Consider the Challenges Involved
They’re everywhere. They dance, they run the obstacle course, and they do the high jumps. They’re in movies with talking pigs. They are Border collies. And now everybody wants one.
Or do they?
On TV they look like the perfect dog, the wonderful pet-after all, wouldn’t owning such an intelligent animal mean it would be a low maintenance pet? Wouldn’t it require little effort to teach such an animal to fit into your household?
Yes. You might say that. It’s very easy to train your Border collie to open your front door and walk right out of your house-only to get hit by a truck. Border collies herd anything that moves-including F150s. They see you open the door one time-they can do it too.
It’s a fact.
It’s very easy to train your Border collie to open the refrigerator and pull out every bit of food on all three shelves. After all, if you can do it-so can they.
At least that’s their reasoning.
An intelligent animal doesn’t just learn what you want them to-they are constantly learning. Even if it’s dangerous.
Some other pitfalls of this super-smart pooch?
-They are capable of running over one hundred miles PER day-and still have energy to spare.
-They often confuse small children with sheep-to the detriment of the children.
-They need a ‘job’ to do everyday
-They can be very manipulative.
-They require many hours of training merely to keep from becoming bored.
-A thirty-minute walk is just not enough for this breed. Neither is an hour jog.
Now that the scary stuff is out of the way, let’s move on to the specifics of Border Collies.
A Border collie is generally considered a medium-sized dog. They range in size from twenty-five pounds to over sixty and come in a variety of colors-not just the typical black and white seen on television. Common colors are black and white, mostly white, merle, black and tan, tri-color, red, and combinations of these.
Not all Border collies have long hair-instead they have what is referred to as a smooth coat. A smooth coat collie’s hair is short, no more than two to three inches in length and fits close to their bodies. Longer haired Border collies are often referred to as rough coat Border collies. Many BC’s also have a coat somewhere between rough and smooth.
Many variations exist in this breed-coat length, coat color, eye color, ear shape and even the lay of the ear. Some are completely erect and others droop down.
These variations exist for a very good reason, one that any potential BC owner should be aware of-Border collies were bred for herding abilities and instinct, working drive, and intelligence, not for physical characteristics.
A Border collie is a breed with a purpose and that purpose is to work their hearts out. Not to look good in a family photograph. Hear that? A Border collie was bred to work. Not sit around calmly in the home waiting for the school bus to pull up outside.
A Border collie was bred to work. Hundreds of generations of workers are behind every Border collie puppy.
In the past, the typical Border collie’s job was to move his farmer’s herd of livestock for miles, looking for good grazing land, water, or to drive them back to his master’s lands. This was often done with the master several miles away. The dog had to be capable of reasoning and independent thinking. His master had to trust him to do his job. This was bred into the animal.
So who are we to expect that instinct to disappear because we want a puppy like they had on TV? We can’t. But we can accept it and be prepared for it.
I am not saying that people shouldn’t adopt Border collies as pets. Far from it. I will probably never own a different breed. What I am saying is-be prepared. Know what you will face.
Make absolutely certain that you want the responsibility of such a dog (any dog, not just Border collies, will require time and energy) before beginning the process of bringing in the best pet for your home.
I’ve summed up Border collie ownership into a three part plan; I highly recommend you keep these things in mind while considering this wonderful and entertaining breed.
STEP ONE: RESEARCH
Researching any dog breed is the first step in responsible pet ownership and should not be taken lightly. Several good websites exist to help the decision along; from basic breed descriptions to specific sites devoted exclusively to the breed-all exist for good reason and should be taken advantage of.
Steer clear of adopting a dog because you like the physical appearance of the dog. Temperament should play the determining factor.
Learn what typical behavior is for the breed. Border collies are high energy, high intelligence, amazing agility, immense drive to please, and incredibly quick dogs. They can and will slip out the door before you can catch them.
Also look into genetic health issues. Border collies are susceptible to allergies and skin conditions, epilepsy, eye issues, and hip dysplasia. From personal experience I’ve seen Border collies that were allergic to the nylon in their leashes-and in the carpet.
Can you really afford to replace the carpeting in your house with hardwood simply because your dog looses ALL of its hair?
Another important bit of research if you do decide on a Border collie-reputable breeder or even reputable rescue organization. A true lover of the breed will not pair you with a dog or puppy that doesn’t suit your family.
There are a lot of costs associated with breeding dogs that limit any profit a responsible breeder makes off the sell of the puppies. A reputable breeder does it for love of the Border collie-they simply are in awe of this amazing animal and want the traits that make it so special to continue for generations.
What this means to you?
A true breeder will not just ‘take your money and run’, giving you a poor quality puppy with health issues and temperament troubles. A good breeder will ask you a series of questions about you, your family, and your lifestyle before matching you with a puppy.
This is a good practice for everyone involved-you want the best possible addition to your family, right?
Rescue organizations for this breed abound. This is because of one huge reason. Most people are not prepared for Border collies. Therefore at the first signs of trouble the dog gets abandoned and forgotten.
Rescue organizations step in to help ‘re-home’ the animal. They often spend many months and many dollars addressing health issues, mistreatment issues, and rehabilitation issues.
Many hours of retraining may be needed to see that the dog is a better fit for the next household he is placed in. Adopting an older dog from a rescue organization is an option for those who would like to avoid the ‘Godzilla’ stage of puppy-hood.
Godzilla–mode is the term I’ve given to Border collie puppies bent on wreaking wanton havoc and destruction on a household.
It often involves the running along the back of the couch, hurtling over the 42 inch television, surfing on the glass coffee table, just to land in the arm chair before beginning again.
But as with a breeder, do your research before adopting from a rescue organization as well. After all-anyone can describe themselves as animal rescue. It’s important to do your homework.
STEP TWO: BASIC TRAINING
The most important command that a Border collie needs to learn is to ‘come’. Why this before the more common sit or stay? Because a Border collie that is intent on something will not stop until they get it.
If that means chasing a neighbor’s cat across the road they will do it immediately-without even seeing the neighbor kid’s Buick speeding down the blacktop.
A Border collie (and any dog really) needs to be trained to believe that the ‘come’ command is the best word he will ever hear. It must be his cookies and cake and squeaky toy and peanut butter all rolled into one four-letter word.
Before any thing else-a Border collie must come when called. For his own safety. Too many are killed or seriously injured by not knowing this simple command.
In a calm, quiet environment with plenty of room, tie your puppy to a long lead line-at least fifteen to twenty feet. Have someone hold your puppy’s attention while you take the end of the line.
Say your puppy’s name in a firm, no-nonsense, but even tone. Then say ‘come’ in the same tone. Gently but relentlessly pull on the line until the puppy is in front of you. Now make a big deal.
Laugh, smile, and squeal. Pet your puppy, hug your puppy. Give your puppy the marshmallow you had hidden in your hand. Let your puppy know that this is a good thing, a very BIG deal. Repeat this over and over, and then do it again.
After this is mastered, put your puppy on a longer line. Repeat. Once your puppy masters this, call him from another room. Keep this up until your puppy comes whenever you use the command.
With this command and others you must be consistent. You must use the same word to mean the same thing. Do not say ‘lay down’ and then say ‘sit down’. Your dog will hear the word ‘down’ and want to do one or the other. Don’t say ‘down’ to get off the couch and then say ‘off’ the next day to mean the same thing.
Dogs are creatures of habit. They are conditioned to react certain ways to certain commands, be they verbal or physical. It only serves to confuse them if their owners are not doing the exact same thing every time. Want your Border collie trained quickly? Be consistent. It really works.
A word on some Border collies
Some border collies are extremely sensitive to variations in tone and gesture and environment!
What this means is that when this type of BC first learns a command they internalize everything about that first time-meaning the tone of voice, the angle of the hand signal and even the room in which the command was learned.
An example: A BC puppy was being taught the ‘shake’ command. She was told in a calm voice to shake, the signal was a flat palm-up gesture near the dog’s left paw with her owner on one knee. The puppy was being rewarded with a food treat as this worked best the first few training sessions with this particular puppy.
After successfully completing the ‘shake’ command in this situation the session was brought to an end.
The next time the dog was commanded to shake she refused to do it until the owner got down on one knee and made the exact same gesture. The dog had incorporated the owner’s body position into the command even though it wasn’t intended.
For this type of BC consistency is an absolute must. This is often difficult for a first-time BC owner to manage and can make training difficult.
Know your puppy’s temperament before you begin training. It will help eliminate problems later.
Some Border collies might also exhibit obsessions. An obsession in a dog is much like it is for a human. They cannot stop themselves from an action-mostly due to a stressful situation. Some BCs are obsessed with tennis balls. They won’t stop chewing until the ball is ‘dead’. Some love shoes. Learn to recognize obsessive behavior in your dog and work to alleviate these as much as possible. Ensuring that the stressor is not present during training can help eliminate many problems that might occur.
Another important issue for a BC is crate training. Many people feel that confining a dog to a crate or cage is cruel. It is crueler for a ten-year-old to come home from school and find his puppy electrocuted from the lamp cord it had chewed after being given free-run of the house while no one was home.
Crates are for safety-especially for puppies. Not only does it keep them from eating pesticides, electric cords, plastic, your couch, but it makes it easier in the event of fire or natural disaster. Knowing where your pet is can eliminate potentially dangerous wasting of time if you need to get out of the house quickly.
A pet needs a crate that they can comfortably stand up and stretch in, as well as turn around completely. A crate that is too big can hinder potty training though, so don’t go over board and buy a huge crate for a Chihuahua.
I’d recommend crate training a Border collie for another reason. Some of the more sensitive BC’s will overreact to some of the more common household activities like a vacuum being ran, a doorbell being rang, or just a simple raised voice. A crate that they are comfortable and familiar with can serve as a ‘decompressing’ place. A place that helps them calm themselves can be invaluable for such a sensitive, high energy animal.
Once a Border collie is in full-panic mode it can be difficult and frustrating to calm them down. For everyone involved, even the poor UPS man who rang the doorbell in the first place!
Another thing? Do not try confining a Border collie to a small room or a bathroom when no one is home. Border collies have been known to chew through a door and even pull up floor boards to escape a small room. It’s not good for either the dog or your house. They’ve also been known to chew on themselves out of stress until they are bleeding!
STEP THREE: THE BORDER COLLIE EMPLOYMENT LINE
Border collies were bred to work (hmm, have I mentioned that fact before?) and a prospective owner needs to prepare for this. If a job is not provided for this animal it will find one of its own. From personal experience I’ve learned that an unemployed BC will collect every pair of tennis shoes in the house and eat only the left ones. (I’ve still not figured out why it’s only the left!)
The BC’s first job was that of herder. This instinct is still present in the breed-in fact, it is highly desired by those who want to preserve the breed for its original purpose. But a dog that wants to ’round ’em up’ can pose problems for the uninitiated. A Border collie with a high herding instinct will feel compelled to circle and round up anything that moves-cats, other dogs, people, the vacuum cleaner, cars, ducks, sheep, cows, and did I forget to mention balls and remote control cars?
Some BC enthusiasts have been known to purchase sheep just for their dog’s entertainment and this is an option-but is it a realistic one?
One option is the remote control cars. Just make sure it doesn’t exhibit a high pitch as some BC’s are extremely sound sensitive (some BCs have been known to respond to well over a hundred variations of whistles, even miles away from their handlers). Kick balls and beach balls also have met with success as sheep stand-ins.
A newer form of employment for BCs is that of the growing sport of agility. Dogs are trained to run a certain set of obstacles in varying set-ups in a set number of seconds. Border collies excel at this sport. It does require many hours of constant, consistent training.
Another opportunity is Frisbee, both competitive and leisure. Competitive Frisbee is a set routine between a handler and a dog, performed with music. Points are given for certain moves. There is also Free-style dancing. Any dog and any handler who wants to train can participate in this sport. All that is required is time and a song.
Other opportunities exist such as herding trials, tracking trials, fly-ball, and even high jumping. Border collies excel at these sports as well.
Border collies are often seen on television because it is relatively easy to train them to do various tricks. They love mental work-even more than physical. It’s not uncommon for a Border collie to be just as exhausted after spending ten minutes learning a new trick as they would be going on an eight hour hike! There is competitive obedience as well.
Border collies are particularly suited for those who jog on a daily basis but be warned-a five mile jog is just a warm up to a BC! Jogging is great for a BC but be prepared to offer some other form of employment as well.
Border collies are often used in other jobs. Many are registered therapy dogs, many visit schools to give ‘dog safety’ talks, and are used as guide dogs and assistance dogs. My BC (a thirty two pound, smooth coat, and Black and white female) is currently being trained to carry a special pack with lightweight camera equipment for when I go hiking. She is to sit and ‘watch’ our surroundings, and must remain still so not to startle any live subjects I am photographing. Many training sessions are involved, and must be meticulously planned.
I can’t stress enough the importance of giving these dogs something to do. If they aren’t stimulated they will become problem dogs-many of which will end up in rescue situations. Or put down at the local humane society. It’s an unfair end to a wonderful animal that can EASILY be avoided with a little time and preparation.
OF BORDER COLLIES AND CHILDREN!!!
I cannot stress the importance of careful consideration before adopting a Border collie puppy if you live in a home with small children. (As in under the age of ten.)
A BC has been bred to work, to round up anything that moves. An instinct is not something that can be eradicated. All living things have the instinct to sleep when they are tired, or to eat when they are hungry. A newborn baby does not need to be trained to suck-they just instinctively know how.
It is the same with a Border collie that exhibits a strong herding instinct. They do not (and cannot) be trained to not want to round up that moving sheep. It doesn’t matter to the dog if that sheep walks on fours and is wearing white wool or walks on twos and is wearing a Spiderman t-shirt. It moves. It’s a sheep.
I’m not saying that a BC and a child cannot co-exist. Far from it-but caution must be the buzzword.
A child must be taught to control the dog properly, and the dog must be taught that the child is also the master. This must be done carefully and I cannot adequately address this issue here.
Before adopting that cute little black and white puppy your child really wants determine if your child has the right temperament for a Border collie. Is your child able to stand still and give a firm ‘no’ command while a forty (or even sixty) pound animal is circling him, nipping lightly at his ‘wool’ and barking-trying to guide him wherever the dog has decided the kid needs to go? Will your child start running, crying and calling for help-only making the situation worse?
When a sheep is nipped its natural reaction is to move away from the dog-which is exactly what the dog wants. A child that runs encourages the dog to continue his behavior. After all-his goal is to move the child closer to the handler (you) and that is exactly what he is doing.
But will your child understand that? Or will he (and you) simply see a dog that might be biting? A dog that is showing aggression (even though it thinks it’s doing its job by moving your ‘kid’ where it’s supposed to be?)
A five-year-old can control a BC if both are taught properly-I am not saying its either kids or dogs. But be careful in your choices-for both their sakes.
Also-don’t leave your child and dog unsupervised. A Border collie in a full obsession (be it with the cat, a toy, or a child) that is startled or approached from behind may overreact, potentially cutting a child with its teeth as the dog’s head whips around.
This applies to any animal and a child-leaving them unsupervised is very dangerous no matter what the species or breed.
Tread very carefully with children and Border collies-many BCs are in rescue because they are not compatible with children. It’s not fair to the dog but it’s not like you can turn your child over to a rescue organization because he can’t get along with the dog! Avoid the situation in the first place!
WHAT NOT TO DO WITH A BORDER COLLIE (OR ANY DOG REALLY)
-BE OVERLY HARSH (Either in tone or manner).
Border collies live to please their masters. You are the everything to these animals. They’d literally work themselves to death if an owner required it and often react badly if they are mistreated.
-DO NOT LEAVE A BORDER COLLIE UNATTENDED DAY AFTER DAY
A BC that is left alone will develop bad habits such as carpet destruction and barking. Crate training will help control this if done properly and consistently.
-DO NOT LEAVE A SCREEN DOOR UNLOCKED
Many BCs can easily push open a door latch, in fact many are accused of ‘picking locks’ because they are escape artists. They may get out and run into the streets.
-DO NOT LEAVE A BORDER COLLIE IN A FENCED-IN YARD UNATTENDED
They can and do jump even six foot fences and climb over eight footers. Not to mention many BCs can dig their way out.
DO NOT LEAVE A BORDER COLLIE AND A CHILD UNATTENDED: this just invites a bad situation where everyone loses!
I am a Border collie lover; like I’ve said before-I won’t ever own anything but a Border collie. This dog is my fourth Border collie and I still researched the breed before adopting her a year ago-simply to re-familiarize myself with the breed and to ask myself is this really what I want?
I cannot regret it-even though she was a ten week old rescue puppy with ringworm and other various parasites. Even though by week twelve she was losing her hair from allergies and a condition known as Demodex. Even though she was nine months old before her hair grew back, even though we are still in the process of training her.
But she is a big commitment and I am fortunate that as a writer and student I am home every day to give her the attention a Border collie needs and deserves-anyone considering this breed needs to be aware of the pitfalls in order to actively enjoy that which makes them a wonderful addition to any family.