When it comes to dogs, bravery isn't everything

Instead of herding cows, Oscar the collie routinely runs away from them.

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    Close-up: A canine cruises an off-leash dog park in Cambridge, Mass.
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Having grown up reading about and witnessing the heroics and creative intelligence of such canine role models as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Old Yeller, I had high expectations of my own pets.

Daisy, acquired from a university lab litter and the first in a now long list of dogs I have shared homes, beds, meals, and walks with, seemed unlikely to live up to those literary and TV icons – but the earnest little beagle did rouse the household one night, preventing a break-in.

If she chose not to give chase to the dark fleeing form, dodging bullets alongside my father and our next-door neighbor (an off-duty police officer), she had played her small but stalwart part in the drama with aplomb. An arrest ensued without injuries.

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Also memorable was Char, the first dog I adopted as an adult. I spoiled, catered to, and enabled him so thoroughly that he never had an opportunity to show his stuff.

A concerned friend, thinking that I might raise my children the same way, reminded me that children required a more nuanced upbringing – "Char never has to go to college; you have to raise your kids to leave." Fine, I recall thinking, the dog is mine, start to finish. He passed away at an advanced age, surrounded by family and neighbors on the front porch.

I moved to a dairy farm in 1990, temporarily dogless. Charlie and I talked of a working collie to herd the cows. And then one day there was the ad in the paper – free pups of a border collie dam, father unknown.

We adopted little Oscar, picturing him weaving across the pasture gathering the herd for evening milking, satisfying his own deep ancestral instincts.

Some years later I watched with Wendy, a visiting friend, as Oscar, by then a full-grown, sleek, and beautiful dog, indeed streaked across the pasture – as usual, in full flight from cantering bovines.

Wendy, who nonetheless admired Oscar's silken racing form, observed with sardonic appreciation, "Look, he's leading them."

Oscar may be the least heroic of any dog I have owned – making for a bond all the more intense. He will not pass through a gate unless I hold it or under a wire fence unless I am there lifting the bottommost barbed strand for him, intoning encouragement.

If I tie him out for a time, and his long rope snags on a weed, I find him sitting sorrowfully, an "all is lost" look on his muzzle until I arrive to free him with a gentle tug.

I hope never to know if he'd exit a burning house through a door merely ajar, but for normal passages in and out he requires the safe latitude of a fully open door.

Oscar may yet rise to some unforeseen occasion and prove his mettle. Or like Char, he may pass away without a feat of daring notched on his collar.

Perhaps it takes a sterner mistress to raise a dog to great deeds – one less likely to simply enjoy their being.

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