Border Collies and Kids:
The Continuing Saga

Last month's article on Border Collies and kids brought forth a small but vocal response from individual owners that insisted their dogs and their kids got along just fine. The idea that Border Collies and small kids were bad together was simply ludicrous. Not to belabor a point, I think the discussion about Border Collies and kids is important enough to address once again this month and though I will admit to being a little bit frustrated with some attitudes and ideas sent to me in reply to last month's article, it is a frustration I am equally familiar with in dealing with the general public and the media. I am certainly willing to do my best at addressing the issues brought forth by people touting the strengths of the breed and their wonderful natures.

Don't get me wrong, I am one of the biggest Border Collie aficionados there is out there - you don't have more than 20 of them in your house, do lots of rescue work, write things for publication in print or on the Internet, and go to Border Collie events every chance you get without absolutely loving the breed. You'd be crazy to think otherwise (or at least I'd be the one that's crazy). But I am realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of the breed and I am not really sure why people would want to sing the praises of the breed that as a general family pet, has a number of faults. I think people get swept up in their love for the breed so much so that they often overlook the problems associated with both their own dog and others of his type. I guess it is similar to a person overlooking the serious flaws of a spouse or loved one, simply because of their love for them. In the end, however, I think you do a serious disservice to the breed by promoting them as wonderful family pets that get along well with children.

Border Collies were never bred to be your "family dog" - they were bred to be working farm machinery, equivalent to a few hired hands or the tractor in the barn. Though most were treated with respect and admiration, the fine qualities of companionship were not high on a breeder's list but rather if the dog was a superior worker or not. Many were never brought into the household at all, living their lives entirely in the confines of the barn or running on the open fields. Many are still raised this way. They were bred to be single-owner oriented, to develop a close *working* relationship with an individual shepherd and bond very close with that individual - striving to please them as much as possible. This is why they are such supreme competitors in events that employ teamwork in handler and dog duos, like herding, agility, Frisbee, etc. They are team players but not necessarily family members. Now some of the qualities associated with being a good team member also translate very well to fitting into a family environment. Most are extremely biddable, good natured, and quiet and those qualities allow them to shine in an up-close and personal setting with other family members. Border Collies however tend to be one person's "dog" and the other family members are relegated to secondary status. They will tolerate most anything from their direct owner, even severe beatings or abuse, without the slightest of defensiveness. But other family members and outsiders are not readily tolerated and Border Collies are far more likely to come to their own defense when threatened or confronted by others.

Border Collies, at least in the US, are not far from these origins. Until only recently, almost all US dogs were bred for their original purpose and their nature has changed little from the working dogs of the recent past. With the coming of the AKC and breeding for other purposes, all that may come to pass and Border Collies in those lines might well become superior companion animals. Rarely do we get rescues in from show quality lines from the UK or "down under", mostly I would guess because they are bred to be tolerant and docile dogs, without an inherent need and intense drive to herd moving objects. Temperament and behavior have strong genetic components and can be "bred for" (herding, for example, is one such behavior). It may not be as precise or predictable as eye or coat color is, but it is still possible to breed for behavior with some degree of success.

As long as Border Collies are bred to be intense herding dogs, we will continue to see problems arising when they are placed in homes with small children. I do not mind continuing to make this point as even today, I received an email from a person that had long touted the breed as an excellent family pet until the previous discussion concerning Border Collies and kids, but now she has reevaluated the situation and no longer promotes them to people in such a fashion. This is music to my ears. Do I not want people to have Border Collies at all? Am I trying to keep them to just a selective few, greedily hoarding the wonders of an incredible breed? No. It is for self-interest that I continue to plead with others not to hold the Border Collie in higher esteem than it should be - but self-interest of the kind where I hope to no longer do rescue because the need for it has disappeared.

Is every Border Collie terrible with small children? Absolutely not. Are some of the 2 dozen dogs at my house trustworthy with young children? Yes. But one must realize, that in placing these dogs, rescuers are acting much in the way that bank loan officers are acting. We are guided by general tendencies and act accordingly. We try to make each decision on an individual basis but experience has taught us that certain risks are not worth taking. Loan officials may think highly of an individual walking into their office but know that it is a riskier venture to loan capital to a self-employed person versus loaning it to a person that has a long-standing employment contract with a major company. Is that type of decision based on the value of that individual sitting in front of them? No. Is it an insult to that person's character to deny them a loan based on limiting criteria? No. But it is the wisest and safest decision to do so based on the general nature of people in similar circumstances. The banker must protect their investment and with limited funds, must dole it out in the least risky manner that they can. It is the responsible thing to do.

I love children. I love Border Collies. My concern for them is equal when considering placement of a rescue in a family environment. I do not care solely for the dog's welfare in placements such as these. If things don't work out it is not only the dog that suffers. A child gets hurt in the process and I will do everything in my power, as I assume most parents would, to prevent harm from coming to them. Can a child live with a Border Collie happily and in harmony? Yes. But I'm not sure why some folks insist on the fact that it must be a Border Collie or else. The comment that someone made to the effect of "why deny a child the wonderful opportunity of living with a Border Collie?" puzzles me. Are other breeds of dog, ones with much better safety records with small children, somehow inferior dogs and a child will love them less? Did it matter to any of you when you were 5 years old what particular breed of dog your favorite "buddy" was? I would think that parents concerned with the welfare of their child (and yes, more so than the dog) would want to get the best possible dog for their child. In general that is not a Border Collie. People make decisions concerning their own desires based on the welfare of their children every day. How many people would rather be driving around in a sleek sports car but opted for the mini-van or station wagon for both the benefit and safety of their child? I would think they would do the same for a living creature (with teeth) that they decided to bring into their home.

So please think twice before telling the next person on the street that asks you about your dog how "superbly wonderful and great with kids" they are because that person may base their next decision of a dog on those sorts of comments. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool and can be either a detriment or advantage. I do not know a single experienced rescuer in the US that would not declare Border Collies to be problematic with small children. I am glad for all the success stories I have heard about Border Collies living in harmony with their small child but it is my phone (and other rescuers') that rings when yet another child gets hurt and "the dog must go". Walk a mile together with me... then we'll talk some more.

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Page last updated May 31, 1997. All material Copyright 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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