Breed Profiles

Border Collie

Early man had livestock which included sheep and goats that provided him with food and clothing. At this time, a dog was generally used for guarding of the flock and the family. Then, small farming settlements were built up, and dogs started to become part of the village life. They became useful in different ways, and some dogs were used to round up livestock. When the textile industry really took off, there was a need for more wool and large numbers of sheep provided this for the industry. (1) Farmers realised the need for dogs to help shepherds work with the large flocks of sheep necessary for providing wool for the industry.

It is since the 17th century that we can find out about the work and behaviour of the various types of herding dogs.

We can only speculate on the origin, but the many Celtic tribes wandered across Europe between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, with three finally settling in Ireland, bringing with them some livestock and the dogs to manage them. (2)

The old Gaelic rural term for anything useful is and for anything black is (the Gaelic dialect as spoken among the farming fold, not the true Gaelic as found in textbooks.) So, a collie dog was a useful farm dog, and in Scotland the names of many farm utensils are prefixed by the word .

One description by the Irish zoologist W.L.C. Martin described these dogs as nose - pointed hair - long and often woolly form - robust and muscular aspect - more or less wolfish. After a period of time, one of those tribes moved from Ireland to the Western Isles of Scotland. They were followed later by the Christian monks and each brought with them their livestock and the Collies to manage them.

There is no doubt that, although the Collie was first recorded in Ireland, it was developed in Scotland as a sheepdog, first as the original rough-coated farm type, and then as the special &lsquoeye dog. Good animals do not appear overnight, they evolve over a period of time, by process of survival of the fittest and by careful breeding and selection. The Border Collie is just such a product and, carries the blood of the early drovers and shepherds dogs in his veins and inheriting all their instincts and qualities. (1)

Respect for who or what your dog is, and where he comes from, is a vital first step to owning Border Collies successfully. They made a massive contribution to our ancestors survival, and even today, no machine can control sheep more successfully than a Border Collie. Please appreciate how many of your Border Collies instincts or quirks, which may sometimes baffle or exasperate you, were put there for reasons which are not the fault of the dog. If you do not respect your Border Collie, you will never get the best out of him, and it will always be harder to progress on to the ultimate level of understanding, where you and your dog co-exist and work together in perfect harmony. (3)

The Border Collies has a happy and inquiring disposition. Once a bond of mutual trust and confidence has been built up between him and his master, his devotion knows no bounds. His untiring energy can lead him into trouble if it is not channelled in the right direction. He needs to be bold and courageous - not timid or aggressive - apprehensive of strangers, tractable and obedient. He makes a happy and willing servant, but a rebellious slave. (1)

The whole facial expression is one of inquisitiveness and alertness. The correct head pattern distinguishes the Border Collie from all other types of collies and gives the breed its identity. The distinctive white muzzle and blaze on the head, together with the white markings around the neck, legs and tip of the tail, are characteristic of the breed. (1)

There is a variety of colours available, and white should never predominate - black and white and tricolour are the most popular colour but other colours include blue and white, red and white, merles - both blue and red, and sables. Today there are also rare variations such a e-Red and saddle back colouring. Over the years there have been many theories linking different coat colours to different kinds of temperament. But the classic, old saying goes no good dog was ever the wrong colour. (3)


The type of coat varies from smooth close fitting to a much heavier, rough-coated style. (2)

No breed of dog is subject to so much misunderstanding as the Border Collie. It is this misunderstanding rather than the dog itself, that gets so many of the Border Collies into trouble. Stanley Coren in his book, the Intelligence of Dogs (4) rates the Border Collie as the most intelligent dog. Trouble often starts when owners try to impose expectations or lifestyles on Border Collies that are at odd with their inner genetic programming as sheepdogs, or view perfectly natural breed behaviour as a sign of bad character, or some sort of mental defect. (3)

In recent decades the role and lifestyle of the Border Collie has undergone significant change, as more and more people have discovered the breeds exceptional trainability and range of talents. From being predominantly farmers dogs, they have diversified into the all round dog - sniffer dog, search and rescue, obedience, agility, flyball, working trials, dog carting, dog dancing. For most part this transition has been successful, but for other times it has brought strife, as many less experience owners have struggled to understand the instincts and psychological complexities of these highly driven, sensitive and strong-willed working dogs. You just have to visit Border Collie Rescue to see how many cute puppies end up as unwanted.

It is also due to insufficient understand, or an inability to appreciate how much Border Collies will vary as individuals as a result of their background and breeding. Many people dont realise their Collies full potential which is a tragic waster of a superb brain. The more chance you give a Border Collie to learn and be smart, the smarter he gets and the more he can do. Conversely, many Borders only become a problem due to a sustained lack of mental stimulation and occupation, or over-stimulation of the wrong kind. (3)

It is very difficult to define the normal behaviour of a Border Collie. In the working instincts or sequence, this is predatory behaviour to control livestock but with the attack / kill part of a hunting sequence removed. The Border Collie is also able to be split minded - able to stop a predatory motor sequence mid flow, in response to a handlers commands.

Working instincts include - eyeing - a glare that collies fix on a target that either moves, or they want to move. Sustained focus - once a dog has fixed his eye on a target, there should come a period of high concentration/focus.

Stalking - this comes after eyeing and focus, when the dog starts stalking. The dog will move slowly and close to the ground, advancing stealthily up to the sheep in order not to panic them.

Chasing - this is in a Collies blood. They were born to chase things, and the more they do it, the more they want to do it, until it could become an addiction. The thrill Border Collies get from running fast and pushing their athletic abilities to the limit, is a quality that makes them excel at agility and flyball. The most dangerous thing, however, is to let a dogs chase instincts spiral out of control which can lead to death whilst chasing cars, or other moving animals or objects.

Circular herd - the dog will circle around the sheep to herd them together. This instinct can make a dog happy to start herding anytime, anything that is feasibly herdable such children, cats, other dogs, visitors, toys, etc. Many Collies often even progress to the body slam, where the dog uses his shoulder and weight of his body to try to push back or turn round any animal or human.

Of all the instincts that are misunderstood in Border Collies, or misinterpreted as some clear signs of bad character, the lunge-nip reflex probably has to come top of the list. Lunge nipping can be an example of defence behaviour launched by the sub-conscience mind. This is part of their genetic make up, when under pressure and livestock will not respect the dog, leading the animal to challenge or threaten him, the dog can respond with a lunge-nip to get the upper hand in the situation. Many Collies have low offensive aggression responses, but high defensive ones - ie, they will rarely be aggressive unless, or until, something comes straight into their space at eye level, and is perceived as an immediate threat. Many dogs rarely, if ever, show any lung-nip impulses at all. Others may need very little provocation/mental pressure to launch lung-nip responses, but will not actually bite when they do so. They will usually just bare their teeth and air snap at a lunge target, or use a form of gentler mouthing when they make contact. But in a rare few, greater problems can occur, which will need behavioural intervention.

When deciding on a Border Collie, you need to first and foremost decide what you are going to do with the dog - obedience, agility, flyball, working trials, dancing etc. A Border Collie is NOT a breed that can be put outside and left to its own devices. IT NEEDS TO DO SOMETHING.

This should determine where you will get your puppy/dog from. If you decide to go with a breeder, always do your homework first, so that you get a good quality puppy. Just like in every breed, there are ‘back-yard breeders” that are only there to make money and don’t follow the steps to proper breeding.

Border Collies are usually relatively healthy, but can suffer from some hereditary disorders which can be tested or screened:

* Hip Dysplasia

* Deafness (common in Merles)

* Collie Eye Anomaly

* Primary Lens Luxation (PLL)

* Central Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

* Predisposition towards glaucoma

* Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (CL)

* Trapped Neutrophil Syndrome (TNS) (3)

All of these can be tested for in the parents of puppies, and should be done before breeding.

A good breeder should be able to show proof of any tests that have been done. They will always ask questions about your home, what you intend to do with the dog, and will be more than willing to show you the parents, and where the puppies have been raised, and any other Border Collies that they have. You will be paying a higher price for your puppy, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Another way to obtain a Border Collie is to visit a rescue centre. Border Collie Rescue is the main rescue centre in Gauteng, with smaller branches in other provinces. There are always large number of Border Collies of varying ages looking for a permanent home.

Always approach with extreme caution adverts in the newspapers, small local newspapers and advert newspapers. Also be cautious about the internet and pet shops as you will not get to see the parents (especially the mother) and you don’t know how the puppies have been raised. There are many “puppy farmers” selling their puppies on the internet, in pet shops and in the papers. Remember the saying “you get what you pay for”. You could land up paying huge bills at the vet, when you puppy gets ill or has major health problems.

As with all puppies, but more so with Border Collie puppies, they need to go to puppy socialization classes as soon as possible - starting at 8 weeks, and / or after they have had their second innoculations. You should never underestimate how early in life Collies can learn things, and the earlier right lessons or good behaviours are programmed into their brains, the more likely it is that these will endure into adulthood.

As the puppy grows, the extent of his natural personality and abilities will become even clearer to the owner. Collies with inherently kind, biddable and more outgoing personalities - and with a high level of responsiveness to any form of training - can often flatter their owners, making them believe it is primarily their own talents, rather that the innate qualities of their dog, that has made him turn out so well. Conversely there will be people who work much harder with their dogs and feel a sense of frustration or failure when he turns out less well, or responds less enthusiastically to their training. But it could just be that they have got a naturally more challenging Collie, who needs an extra level of expertise and insight to get the best out of him.

Some Collies live to please their owners, others are far more independently minded and thus more resistant to an owner’s attempts to control their behaviour. Whatever the essential nature of your own Collie, you will need to tailor and adapt your training to this at all times, in order to maximise his potential. (3)

If you are a would-be Border Collie owner, do your homework with the pro’s and con’s of bringing a Border Collie into your home.

I have owned, trained, and entered competitions for over 30 years. They are a very special breed, and I couldn’t imagine my life without a Border Collie.

However, I end with this message:

Remember that the Border Collie is not the breed for everyone.


1 Border Collies by Iris Combe (Faber and Faber, 1978 ISBN 0-11173-4)

2 The Ultimate Border Collie Edited by Alison Hornsby (Ringpress Books Ltd, 1998 ISBN 1 860054 088 0)

3 Collie Psychology - Inside the Border Collie Mind by Carol Price ( First Stone Publishing, 2013 ISBN 078-1-904439-70-7 1-904439-70-5)

4 The Intelligence of Dog - Canine Consciousness and Capabilities by Stanley Coren (The Free Press, 1994 ISBN 0-02-906683-2

Written by:


Senior Accredited Companion Animal Behaviourist (ABC of SA)

Registration number: SAABC/1998/008/CFProfessional Dog Trainer and owner of K C Dog School

Senior Judge of Obedience, Agility, Dog Carting, Dog Jumping (KUSA of SA)

International Judge of Dog Dancing (World Canine Freestyle Organization - America)

BA (UNISA) Higher Diploma in Education (JCE)

Certificate for Ethology course (Pretoria University)

Competency Assessment Program 1 (CAP 1) and 2 (CAP 2) - (Helen Phillips - UK)


Behaviour Tip

When a dog is presented for behaviour problems to a veterinary ethologist or accredited animal behaviourist it will usually have multiple disorders...

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