All About Border Collies



Part One: Introduction to the Origin of the Breed and Overview of Development and Use On This Continent

by Penelope Tose

Border collies vary in terms of what livestock they handle best and in how they do it. Some are experts at working every kind of stock from cattle to sheep and goats, even pigs and all manner of poultry. Some are more adept with cattle than sheep; others, more skilled with sheep, for it is as a sheepdog with scope and abilities second to none that the breed developed.

The best Border collies have superior stock sense which allows them to read temperament and anticipate movement, changing their attitude and approach depending on the class of livestock, its age, and demeanor. Well trained Border collies with good stock sense instill confidence in the animals under their charge and manage them with a minimum of stress. Nick, ABC #1778 and three time USBCHA/ABCA National Finals winner, was a peerless example of a Border collie with brilliant stock sense and wide, but not too wide, outrun.

Another salient working trait of the Border collie is eye, often shown by lowered body posture and an intense gaze. Eye, too, is variable in the breed going from none to too much. Pups in the same litter can have different amounts of eye and develop it at different rates. Like Goldilocks sampling porridge, Border collie handlers have preferences in the amount eye they like in a dog.

Eye seems to have been uncommon until the late 1800s . Although James Hogg in 1824 told of Hector pointing the family cat for hours on end, that is not the same as using eye on sheep. However, in addition, Hogg’s dogs by nature worked sheep silently, another Border collie characteristic which was not the rule in Hogg’s day.

In 1873, an unambiguous reference to eye comes from the sheepdog trial at Bala. The able Sam, deprived of the win by the arrival of a gaggle of geese and his time consuming but amazing water retrieval of a sheep, is described as “a dog of the Ridley stock, from the North Tyne, hailing from about fifteen miles south of the Cheviots, a big, lengthy, black, smooth dog, with a white collar and prick ears. [H]e came with a great private reputation, which he well sustained being beautifully broken, dropping to the slightest motion of his master’s stick, most elegant in his attitudes, now crouching like a panther, now dashing off like a [racehorse]….Not giving his sheep a chance to break, and, as it seemed to us, ‘fettering them with his eye.’”

On the other side of the Atlantic at an 1884 Toronto trial, imported Speed belonging to Thomas Telfer worked with “singular cautiousness,” a phrase suggestive of eye.

The name Border collie refers to shepherd dogs that may have first appeared as a recognizable strain in the border areas between England and Scotland. James A. Reid, a Scot and influential secretary of the International Sheep Dog Society, attributed the origin to Scotland and entrance into other regional collie strains to drovers in the early 1800s. The reverse is equally plausible as drovers were known to pick up dogs as well as lose or leave them along the road.

Based on a recent study of the distribution of a recessive gene causing sensitivity to the drug ivermectin, there is some evidence indicating that Border collies began to be split into a separate gene pool before the 1860s, the period when conformation dog shows and breeding for them first became popular.

Border collie as a breed name did not come into wide use until the early 1900s, likely as a way of distinguishing collies usually bred for work from those usually bred for looks. Both types are derived from the numerous landraces of colleys used to manage livestock in the British Isles. Differentiation was not needed until dog shows and appearance based standards had captured the public imagination in strong jaws.

In general, Border collies selectively bred for work have remained flexible; they are trained for small and large flock and herd management the world over. So successful is the breed at any task with livestock that several other eminently useful breeds of stockdog from the U. K. are now extinct, while others both there and abroad have become heritage breeds with organizations dedicated to their preservation or restoration.

Whatever the Border collie’s hometowns or counties may be, British shepherds described by Johannes Caius in the 1500s worked their dogs much as we do today. “This dogge either at the hearing of his masters voice, or at the wagging and whisteling in his fist, or at his shrill and horse hissing bringeth the wandring weathers and straying sheepe, into the selfe same place where his masters will and wishe is to haue them, whereby the shepherd…may rule and guide his flocke, according to his owne desire, either to haue them forward or stand still, or to drawe backward, or to turne this way, or to take that way.”

A major difference between sheepdog handling a century or so ago and today is that staggeringly complicated sets of arm, hand and hat signals for distance work have diminished in use (at least in North America, they may still be employed elsewhere). These signals were as complex as a flagman’s semaphores as well as individualized by herders. A related trend, with exceptions like the redoubtable Alexander Millar, is toward calm, authoritative distance handling mostly by whistle alone, exemplified by William Wallace in the late nineteenth century and by James Scott and J. M. Wilson in the twentieth.

Training has become somewhat more standardized; most handlers start young dogs by allowing them to go around sheep. A century and a half ago in North America, trainers--some of them flying by the seat of their pants and guessing as they went--also started dogs by driving livestock first or by encouraging the dog to do half circles with the sheep against a fence or by having a young dog on a string accompanying the shepherd around grazing sheep (a leading by example method) or by yoking a young dog to an older one. In addition, “Speak to’em” was as ordinary a command as “Away to me” or “Come-bye” are today and was given in many situations, typically in loading onto a ferry or rail car or into chutes.

Some early shepherds’ and drovers’ dogs in the British Isles resembled modern rough, smooth, and bearded Border collies. An illustration of a droving dog with a crossroads and fence in the background from an 1810 agricultural book by Youatt is the mirror image of Bewick’s 1790s sheepdog with sheep, other sheepdogs, and kilted shepherds in the distance. One of the sheepdogs in Edwards’ “Cynographica Britannica” could be a Border collie of the twenty-first century. Identification by looks, however, is not a hallmark of the Border collie. Several contemporary breeds are confused with Border collies, and well bred Border collies are sometimes misidentified as crosses.

Not until the late 1800s did the words “Border” and “collie” get put together as descriptive of a breed. The first use in a newspaper seems to be from 1870 with a picture by Gourlay Steell called “The Border Collie.” The dog probably in the picture is now known in several of Steell’s works, among them one with the contemporary title “Patient Vigil.”

A landmark in Border collie history was the birth of Old Hemp in 1893, bred by Adam Telfer of Northumberland, England. Hemp’s sire was loose-eyed; his dam had so much she was sticky. Although Border collies not related to Old Hemp became part the gene pool, it is hard to overestimate Old Hemp’s importance.

Between 1890 (and probably decades before it) and the founding of the International Sheepdog Society in 1906, Border collies were exported to North America with livestock selected abroad for individuals, with livestock imported for sale, and sometimes with immigrating shepherds, such as William Millar, Alexander Millar’s brother. Prior to that time, strain identification is largely a matter of working description.
Around the turn of the last century, Scottish shepherds like Sam Stoddart in Oregon, Idaho, and later on the East Coast and William Millar on the East Coast and later in Idaho and Utah helped spread the use of Border collies for both sheep and cattle. James Storey and Thomas Bradburne also played important early roles.

In 1923, Sam Stoddart, then shepherd for the University of Idaho, purchased Spot, winner of the Supreme. As performers at fairs and livestock shows, Sam Stoddart and later Luke Pasco, to name but two, helped to introduce American stock raisers and the general public to trained Border collies. Most in the audiences had never seen such skilled dogs handled so well or at all.

Stoddart was a primary influence on Arthur Allen who started the North American Sheepdog Society in 1940 and made Spot the first entry in the NASDS stud book. Over the next 70 years, working Border collies became the mainstay of farmers and ranchers in North America. The largest registry is now the American Border Collie Association; the United States Border Collie Handlers Association sanctions Open level and Nursery trials.
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