All About Border Collies



Although Geoff [Billingham] is noted as a dog trainer, in a nation of superb dog men, nothing I see him do, day in and day out, remotely resembles what Americans call "dog training." Training is where you get the dog to do what you want him to, right? When he does wrong you scold him, when he does right you give him a pat or a treat, right? A well-trained dog obeys every command despite his own inclinations, otherwise what's the point?

A couple years ago, a dairyman in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley had a fine young Border Collie, keen as blazes. Since the young dog was often underfoot, the dairyman trained the dog to a "Stay!" so he could go about his chores unhampered. Twice a day he'd send the dog for his cows and after the cows were in the milking parlor he'd point at a patch of cool shade: "Lie down. Stay! You STAY!" One hot August afternoon, the dairyman was working his Holsteins, routine worming, through his cattle chutes. When he shooed his cows out of the pens they came out fast and hard, right over the dog, who never budged from where he'd been told to STAY. The dog was killed, the dairyman was overcome with remorse. He'd never, he vowed, train a dog so well again.

The Scots would say he hadn't trained the dog at all. "The only proper training for a sheepdog is the Hill."

The earliest account of sheepdog training is James Hogg's. His dog Sirrah "was scarcely then a year old, and knew so little of herding, that he had never turned sheep in his life; but as soon as he discovered that it was his duty to do so, and that it obliged me, I can never forget with what anxiety and eagerness he learned his different evolutions. He would try every way deliberately, till he found out what I wanted him to do; and once I made him understand a direction, he never forgot or mistook it again. Well as I knew him, he very often astonished me, for when hard pressed in accomplishing his task, he had expedients of the moment that bespoke a great share of the reasoning faculty."

It is the job of the dog trainer to summon the dog's genetics, not to impose man's will over dog's. It may be worth noting that many Scottish hill dogs never know the weight of a collar round their neck.

Sometimes when Geoff goes shepherding, he brings a novice dog along with Cap. The young dog rushes about, trying to understand his life's work and Geoff, without interrupting his tasks, shows it to him. If the dog goes wrong, Geoff tells him. He doesn't pat him or give him treats. "Training unrelated to a sensible way of working sheep makes dogs hot," Geoff says.

Here's a story about Jimmy Wilson and his grand bitch Peg. Peg is getting on now in years, she's nine, but has been on the Scottish team many times. Jimmy shepherds a great hill in the Borders and days go by where he sees more of Peg than his wife. Jimmy is a gentle man but nobody has ever seen him give Peg a pat. Other handlers will pat a dog when they come off the trial field, it's almost custom, but Jimmy never pats Peg. One afternoon, in the beer tent, some of the other Scots were ragging Jimmy about this: and the mild man looked up with a quiet smile, "Why, do you think Peg doesn't know what I think of her?" he asked.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, pages 37-38
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