Vasya, Rough Collie Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

Vasya, Rough Collie Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

What kind of dog does it take to help a human cope with asthma, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression? Stephanie, better known to thousands of social media followers by her username @motherofdoggos, has hung her hopes for a prospective service dog on a white Collie fluffball called Vasya.

 A service dog must possess a specific combination of qualities, and precious few canines have an aptitude for assistance work. Stephanie knew she would need a dog with appropriate levels of energy, health, bravery, gentleness, intelligence, trainability, and – perhaps most crucial for her needs – empathy.

A sable-headed white Rough Collie (mostly white with tan markings on the head) smiles in a selfie with a smiling girl with blue/gray hair and glasses
Vasya and Stephanie (a.k.a. The Mother of Doggos)

Like many are choosing to do, rather than being on a years-long waiting list and/or dishing out thousands of dollars to an organization, Stephanie decided to select and owner-train her own dog (while consulting with a trainer). But how does one guarantee that a dog will succeed in service work? Well, there is no guarantee. According to the IABBC Journal, “Approximately 50 percent of all dogs bred, socialized, selected, and trained by owners or agencies to become service dogs either fail to complete training or must retire after a short career.” Sometimes even dogs selected and trained by professionals to be guide dogs for the blind later need to be “washed” from the work and removed to a pet home. 

Table of Contents

Washed, But Not in a Good Way

But so far, Vasya has proven to be everything Stephanie could have hoped for. So did she get lucky? No. Before Vasya, Stephanie attempted to train her 2 other dogs, Lakota and Seneca, in service dog tasks. She partially succeeded, as they both perform certain tasks to assist her and her husband Dylan at home. But through no fault of their own (and no failure on Stephanie’s part), neither dog quite had what was needed to be a full-time service dog who could accompany her to work and other public places.

a red and white happy dog sits next to a gray and white happy dog in the sunshine outdoors
Seneca and Lakota

Still, Stephanie wasn’t giving up. She spent years researching breeds. Depending on who you ask, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, and Collies (Smooths more than Roughs) are often considered part of the unofficial “Fab Four” or “Fab Five” lists of best breeds for service dog work. I asked Stephanie what influenced her to select a Rough Collie over the much more popular Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers.

She said, “I frequently heard Collies were good for Psychiatric Service Dog work due to their empathy and drive to work. I have always been in love with the looks of Collies, though, and I felt their energy levels were a good fit for our household.” Knowing that Lakota and Seneca, as established canine pack members, would be helping to co-train a new puppy, it was imperative to find one that would fit into their family dynamic.

A gray and white dog who looks very much like a wolf stands in profile view outside
"Lakota Growl Droggo - the original gremlin baby and keeper of my heart."

Buyer Beware!

And this time around, she was very particular about finding a solid, ethical Collie breeder after her less-than-stellar previous experiences with breeders of NAIDs (Native American Indian Dogs). Initially, Stephanie had no issues with Lakota’s breeder. Though she said, “It became apparent Lakota was too anxious/reactive for public access work,” she did not blame the breeder and was willing to give the breed another try. Lakota’s faults were few, but his attributes are many. According to Stephanie:

Lakota is the perfect companion dog. He loves fiercely, protects when needed, and cuddles nonstop when not out adventuring. He is very good at reading people, and he comes in for support when he knows you need it. While he does have some anxiety and can come off very excitable at first… I am so proud of the dog he’s shaped into. The training is never over, and we constantly try to improve; but he is, in fact, a very good doggo.

Stephanie and Lakota lie in the sun on a porch together
Selfie time with Stephanie and Lakota

Seneca came into Stephanie’s life next. He was technically a NAID like Lakota, but his composition of foundation breeds was different. While Lakota’s parentage was comprised of mostly German Shepherd and Alaskan Malamute with a dash of Golden Retriever and Samoyed, Seneca’s heritage consisted of Siberian Husky, Belgian Shepherd, Malamute, and German Shepherd.

And Seneca was the much more expensive dog, despite being a four-month-old “clearance puppy” when Stephanie and her then-boyfriend Dylan discovered him. Only later did they learn that Seneca would likely have been put down if he hadn’t found a home soon. In reality, they had probably saved him… And saved him again, since a less patient couple would have given up and dumped him in a shelter or rehomed him.

Seneca was not an easy puppy. “We didn’t know just how bad things were,” Stephanie explained, “but he came to use completely unsocialized, had major fear issues, and excessive destructive tendencies. He took a year and a half to potty train… I can’t count how many times he broke out of his crate – no matter how fortified – and ate holes in the walls, gutted couches and chairs, or ripped up all the carpet.”

 
Seneca as a pale red and white puppy lies sprawled on his side with a leash attached to his collar, refusing to move
Seneca Whitewalker before he became "a majestic fluff."

But Sen didn’t stay a little hellion, and Stephanie is thankful she weathered the rough stage for him. “Seneca has become such a great companion,” she said. “After he turned four, he chilled out so much… Now he has free roam of the house, is fully reliable off-leash, patient with puppies and children alike, and is a major cuddler.” He is living proof that a rascally young dog, given patience and love, can mature into a dependable adult dog.

I love this boy… for his softness, for his knowing eyes and his touch of spookiness, and for the weird quirks that never fail to surprise me. He’s got a wild heart and a sweet soul, and though he is often difficult and selfish, he is also affectionate and gentle. I know he loves us deeply. He has a quiet sort of love that you would almost miss if not for his lingering stares and often persistent nudges. There is a peace about Seneca…

We’ve had a long road, but I’m so glad I get to grow and experience the world with him. He’s unlike any dog I’ve known and has required more work than any other animal I have had, but he’s worth it. I still regret supporting his breeder, but I don’t regret getting him at all. He’s such a special boy, and I’m infinitely grateful we get to share our lives with him. Though he had a rough start in life, I daresay he’s quite spoiled now!

Yet despite Sen’s sterling qualities, it was his seeming lack of empathy and inability to read people (though he has since progressed in these areas) that led to Stephanie eventually washing him for pyschiatric service dog work.

A gorgeous, fluffy, red and white Native American Indian Dog in profile view
"Sometimes I look at him and think he's a living painting."

A Lot of Flak

NAIDs are not always all they are touted to be. For one thing, the available articles about Native American Indian Dogs that come up on the entire first page of Google search results are more or less regurgitated, slightly reworded variations of the same questionable information written by people who’ve never owned a NAID in their lives. (I know this because I read them all – like the incorrigible dog nerd that I am – and was supremely disappointed by their generic quality.)

For another, Seneca’s own hypothyroidism diagnosis and Stephanie’s experiences discussing NAIDs with other breed owners led her to understand that a limited gene pool, excessive inbreeding, and lack of breeder accountability are causing rare health issues and autoimmune disorders to crop up in this developing breed.

I get a lot of flak from the NAID community because I often warn people away from the breeders and steer them to either more responsible/ethical breeders or rescuing, all while doting on how wonderful my dogs are. That doesn’t mean the breeders won’t change for the better, and I’m hoping their standards become much stricter while preserving the original heart of the mix I love.

I still think the NAID as I know it is a wonderful mix, and I don’t fault the dogs for the breeder practices and overbreeding/lack of health testing. Yet I know I’ll never get another, because my knowledge and ethics about dog breeding have changed so much in the 5 years since I’ve gotten Sen. I just couldn’t justify it for a pup that is a bit of a wild card. It makes me sad… But I also know I’ll likely rescue a similarly-mixed dog in the far future.

Dylan, a man with dark hair shaved on the sides and in a topknot ponytail, kneels on a wooded trail next to gray and white NAID Lakota
Dylan the Dog Dad with Lakota

An Effective Marketing Ploy

It is a very effective marketing ploy of “designer dog” breeders to invoke hybrid vigor as a substitute for genetic health testing – as if mixing more than one breed together will magically wipe away any existing inherited disorders – but genetics just don’t work that way. For instance, a German Shepherd with hip dysplasia crossed to a Malamute with hypothyroidism will produce puppies at risk for both health problems.

Stephanie also found out that Lakota’s breeder, who at least claimed to do genetic testing, “has since become horrible in her kennel conditions and upkeep.” (Stephanie and Dylan actually had the opportunity to foster Lakota’s mom for a while, which she described as “such a wonderful experience.”) Some people are even outcrossing to wolves and illegally selling the hybrids, and Stephanie questions whether there are any truly responsible/ethical NAID breeders at this time.

Feeling strongly about all she’d learned, Stephanie once implored her Instagram followers:

PLEASE do your research on breeders AND breeds. Rescue when you can, and only support extremely ethical and responsible breeders. If you’re paying thousands for a dog that has unknown lineage, isn’t fully health tested with good results, and wasn’t given proper socialization and care since birth – walk away.

Let's Try This Again

So when it came to looking for another prospective service dog, Stephanie took her own cautionary advice. She wanted a Collie – preferably a Rough. (Most people choose Smooth Collies for service work due to the easier maintenance of a short-haired dog, but Dylan and Stephanie clearly like their dogs fluffy.) The more they searched, the more impressed they were by Kate and her Romany Collies. Kate was everything they hoped to find in a breeder: “extremely responsible, ethical, and known for producing good service dogs and healthy Collies all around.”

Just one little issue – their top choice was in Oregon, while they lived clear across the country in Maryland. Plus, they were getting married soon, so it really was not an opportune time to add a third dog to their pack. But then Stephanie saw a picture of a new Romany Collie pup that Kate called Ypsilanti. “That little girl kept coming up in my thoughts,” she said. “But still, a puppy and wedding planning? Crazy.”

a tiny fuzzy puppy lies on her back with toungue sticking out and paws waving in the air
"We fell in love from the first photo."

Yet it just so happened that Ypsilanti’s litter would be ready to go to their new homes the very same week that Dylan and Stephanie planned to visit family and friends in Oregon, where they would be just a 20-minute drive from Kate.

Though both parents of the litter were Smooth Collies, they were genetically rough-factored as well, so little Ypsilanti actually turned out to be rough-coated. While Stephanie and Dylan both agreed that coat type and color were backseat priorities compared to the all-important requirements of “personality, health, and drive,” they had also been “secretly hoping for a merle or white Rough Collie.”

A sable merle (tan and white with some blue in eyes) Smooth Collie lies on her side smiling happily while nursing her litter of puppies
Sky with her litter of puppies

It Seemed Like Fate

Though the couple had wanted a Romany puppy for a while, they had not yet signed up for the waiting list. Luckily for them, Sky had given birth to a large litter of 11 puppies.

There were a few spots unclaimed on that list. But no way no one would pick the pup named Ypsilanti before that – we were 11th on the list! But what if? So we put down a deposit. And then that day came to choose, and Ypsilanti was available. It seemed like fate… And so Vasya the Wilding became part of our family.

Vasya, a shortened form of Vasilisa, is a Russian name meaning regal, royal, or queenly. “Katherine Arden, author of the Winternight Trilogy where Vasya’s namesake comes from, gave her personal blessing and approval of the name and of her,” Stephanie said. “Our scrappy Wilding is blessed five times over.”

Baby Vasya lies on her back in the grass with mouth wide open
"Vasya is petitioning for it to be Chewsday."

When the Mother of Doggos announced Vasya to her Instagram following as their “official psychiatric service dog prospect,” she started an unofficial countdown. “We will be picking her up in three weeks! Ah guys, I AM SO EXCITED.” Then, “16 days until we meet Vasya!” Then a herding aptitude update:

Little #VasyaTheWilding had her first experience with duck herding over the weekend! Apparently she took to it well, so we’ll definitely be planning some herding training for her once she’s old enough. Less than a week and we’ll have her! The anticipation is killing us 😍

Vasya, a white Collie puppy with a brown spot at the base of her tail and a brown head, follows ducks through a field
Vasya's first herding instinct test was a success.

Fearless and Unflappable

Finally Vasya’s “Gotcha Day” arrived, September 1 2018, and Stephanie said, “We instantly fell in love with this fearless little furbean.” Vasya’s first few days with Stephanie and Dylan were full and could easily have been overwhelming for a small puppy at the tender age of 2 months! But Vasya took on each new experience as an opportunity for adventure, facing everything with gusto.

She played with the much larger Shaniko the Borzoi puppy, who belonged to their friend Maren, and also bonded with Maren’s service dog Saxafrax (Frax). She met several other dogs and cats, as well as baby goats – which she constantly attempted to herd. Vasya showed such potential that the couple eagerly anticipated introducing her to herding classes at 6 months.

Tiny Vasya lies in the grass beside a red merle Australian Shepherd
Saxafrax possibly passing on herding dog and service dog wisdom to Vasya

When they flew from Oregon to Florida to visit more family, Stephanie said Vasya “was FANTASTIC on the planes – slept the whole time!” The boys, Lakota and Seneca, had stayed in Florida being dogsat by Stephanie’s parents, and there Vasya was successfully introduced to her new brothers. At last, they had the long road trip back to Maryland and Vasya’s new home.

“She is so fearless and adaptable, and has not backed down at anything she’s come across,” Stephanie reported on Instagram. “This little girl is gonna be a handful, and we are so excited!” Boldness and confidence are excellent qualities to have in a service dog, as they must remain unflappable in novel situations. After they arrived back at their house, Stephanie updated her fans:

I can’t get over how easily Vasya settles in, and how nothing fazes her. I think she’s going to make an amazing service dog, as she already is very bonded to us and has picked up on commands quickly. We’re head over heels for this tough little girl! It’s been hard getting back into the swing of things after two weeks of vacation, but the only one who has remained unfazed around here is Vasya! And boy, she’s been running the boys ragged.

Dylan rides in a car with a happy little Vasya in his arms watching out the windows
Vasya and Dylan on the road trip

Playful and Bossy

Lakota was so thrilled to be reunited with his people that he quickly forgave them for plopping a fuzzy little bundle of mischief into his life, while Seneca’s acceptance of Vasya was perhaps a bit slower and more grudging – or maybe just ambivalent. Stephanie said, “Since the day we brought her home, she has ignored the boys’ grumbles and bossed them around in her sassy little way.” About a month after Vasya joined the family, Stephanie wrote:

I am so glad we decided to expand our pack when we did. The boys are at the age where they’re settling down… and wise enough to make good influences on Vasya. She reminds them to play, and they remind her to settle. I love our three-headed dragon so much.

Lakota has especially taken on the job of Vasya’s counselor and guardian, and it’s so sweet to see him watch over her. Vasya really looks up to Lakota, and I find it adorable. She mimics his actions, follows him around, and bugs him to play with her constantly. He can get grumpy about it when he just wants to relax, but I think he’s also enjoying a sibling taking such interest in him.

Often, the advantage of having a pup and an adult dog at the same time is a puppy will keep an adult young, while an adult will keep a puppy safe. This dynamic would be especially important in the coming months, as Dylan and Stephanie were prepping to take on the “52 Hike Challenge” in 2019 and would be spending lots of time outdoors with their dogs.

Vasya and Lakota beside each other on a rocky outcropping in the woods
Vasya and her big brother guardian Lakota

Adventurous and Vocal

Stephanie described Vasya as “an adventurous baby.” Before she accompanied the couple on her first hike, she spent a weekend tagging along with them for some socialization during wedding preparations and celebrations. Stephanie was pleased to see her remain steady through it all, labeled her as #TinyButMighty, and said, “Can’t wait to see how she takes to service dog training!”

She carried that same fearless attitude into her first outdoor adventure at Cunningham Falls State Park and enjoyed herself immensely. Stephanie said, “This was the day we were happy to find Vasya loved the wilderness as much as we did.” They toted her in a backpack so as not to overwork her developing joints, but she instantly demanded to get down once they arrived at the waterfall. “She was so eager to explore; no ledge was too scary, no climb too steep,” Stephanie enthused. “So excited for our little adventurer to meet the world!”

vasya backpack thumbnail
Play Video

Video of Vasya backpacking in style

Throughout the remaining months of 2018, Stephanie and Dylan planned to fit in as many hikes as possible, which was an excellent way to increase Vasya’s endurance, get mental and physical workouts for all involved, and develop the family bond. Stephanie said that watching the dynamic grow between Vasya and Lakota was an adventure in itself.

She may drive Lakota crazy half the time, but when these two hit the trails, they go into pack mode and watch out for each other. No time for pestering when there’s a forest to explore! Guess it’s time to move into the woods for all our sakes. 😂

Seneca’s normally very reserved when at home, but when he’s on a hike, he comes alive with this need to explore every inch of the trails. It brings me such happiness to see him roam about. This sweet boy shines most when given free run outdoors.

I am so glad Vasya has the same love of nature that Lakota and Seneca have, and I hope she never loses that sense of wonder, even as we continue her service dog training. This little pup is going to do wondrous things.

Vasya at about 3 months old, still very small as she stands next to her big brothers Lakota and Seneca
"I can confirm: the best (and worst) things come in threes!"

As Vasya grew, she was most likely to be found out in front on hikes, impatiently leading the pack. “Vasya’s like a little forest spirit or will-o’-the-wisp, dancing around in front of us and making sure we’re following,” Stephanie told her Instagram following. “She’s also like a harpy, because she screams. So. Much. (#JustCollieThings).” This garnered some sympathetic and understanding comments from other Collie owners.

k9freud: “Collies have a lot to say.”

adventurecollie: “Ah yes, the Collie soprano – we have a bit of that here, too.”

Little Vasya makes her way carefully and boldly over moss-covered rocks

Feisty and Vocal

Not long after bringing her home, Stephanie commented, “I imagine Vasya’s inner monologue is basically, ‘You wanna fight me, punk? I’ll MESS YOU UP. JUST YOU WAIT UNTIL I GROW REAL LEGS’.” While still small in appearance, she was large in presence. Basically, if Vasya was in a room, you would know about it. She was personality plus.

At Stephanie’s and Dylan’s wedding in October, Vasya threatened to upstage the bride and steal the show. She charmed children into giving her belly rubs and playing with her, chewed flower arrangements, contributed some vocal Collie input to the proceedings, and received petting (as well as her leash to gnaw) in exchange for her silence during the ceremony.

Vasya receives love and cuddles, held and hugged by one of Stephanie's bridesmaids
PC: @landrum.photography

Stephanie said, “I can never get enough of her feistiness! Big or small, doesn’t matter, she’ll face them all.” Her refusal to be intimidated by anyone or anything was an asset to her training. Stephanie once joked, “Vasya’s motto is definitely, ‘Scream loudly and carry a big stick.’ She is not to be messed with!” Yet Vasya is able to juxtapose being sassy as well as sweet, feisty as well as cuddly.

A service dog must learn helpful tasks to assist their human, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have fun and learn some tricks, too. Stephanie’s “forever favorite Vasya trick is chompies,” an utterly perfect expression of her feisty personality. (My Aussie mix Freckles does this trick, except in our house we refer to it as “alligator.” Something about those little teeth snapping together is so entertaining. 10/10 – would recommend.)

Baby Vasya chews a wedding flower arrangement
"Though she be but little, she is fierce." - Shakespeare

...And Vocal

When people say things like, “Herding breeds can be very vocal,” believe them. While Stephanie had been warned and knew that Collies of every flavor (Smooths, Roughs, and Borders) can be quite talkative, it’s one thing to be aware of something and another thing to personally experience it. Stephanie said, “Getting used to a herding breed is both fun and challenging. I hadn’t expected quite the extent of vocalizing a Collie could do.”

Collies have a wide range of vocal abilities. They may grumble, moan, whine, and make assorted sounds which have been variously described as cow, wookie, or bear noises. (Think black bear, not grizzly.) Sometimes they treat people to a sigh of pleasure or a snort of disgust. Occasionally, they will howl musically, or make expressive “roo” sounds of disapproval or affirmation that sound suspiciously like attempts at human speech.

Seneca, Lakota, and Vasya stand on a rocky outcrop, with Vasya howling like a little wolf cub
The call of the wild?

They also do plenty of regular old barking – plenty – but even the barks may vary considerably to suit the occasion. The same 60-pound Collie can produce a deep, bass “watchdog” bark to warn away potential predators, then transition to a high-pitched yap of alarm, frustration, or excitement that you would swear came from the throat of a 7-pound (3 kg) Yorkie had you only heard and not seen it.

In Vasya’s case, Stephanie drily commented, “She’s beauty; she’s grace; she’ll scream loudly in your face.” This very vocalness is one of the reasons many trainers prefer not to use herding breeds such as Collies or German Shepherds as service dogs. It takes a special, understanding kind of handler to work well with a Collie, since a Collie will often communicate audibly and extensively with their people.

Vasya with mouth wide open in mid-bark
Maybe if I say it again LOUDER the humans will get it!

Independent Halfling

Describing three-month-old Vasya, Stephanie said, “She has a will of her own and ain’t afraid a’ nothin’!” Such independence is great – up to a point. But above all, a service dog is a member of a team and must be willing to take commands from a handler. At 4 months old, Stephanie reported:

Watching this little girl grow up has been such a great experience. She is learning patience and asking us for help for things she can’t do (such as getting on the couch) rather than just constantly throwing herself at things. While I still admire that tenacity, it’s her ability to work with the family and look to us for guidance that is really going to shape her into a great service dog.

Vasya lying comfortable on the rocky forest floor like she belongs there

Dylan and Stephanie often compared their pack to characters from the Middle Earth universe, with Lakota making a great Aragorn (the king concealed as a Ranger), Seneca being a perfect Legolas (the handsome elf prince), and their Bulldog friend Atlas representing an ideal Gimli (the gruff dwarf). Though Vasya was getting larger by the week, she was still so much smaller than the boy dogs that Stephanie and Dylan referred to her as a Hobbit. (For those who aren’t fans of The Lord of the Rings fantasy series, a Hobbit was also called a “Halfling,” due to being only half the size of the average human.)

One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle… He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Vasya stands beside Seneca on a rock against a background of fiery fall color in the autumn woods

“And this is why Vasya the Wilding is the Hobbit of our fellowship,” Stephanie said in regards to that Tolkien quote. “She’s very much a Samwise the Brave when it comes to surmounting obstacles and her drive to keep people happy and safe.” In The Return of the King, the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit Frodo was basically credited with saving the world from the dark lord Sauron; but Frodo himself testified that he “would not have gotten far without Sam.”

Growing Pains

But before Vasya was compared to brave, self-sacrificing Samwise, she was likened to mischievous, clumsy Pippin (also a Hobbit). There comes a point for most puppies when their bodies are developing faster than their limb coordination. Stephanie spoke of how she sometimes feels like she is stumbling through the woods with 2 left feet, but she added, “Vasya is way clumsier than any of us.”

Vasya face plants into the snow as she attempts to run through a snowy field with Seneca and Lakota
“Life is not about how many times you fall down. It's about how many times you get back up.” - Jaime Escalante

And as Vasya grew in size, so too did her ability to get into more things. She definitely kept The Mother of Doggos on her toes.

When you haven’t properly slept in four days but you gotta keep watching the puppy in case she tries to eat anything questionable again. Or destroy the cushions. Or steal food off the counter. Or roll in mud…or eat the mud….or…well, anything and everything! 😂 #PuppyWatch

Vasya and her brothers often seemed to share an affinity for mud. As Stephanie put it, “We’ve accepted that Sen is essentially our ghost companion who haunts our daily lives and roams the puddles of the forest.” Regarding one photo of Vasya and Seneca delighting in their dirtiness, Stephanie called them “the two fluffiest, most absorbent pups around” and said, “Gonna have to change my name to Mother of Sponge-os with the way these dogs soak up water. And mud. And suspicious puddle liquids.”

A muddy Vasya stands on wet, mossy rocks by the riverside
"A rolling stone gathers no moss. A rolling Vasya collects all the mud."

Help for the Holidays

In celebration of Vasya’s first Thanksgiving, Dylan and Stephanie decided to head to Pennsylvania with their dog family to take part in a team-building exercise. Stephanie posted a picture of the fast-growing Vasya and said, “We’ll be spending our holiday hiking in the Poconos with just us and the pups. So much to be thankful for this year, including this cutie!” She also stopped to reflect on her gratitude for the pack as a whole.

Every day I look at these pups and realize how lucky I am to share my life with them… There is no denying the unyielding affection and love from our babies vastly improves our lives. I’m still often amazed at the strange concept that there is an animal living in my house, looking to me for direction and care. Anyone else stop and think about how weird a concept that is?

These three amaze me every day with their love and caring. I am so thankful for them. They teach me so much in patience, unconditional love, and excitement about the world. I don’t have an easy job, and sometimes the weight of the world’s suffering sits heavily on my shoulders; but every moment I spend with these pups reminds me that there is good out there. If only everyone had the heart of a dog!

Family photo: Dylan has his arm around Stephanie, who is holding Vasya in the air in her arms, while Seneca and Lakota sit on the ground in front of them
So many good dogs

In December, there was a lot to look forward to with Vasya turning 6 months old, Stephanie celebrating her own birthday, and of course, Christmas with the family. The Mother of Doggos started a campaign to raise funds for the continuing training Vasya would need in order to become a fully-fledged service dog. Dylan and Stephanie even offered to match donations with hand-crafted gifts from their online shop.

On the festive day itself, Stephanie told her Insta family, “Vasya wishes you all a wonderful, fur-filled howliday! Her first Christmas has been such a success: she’s played all day with the kids, snuck lots of treats, opened the presents, and run nonstop. Love this little girl!”

Vasya sits before a lighted Christmas tree wearing a Santa Paws hat
Christmas is jolly with a Collie!

And for a New Year’s resolution, Stephanie and Dylan determined to take on the 52 Hike Challenge “with our own modifications/requirements to make it more challenging: every hike counted toward it must be with at least one dog, and the same hiking path cannot be repeated.” This would mean traveling farther and farther afield to find new trails for their weekly hikes.

Confession: I love my dogs more than I love most people. I would rather hang out with them in the woods than about 90% of any parties or social events. And I am pretty sure they feel the same way about us – except maybe Seneca. His favorite place in the world is the dog park, where he doesn’t even pay attention to any humans!

A woodland scene with Dylan in a winter coat sitting on a fallen tree trunk, Lakota standing on the log next to him, Seneca on the ground at his feet, and Vasya peeking her head over the log behind Dylan
"Build your tribe, love them fiercely, and revel in their wonders, for they make the world worth living."

Wonder and Excitement

Dylan and Stephanie got 2019 off to a good start by making time for a weekend writing retreat at the beach, and Vasya’s SDiT (service dog in training) status meant she got to accompany them. Dylan enjoys scribbling away, though Stephanie describes herself as “the more serious writer.” In college she majored in English with a double minor in French and Creative Writing, and she currently writes short stories while working on a novel.

Though Instagram is primarily a picture-oriented platform, many of the descriptions accompanying Stephanie’s photos reflect her literary background.

There’s a beauty in discovery. Vasya’s awe at the ocean reminded me why exploring is important and how much we take for granted. I admittedly loathed the long drive to get to the beach, and I have been so in my head with depression and stress lately that it was hard to truly appreciate the privilege of the weekend trip.

That is, until I saw how Vasya lit up when her feet met the sand. Everything was new and exciting, and she was both uncertain and delighted: so she kept running around regardless, fear overtaken by curiosity. That made everything worth it. I hope she gets many chances to experience that joy, and I hope that I don’t miss a moment.

Vasya lunges into the surf with a look of absolute delight on her face
"Love this seaside wanderer and her love of all things new."

With a cross-country move being planned for later in 2019, Stephanie said, “This year will be one of change and new adventures, and I think more than anything, that’s what we need. I’m taking a page from my pack’s book and letting the pull of new surroundings keep me going.”

Devotion and Empathy

In January, Stephanie and Dylan lost a family member, and their dogs were hugely instrumental in helping them through the grieving process. Building the bond between a handler and service dog means spending quality one-on-one time, and Vasya’s enthusiasm in particular was a salve to Stephanie’s emotions when most needed.

I had made some self-care time to go on a quick, snowy hike with Vasya. This girl was such a bright star against the gloom, so excited and full of energy. It’s impossible to not feel better around a presence like hers: she wants to explore with you, to make sure you don’t fall behind, to look into your eyes and see that you’re sharing the same moment. I love this little girl, with all my heart, and it’s so clear that she loves us, too.

Vasya stands on her hind legs attempting to eat snow clumped on pine branches above her head
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light." - Hellen Keller

Good writers are usually prolific readers, and the Mother of Doggos often references books she’s read, quotes directly from them, and provides commentary. Discussing the Winternight Trilogy‘s protagonist and fictional inspiration for Vasya’s name, Stephanie said, “I couldn’t have chosen a better namesake for her. The two are so alike in their fierceness, determination, and devotion. I highly recommend these books for any fiction, folklore, or fantasy fans out there.” (I can second that recommendation.)

“Has the world run dry of warriors?” she asked. “All out of brave lords? Are they sending out maidens these days to do the work of heroes?”

“There were no heroes,” said Vasya between her teeth. “There was only me.” ― Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower

Vasya stands outlined against bare branches, head held high and teeth slightly showing
Not the hero we asked for, but the hero we needed.

In Stephanie’s job working for an international security company, she sees “a lot of horrible things going on in the world on a daily basis.” Unlike most of us, who can just choose to ignore certain things when we want to avoid the stress of it all, Stephanie has to filter through bad news for a living. It weighs heavily on her.

I carry great sorrow for the millions suffering. When personal struggles arise, it gets even harder to bear all that at once. Sometimes it’s a burden to feel things so deeply; but even so, I am truly grateful for being an empath, as I’d much rather feel strongly than not at all. I think that’s why I am so invested in my dogs – they also empathize in ways that often surprise me.

While I see the pain in the world through my work, dogs can just sense it. And even if they don’t always know how to make things better, they try in the best ways they know… Empathy is so important – it reminds us we’re in this together. I feel like dogs know this inherently, and that’s why they bond so strongly. The world would be a much better place if we embraced empathy and compassion in the ways our pups do.

Vasya, Seneca, and Lakota stand outside amid falling snowflakes
Whimsical trio

Though Vasya was not yet 7 months old, her mental development was progressing almost as quickly as her fluffy coat was growing in. She learned a lot by watching her big brothers, especially Lakota, who had the most experience reading Stephanie’s emotions. “He immediately comes to me when I’m feeling off, either cuddling, performing DPT (deep pressure therapy), or standing next to me on guard,” Stephanie said.

Vasya was fast learning to ape those behaviors. Even Seneca surprised Stephanie by how close he stayed to her and Dylan as they grieved. “He’s so quiet and mellow that he can be hard to read, but he’s far more intuitive than I give him credit for,” Stephanie concluded. “Not expecting him to work has really let me see that side of him.”

Seneca lies on the floor with head pillowed on paws and bright blue eyes looking deep enough to pierce into your soul
"An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language." - Martin Buber

Hiking and Healing

Spending time outdoors hiking with their dogs and taking pictures of them was more than just a pastime – it became a way for Dylan and Stephanie to heal. There is a great deal of simple comfort to be found in immersing yourself in the things you love.

More than ever I’m realizing how much photography feeds me. Trekking through the woods with the pups and capturing their wonder has brought me endless joy. Photography has become a way to focus on the present for me and to appreciate all the small details of a moment. Every little detail is beautiful in its own way, and finding that harmony in composition through the lens makes me feel more connected to the scene in front of me… I love every step of my journey through photography, especially when I get to work with my pups.

Seneca, Vasya, and Lakota stand among tree trunks like pillars, all staring off into the distance while facing opposite directions
"Always on patrol, surveying the forest, not paying attention to mom or the camera."

If you’ve been paying attention to the timeline, some of you may be wondering right about now: hiking? In the winter? In Maryland?? Those who have ever had the mixed blessing/misfortune (depending who you ask) to live in or visit a snowy region in the depths of winter may well shiver at the thought. And you may even question Stephanie’s sanity for making statements such as, “Snowy hikes are our favorite!”

Having grown up in the Great North, I can say that perhaps it does take a certain type of madness to venture forth in frigid temperatures and enjoy the experience, despite all expectations to the contrary. But consider this – hiking through winter woods means you will almost always have the trails to yourself! As Stephanie said, “Hiking when it’s freezing has its challenges, but it’s worth it for the eerie, abandoned coldscapes.” And with a move to hot and sunny Florida planned for later in the year, it could be their last chance to experience a northern winter for a while.

seneca (red and white Native American Indian Dog )and lakota (gray and white NAID) pose before a frozen waterfall
Frozen falls

Subtle Growth

After a February hike with Vasya, Stephanie commented, “She may be fearless, but she’s not foolish. This girl won’t step in the river unless she has to.” This hesitation was a good sign. For the sake of safety, boldness in a budding service dog must be tempered with caution and good sense.

When Vasya turned 8 months old, Stephanie lamented the rapid growth rate of puppies and said, “Can we make a law that requires puppies to grow twice as slowly, please??” By that time, Vasya was about 55 pounds (25 kg) and nearly done growing physically. Apparent changes in size after that were largely an illusion, as her coat had yet to attain its maximum floof.  But there was still a lot of mental development to be done, though that progress was more subtle and slow, like spring growth creeping out in late winter.

Even in the chill of winter, when the crunch of feet in snow echoes against tree trunks and carries down the mountain – even then, you can feel the life around you. Wandering in winter forests is like sneaking past sleeping giants. There’s a slow creaking in the branches like calming breaths and a heightened awareness of the dormant energy waiting to burst. We saw tiny flower buds sneaking out on branches against the melting snow… We were guests in a place we were lucky to experience.

Vasya stands in the snow howling at the sky with head and ears thrown back like a wolf
"And we are children of the wild, with earth in our veins and moon in our souls."

Keeping Up with Vasya

While the weekly hikes were a wonderful way to teach Vasya about cooperation and discretion, on a simpler level they were an outlet to release her pent-up energy. “It takes a special soul to climb a mountain through snow and ice and come back still wanting to run and play,” Stephanie commented. Clearly, Vasya had that herding breed stamina.

The dogs’ approach to the forest began to alter their humans’ perspectives on nature and life in general. By April, Stephanie was reflecting on what she’d learned in the first 15 hikes of the year and offering introspective #PhilosophyFriday thoughts.

Vasya constantly explores with an excitement that reminds me to slow down and wander. More and more we are going off the trails, stopping to appreciate the small details. Sometimes we call to the boys when they get too far off-trail or are lagging behind, but in those moments I often stop and think, “Why? Where are we going, anyway?” And usually I’ll go see what they’re exploring or stop and take in the surroundings.

Hiking is never about the destination; but sometimes, as a professional editor constantly working toward the end of projects in an office setting, I forget to take things slow. There is so much nature has to offer that we never see when stuck in goal-oriented mindsets. Small moments like these remind me there is no right way to do something, and it’s okay to change course halfway through…. To follow that wandering thought even if you’re not quite sure why.

Vasya steps confidently to the end of a large, knobby fallen tree that serves as a lookout
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have... miles to go before I sleep." - Robert Frost
Before long, Dylan and Stephanie had an excitement to explore novel locations that nearly rivaled Vasya’s. When she felt that the pack had gone too long without a woodland ramble, she put her favorite trick to good use. “Vasya has been literally chomping at us to go hiking,” Stephanie reported one day in May. Then, for her own sake as much as Vasya’s, she began making plans to get Hike 21 underway.
vasya chompies thumbnail
Play Video

Video of Vasya’s Chompies trick

Having a Herding Breed

In the spring of 2019, Vasya reunited with Shaniko, her Borzoi friend and playmate, when Stephanie took her along to visit her friend Maren at the Borzoi Club of America National Specialty show in Pennsylvania. At the time, Stephanie said, “It’s really made me want to get into showing. Might have to get a show Collie next.”

Whether or not Borzois (also known as Russian Wolfhounds) were introduced to Collie bloodlines back in the day to “refine” them is actually a point of contention amongst Collie aficionados today. Still, Collies’ long noses and even the white coloring (like Vasya has) do lend some credence to the theory that Rough Collies are distant cousins to Borzois.

A red and white adult Borzoi lies outside next to a grey and white Borzoi puppy
Borzois Jimmi and baby Shaniko PC: Saxafrax Borzoi

Stephanie said that seeing Vasya side by side with the elegant Borzois really “highlighted just how much of a Hobbit she is to those Elvish doggos.” In regards to Vasya’s own pack, Stephanie reiterated, “She remains the Hobbit component of our little fellowship.” Adapting to a herding breed was still baffling and amusing for the Mother of Doggos.

She is similar in so many ways to the boys – including the need to cuddle, picky eating, and the weird sleeping positions – but so different in others. She asks me for commands constantly and outfoxes the boys left and right. She’s a Wilding, but she’s our Wilding. I’m certainly a devoted Collie fan now!

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the Collie expression. Vasya openly expresses her feelings, and luckily for us, they’re usually moments of pure excitement. And when they’re not, she’s usually just screaming in frustration! She’s a certified firecracker.

Vasya poses outside before a blooming blue hydrangea bush highlighted by setting sunlight
Oh the joy!

In June, Vasya learned to channel that energy into her breed’s original purpose when she had her first herding lesson. Her past instinct tests and subsequent behaviors indicated she had more inherent herding drive than many Collies of her same bloodlines, so it was no surprise that she took naturally to herding.

But Vasya’s strong shepherding drive could be an impediment on their woodland walks. Naturally, any squirrel with the audacity to descend to the forest floor needed to be chased until it ascended into the trees where it properly belonged. “We only work on her off-leash training in safe locations with no chances for her to dart off,” Stephanie explained. “She has that herder need to make wide circles around us, which isn’t ideal if we’re hiking, so we want to get her off-leash heel perfected.”

Vasya trots briskly through the forest
Collie on a mission!

Many Collies (my own female Yoshi included) have a strong urge to keep the pack together. Vasya was inclined to enforce togetherness, but she sometimes had her work cut out for her when it came to keeping her canine brothers close to her humans. Usually Seneca was practically perfect off-leash, until he found water. Then all bets were off, as Stephanie joked that he became “an unstoppable force” until he could immerse himself in the H2O. Lakota too was quite the water dog.

Lakota, once given freedom around a creek or river, has some weird compulsion to just briskly trot off into the watery distance and never look back. Boy just GOES. “I’m sorry mother, but the river calls. I must go now.” Like, why bro? You’re not a seal.

Lakota wades through a river with an intent expression on his face
Lakota the water dog

Birthday Girl

Vasya had truly accomplished a lot in her first year of life, including developing a relationship with the two older dog brothers who had initially been unsure about welcoming her into the pack fellowship. To commemorate her first year of life, The Mother of Doggos offered this video montage and appreciation post on July 4th.

vasya 1st birthday thumbnail
Play Video

Video of Vasya’s 1st birthday

She has grown such a strong, antagonistic little-sister bond to Lakota and Seneca that both brothers constantly watch over her (and she over them). She was the loud, yapping little flower puppy in our wedding, the current coordinator on hikes, the emotional manager of Dylan and me, the Champion of Chompies, and the newbie excited herder of sheep and ducks.

She has a long way to go in her training; but every day is such a joy with her, even when she’s screaming at us to go on a hike. In essence, she’s the perfect addition to our pack. Happy birthday, Romany Collie’s Vasilisa the Brave. [Vasya’s full registered name with the American Kennel Club.]

Vasya, Seneca, and Lakota stand in the sun in a green wood
The Adventure Pack

From North to South

In August, Vasya and her clan moved to Florida for a short-term stay with family. This allowed Stephanie and Dylan to sell their house “without the impediment of three dogs to move around during showings.” Temporarily living with Stephanie’s parents (plus their 2 elderly Miniature Schnauzers) gave the young couple time to save money and prepare for their permanent move to the Oregon/Washington area where more of their family and friends lived, and where they were already accustomed to making an annual trip. 

The pups have settled in nicely. Vasya in particular has been ECSTATIC to be in a new place with more dogs, more family, and more land to run around in. The boys are adjusting to the heat, but they’re getting some romps in. Vasya is loving chasing lizards around and chewing on palm fronds. So many fun new things to destroy!

 
Vasya lies in a green, sunny yard chewing on a fallen palm branch
Something new to sink her teeth into!

As many who have raised a dog can testify, “puppy brain” can last far beyond the first year of life! Some dogs aren’t mentally mature until between the ages of 2 and 3. Even past the celebration of her first “Gotcha Day,” Vasya was still keeping her people alert, particularly as she retained the tendency to explore new things mouth-first. “Just today, I had to grab a lighter out of her mouth,” Stephanie reported in mid-September. “Who knows where she found that. Still, Vasya is definitely the easiest puppy we have ever had!”

Unsurprisingly, Vasya also had the easiest time adapting, probably by virtue of both her age and personality. With the area they were staying in being humid, subtropical, and coastal, it was practically a whole new world. Lakota and Seneca, with their northern snowdog blood, had difficulty adjusting to such a different climate. Seneca seemed particularly thrown off by the feeling of a different type of grass underfoot.

Vasya and Seneca stand on a sandy beach before a glorious sunrise
Vasya with clearly no reservations about the move

From Forest to Ocean

Stephanie also struggled with the regional change. “Though I was born here,” she said, “I have never felt it to be home as the forests of the Northeast did.” But Vasya was still raring to go explore, they had a hiking commitment to keep, and they couldn’t spend all their time indoors sheltering in the air conditioning.

So Stephanie devoted time to learning about the local species of flora and fauna. “Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that in order to become native to a place, we must first speak its language,” she explained. “I am learning the language of this new land as much as I can, so I can get that sense of familiarity again and help the dogs to embrace it, too.” In the end though, it was Vasya who helped Stephanie embrace their new home.

This little girl just can’t get enough of all the new adventures down here. She throws caution to the wind and seeks to explore every crevice and path she can find. Her excitement at new places and experiences is contagious, and I definitely have her to thank for enjoying the temporary move to Florida as much as I do. I used to hate this state growing up, but I am finding a fondness for its weird landscapes and abundant wildlife.

I love how comfortable with the world Vasya is. She fits in wherever she goes, always excited and enthusiastic. From the snowy mountains of New York to the hot, swampy woods of Florida, she is a solid companion. She loves her people, and her people are many. Have I mentioned how in love with Collies I am??

Vasya sits on a rock before a waterfall
Queen of Cascade Falls

True to her name, Vasya had a regal way of viewing everywhere she tread as her realm. “The little huntress strolls through her woods as if she is queen to every thing she sets paw upon,” Stephanie observed. “Collies truly are a royal breed – or at least, they like to pretend they are.” (My own male Collie, Sir Gustav, has a similar high opinion of himself. You have to admire their confidence.)

Much to Vasya’s delight, she also became reacquainted with the sea. “Vasya has become quite the beach Collie in our short time in Florida,” Stephanie said. “She walked into the surf like it was nothing, and has had SO much fun finding crabbos and chasing birbs.”

Vasya sits on a beach farseeing with a radiant Florida sunset behind her
Vasya the Farseer

From Smeagol to Eowyn

In yet another reference to a Lord of the Rings character, Stephanie had once compared the gawky, fumblefooted version of Vasya to Smeagol, a malformed, sly creature who was probably once a hobbit. When I asked Stephanie if her view of Vasya had altered, her response was, “She has had quite the glow-up! Dylan and I both agree she’s much more Eowyn now: fierce yet compassionate, nearly fearless, commanding, and a little independent-minded in what she thinks is best!” (Eowyn was a princess who defied convention to protect her people.)

Vasya’s puppyhood clodhopper days were behind her, yet she had her relapse moments. “She has gotten very dexterous as she ages, though she has still fallen in the pool three times now due to overconfidence in her turns when really fired up,” Stephanie told me. “She’s also rolled off the bed a few times while sleeping!”

Vasya lounges on porch furniture with her tongue sticking out
Majestic derp

One odd but nonobvious aspect of Vasya’s physical appearance was a set of double nipples on her belly. Stephanie was initially worried that she might have a lipoma, but it turns out that misplaced or extra nipples in dogs are not very uncommon or much cause for concern. (My own girl Yoshi also has a pair of duplicate nipples.)

Vasya really stopped growing after like 9 months. She’s stayed around 55-60 pounds [25-27 kg] since then, and she has very dainty paws! We call them her tiny peets. She remains mostly unchanged, minus her coat coming in more. She’s getting fluffier even in the Florida heat!

Vasya lies under a palm frond panting and happy
Well-insulated pupper

Closing Out the Year

One quality Vasya never lost was her constant inquisitiveness. Stephanie posted a picture of Vasya on her Instagram account with this accompanying Albert Einstein quote: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Then she added, “Not saying Vasya is Einstein, but she’s definitely a curious little bitch!”

Her pun prompted this response from Collie owner and dog trainer extraordinaire k9freud, “Collies are ALWAYS curious! (#busybody)”

“And such control freaks!” the Mother of Doggos replied.

I can’t believe Vasya is now a year and a half old. She still looks like a puppy to us. 😂 But she is so much more than we could have hoped for – she’s super cuddly, extremely smart and curious, very family-oriented, and has even lightened up on the barking! I think we could all learn a thing or two from a Collie: keep your people close and love them fiercely, keep all doors open, and always keep chompin’.

Vasya sits in an awkward position with teeth parted in a mock snarl
"Okay Monday, one step closer and I will unleash the chompies!"

As planned, Dylan the Dog Dad, the Mother of Doggos, and Canine Company completed Hike #52 of the hiking challenge in December. Their search for uncharted territory had taken them into 5 different American States. “We’ve scrabbled up mountains, explored old growth forests, slogged through swamps, and adventured everywhere in between,” Stephanie said. Their next goal is to take the dogs hiking in all the US mountain ranges.

Honestly, the constant trips out into nature with pups was one of the things that kept me grounded during all the life challenges this year, and I am so grateful we have that escape. It’s been a year of ups and downs, discovery and downfalls, but one constant has been the unceasing love of my pack. Through thick and thin, they’ve been there right at my side. I couldn’t ask for a better group of pups to surround me. Well… maybe there’s *one* way to make it better, but we’ll see in a few days. 2020 is going to be a very, very exciting year!

Seneca lying down, Lakota sitting, and Vasya standing on a beach with a vibrant sunset behind them
"I could never tire of the colors shifting in the sky."

Such is Life

Stephanie was right that 2020 was going to be a very exciting year, but I think most of us could do with less excitement… On a personal level though, Stephanie was referring to the earlier-than-anticipated addition of a fourth (or sixth, depending how you count) dog to their pack.

“Ever since I met Maren’s Shaniko, I fell in love with the Borzoi breed and wanted nothing more than a Shaniko pup of my own,” Stephanie said. “He was goofy, affectionate, and heartbreakingly beautiful with his floating gait and majestic floof.” When she had attended a Borzoi dog show, she described it as “a special kind of utopia, as I met an amazingly kind and fun group of Borzoi folk and was surrounded by hundreds of weird noodle dogs.”

shaniko, grey and white grown-up Borzoi, stands posed outside in a "show dog" stack stance
Grown-up Shaniko, a.k.a. Ch. Adrienne Zooropa Massandra Palace PC: Saxafrax Borzoi

By then, Stephanie had already spent time studying the breed and didn’t hesitate to promise her good friend Maren of @saxafraxborzoi that she would co-own a puppy from Shaniko’s first litter, because it was expected to be an event far in the future. “Except life had different plans, as it often does,” Stephanie said wryly. And so little Rusalka (fancy name: Saxafrax Wild Rushes Adrienne C’est la Vie) came home. “She’s already getting used to our crazy pack of puppers, cuddled with us all night, and has loved every single human she’s met,” Stephanie said.

Suddenly, Vasya wasn’t the baby of the family anymore! She had a puppy to raise, and she took her responsibility very seriously. “One day in and Vasya and Rusalka have been playing all day!” Stephanie said on Instagram. “Unfortunately that also means Vasya has shown Rue her secret digging spot… Hopefully true to her name, Rusalka won’t mind when we bathe her.” (In Russian folklore, a rusalka is a water nymph or spirit.)

A selfie with Stephanie and Rusalka, in which little Rusalka's long face is snuggled against Stephanie's face
"Found a strange unicorn in the woods... I think I'll keep her and see how it goes."

Adopt or Shop

Stephanie also announced her plans to enter the conformation show world with Rue, which may have left some of her followers less than pleased. The “adopt don’t shop” slogan and hashtag is popular on Instagam, sometimes accompanied by very anti-breeder opinions. As someone who has both “adopted” and “shopped,” owns a crossbreed as well as 2 Collies, and sees the benefits of rescuing and breeding – I appreciated this entire post from Stephanie.

Let’s talk about purebred dogs! As someone who used to frequently say, “mixed breeds are healthier than purebreds,” I look back on years of research into responsible and ethical breeding and see just how much I’ve changed on my opinions. I hadn’t known how many breeds are still judged on qualities that allow them to perform their original purpose… That realization for me highlighted the importance of breeding for type and function, and why it’s so important to continue responsible breeding of purebreds. A well-bred Borzoi should have solid structural qualities to chase, catch, and hold their quarry. A Rough Collie should have the wit and structure to herd. We owe these breeds to continue their legacies as dogs of function and skill.

I’m all for rescuing and have had rescues and fosters who have been amazing. We should celebrate every dog, and rescue as much as possible. I regret supporting certain breeders in the past who were unethical and irresponsible in their practices, which is why I feel so strongly about this. Purebred does NOT mean well-bred! When people breed for profit rather than improving the breed, when they disregard fulsome health testing and temperament evaluation, when they lack goals for their lines regarding function and standards – they are unethical. It’s unethical to make a living from constantly churning out multiple litters of puppies throughout the year. It’s irresponsible to breed only for looks or size or color. If you are tempted by these types of breeders for your next companion dog, please rescue instead. If you are patient, you can find a rescue dog with the look and personality you desire.

There are some great breeds in progress/non-AKC breeds with strict standards and groups of dedicated breeders adhering to these standards, such as Silken Windhounds, Tamaskans, and Berger Blanc Suisse. I’m not here to belittle their hard work. I’m just sick of people using backyard or unethical purebred breeders as justification of their own poor practices or rescue-or-die mentality. If you only want to rescue, that’s great! Please do. But remember – responsibly-bred purebreds are not your enemies here.

Vasya stands on a forest path with Rusalka (a white Borzoi with blonde spots) leaping in the air near her
"B-b-b-Bennie! Bennie and the jets!" - Rusalka, probably

One of Stephanie’s most engaged followers, @blkgermanshep, commented, “Excellent post. We absolutely need well-bred, purpose-bred dogs. If we don’t, then the only dogs available will be the offspring of the irresponsible!” Of course, Stephanie didn’t need to take the time to defend her choices to purchase both Vasya and Rue and compete in hobby pursuits with them, but it was nice that she did. 

Canine Co-Parent

With 4 humans and 6 dogs temporarily living in one household, it was bound to be chaos at times, but Stephanie and Dylan worked hard to ensure it was occasional and controlled chaos. “Enforcing boundaries and ensuring everyone has their own space helps a lot!” Stephanie said. To their surprise, Vasya was a huge help in that endeavor, especially when it came to pacifying the elderly pair of Schnauzers who’d had their space invaded.

Vasya is frequently trying to groom [the Schnauzers] or lick their faces when they get irritated at the other dogs for being boisterous. It’s worked surprisingly well, even with the big gangly puppy that is Rusalka (thanks to Vasya’s micromanaging!). We often call Vasya our co-parent, because she helped teach Rue manners and keeps her occupied and out of trouble for the most part. 

She works to make sure all 6 dogs are on good terms, and even when she snaps at Rusalka for biting too hard or crossing boundaries, Vasya immediately licks Rue’s head as a follow up! She is just the sweetest little mama, and it fills my heart with such love. UGH. Thanks for coming to my Vasya TEDtalk.

Seneca and Lakota look on as Vasya chases Rusalka around the back yard
Hard to keep up with a long-legged sighthound!

While Vasya and Rusalka were fast friends from the get-go, Lakota was initially indifferent, and Seneca occasionally considered playing, only to end up on the same grumpy wavelength as the Schnauzers who just wanted their previously calm lives back. “Sometimes I look into Seneca’s eyes and feel like I truly understand him,” Stephanie claimed. “I stared into those icy pools, and they conveyed deep truths: ‘I am so sick of these nosy motherfluffers.’ Yes, we truly understand each other.” As Stephanie put it, Seneca could have quite the “grumblestare” when perturbed.

Not going to lie – handling 4 dogs on a hike with two people is definitely a new challenge, but it’s been getting better every time. I still laugh at how ridiculous it is we now have 4 dogs, but it is so worth it. This little one has brought us so much joy in such a short time. She’s smart, motivated, sweet and graceful, yet also goofy and stubborn. I love her personality and what she’s added to our pack. We are so grateful to have a smart and resilient little noodle like Rue. Dog raising is a full-time job, y’all, but I couldn’t wish for a better pack to grow with. These guys have my whole heart.

All 4 dogs in various sitting, lying, and standing positions wear harnesses while sitting on a park path
The dream team

Task Training

Vasya’s natural mothering qualities extended to the humans of her pack, too. In a way, this made it easy to train her for certain tasks such as deep pressure therapy. “We trained DPT largely by shaping her instinct to nurture and be close when we’re in distress, so it was half natural and half honing,” Stephanie explained. In April, an incident befell Stephanie’s mom that showed just how firmly Vasya adhered to her DPT training.

Vasya is relentless when it comes to caring for her family. My mom recently sprained her back and could barely move, and Vasya would NOT leave her. I had to wrestle her away since she was trying to lie on top of Mom, and she wiggled right out of my grasp twice! She may be the smallest in the pack, but she has the biggest heart.

K9freud, with her thorough understanding of canines in general and Collies in particular, commented, “Collies just know what’s needed and get so offended if you second guess their efforts!”

“SO offended!” agreed the Mother of Doggos.

Vasya lies outside on a porch swing next to Dylan, who is hunched over diligently scribbling in a notebook
Mother knows best

Vasya also learned to do several interruption tasks, like gently pawing at Dylan’s or Stephanie’s hands to forestall anxious behaviors like nail biting and licking Stephanie’s face to stave off panic attacks. Lakota still had the responsibility of providing medication reminders at home, and Vasya too was learning to emulate that task.

My fearless, caring girl. Even though we got her for service work, I still never imagined she would grow up to be such a natural caregiver. She is in tune not only to my emotions, but those of the entire house, along with physical ailments. She’ll draw attention to bruises and swelling people didn’t even notice they had. Basically I love her a lot, y’all, and she’s such a stellar, rock-solid pup.

Vasya is in Dylan's lap, nearly obscuring his face as she licks it
Deep pressure therapy? Cuddles? Face licks? Vasya does it all!

Though Stephanie’s self-consciousness kept her from posting much online about Vasya’s public access and task training, she and Dylan had been working hard with Vasya from the beginning. When possible, they took her with them everywhere they went. Ironically, Vasya’s natural maternal and herding instincts – the very qualities that made her an excellent SDiT – also provided a unique training challenge.

The biggest point of public access training has been settling/remaining calm when in busy situations, for which we were seeking help with a trainer,” Stephanie said, “as she likes to micromanage and gets frustrated when there are people (especially children) who are running around without her supervision.” Stephanie’s social anxiety made that aspect of owner-training difficult and necessitated the help of a professional to get past that snag.

Vasya’s on a waitlist for a service dog trainer down here now, so we are continuing to just train her with what we can until we can get in; but I have a feeling she’ll be great, as she already has some cues down and has a strong working drive. Since I work a lot, it’s hard to really give the dogs all the training they need and deserve, so progress is slower than I’d like, especially as far as Vasya’s service work… but I’m hopeful.

Vasya lies on the floor wearing a blue service dog in training vest
Vasya just wants to help everyone!

Pandemic Pandemonium

As has happened for so many people worldwide, the 2020 coronavirus craziness hit the pause button on Stephanie’s and Dylan’s life plans. “The pandemic has certainly extended our plans for staying down here, as the real estate market isn’t great for options and Dylan’s employment was affected by the closures,” Stephanie told me, but added that “we are lucky to be with family during this time.” Yet the past few months have been particularly hard month for Stephanie, since she doesn’t have the luxury of unplugging from the news cycle when it gets to be too much.

In a world full of uncertainty and fear, Vasya is a rock, full of love and care. I’m not doing so great, as seems to be the case for most of us these days. I’m extremely lucky to still have a job; but I am also sick and very overworked, as most of my work has shifted to processing alerts for every COVID-related government mandate around the world.

As a result, I can’t really turn away from the disease news and have precious few hours of downtime, so I’ve had several anxiety attacks. Every single time, Vasya is right at my side or giving DPT, licking my face, and keeping me from spiraling down. She’s also prevented a few episodes with distraction and comfort, and she checks in on me constantly even though we’re just at home all day. She is just an absolute caretaker and the best SDiT I could ask for. Love this girl!

Headshot of Vasya outdoors with ears tipped and an alert expression on her face
Semper Fidelis

Yet true to her empathetic nature, Stephanie refused to stay focused on herself. She told her 8,000 plus followers, “If anyone is having a rough time, please know you can always talk to me, and also? If you just want a derpy video of the dogs or to request a virtual pet or shoutout or anything, just say the word! The pups are more than happy to share their happiness and love!”

Continuing Education

Vasya’s public access training has necessarily been much reduced compared to the amount of public practice they were logging pre-pandemic. Her herding lessons have also been put on hold until they relocate to America’s west coast, due to the longer driving distance to reach a trainer and the complications of working in the intense Florida heat. Meantime, the couple plan to attempt a more summer-suitable form of exercise and entertainment.

While Vasya has given herself a few accidental dunkings in the inground pool, she has yet to swim voluntarily. All the dogs enjoy wading, but so far Dylan and Stephanie have had no luck coaxing any of them into the pool. “This summer we hope to strap Vasya into a life vest and get her going, so we’ll see if she likes it!” Stephanie said.

Vasya bounces through a shallow creek
Splish splish splash!

Task goals for Vasya include training her to create a barrier with her body that will give Stephanie some space and breathing room to prevent her from becoming overwhelmed or claustrophobic in crowded areas, as well as learning to locate building exits when necessary. Vasya may also provide reasons for Stephanie to remove herself from tense situations. For instance, if Vasya is trained to whine in response to a subtle signal, that would give Stephanie the perfect excuse to take her for a potty break. (They’re about halfway done with that task.)

The Mother of Doggos also intends to train Vasya to wake her if she experiences asthmatic distress while sleeping, and to have her fetch medicine when needed. Detecting and alerting to the presence of black mold – “a major asthmatic trigger” for Stephanie – is also on the helpful task wish list.

If you would like to contribute towards Vasya’s continuing service dog training, you can donate to her “Vasya Goes to School” Go Fund Me account. Funds may also help to give Vasya a fun break from work, since Dylan and Stephanie hope to continue her herding lessons as well as possibly take up the Fast CAT (Coursing Ability Test) sport with her once they’ve relocated to Oregon. According to the AKC, Fast CAT “is a timed 100-yard dash where dogs run one at a time, chasing a lure.” It would probably be a blast for Vasya.

After all, dogs, rather like people, learn best when they are enjoying themselves, and Vasya’s sweet, fun-loving spirit is a big contributor to shaping her into a great psychiatric service dog.

the quest begins thumbnail
Play Video

When the party accepts a quest and the reward is a pack of toilet paper. TIME TO EARN THAT ROLL! #DungeonsAndDoggos”

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Hang in there, friends. It’s hard, but we have each other, even if not physically. In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty around the world, just do the best you can: remain compassionate, put one foot in front of the other, and wash your hands.

Social distancing playtime thumbnail
Play Video

“Trying to play with your neighbors while practicing social distancing.”

If you’d like to keep up with Vasya’s continued service dog training and other adventures of her pack, follow them on Instagram @motherdoggos or TikTok @themotherofdoggos.

🌲🐾Kota, Sen, Vasy, and Rue🐾🌴
Dog Trainer
The Best Dungeons & Doggo Pawty
Lakota – MalamuteX, Paladin
Seneca – HuskyX, Bard
Vasya – Rough Collie, Cleric
Rusalka – Borzoi, Rogue

Dedicated to Maren’s heart dog and service dog, Saxafrax, in loving memory. Stephanie said, “Saxafrax was an amazing dog, and her and Maren’s bond through service work is what inspired me to look into service training in the first place. Maren helped me with all my research and finding a good trainer. Frax was the first herding dog I ever fell in love with, so I don’t think we’d have Vasya if it weren’t for her.”

A red merle Australian Shepherd stands at attention on a driftwood tree trunk with the deep blue ocean in the background
Australian Shepherd Frax of @saxafrax_borzoi fame.

Recommended related dog accounts to follow:

Some of Vasya’s siblings and kin are @yukon_the_smoothie@romanymcqueensavagebeauty, @dantetheroughcollieservicedog,  and @pnw_canines.

You can follow some of Rusalka’s relatives! Stephanie said, “Rusalka was co-bred by @saxafraxborzoi, Adrienne Borzoi, @wildrushesborzoi, and @laureateborzoi! They’re all amazing.”

Vasya lies snuggled against Shaniko, a much larger gray and white Borzoi (Russian Greyhound) puppy
Vasya and Shaniko as puppies and snuggle friends

Keep up with Lakota’s family! Stephanie said, “He has had play dates with almost half of the pups from his 12-sibling litter now, including @2_pittsburgh_pups and @kms_dukie.”

Gawk at Seneca’s glorious clan! “He has a lot of siblings and half-siblings that are STUNNING – @uma_gram@wolfpackmountain, @loki_the_nas, @the_shadow_moon_experiment, and others,” Stephanie said.

Vasya plays tug with a big stick and Seneca's sibling, Bowie, who looks almost like a clone of Seneca
Vasya plays tug-the-stick with Seneca's lookalike sibling Bowie

Further Reading: Service Dog Tasks for Panic Disorder, PTSD, and Depression

All pictures and quotes attributed to @motherofdoggos unless otherwise specified. Some comments edited and abridged.

Emily Sowulewski

Emily is an avid writer, blogger, and Collie lover who collects and posts stories about Collies from around the world. Submit a story, ask a question, or just say hi; Emily would love to hear from you.