From One Man and his Dog to Blue Peter, everyone recognises the Border Collie. With its black and white coat, agility and ability to learn many choose to have them as pet. Owning one requires a great deal of responsibility, where you need to exercise them mentally and physically.
The Border Collie is a truly British breed, descending from the landrace collies that originated from the Scottish Borders. Collies have developed as a breed designed to herd livestock. As a result little importance was placed on breeding for looks, but rather on performance and behavioural traits. Collies therefore come in a range of colours, sizes, coat textures and different ear types. Despite this the majority of collies trace back to one dog, Old Hemp.
In the early 20th Century, the International Sheep Dog Society was created. This was in response to the Kennel Club method of showing which focused on appearance and conformity to a breed standard rather than performance. Originally the ISDS created National Trials to find the best working dogs. In the 1940s the studbook was created. This helped people search for good working traits and eradicate genetic disorders that had developed.
Conformation for work was incredibly important in the breed’s development, as they needed to be quick, limber and able to deal with any terrain or weather condition. Collies are very adept on their feet, good at jumping and climbing. They also have a double coat to protect them from rain and snow. Even with the two different registries, this aim remains the same.
Scientists have done a number of studies to assess the intelligence of dogs. Border Collies have come at the top of the majority of these polls. Most dog breeds can understand 165 words or signals. Collies have been proved to learn around 250. This makes them similar to a two and a half year old child. In 2010, a border collie called Chaser learnt 1,022 toys by name, and was able to retrieve them when asked. Obedience judges were also questioned to find the most intelligent breed to train, and the Border Collie yet again beat the competition.
It is believed that their intelligence has developed as they were bred for sheep work. It is essential that they can understand commands and gestures, and this has been bred on as farmers required animals to work sheep effectively. Having to outsmart sheep and cattle also meant they developed the ability to quickly assess a situation and adapt, as well as deceive where necessary. Most are born with the instinct to herd, which also makes them easy to train. Puppies will attempt to herd each other, as well as other pets and even children.
Being easy to train does not make them easy to own. They will learn new words and gestures quickly, but you must be consistent at the start. If you hold your arm a slightly different way when asking them to sit after the first time, they will assume that you are issuing a different command. They will watch and focus on body language closely, so your actions in training must be accurate and the same every time. They need to be challenged every day, so their brains are kept active and entertained.
They also require a lot of exercise. They are a working dog, and would cover miles when herding or working on a farm. They need long walks, and freedom to run. Being energetic, they can be difficult on the lead if not walked regularly. Many trainers advise the use of a halti harness, which makes it easier for the handler to walk them. This fits over the nose and behind the ears like a horse halter. If the dog pulls it will apply pressure to the nose which will slow the dog in a kinder way than a choke chain. Teaching them to walk to heel will help lead control, and exercise their brain.
Their intelligence makes them expert escape artists. Collies can learn to open doors, escape under and over fences and gates, and open windows. A dog called Striker currently holds the Guinness Book of World records time for “The Fastest car window opened by a dog”. You will need to always think one step ahead, and expect them to occasionally break out or break into cupboards. It is usually curiosity and boredom that causes them to escape, so if they are occupied they won’t feel the need to venture further afield for adventure.
Collies will treat your children as hairless sheep. Should a child run off, away from the parents, the Collie will attempt to round them up. With a nervous child, they may get scared and run further away. This can end in the dog nipping the child’s heels to get them back to the flock. This is a natural behaviour, but it can make them difficult to keep as family dogs. You and your family must adapt to them as they adapt to you.
Although they sound like hard work, they are an extremely rewarding dog for those with the time (and stamina) to train them. As well as long walks and teaching them a wide variety of tricks, they excel in dog sports. Collies are frequently the top sports dog due to their speed, agility and willingness to learn. Sports you can try include:
Fly ball – in teams of four, this relay is run over hurdles. At the end of the course there is a box that releases a ball when the dog presses on a lever. The dog must retrieve it and race back to the owner as fast as possible. It is incredibly fast, and great for Collies with endless energy.
Agility – these classes are a course of obstacles that a dog must navigate in order in the fastest time possible. Obstacles include tunnels, bending poles and a see-saw. As dogs must learn commands for direction and what to do at each obstacle, collies excel in this competition.
Obedience - even if you don’t want to compete, obedience training will help you control your dog and exercise their brain. From the simple commands such as Sit and Stay, you can teach them to walk at heel and fetch different objects.
Working trials – if you live on a farm, then working your dogs is the best way to keep them happy. Those who own collies as pets can also teach them the commands, and attend classes where you can experience sheep (or goose) herding.