and I) are perhaps seen as having let the group down. Surely, it's for the Pack Leader to maintain discipline? I can't honestly say that there seemed to be any change in the dogs' attitude to us after the event, but you don't know what they talk about after you've put them to bed at night, do you?

The puppies, duly wormed and with their eyes (finally) open (the boys took the longest) are starting to wobble around the nest and already seem to be looking for ways out. There's always one troublemaker, and so far it seems to be a chunky black and white bitch puppy whom we've had to "rescue" several times because she's got out into the kennel area and then kicked up a fuss because she wasn't where she wanted to be.

The maternity unit is directly in front of the kitchen window (and if I ever had time to clean the windows it would be a great view). This means we can monitor the pups and hear what's going on - even if we can't always see it. Yesterday there was suddenly a tremendous screaming from the pen; it sounded as if a puppy was in great pain or peril.

I dashed out to see what was happening, and although I could trace the noise I couldn't see a puppy. I called the bitch out onto the yard to take a better look. She looked worried too, and even more worried when the noise followed her.

I couldn't believe what I found. That same bitch puppy had somehow got a front leg twisted up with the long fur of her mum's back leg. It was like a tourniquet, tightly bound and cutting into the leg that the puppy was hanging by. Easily and quickly resolved, I just cut it off (the hair, not the leg!) and there seems to be no lasting damage, but of course I can't help thinking about the What Ifs. What if we hadn't been at home? Or what if the bitch had panicked and tried to jump out of the yard (even Border collies aren't always thinkers). And, of course, "what if" I'd taken the trouble to trim all that long leg hair away before the puppies were born, as I'd intended.

Bet I get round to it next time!


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