Ben wasn’t even our dog but, for well over a decade, he was part of our family. He was as much a participant in our daily life, our annual celebrations and our most treasured memories as all the dogs we could call our own.
It hardly seems like much time has passed but it’s now over twelve years since Martin confided to me that he’d chosen a border collie puppy with which to surprise Vicky on Christmas morning. Upon collecting him a few days before the big day, we all colluded in the secrecy, stealing clandestine visits to see this new ball of black and white fluff.
Martin and I grew up with border collies. If you’ve ever owned one, you can’t fail to be impressed by their high intelligence and strong work ethic. Within weeks, Ben had been trained to do a number of increasingly complex tricks, demonstrating his obedience and a clear willingness to please.
Border collies are perfectly suited to their traditional purpose of rounding up sheep on remote hillsides and directing them into a specific holding area. Naturally fast and agile, they also have deep reserves of endurance, combined with a level of mental commitment to achieving an objective that you’d expect of an Olympic athlete. Other breeds outwardly enjoy fetching balls and waiting for the next one to be thrown. With Ben, a session of ‘fetch’ was more akin to watching a highly-trained operative at work – enjoyment seemed to be a secondary consideration to simply completing the task as quickly and as efficiently as possible. You had to assume he was enjoying it, or he wouldn’t keep doing it, but it was clear he had little time for pointless tail-wagging when there was the serious business of another ball to retrieve.
He would transfer his highly-motivated, highly-disciplined approach to all aspects of his life. When told it was time to go in, there was no sense of objection or ‘just one more’ lingering in the field, like most dogs would; he’d diligently trot to the back door and wait to be let in. For Ben, clocking off one job did not mean switching off his default, obedient setting.
As you’d expect for such a focused individual, he was happiest when accompanying Martin wherever he went. For most of his life, he was able to, from a standing start, spring into the back of a Range Rover and then settle straight down until he was next required. Unlike our dogs, whose life in a secure, extended environment had inevitably blunted their ability to be ‘street-wise’ beyond the gates at the end of the drive, Ben had that rare ability to combine the best of both worlds.
As Max and Abi came along and grew up, Ben found he was being asked to divide his focus to include additional family members – now with slightly different expectations. Young children are more prone to spending time petting a resting dog and Ben accepted the unfamiliar extra attention and allowed himself to be a regular pet as well as a ball-retrieving team member. He’d also indulge in games that didn’t require his fetching talents, circling and intently observing games of three-a-side football as if we were merely six unruly sheep who consistently defied his control. When it snowed, we’d tow each other around the field on sledges and, while the whole thing must have made absolutely no sense to him, his work ethic decreed that it would always be necessary for him to run behind, as closely as possible for as long as he could.
As I’ve noted previously, it seems the cruellest long-term effect of incorporating dogs into a growing family is that their physical prime occurs when their young human companions are well short of theirs. As the wheel of time turns and the kids’ speed and energy increases, the canine life-cycle means that they will eventually fail to keep up. Even an intelligent animal who develops an ability to pace their exertions (as Ben undoubtedly was) will only be able to delay that inevitable day for so long.
The addition of a variety of smaller, furrier companions provided him with a less strenuous outlet for his livestock-wrangling instincts. Rabbits, guinea pigs and, latterly, a pair of degu all required, in Ben’s mind, unflinching observation lest they break free from their cages and terrorise the household. Not on his watch, they wouldn’t.
In his final year, Ben found he had a room-mate, another border collie: younger, faster, more headstrong, more unruly. It’s a testing time for any older dog: a trial of both patience and ability to adapt. Ben graciously allowed Meg into his house, delegating fetching responsibilities under his watchful gaze and tolerating her youthful boisterousness. We’ll never really know if Meg has allowed herself to be influenced by Ben’s stoic example as she has grown from young pup to ebullient adolescent. When she acts on her best behaviour, it’s easy to believe that perhaps she has.
Over the years, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had begun to take their toll on Ben’s health, particularly the ability of his heart to function as fluently as it once had. Naturally, his exertions became rationed for his own good as his condition was managed. His quality of life was undiminished but, for his own good, his capabilities had to be thought of as reduced.
While he was as keen to participate, we let him but we knew he couldn’t be exhausted. Similarly, he knew how to pace himself and his condition caused little concern until very recently, when, uncharacteristically, he chose not to take part in the ball games. For such a driven and disciplined dog, it was the clearest message he could give that he knew his lifetime of service was coming to a close.
Today, his message was heeded and, after consultation with the vet, the decision was taken. We buried him by the front lawn, in the shadow of the rhododendron bush, next to Sam. It’s a cliché but it’s true: there’s always sadness at the passing of a loved one but you have to load the other side of the scales with the gratitude that they enriched your life and, hopefully, you enriched theirs.
Rest well, ‘Benny Boy’, you’ve worked hard for it and you earned all our affections.