Before you make the decision to get a Border Collie, you should consider
all of the following points carefully. After reading through this admonition
and educating yourself on the breed from other sources, if you still feel
like you can handle this breed and enjoy living the "Border Collie"
lifestyle, we encourage you to seek out a rescue dog. The following are
some very important questions that you should ask yourself before you decide
to get a Border Collie, along with their corresponding answers. Though
these are wonderful dogs, they certainly are not for everyone.
What is a Border Collie?
Border Collies are the fanatical black and white dogs that have been bred
to herd sheep. They come in an assortment of sizes and colors, though they generally
range from about 30 to 60 pounds and their "typical" markings are black
with a white collar, chest, head stripe (blaze), paws, and tail tip. These markings
are only the perceived "typical" markings, as Border Collies also come
in red/white, black/red/white ("tri"s), blue merle, red merle, mostly white, tan and black, brindle, sable,
and mostly black varieties. They are quite commonly seen in television ads and
Hollywood films (the dogs in the movie "Babe", for example, were
Border Collies). They are known for their incredible herding instinct and their
What exactly is "herding instinct"?
The herding instinct in Border Collies is a behavioral trait that has
been bred "into them" over the past two hundred years or so.
What many people fail to realize, even long-standing Border Collie owners,
is that the herding instinct is simply a modified version of the killing
instinct of wolves. The instinct has been toned down somewhat through selective
breeding. In fact, the instinct has not been bred "into them"
but rather, "out of them". Border Collies retain the circling
and gathering instinct so vital in hunting wolf packs but refrain from
actually going in and making the final "kill".
Rogue dogs however, are not uncommon, and in many European countries, Australia
and New Zealand, where the dogs are often allowed to roam free, sheep and
calf-killing Border Collies can pose occassional threats to livestock.
Many people say that once a Border Collie has tasted blood, they can never
be trusted again and normally, the dogs are summarily exterminated.
The instinct to herd in Border Collies evidences itself differently than
in most other herding dogs. Whereas most breeds of herding dogs drive the
livestock away from the handler, Border Collies circle the livestock at
the far end and bring them back to the handler (known as "gathering" or "fetching"). Additionally, Border Collies
tend not to use force (initially) to drive the livestock where they want
to but rather, use what is known as "eye", a sort of threatening
stare-down that intimidates the stock into moving in the desired direction.
If the non-physical means of moving stock do not work, a Border Collie's
natural instinct is to slowly escalate the encounter into an ever-increasing
use of force. Barking, nipping, and eventually gripping (biting) are used
to get the point across to the more stubborn sheep.
What are the two most common reasons people get Border Collies?
1) I heard they were really smart dogs and I wanted a smart dog so
it would be easy to train.
2) I heard they were great with kids and make wonderful family pets.
Though these thoughts may have some validity to them under certain circumstances,
for most Border Collies and owners, these ideas are fallacies.
Why do so many Border Collies end up in rescue?
There are generally three reasons that Border Collies end up in rescue
and they are all related to herding instinct. In order to understand these
reasons, you must be familiar with the instinctive qualities of herding
present in these dogs.
1) Roughly a quarter of Border Collies entering rescue (though this
varies with the region) are those that have not displayed strong enough
herding instincts to make themselves efficient herding dogs on working
farms. Rather than trying to work against the natural abilities (or inabilities)
of the dog, the working family gives the dog over to rescue so that it
can be placed in a more appropriate, pet home.
2) A larger proportion of the dogs are given up because they have
bitten someone, almost inevitably a child. The herding instinct, if strong,
is overwhelmingly incompatible with a household containing children - particularly
when the child and adult owners have not been trained or educated in how
to deal with the peculiarities of the herding instinct. Border Collies
can make good family pets, but only for those dogs that do not have the
intense herding instincts and for the families prepared to deal with the
ramifications of this behavior.
To a Border Collie, a child is basically a sheep without much wool - a
sheep in wolf's (kids) clothing if you will. A child running across the
backyard or out the front door is, to the dog, a sheep that has decided
to break from the fold. Seeing the child "making a break for it",
the Border Collie's natural instinct kicks in and it streaks out in front
of the child to cut off its escape. If the child is unprepared for this,
the experience of a dog cutting him off and staring or barking at him with
seemingly evil intentions, is quite a traumatic event. A normal child's
reaction to this is to become frightened, possibly let out a scream, and
run further and faster to escape the dog.
Since this child (sheep) is being uncooperative, the dog must escalate
his attempts to round up the errant stock by barking and nipping at the
heels of the child. A child's normal reaction to this is to become even
more frightened, run faster, and scream louder. This cycle escalates until
the dog must resort to its last means of control - gripping (biting), normally
used to grab an excessively stubborn/brave sheep or cow. The two natural
instincts of the child and the dog are entirely incompatible. The child
is doing what comes natural to him - reacting in fear to a threat and attempting
to flee. And the dog is doing what comes naturally to him - trying to round
up an escaping animal by ever-increasing uses of force.
3) By far the largest percentage of dogs are turned in because they
are "hyper" and far too difficult to handle. Most people are
either not willing, prepared, or able to put in the large time commitment
it takes to adequately exercise a Border Collie. Border Collies have been
bred to herd sheep and that requires a lot of physical stamina and endurance.
Herding sheep is an all-day activity and often entails miles of endless
running and sprinting across uneven patches of farmland. Obviously, not
everyone has the luxury (or burden) of owning sheep, so another outlet
must be found for this energy.
I train the dog not to herd the children?
No. The instinct, if present, is exactly that - an instinct. It is neither
trained nor learned. The behavior can be modified or channeled into other activities
(which is why Border Collies make such wonderful Frisbee dogs) or can be redirected
somewhat through training, but the instinct will always be there. No amount of
training, no matter how skilled the trainer is, can get rid of a Border Collie's
instinct to herd. A Border Collie in the herding "mode" is a dog that
misses, forgets, or simply ignores all commands and no amount of pleading from
the owner will work. Countless Border Collies are killed by cars every year because
the dogs, when the instinct kicks in, are oblivious to almost all other external
Can't I teach my children not to run from the dog?
Older children can be taught to stop dead in their tracks and avoid
this confrontation altogether. Since the dog does not perceive a continued
threat of the animal escaping, the dog relaxes and shifts into a more "normal"
Younger children may be taught to handle this experience with some degree
of calm but to expect a child that is younger than 5 to be able to confront
a running, snapping, growling, or barking dog with its teeth bared, may
be asking too much of even the most mature youngster. Parents can regulate
and supervise encounters with the family dog but for younger children,
this means never letting your dog alone with the child.
But even more problematic is the fact that children tend to hang around
other children. Unless you are prepared to teach each and every child in
the neighborhood and every child that enters your home how to cope with
the dog's instinct, the dog must be locked away in the presence of non-family
members. Border Collies tend not to be the kind of dog that you can let
loose to run with your kids around the neighborhood. It is often the "perfect"
dog that everyone felt they could trust that ends up biting a child - generally
because they are trusted and thereby exposed to many more of the potentially
How much exercise does a Border Collie require?
Actually this is an unanswereable question. It is similar to posing
the question "How much exercise does a hyper child need?" or
"How far does a thoroughbred horse have to run each day?" Obviously
you could keep the child locked in her room or the horse confined to his
stall all day, but this, for most of us, is an unacceptable response. To
truly exercise a Border Collie, you must be willing to put in a couple
of hours each day, in some form of exercise or activity. Border Collies
can remain confined to the house all day while you are away at work but
do not expect to come home and relax. You don't have to jog endless miles
with your dog (though you can if you'd like) - mental exercises are often
the most exhausting activities for Border Collies - but you must do something
with them each day. Otherwise, they will find an outlet for their excessive
energy and countless Border Collie owners can attest to this fact. I've included some of the Border Collie "horror stories" from current
owners just to show I'm not making this stuff up. Border Collies have
been described as having the energy output of a miniature nuclear reactor.
And like all nuclear power, it can be quite dangerous if it is not controlled.
If Border Collies are so smart, then why aren't they easy to train?
If you are not a precise sort of trainer (most people aren't), then
trying to train an intelligent Border Collie can be a frustrating task.
Yes, they can pick up commands on two or three tries but they are also
very perceptive and are constantly thinking. If, in teaching your dog to
sit, you raise your right hand and say "Sit", the dog may pick
that up the first time through. However, if the next time you repeat the
command, you raise your arm at a different angle and use a slightly lower
tone of voice or a different pace, a Border Collie will often pick up the
subtle distinction and think that you are using an entirely new command.
Border Collies have a difficult time learning to generalize, basically
because it takes a dog that is less "critical" to be able to
follow a sloppy command. Training a Border Collie can be like trying to
teach a nerdy child that likes to overanalyze everything - it can be frustrating
and an exhaustive exercise in patience.
What are the other problems with owning a smart dog?
Intelligence in dogs is a double-edged sword. Yes, Border Collies can
learn lots of tricks and can have quite a large vocabulary but they also
can learn lots of bad things too. Having a smart dog means waging a continual
intellectual war with your dog, trying to outsmart them as they figure
out each progressive intellectual step you take. Trying to confine a Border
Collie can be an exercise in futility. Just when you put in a gate, they
figure out how to get over (under) it. When you put in a door, they figure
out how to push it open. You put in a latch and they figure out how to
turn doorknobs. Some owners even swear that their Border Collies can pick
combination locks - though their paws make it hard to turn the dial. If
you do not enjoy engaging in intellectual warfare, especially with a non-human,
a less "perceptive" and somewhat "denser" breed may
be in order.
Is all this hassle necessary?
Unfortunately, many people spend far more time choosing their next
car then picking the right breed and dog for them. The decision to get
a dog should weigh far more heavily than the decision as to what make and
model car you should get, even if the expense of a car is far greater.
The main point is that a dog is not just like a car. It is a living, breathing
being with emotional qualities and a unique personality. A dog will be
part of your family from the moment you get it home. They need to be loved
and cared for with the utmost devotion and attention.
You must always remember that a dog is not like a car because:
a) It lasts longer. Cars can last several years but we generally get rid
of them as soon as they wear down or we tire of them. A Border Collie will
usually live up to fifteen years and will need fewer replacement parts,
making the decision (to adopt) a very important one.
b) It can't be traded in for a newer model. A dog will be part of your
intimate family for years to come and should be with you, barring any unforeseen
circumstances, for its entire life.
c) It comes with a personality. Cars come in different colors with different
options but all are basically identical. Each Border Collie is unique in
and of itself.
Our concern is for the welfare of the dog in particular and the breed in
general. Nothing is worse than a "boomerang" dog, particularly
in rescue. Poor and hasty choices, along with nondiscriminatory matching
policies are the biggest cause of returned or abandoned dogs. Though rescuers
sometimes continue to monitor the adopted dog's early progress and hope
you keep in contact long into the future, it is their mission to ensure
that each dog is placed in a loving home and will not need to be removed
for any reason. Like adopted children, their long-term placement in a caring
family is our highest priority.
And yes, it is easier and faster to buy a puppy from a pet store. But none
of the precautions will be taken to ensure that both the dog and you will
be happy with the match. The process of picking a dog is a long and detailed
one. You must be absolutely sure of your choice. Having a dog come into
your home, like having children, is not a decision that you can easily
go back on. It will affect your life for years to come and should not be
Page last updated September 18, 2005. All material Copyright
© 2005 Border Collie Rescue, Inc.
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