Most of the herding dogs of the British Isles trace back to a common ancestor—the big, black-and-tan mastiffs brought by Julius Caesar around 55 BC to guard and drive livestock to feed the Roman army. Of course, British and Scottish sheepdogs do not look much like mastiffs. This is owing to the influence of small herding spitzes brought by the Vikings after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The two dogs, mastiff and spitz, proved to form a powerful combination.
Ever afterward, sheepdogs were a part of everyday life on the desolate pastures of Scotland, the hilly country on the border with England. Ancient writers tell us that the sheepdogs of the Border country could be trusted to take a flock out to graze during the day and herd them safely home at night. Early on, the farm collie, or Scotch Collie as it was called at first, was bred to work.
Life went on the same for centuries, each generation of farm collie being more or less like the last. But matters suddenly began to change with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, wool and mutton became big business. Shepherding morphed from a matter of subsistence to more of a commercial enterprise. Scottish farmers expanded their flocks considerably, but of course this meant that they needed greater assistance in handling them. A good dog was often cheaper than a shepherd, and frequently more reliable. Greater efforts were made to improve the farm collie, enhancing his speed, precision, and obedience.
In 1860, Queen Victoria made a trip to Scotland and fell in love with the humble farm collie. Almost overnight, the shepherd’s dog became the devoted companion of the aristocracy. However, wealthy breeders preferred a fluffier dog with a more refined build. A split began in the bloodlines of the farm collie, the aristocratic version assuming sole ownership of the name Scotch Collie. This dog was also called the show collie or just the Collie, and is the breed now exemplified by the immortal Lassie. The dogs that stayed behind in the hill country to work were just known as sheepdogs.
At this time, however, the ideal sheepdog had yet to come to the forefront. Whenever shepherds met, it was inevitable that the conversation would turn to sheepdogs and, often, to boasting about the best dogs. Some dogs drove stock before them, while others fetched sheep to the master; some were incessant barkers, while others preferred to work silently. Since the situation was the same wherever sheep were worked with dogs, shepherds conceived the idea of holding contests to settle the disputes.
The first sheepdog trial in history was actually held in New Zealand, but the first trial of note was hosted in Bala, Wales, in 1873. A Scottish dog named Tweed won prizes for both herding and beauty. But the future of both herding trials and sheepdogs changed forever in the 1890s when Old Hemp appeared on the scene.
Old Hemp resembled a modern Border Collie in every way, from his appearance to his working style. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not bark while at work. He controlled his sheep with a hypnotic stare, willing them to obey. His method was unbeatable—Old Hemp won every herding trial he attended his whole life through. Little wonder that Old Hemp became both the standard and the fountainhead of the Border Collie.
Some of the best Scottish sheepdogs were brought to America beginning in the 1880s, often to work on the expansive sheep ranches of the West. For about 100 years, the Border Collie was simply a good working dog.
In the 1990s, however, the breed became more familiar to the general public. Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club was in the midst of an expansion phase. The Border Collie was added to the Herding Group on October 1, 1995, creating a split between show and working bloodlines that still sparks heated debate today.
Whatever its purpose, the Border Collie is incredibly popular given its energy level and exercise needs. It is the 38th most popular dog according to AKC registration statistics, and it can be found working on many farms and ranches all across the country.
Don’t be confused by the fact that there are working Border Collies and show/pet Border Collies—all Border Collies need a job, no matter what bloodline they come from.
Working Border Collies are serious dogs that pretty much have to put in a full day of strenuous work to be content. These dogs need to live on a sizeable farm or ranch with plenty of opportunities to herd sheep. Some working Border Collies have enough force to handle cattle, as well.
AKC Border Collies are slightly more laid-back, making good companions for active families. They thrive in the hands of owners with a competitive streak, whether it comes out in canine sports like agility or human sports like marathon running. Given the right climate, Border Collies can even make excellent sled dogs in middle-distance races. Of course, herding is still appreciated by many AKC Border Collies. However, their lower octane levels help them to be content with herding in AKC trials or on hobby farms.
In their spare time, most Border Collies make good watchdogs.
The Border Collie is nothing if not intense. He loves nothing better than to work and to please. If his mind is kept busy, he is calm, reliable, and impeccably well-mannered. If he has to find his own jobs and entertainment, however, he is prone to a whole host of compulsive behaviors, including herding shadows, chasing cars, chewing furniture, finding new ways to escape, and barking at nothing in particular.
In keeping with his subtle methods of reading and controlling sheep, the Border Collie is exceptionally sensitive. This creates a unique set of training challenges:
- A Border Collie puppy should be introduced to a wide range of people, places, experiences, and (particularly) sounds, all in a safe, fun way. Otherwise, he is likely to develop severe phobias during those early, insecure weeks.
- Consistency is all-important. The Border Collie can detect the most subtle changes in tone, an important skill for dogs that must respond to distant whistle commands when herding on expansive ranges. As far as the dog is concerned, a word means one thing when spoken in a high-pitched tone and something completely different when spoken in a low tone.
- Punishment should be kept to a minimum when training. The Border Collie cannot handle harsh reprimands, and will act irrationally when punished. Fortunately, he truly wants to please, so this type of discipline is rarely necessary anyway.
- Praise should be delivered with perfect timing. A poorly timed word of praise can reinforce bad habits, especially since the Border Collie needs only one or two repetitions to completely master a new behavior. For this reason, many Border Collie owners use a clicker to train their dogs, since most trainers can press a button with much greater speed and precision than they can speak.
The Border Collie is happiest when with his family, with whom he bonds very deeply. He can get along quite well with older children, other dogs, and even the family cat (depending on the personality of the cat). He displays a strong instinct to keep all of his family members in a group, making him prone to separation anxiety. Unfortunately, this gathering instinct can also lead to dangerous situations with small children. If children run from him, a Border Collie may try to hold them with his teeth. He is not being aggressive—just controlling his flock.
When herding sheep, the Border Collie works with a style seen in no other breed. He naturally tends to make sweeping runs, working at a considerable distance from his flock. However, he can still maintain a high degree of control with his stalking approach and his unnerving stare. This intent gaze is known as “eye.” Because of his reliance on eye, the Border Collie typically prefers to work at the head of his flock. However, he is quite versatile, and can be taught to drive animals in front of him, or even to tend livestock in an unfenced pasture. Likewise, the Border Collie can learn to work either independently or under tight control from the handler.
Note that the AKC Border Collie is more relaxed than the working Border Collie, although still full of energy.
Health problems common in the Border Collie breed include:
- Lens luxation.
- Collie eye anomaly, a genetic defect that prevents the eye from developing properly.
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Allergic reactions to flea bites.
- Multi-drug resistance, which can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medication.
Epilepsy has been seen in a few dogs, as has osteochondritis dissecans, a painful joint condition in which cartilage and bone die and crack.
Never breed two merle dogs together. The resulting puppies may be born white, blind, and deaf.
Note that the Border Collie is a serious workaholic. He will not stop working just because he is too hot or tired, so owners must be alert to prevent heatstrokes.
- Unparalleled ability to learn.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Work ethic.
- Incredible herding instinct.
- Need for constant companionship.
- Tendency to chase cars and small children.
- Susceptibility to phobias and compulsive behavior.
- Need for consistent training.
- Need for a challenging job.