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[Do I Really Want a Border Collie?]



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 keen intelligence.

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.

Can't 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 stimuli.

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" mode.

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 dangerous situations.

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 taken lightly.

Page last updated September 18, 2005. All material Copyright 2005 Border Collie Rescue, Inc.
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