Barbara Sykes has a special relationship with Digby.
The lively, intelligent collie was taken in by her just days before he was due to be put to sleep.
“He was just two weeks old, and had been brought to a pound in the north of England with five other pups,” she says, “We took them in with their mother, who was in a very poor condition.”
Sadly, two of the puppies were so weak they could not be saved. The others were hand-reared to gain strength.
At five weeks it became evident that Digby was different. “When I called the other pups over for food, he did not respond – he carried on sleeping,” says Barbara. “We knew that he was deaf and would need extra help.”
A year on, and, thanks to Barbara’s care and attention, he has learned to round-up sheep.
“He responds to body language such as hand signals, and you don’t need lots of tid-bits and treats.”
Digby and his brothers and sisters are among the dozens of border collies rescued and nursed by Barbara and a number of volunteers at Mainline Border Collie Centre in Bingley.
Based at Golcar Farm, where Barbara was born and raised, the centre acts for the charity Freedom of Spirit Trust, a charity which gives sanctuary to needy, old, infirm dogs or those in need of rehabilitation or healing.
“We have more than 40 dogs,” she says, “We admit dogs that have been abused, but increasingly, dogs are arriving whose owners cannot manage them. A lot of young dogs come in whose owners have had them for a short length of time and then given up.”
Too many people are breeding sheepdogs, leading to a glut of puppies who need homes, she says. “There is a huge supply of puppies in the UK. People carry on breeding them, having two, three or four litters a year, and yet there are dogs in pounds up and down the country dying, and no room in rescue centres.”
Barbara, who as a child used to bring stray dogs home, founded the trust with a friend, accountant David Maitland. “We have a welfare team here too that deals with health and other issues. If a dog is seriously ill, we will discuss what is best course of action.” Another team deals with fundraising and raising awareness.
The trust also has a sanctuary unit of older dogs that cannot be rehomed. “It is perfect for senior citizens – nine to 12-year-old dogs who do not want to do a lot of walking,” she says.
The charity depends upon donations to help keep the dogs. “Lots of people sponsor a dog, and others give blankets and towels, which really help,” says Barbara, who also gives talks about her work.
Barbara has been training and trialing dogs all her life. She was brought up with collies and has over the years developed a vast experience and understanding of them.
As a national and international sheep dog trialist, she had eight consecutive years competing with her dog Meg in English National trial events. The pair were members of the English team in 1983 – the year Mainline was founded.
The centre offers help to both owners and dogs with handling sheep, basic obedience, problem-solving, canine behaviour and ways of thinking, plus countless other topics.
A flock of sheep is kept on the farm and Barbara’s daughter Vicki, who lives next door, runs a sheepdog training and handling school as well as a trekking centre. She also helps with the running of Mainline and the trust.
It also provides sheepdog experience days, when people are taken through the basics of working a sheepdog.
Says Barbara: “In working sheep, a sheepdog focuses 100 per cent on what you are doing, so to work a dog you also have to be focused – so much so that you forget your bills and any other worries. It feels like going back to nature – back to basics.”
Corporate team-building and leadership skill events are also held.
Barbara’s love for the dogs in her care shines through as she describes their different characteristics and personalities.
“Every one is special for a different reason. I lost one last year who was 15-years-old – we were very close, but they are all special. I can’t remember a time when we have had less than 20 dogs, our own homebred, plus rescues.”
Barbara doesn’t breed border collies commercially, only to replace other dogs. “We rarely have fewer than six dogs in the house,” she says. The others live in kennels with runs, and can race around to their hearts’ content in exercise paddocks.
She never tires of living and working with dogs. “With a dog, what you see is what you get. They are very misunderstood. You cannot assume that a dog understands what you are saying. You also have to communicate through body language and movement.”
As Barbara – who moved to Nottinghamshire where she lived for 20 years before returning to Bingley – works in her office, Digby lies at her side.
While the rest of the litter gained strength and were rehomed, a decision was made to keep him at the farm.
“He is a typical one-year-old collie – he’s full of life, intelligent, friendly and full of curiosity. After getting him tested at the vets, it has been a big learning curve.
“Digby is amazing – he ‘hears’ through his nose and feet. He picks up on vibrations and can sense things. He once detected a fire in a field a quarter of a mile away. It is fascinating to watch him.”
For more about the Mainline Border Collie Centre, ring (01274) 566250, or visit bordercollies.co.uk. An event on the future of dogs and dog ownership is to be held on Sunday, April 29 at Newark Showground. For more details, contact Barbara.