All About Border Collies



When nineteenth-century scientists began ranking animals by intellect, they were perplexed by the dog. Chimpanzees and other primates were physically most like humans, exhibiting "human behaviors": problem solving, tool making, and the like. But, unlike the dog, chimps were useless. (And nineteenth-century men had a broader experience of useful animals than we do today.) In Mental Evolution in Animals (1883) zoologist George Romanes ranked dogs and apes equally, below only humankind.

Other theorists made capital of a blurry meaning. "Ah yes," they said, "The ape is more intelligent, but the dog is more sagacious." This stroke pleased abstract thinkers and practical livestock men alike. The root of sagacity is "a keen attention to the senses, particularly the sense of smell," but, of course, the word has come to mean rather more than that.

The Border Collie has been called "the wisest dog in the world." The shepherd's dog, described in Dr. Caius's British Dogges (1570) sounds very like the Border Collie of today:

This dogge, either at the hearing of his master's voyce, or at the wagging and whistleling in his fist, or at his shrill and hoarse hissing, bringeth the wandring weathers and straying sheep into the selfsame place where his master's will and wish is to have them, whereby the shepherd reapeth the benefit, namely, that with little labour and no toyle or moving of his feete he may rule and guide his flocke according to his owne desire, either to have them go forward, or to stand still, or to drawe backward, or to turn this way or to take that way. . . .

No doubt, breeding the shepherd's dog in the sixteenth century was a rough business. When early shepherds needed a turn of speed, they probably looked to the whippet or greyhound, and the Border Collie's implacable glare, its "eye," is descended from the hunting dog's point. (Sometimes, approaching his sheep, a Border Collie will freeze, one foot in the air. When a pointer does this, he's praised. In a Border Collie, it is called "sticky.")

When collies came from the Borders to the Highlands during the Clearances, their skills were stretched by necessity. Valued dogs had keen hearing (at a mile, it's hard to distinguish command whistles from bird calls), great stamina (a dog on a gather can easily traverse a hundred miles of rough ground in a day), and a desire to herd.

Until this century, there was a fair variety of working stock dog breeds. Drovers' dogs brought the livestock to market; there, market dogs chivvied them from pen to pen, and many British counties had their own distinct collies.

Like the Welsh Grey and the Dalesman, most of these collie types are probably now extinct. Others, like the Shetland and rough collie, have been taken up by show breeders and are virtually useless for livestock work.

The Border Collie has been saved as a work dog by being beneath human vanities. Nobody could look at this utilitarian, peasant's dog and say, "What a noble head!" or "Also owned by several crowned heads of Europe." Until recently, in Britain the dog wasn't shown at all. Its breeding was left in the hands of agriculturists, who founded the International Sheep Dog Society to "promote and foster the breeding, training and improvement in the interests and for the welfare or benefit of the community of the breeds or strains of sheepdogs, to secure the better management of stock by improving the shepherd's dog. . . ."

Breeders who select the stud dogs and bitches within a breed effectively direct the breed's progress, and among sheepdogs, the eminent dogs have been those that excelled at sheepdog trials. The ISDS has always been directed by practical stockmen (J.M. Wilson was made an M.B.E. not for his expertise with sheepdogs, but for improvements he made in the Scottish Blackface), and these men were (and are) largely indifferent to a dog's appearance if the dog could get the job done. The ISDS has no conformation standard for sheepdogs and (theoretically) if your Rottweiler was trained to such a standard that it could win a major sheepdog trial, it could be registered with the ISDS. Several Bearded Collies have been so registered in the past.

There is a strongly held belief that a Border Collie often resembles its dominant ancestor. You hear of a "Gilchrist Spot type" or "Bosworth Coon markings." The first time Davey McTeir took his Ben to a trial, an old herd came over. "I've a bitch to put to your dog," he said.

Astonished, Davey asked, "Don't you think you'd like to see how he goes before you decide?"

"Oh, no need. No need. Your dog's the very image of Wilson's Cap. It's taken thirty years to make another one."

It's worth noting that McTier's Ben went on to win the Scottish National in 1972 and did become an eminent sire.

It is possible to think of circumstances where other breeds of stock dog can outperform the Border Collie. In close work (pens, yards, and chutes) in Australian summer heat, the kelpie (another variety of collie) has more stamina than a Border Collie. When you wish to drive a great number of sheep up narrow trails, a hunter is more useful than a Border Collie. A hunter's barking hastens the whole flock along, while a Border Collie's silent intimidation can pressure only the last ewe in line. In New Zealand, the Huntaway is a distinct breed. In Scotland, most hunters are Border Collies who've been trained to bark on command.

These exceptions noted, the Border Collie is the most frequently employed livestock dog in the world. Trials are held in South Africa, Australia, the United States, Canada, France, the Falklands, and Switzerland. Johnny Bathgate exports most of his dogs' progeny to Scandinavia.

The Border Collie's singular ability is to work well (sagaciously?) at a great distance from his shepherd. This is a complex skill. Since the dog is often out of the shepherd's sight, he must work well on his own. Geoff Billingham said, "Even when my old Jed bitch was getting past it, I could still send her out to gather the Hill while I went inside to have my breakfast. When I'd finish and come out, she'd have them all down, in the steading."

Yet the dog must be willing to take instructions, too. One scientist claimed that the Border Collie was able to comprehend 274 distinct commands. This is, I think, a fair bit of nonsense. There are brilliant Border Collies and dullards. And it isn't clear what constitutes a command. When John Angus unlatches the boot and the dogs jump in, has he given them a command? When he's parked on the trial grounds and the boot is open for air and the dogs don't jump out, is this a command? When John Angus holds Flint's sore eye open so I can squeeze ointment directly onto the eyeball, what commands keep Flint from struggling or snapping at me?

When a Border Collie changes hands, his original handler will routinely make a tape of the dog's whistle commands so the new owner can get them exactly right. Typically, a tape will contain whistles for

go left (come by)
go right (away to me)
lie down
walk onto your sheep
go slow
You're too near, get out
You're too far, come in
This one (shed this sheep and hold it)
Go back (stop, abandon the sheep you presently have, go back [to the right or left] and seek a new lot)

These commands can be modulated. By one, a shepherd can tell his dog whether he wants him to stop and stay, or stop but get back up again. He can tell the dog to go left a little, go left a lot, go left slowly, or go left NOW. If you shut your eyes when a dangerous handler has a classy dog on the course, you'll hear assurances, insistences, demands, soothings. You'll hear who the man is and what he hopes his dog to be.

On the second day of qualifying at Blair Atholl, I will time the commands as Johnny Templeton directs Roy on the crossdrive. I count seventeen distinct commands in fifteen seconds.

In the late sixties, when J.M. Wilson was running Bill II, near at hand, he used the dog's name for commands. "Bill" meant "Go Left." "Bill-uh!" meant "Go Left, NOW." "Will-yum" meant "Go Right," and when J.M. wanted Bill to walk skittish sheep into the pen, at a tense moment, he'd pop his fingers . . . just pop.

In animal training, control is inversely proportional to distance. How biddable would the circus tigers be, uncaged, five hundred yards from the trainer with the whip? And when the family pet dog strikes a fascinating scent, your ability to halt the dog will be dependent on how near you are.

Davey Sutherland is estate manager at Borobil, a 22,000-acre spread in the northern Highlands. Davey's unregistered Border Collies, Bert and Bob, are on identical commands; Bert's "Go Left" whistle is the same as Bob's. The Borobil hills are low, thousand footers, strewn with boulders. One day last fall, Davey brought both dogs along while gathering ewes. Davey lay Bert down, told him "Stay," and proceeded with Bob after the sheep. When Bob brought in the first hirsel, he missed a few, so Davey whistled "Go Back" and Bob found more, but still hadn't them all, so Davey whistled "Go Back" again. The sheep came off a steep ridge, Davey whistled Bob left and right, brought him on, told him "Go Slow." At such distances, mind, he was commanding a dot that was herding glints.

When Davey had the ewes down, he started for home but didn't find Bert where he'd left him. That was unusual, but Davey figured Bert had gotten frustrated and gone back to the farmhouse. When Davey and Bob got the sheep put away, no Bert. Before Davey could get worried, a neighbor phoned. "Are you missing a dog?"

Anxious to do his part, Bert had taken Bob's first "Go Back" whistle and topped the hill as the second "Go Back" sounded. The first sheep he found were in a neighbor's paddock, and Bert began working the sheep to and fro to Davey Sutherland's whistled commands.

The neighboring farmer said it was lucky he knew Bert. He would have shot a strange dog. As it was, the neighbor thought Bert had gone mad, chivvying the sheep back and forth to whistles only Bert could hear, from a shepherd 2 1/2 miles away.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, pages 164-69

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