All About Border Collies



You can hear it among the spectators at a herding trial: the murmur that says "what are they supposed to look like? ... that one looks like it must be mixed with something else . . . they're really not a breed at all, are they?" The Border Collie, in fact, doesn't fit the public's perception of what a breed is, a perception based largely on what the AKC says a breed is. As we all know, a row of Golden Retrievers could generally have been created by a Xerox machine. Not so the Border Collie--no set color, size, ear type, eye shape, coat length--well, you know the rest of it.

Furthermore, if we look into the pedigrees of some of our great dogs, we find that another assumed requirement of a breed--also AKC-generated--is not met. Our dogs are not "Genetically pure." There are mentions of "Registered on Merit, " "unregistered, " and even (brace yourself) "unknown" members in many of the greatest pedigrees. There are even dogs of other breeds, especially Bearded Collies, listed among the near ancestors of the great. Jock Gilchrist's famous Spot, ISDS 24981, was actually the third "Spot" owned by Gilchrist. The first Spot, great-great-grandfather of Spot 24981, won the Supreme International Championship in 1947. His mother was a dog named Trim NR. The NR is an abbreviation for Not Registered. The next Spot was his grandson, known as Spot II, who won the Scottish National Championship in 1965 and 1966 and was runner-up to the Supreme Champion in 1966. His mother was Gilchrist's bitch, Jed, whose parents were Sweep NR and Fan NR. Finally, Spot 24981, a grandson of Spot II, appears in as many pedigrees as any other stud dog in the history of the Border Collie. His maternal grandmother, Ann, was a full sister of the first Spot, and so also a daughter of Trim NR.

So, if Border Collies aren't a breed in the sense of looking all alike, and they aren't a breed in the sense of genetic purity, then are they a breed at all, or are those trial spectators right?

To a geneticist, a breed is simply this: a population of animals whose breeding is controlled and outcrossing limited, so that genetic selection can be exercised on it. Technobabble? Maybe. But let's look at what it means. A population is simply a subgroup of the whole species of dog, Canis familiaris. Controlled breeding and limited outcrossing make it possible to select, as I described in an earlier issue, for whatever genetic traits the organized breeders decide on. Organized breeders is almost a necessary part of the definition; one breeder cannot produce enough dogs to truly create a breed, and a lot of breeders going in different directions will never produce any sort of directed selection.

So most breeds involve a Registry and some sort of Standard to organize around. The type of standard implied in the first perception of a breed, above, is the physical appearance standard, but it is certainly not the only one. The Border Collie has been bred to a performance standard, harder for the uninitiated to recognize and understand, but just as exacting as any physical standard. In the words of Eric Halsall, BBC TV commentator and author of Sheepdogs, My Faithful Friends: ". . . the collie has been bred with much more care and expertise than any Crufts show champion."

While unlimited outcrossing can interfere with the attempt to select to any sort of standard, limited outcrossing can be a valuable tool in reaching breeding goals. Scott and Fuller, in their great work, Genetics and Social Behavior in the Dog, explain that to create a performance breed controlled outcrossing is absolutely necessary. No one existing breed is going to have all the simple behavior traits you need to combine to form a specialized breed. The best sledracing dogs, for instance, are the Alaskan Huskies, a performance breed created and maintained just for racing and originating from whatever combination of dogs could run fast in a harness and stand the rigors of Northern weather.

The history of the development of the modern Border Collie is one of combining the behavioral traits of a large variety of dogs---coursing dogs, game dogs, guard dogs, etc.---into the synthesis that is the best herding dog in the world. Other breeds, though, may have been formed in exactly the opposite way. The Belgian Shepherd, for example, was created from the crossing of a single black, long-haired dog to a single black long-haired bitch chosen from the widely mixed dogs that constituted the European shepherd dogs of the nineteenth century and earlier. Whatever that modern Belgian dog may be, it is surely not the same dog with the same working abilities that the old breed was.

Is the Border Collie a breed in the standardized-appearance-genetic-purity sense? Far from it. Is the Border Collie a breed in the goal-oriented-genetic-selection-sense? You bet!
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