When it comes to dogs, bravery isn't everything

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

Nicole Hill/CSM/File
Close-up: A canine cruises an off-leash dog park in Cambridge, Mass.

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.

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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