What is a Border Collie?


First, I must say that I grew up around Border Collies until I was a teenager, on farms in the midwest and recently came back to them after an extended absence. I never knew as a kid that they were called Border Collies - I just knew them as "farm dogs". I was always fascinated by them and fell in love with several during my childhood. All the dogs I knew were true working dogs, family pets, and boyhood companions. To this date, when someone speaks of them, the image in my mind is of a black-and-white streak racing across some freshly plowed field to a young boy just getting off the rural school bus or of a shadow on the horizon, following idly behind a farmer on his way out to the pastures. No frisbees, no weave poles, no ball-shooting boxes. It is this dog that I sought out in my adulthood to reclaim that place in my in heart that had never been reoccupied.

I still have several friends in the midwest with working Border Collies and several in the Canadian countryside. None of the dogs have titles, medals, or fancy letters after their names. Almost all of them are not even registered. My farming friends search far and wide for these dogs in their attempts to breed a better dog and I must admit, they do a tremendous job, even without technology, or registered titles, or fancy genetic reasoning. This breed is the best damn herding breed in the world, hands down. They are herders extraordinaire!

But I have a problem with the equation Border Collie = herder. There is so much more to the equation that gets lost with those that seek to simplify or restrict it. Let me give you an example.

The following story is true, and if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I never would have believed it. It is what I think a Border Collie truly is.


I had a friend in Nova Scotia that told me of this brilliant Border Collie a friend of his owned. Supposedly it was the smartest dog he had ever seen and he wanted to take me out to see it. We drove to a farm way out in the boonies, where I was introduced to a sweet old (50 or so, he seemed old to me at the time) farmer, his loving wife, their two kids (boy and girl), and their Border Collie "Western". Western was a younger dam and looked like any other "farm dog" I knew. But she was special. As we sat out on the porch, the farmer whistled to Western who lay sleeping in the shade of the barn in the back. Upon hearing the whistle, the dog jerked upright and then bolted across the pasture stretched out in front of us and eventually disappeared over the horizon. I wrinkled my brow at the sight but held my tongue. The farmer and his wife sat with us on the porch and we continued our idle chatter.

One half hour later, the dog reappeared over the horizon, with a flock of approximately 70 sheep cantering in a tight group out in front of her. Before they reached the pen, the dog sprinted past them around one flank, reached the gate, jumped up, and with her front paws unlocked the damn thing. She then proceeded to swing it open. Meanwhile the sheep had stopped to graze since the dog was no longer in pursuit. She returned to their rear flank and herded them all into the pen within about thirty seconds, all except one who decided it would sprint back to the field from which it came. The dog made several skillful maneuvers and sent the sheep back to the pen with the others. When all were in, the dog swung the gate closed, leaned against it until it latched, and then returned to its place by the side of the barn. All without a command from the farmer (except the initial whistle) and any assistance whatsoever.

I was amazed. The dog had just completed about a four mile outrun without batting an eye. I thought that the sheep might be trained to return to the pen but the farmer insisted that the dog had done it with novice sheep and a neighbor's sheep that were grazing on his land. He also said that the dog often went three or four hours roundtrip, if the sheep were extremely far away. It was a lazy man's sheepdog he claimed but he didn't mention how long it took to train the dog to do this. But that was not the extent of this dog's talent. The wife would often pack a lunch for the kids when they went off fishing or for her husband when he went to plow the fields but occasionally would forget to give it to them. She would give a paper bag filled with lunch to the dog, who would proceed to carry it to the person, absolutely intact and undamaged, generally several miles away. The dog also served as a carrier / messenger between them and their neighbor's house, three miles away. Recipes, notes, nails, rope, quarts of milk, you name it. The dog raced it back and forth with the mere utterance of the neighbor's name. The dog was also proficient snake-killer, henhouse guard, and flotation device for the kids at the swimming pond. The dog was the friendliest and most intelligent dog I have ever met and I would give my left arm to have gotten one of her pups and had the farmer train it. To me, this is what a Border Collie is.

If you think titles and letters after a dog's name are the only measure of a dog's ability or genetic instinct, I would suggest that you let your prejudices go a bit. Coming from a person with a lot of letters after his name, I would not for any moment suggest that they are the only judge of a person's intelligence. I do not look for wife that has lots of letters after her name. There are far more important qualities. Granted, they are a pretty good indicator of intelligence but they are not the only one. And they are not the only important characteristics. The same, I would dare to say, is true for dogs.

The Biology

The issue has been resolved in human genetics ("The Bell Curve" aside) and I'm not quite sure why dog breeders have forgotten it. It is not a question of what makes a dog more, nature or nurture, but rather, it is both. Border Collies are the top of the line herders, I have no doubt of this. But instinct does not guarantee an excellent working dog. Genes only go so far, the rest must be accomplished with intense training. I would venture to say that not a professional out there has had a Border Collie that they could turn loose and it herded sheep naturally, like my story above. It takes hard work and months of training to get a top notch working dog. Genes will never accomplish it alone. Genes are the basis for it all though. It is all about genetic potential. A trait may be absolutely 100 percent inherited but without the environment to express it, it will never show. Not to say that it isn't there. Like a person's height (which is highly heritable). If you don't feed your kids enough food, they won't grow up to be tall not matter what. But then again, without tall genes they won't grow up to be seven feet no matter how much you feed them.

Physical characteristics are very complicated and generally aren't so easy to predict as one would wish. One gene, one trait is so very rare. Many times it is multiple genes and polygenetic reactions are so difficult to predict. And this is all assuming the environment is the exact same. Two tall parents are never guaranteed to have a tall kid. It is more likely, but not a given. Behavioral traits are a whole different ballgame. Not only are they combination of multiple genes, they are probably swamped out by environmental effects. Herding is a behavioral trait. It is an instinctive behavior granted, but is a behavior nonetheless. If any breeder can guarantee me that a pup born from two advanced working dogs will have an advanced herding instinct is either lying or mistaken. These things (though breeding is directional) are not an exact science.

What Does It Mean?

I have a dog that I would breed, even though she doesn't have to work sheep for a living nor has she won lots of trial competitions. South Florida is not exactly "repleaeaeaeaeat" with sheep. That doesn't imply that she can't herd however. She will herd anything that moves, from sheep to ducks, to horses, to people, to bikes, to tennis balls, to even stars in the nighttime sky (though she has a problem with the outrun on them!) and she does quite well on sheep. To forbid her from breeding because her dad is too cheap to fly her to trials is, I think, egotistical on the part of the professionals. Not every dog has trialed, nor earned championships. I know that farmer's dog was the best damn herding dog I have ever laid eyes on. Western wasn't registered and frankly, the farmer didn't give a sh*t whether she was or not, whether she could trial, or whether she had fancy letters after her name. And I promise you that dog could herd circles around some of the champions in this country. However, she would probably flunk every trial too. She didn't know flanking commands, penning requirements, and she had never seen a crook. All she knew was how to get sheep back home and into a pen.

His farming friends and mine continue to breed the Border Collie the way it has been for the past 200 years. Without regard to title, color, or registry. The Border Collie arose without registries, trialing championships, and conformation requirements. But life has also changed for us (and Border Collies as well). The days of the lone shepherd and his faithful Border Collie wandering the misty moors of Scotland are gone. They have evolved and have been replaced. Motorcycles and massive sheep farms have forced the shepherds to adapt to a new way of life or die. I would suggest the same holds true for the Border Collie. The Border Collie is a herding dog, but it is no longer only a herding dog. The amount of people that need a good working dog in this country and others is small and grows smaller every year. Even the people winning trials don't always have a farm at home where the Border Collie needs to work. Trialing is a hobby, sport, whatever you want to call it. But trials do not encompass all Border Collies (or all working Border Collies for that matter) and some trial dogs don't even work. It is probably time that we face this fact and allow the Border Collie to evolve to other pursuits, always keeping in mind their roots and their abilities. I love the breed. Because they are the best herding dogs around but not only because of this. I love their intelligence, their sense of humor, their "loony streaks", and their overall gentle natures.

I know that the people that breed to AKC conformation standards have ruined many breeds. But I must remind you that it has not entirely ruined every working breed. There are still working Labs, German Shepherds, Goldens, sighthounds, etc. Those segments of the breeds bred entirely for conformation (i.e. physical characteristics) are the ones that suffer the genetic malformities. (Yes, some part of working ability has to do with sleek, flowing gait but what does eye color, ear prick, or coat length have to do with that?). There are those that lie outside the conformation rings that still breed for working abilities and their populations remain healthy. Breeding for a set of physical characteristics is where the problem lies. By selecting like physical characteristics, you end up reducing the genetic pool and thereby risking recessive problems. Breeding for behavioral characteristics, entirely polygenic phenotypes, results in a broad genetic pool. This is why the Border Collie has survived and thrived lo' these many years. They were bred for behavior, not eye color or ear length. I would suggest that those that breed for conformation are being near-sighted and narrow-minded. I would suggest those that require trial championships are being elitist and overly demanding.

I do not know the answer to the AKC problem. I am certainly no fan of the AKC ( none of my dogs will ever be AKC registered). But I have a feeling that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, requiring a working test of some kind but allowing for the new form of Border Collie - the SAR Border Collie, the agility Border Collie, the Frisbee Border Collie, the flyball Border Collie, etc. etc. There is a reason they continue to excel at all these functions. If the AKC changes and bows to the Border Collie community's wishes, then I say great. If not, then as lovers of the breed, breeders, and registries, we can only continue on our own paths and try to educate new breeders, owners, etc. about the outstanding qualities of the breed and the dangers of breeding for conformation.

I hope I have not offended anyone with this opinion. I encourage you all to "stay the course". And as I look down at the black-and-white ball at my feet and strain to hear the muffled cries of six little ones emanating from the next room over, I smile and hope that you always remember who we are in this for - those savvy, little black-and-white streaking farm dogs.

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