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  • Reyna Bradford

Offlead (written 12/1/21)

Two and a half years ago, Gem's world came to a screeching halt.


Although she continued to live in the physical sense -- crunching down her kibble twice a day, lapping up attention, occupying her usual places in house and yard -- it was, in a sense for her, a kind of death.


Two and a half years ago, Gem went lame.


Working stock dogs put a lot of stress on their bodies. The quick turns, lightning sprints, hard stops, and even occasional slams dealt out by cranky livestock are not kind to joints and muscles. Gem's trouble showed up in her left shoulder.


It began as a limp after our long walks. She would start out fine, but by the end come jolting home, flop down on her favorite dog bed, rest for the remainder of the day and night, and then seem right again the next morning. Only to have the same repeat on that day's excursion, and so on, until it got to the point where she was not quite recovering between walks. When it got to where she was coming home on three legs, I quit taking her out.


No more walks for her. Instead, a crate and chew goodies, while the other dogs and I left the house. That contingency plan lasted for two or three months, while various professionals were consulted.


We finally landed on our feet with a canine chiropractor and rehab specialist. He diagnosed an old injury to the extensor muscles in Gem's left shoulder. Most likely, he said, it was something that had happened years before, and had now, for whatever reason, been aggravated enough to flare up and become a problem. He gave us some advice, some exercises to work on, and some very bad news.


Yes, she could come for rambles with the rest of the dogs, and yes, we could gradually work up to longer distances. Yes, life would go on, and Gem's shoulder would eventually heal, so that she would be without a limp and without pain.


But, in order to avoid future flare-ups, she was to have no more offleash exercise. No more herding the goats. No more serious training involving jumps. And most devastating of all, no more running free on walks.


To a dog like Gem, a true blue border collie, born and bred to work and with megatons of energy to burn, it may as well have been a slow death sentence.


We quit working the goats. We quit doing rally. And when she was finally recovered enough to step out on the roads again, she did so at the end of a two-foot traffic lead attached to my belt.


Mile after mile she would dutifully trot beside me, able to do little more than catch fleeting scents and glimpses of her new world, now so tiny and stilted.


Our relationship ebbed. Gem and I are both working women who connect best on a working level. And with all those working points of contact stripped away, we fell into apathy toward each other. We shared space, and sometimes we shared affection. But the depth and the purpose were gone.


Gem is naturally a happy dog who makes the best of things. But she had to be depressed. Hours and hours and endless more hours lying on her bed, curled up in a crate, without work, without purpose. And always, always, that short, restricting leash, that dull, meaningless trot. Hours and hours, fading into months, then into a year.


After about a year and a half with no lameness, I began letting her work the new baby goats every once in a while. They were smaller and less rowdy than the big goats, and they just didn't run as fast or demand as much from Gem. We didn't do it often, and each time she seemed none the worse for wear afterward.


Then I began letting her loose for short stretches on our driveway. Whenever the weather is too hot or windy for regular road walks, my game plan is to take the dogs for a few laps up and down our gravel lane. It's about a quarter-mile long, and it definitely gives them some

running room, while still keeping us close to the house in iffy weather conditions. Again, Gem seemed physically sound after those short gallops, and psychologically there was no question that it was an improvement.


Another year slipped by, and I began to wonder. We could at least try. We could try taking off that leash. If she came up lame again, we could regroup, recover, and return to walking on leash. But we wouldn't know until we tried ...


And so, we set out as usual this morning, Gem trotting quietly at my left side, the traffic lead snapped to her collar. I gave her about a mile like that, warming up those touchy shoulder muscles. And then we swung left onto the next road, and I slowed, stopped, and bent down to her. I unclipped the leash, fastened the free end to my belt, and started walking again.


At first she was right beside me, not realizing that there was any option. Then there was about a two-second window where she paused, assessed the situation, and, in typical, quick, border collie fashion, she got it.


Freedom. She ran. She ran like a border collie should run -- low to the ground, economical, and fast. She remembered her place in the pack, and they remembered how fast she really was. She remembered how to herd Meg, who always falls for it, and kept her close to me for about half a mile. She remembered the horse trough beside the road and dove in like a

cannonball, scrambled out again, and kept running. And I think that, at long last, she was able to remember that it was good to be alive.


Time will tell if this will become Gem's new normal. I hope so. I know she hopes so. Meg might need to adjust her thinking, and Banner, who suddenly has a new running competitor, might have to step up his game a little. But how good it will be for everyone if Gem can stay off that leash.


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