Press "Enter" to skip to content

Ava, my pain-in-the-backside dog

Ava is the cutest dog. She’s got absolutely gorgeous red cattle-dog coloring, but is more the shape of the border collies that make up the other half of her ancestry. She has big dark eyes in a complex double mask and ears like a bat. And above all, she has this soulful expression that says, “I live only to love you.”

It’s hard to get a good picture of her, though, because until recently she thought the camera was some sort of exotic punishment device, and even now she’s not certain. She tolerates it for my sake, but pictures of her always end up looking like Oliver Twist, she’s so wretched.

I once drew this pastel of her from a photo she blurred by leaping up from a lying position and running off to escape the camera. It’s called “Ava says, ‘Please Don’t Take My Picture, Ma!'”:


Border collies routinely test as the most intelligent dogs in the world and cattle dogs place in the top 10. Good thing Ava was absent when they were conducting the IQ tests; she’d have lowered the average considerably for both her breeds.

It’s not really that she’s stupid, though. She’s just so over-eager to please that she misses the point of the actual things I’m trying to teach her.

People consider herd dogs so smart for the very human reason that these dogs were bred to spend their lives in complex interactions with human beings. They’re people-focused to a degree that, in border collies (which Ava takes after), can be downright creepy. In the best of them, their focus can be used to execute stunning and tireless work routines.

Ava is not the best of them. No, she isn’t stupid. She knows every nuance of every word, gesture, and expression that relates to “How do I please Mommy?” (I don’t call myself Mommy, but she would call me that if she could talk.) She knows “sit” and “lie down” and “come” and “get up” and “get down” and “out” and “in” and “scrooch” and “this way” and “move your butt, Ava” and even the dreaded “Go away, Ava” — which sends her into the kitchen to sulk as if I’d just put her on death row.

Words aren’t even needed. The slightest glance or twitch on my part sends her into a frenzy of eagerness to please. Or desperation for attention. Or terror of abandonment.

If I’m sitting on the couch with Robbie next to me and Ava on the rug across the room and I so much as change position or reach for something on the end table, Ava leaps to her feet and rushes to me: “Walks?” “Food?” “Pets?” “Tennis ball?” “Can I help?” Or “OMG, are you about to go get in the car and abandon me forever?????” I can’t cross a room without her in my shadow, a look of deep concern on her face for whatever I might be about to do. When I wake up in the morning I try not to move or breathe too loudly because I’m really not quite ready for her desperate devotions, which will be bestowed upon me the second she knows I’m awake. Meanwhile, stolid, secure old Robbie doesn’t move a muscle.

Yet Ava lives in dread of the fact that I might give even a moment’s attention to Robbie instead of her. I call her the Kim Kardashian of the dog world. My neighbor J says that if Ava were human, her conversation would largely consist of, “But enough about you. Let’s talk about me now.”

In all this overdone attentiveness and attention-seeking, I’ve had a hard time teaching her to do anything useful. She sees only the relationship, not the task or the object I want her to pay attention to.

Unfortunately, she has another very negative, related trait. She’s a b***h. She hates every other dog on the planet on general principle, and she has special loathings for several in the neighborhood. Even though she is always either confined or on leash in the neighborhood, she once managed to pick a neighbor’s Chihuahua up by the neck and shake it like a rat. Thank heaven she dropped it on command and there was no harm done. She’s got another pair of neighborhood dogs for whom she has a special loathing and when they chase after our car (yes, careless neighbors), she goes full Cujo while making piercing shrieks that can be heard a block away. Then in frustration she turns on poor ancient Robbie and tries to beat him up.

She cannot have playdates with even the sweetest dogs because she terrorizes them. When I broke my ankle and boarded Ava at Furrydoc’s, Furrydoc kindly took Ava from the kennel to her own house to spend time with the doc’s Lab, who is as close to a friend as Ava has in the canine world. She tried to eat her “friend” (who she knows from many woods walks) and had to go back to the lonely old kennel.

She has never actually drawn a drop of blood on another dog (except one that attacked her and I believe was trying to kill her). But oh, the theatrics! And the just plain jumpiness. This is one extremely volatile dog. In both love and hatred, she gives 100%.

Ava came to me before she was full grown. At nine months she bit a three-year-old on the face. The kid’s mother allowed the unsupervised toddler to push, pull, thump, and eventually try to drag Ava into a dark closet. Ava snapped. It was a pissy nip rather than a rottweiler death grip. And the mother herself eventually got Ava out of the police hold she’d put her into and saw to it that Ava lived. But Ava’s that kind of dog. I hold my breath — and keep a good grip on the leash — when children approach her.

Ava totally trusts me and will sweetly submit to any sort of handling needed to trim nails, administer eardrops, remove thorns from paws, or inspect booboos. But she would nip, and has nipped, at me several times when I’ve done something that’s annoyed her. Again, no blood. And she repents in about 1/10th of a second — “Oh, Mommy, Mommy, I’m so sorry! Can I bring you a warm cloth? A nice cup of tea, perhaps?”

But an easy dog, she is not.

Basically, she’s just a neurotic, seemingly not very bright, incredibly jumpy and volatile little bundle of 100% devotion and attempted obedience. She’s the most intense dog I’ve ever had. And at 10 years old she’s still a puppy. It’s absolutely exhausting.

I adore her, of course.



  1. LarryArnold
    LarryArnold December 27, 2015 8:39 pm

    It’s hard to get a good picture of her, though, because until recently she thought the camera was some sort of exotic punishment device, and even now she’s not certain.

    Could it be that she learned that having your photo taken and posted on the internet is a security risk, from someone I know who hides under a big hat?

  2. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty December 28, 2015 4:42 am

    Well, I guess you can be 100% grateful Alva is not a human girl child. Now that would be exhausting, among other things. 🙂

    But the story reminds me of a dog we were given many years ago. I did a sort of informal Labrador “rescue,” taking puppies and some older dogs that people discovered they just couldn’t handle. I always found homes for them, but the costs, and the time spent training them, got to be a real job and I didn’t do it long.

    But one day I received a little black puppy with weepy, sore eyes. Her ribs were showing and she was lethargic. Malnutrition and, probably, premature separation from her mother seemed to be the cause. Food and warmth and stimulation were given immediately, and some antibiotic drops in the eyes soon cleared up that problem. She became an active and seemingly normal puppy after that, but it didn’t take long to realize that she was not a Labrador… or not much. Her fur became curly and it soon became evident that she was actually mostly standard poodle.

    Now poodles are supposed to be very intelligent, and have the “want to please” of most breeds, but Sally was an exception. I don’t know if she was really stupid, or what. In the year we had her, she never even learned her own name and no amount of training effort (and I trained many hundreds of dogs) made much difference. She seemed incapable of grasping the most basic commands and wasn’t particularly interested. And yes, we had her hearing checked.

    She was gentle and loved to be petted and talked to, so I found her a home with a sick elderly lady who could spend most of every day doing exactly that and didn’t require obedience much. They lived happily ever after.

  3. Claire
    Claire December 28, 2015 5:36 am

    “Well, I guess you can be 100% grateful Alva is not a human girl child. Now that would be exhausting, among other things. :)”

    OMG, ain’t that the truth? She’d be a perpetual 13-year-old — vain, insecure, bitchy, and impossible. OTOH, she wouldn’t be defiant. She’d be so clingy I’d want to scrape her off me.

    That’s a weird — but ultimately sweet — story about Sally. Glad you found her such a perfect home.

    Some people will say that any fault with a dog is actually a fault with the owner or trainer. No doubt humans can seriously mess up or improve an animal, but so much of their temperament is simply born to them.

  4. Claire
    Claire December 28, 2015 7:26 am

    “… from someone I know who hides under a big hat?”

    Nevah! (But if she did, then smart doggie!)

  5. Joel
    Joel December 28, 2015 7:48 am

    Yeah, there are days when I wonder if they’re worth the bother. And days when I wonder how I’d get along without them. My big mutt Little Bear is not nearly as stupid as he sometimes come across – he can respond to commands like one of those robotic “obedience school” dogs if the command happens to be one he expects and approves of. And he can act as if he was born without ears. Depends on whether he wants to do what he’s being commanded to do at the time.

    But he’ll spend his whole life on a tie-out cable, because he’s either not adapted to life in the boonies or too well adapted to it – I don’t know which. See the critter, chase the critter, kill the critter, eat the critter. Poor LB was born to be a big aggressive predator in a world that – even way out here – doesn’t tolerate that sort of thing. He has finally learned not to charge after rabbits when on a leash, but it took years to overcome the impulse. And right now he’s slowly recovering from a paw injury he gave himself with his cable – from charging after something outside his operating radius with the cable wrapped around his paw, as far as I can tell.

    Helluva watchdog, though. I don’t worry about people messing with my cabin when I’m not around. He doesn’t take to strangers very readily.

  6. Mike
    Mike December 28, 2015 8:45 am

    Must be the cattle dog in Ava. Sweetie, the deaf cattle dog that’s blessed my house the past three years, has the most acute sense of “them” and “us” that I’ve ever seen. If you’re an “us”, she’s the most loving little creature you ever saw. If you’re a “them”, not so much. When there’s company in the house, she’ll crawl up in my lap and glare at everybody. Not too hard to understand why she had a difficult time finding a permanent home.

  7. Claire
    Claire December 28, 2015 10:08 am

    Mike — I was thinking of Sweetie while writing about Ava. I must confess that I expected her to bounce back from your house as she had bounced back from so many others. I remain thrilled that she found a forever home (and such a good one) with you.

    Blessings to you — and all the Living Freedom readers and dedicated dog rescuers (MLS and Linda W) who helped her along her way.

    Yes, cattle dogs do tend to be “us and them” types, don’t they?

    A few years back, I fostered a young feral cattle dog — beautiful girl named Frosty who spent her first six months locked in a horse trailer with her littermates and little human contact. Ferals, if they can be domesticated at all, are notorious for bonding with only one person and never really being okay with anybody else. Frosty was like that with me, and I was shocked when a friend (who had just lost her cattle dog to cancer) wanted to adopt Frosty despite her yapping hostility. Frosty went to her new home, bonded there — and a couple of months later treated ME with yapping hostility when I visited.

    Fortunately, Frosty later became almost a normal dog, thanks to the influence of a stray spaniel who showed up and became part of her pack. Tony the spaniel was so boundingly friendly to everybody that Frosty eventually saw that if she wanted any loving she’d have to push right in there beside Tony to get it.

  8. david
    david December 28, 2015 11:57 am

    Ava sounds a lot like someone I know. You might be able to teach her a lot more stuff, which would give her more ability to please more often, and perhaps settle her down a bit as she’d know she’s doing so much correctly.

  9. LarryA
    LarryA December 28, 2015 3:00 pm

    But one day I received a little black puppy with weepy, sore eyes. Her ribs were showing and she was lethargic. Malnutrition and, probably, premature separation from her mother seemed to be the cause.

    I’ve worked a couple of places where I saw children like that. Neonatal malnutrition and isolation can put nasty crimps in mammalian intellect.

    Bless your efforts.

  10. Seibert
    Seibert December 28, 2015 5:05 pm

    Nick The Elder Cat peed on the bed a couple of times when my darling husband was dying. I know you’re not fond of cats (simply because you haven’t met the right one!), but they can be so wonderfully attuned to humans, too. Even when this doesn’t help. Cat pee. One of the worst scents in the universe.

    I’ve been thinking about adopting a puppy once Nick is in another realm. (As it is now, I couldn’t inflict a puppy on my old friend). And I think about the many older dogs in the system who need love.

    But your excellent writing on Ava’s virtues and limitations has convinced me completely– I’ll adopt an older, mellow dog eventually.

  11. Claire
    Claire December 28, 2015 6:46 pm

    Seibert — Only a cat lover could say that a cat who pees on a dying man’s bed is the “right” one. 🙂 But all anti-cat bigotry aside, I know cats have an amazing sense about many things. I’m sure you’ve read about that nursing home cat who perches on the beds of people he knows are soon to die. Very strange.

    I’m sorry you lost your husband. And had to clean up cat pee when you had other, more serious things to worry about.

    An older, mellow dog. Yes, that’s a great way to go. And there are so many in need — nine or 10 year old dogs dumped at shelters, gnrrrrrr. Just be sure you get a Robbie, not an Ava. Before Ava, I assumed all dogs above the age of 10 would be mellow. Boy, have I learned my lesson!

    Robbie has gracefully gone mellow in his old age after starting life as a tough, aggressive bully boy. Now he loves everybody and everything and becomes more lovable every day.

    Ava? Um. Last time Furrydoc visited she reminded me that Ava is the sort of dog who could live to be 20. And I admit I had distinctly mixed feelings about that.

  12. Karen
    Karen December 29, 2015 4:24 am

    The Aussie breeds of dogs do seem to have long life spans. Our Aussie shepherd died at 2 months shy of 19 years old. Luckily, she was a mellow personality. Maybe even a little too mellow, as the toy poodles would try to steal her food and she’d just let them if I wasn’t right there guarding.

  13. bud
    bud January 5, 2016 11:01 am

    Try a selfie stick.

    Have a friend who has a rescue dog. She’s basically feral – left to fend for herself in an empty pasture with 15 other dogs for almost a year- so she is very wary of everything. They could never get a picture of her, because anytime anyone, even the owner – who was the only one she’d come to – got near with a camera or phone, she’d freak.

    Someone got a selfie stick for Xmas, and, lo and behold, holding the S5 on the stick got a nice un-blurred closeup.

Leave a Reply