I first encountered Helen Phillips some two decades ago when I was still trying to figure out which end of the leash you fasten to the dog. OK, I had mastered that, but not much more. Cliches like "wet behind the ears" and "green as grass" were right on the mark.
At the time, I was training my Novice A golden retriever, Honeybear. But I had seen border collies. As a spectator, I had watched the amazing dogs of Janice DeMello and Helen Phillips sparkle at the Gaines in Denver. I was smitten. (How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm . . . ?)
But I was so new, so green, so naive. Would a border collie and a golden be compatible in the same house? I wondered. I voiced that concern one night at class. A friend said, "Helen Phillips has both, you should talk to her." And she gave me Helen's phone number in Arvada, Colorado.
Helen's reputation preceded her, reinforced by the smooth-as-silk excellence I had seen at the Gaines. It was with considerable trepidation that I placed the call. Looking back, I consider my query that morning to have been a dumb question. If Helen did, she didn't let on.
We talked for a long time, and Helen gave me her comparative assessment of the two breeds. Border collies won in a landslide. Of Gunner, her great, but by then retired, obedience golden, she said, "Goldens have that vacant look in their eyes. Nevertheless, I consider Gunner to be my dog." Then she went on to rave about the pizzazz that is border collies, from those intelligent eyes all the way back to the tip of the tail. I came away from that telephone conversation impressed with three things.
First, there should be no problem with Honeybear and a border collie under the same roof.
Second, I had to have one of those extraordinary dogs.
Finally, Helen didn't blow me off. Didn't treat me like a nobody (which I was) coming at her with a dumb question.
My next encounter with her came when Honeybear and I were in deep doo-doo.
In 1993 HB and I qualified in Open and entered the Gaines Cycle Central Regional Dog Obedience Championship in San Antonio, Texas. I was dancing in the streets. But a few weeks before we were to leave for San Antonio HB suddenly began retrieving the dumbbell , heading back to me, then spitting it out ten feet in front of me. Panic! Here we were, bearing down on the biggest competition of our lives and my dog was spitting out the dumbbell.
I called Helen. She listened to my tale of woe. Then she said, "When a dog does what you've described it's because something awful has happened when she's come to her handler. What are you doing when Honeybear gets back to you with the dumbbell?"
"Well," I began, "HB is a mouther. She comes in, sits in front of me, tilts her head back and rolls the dumbbell all the way back in her mouth. Then she begins to roll it around back there. She looks like a cow chewing it's cud."
"Then what do you do?" Helen asked.
"Recently someone suggested I smack both ends of the dumbbell when she starts to mouth," I replied.
"And what kind of dumbbell are you using?"
"Hard plastic," I said. I had gone to that kind because it didn't show gouges, tipping off the judge that here's a mouther.
"I would imagine the plastic is vibrating in her mouth and hurting her," Helen said. "Besides, smacking the ends of the dumbbell shouldn't be used as a correction for mouthing; it should be used as a correction for refusing to give up the dumbbell when you tell her to release it."
She then suggested a series of steps to rebuild Honeybear's positive feelings about the retrieve. I did all the things she suggested and within a few days HB was carrying the dumbbell all the way back proudly -- tail wagging, head held high. The crisis had passed.
For as long as I've been in the sport, Helen has been one of America's great teachers of competition obedience. Both in person and through her writings. She has written a column in Front & Finish ("The Minority Point of View," a play on the fact that she's Jewish) since long before I came into the sport. For 35 years she edited and wrote a column in the newsletter of the Mountain States Dog Training Club -- which accounted for the fact that that little club newsletter had paid subscribers all over the United States. I was one of them, for from Helen's writings there has always flowed a seemingly inexhaustible stream of common sense and sound advice about dogs and training dogs.
Several years ago I asked Helen what she was charging for a private lesson. Her answer surprised me: $20. That was far, far below the going rate, particularly for an instructor of Helen's stature. So I must have responded with incredulity. "Willard, I don't want anyone to be deprived of lessons because they can't afford them," she told me.
Somewhere in these paragraphs I should mention that Helen, a former obedience and tracking judge, has OTCH's, MACH's and other obedience, agility, tracking and herding titles numbering in the hundreds. There. I just did.
Recently Helen became ill enough to spend two and a half weeks in the hospital. Home now, her rehabilitation is paramount. Rehab aimed at getting her back to a normal life. At 78 years young, that normal life features agility. And Helen has chosen what as the focal point for her rehab? A new puppy!
Writing in her column in the current issue of Front & Finish, she explained her choice this way: "Is there anything that will make us more quickly forget the distraction of ill health or life's little problems than having a puppy to deal with?" That quote should be emblazoned on the wall of every rehab facility in the world.
They say, "Different strokes for different folks." And I can't think of a more appropriate rehab modality for the splendidly unique person that is Helen Phillips.
You go, girl!