Before you make the decision to get a Border Collie, you should consider all of
the following points carefully. After reading through this admonition and
educating yourself on the breed from other sources, if you still feel like you
can handle this breed and enjoy living the "Border Collie" lifestyle,
we encourage you to seek out a rescue dog. The following are some very important
questions that you should ask yourself before you decide to get a Border Collie,
along with their corresponding answers. Though these are wonderful dogs, they
certainly are not for everyone.
What is a Border Collie?
Border Collies are the fanatical black and white dogs that have been bred to
herd sheep. They come in an assortment of sizes and colors, though they
generally range from about 30 to 60 pounds and their "typical"
markings are black with a white collar, chest, head stripe (blaze), paws, and
tail tip. These markings are only the perceived "typical" markings, as
Border Collies also come in red/white, black/red/white ("tri"s), blue
merle, red merle, mostly white, tan and black, brindle, sable, and mostly black
varieties. They are quite commonly seen in television ads and Hollywood films
(the dogs in the movie "Babe", for example, were Border Collies). They
are known for their incredible herding instinct and their keen intelligence.
What exactly is "herding instinct"?
The herding instinct in Border Collies is a behavioral trait that has been
bred "into them" over the past two hundred years or so. What many
people fail to realize, even long-standing Border Collie owners, is that the
herding instinct is simply a modified version of the killing instinct of wolves.
The instinct has been toned down somewhat through selective breeding. In fact,
the instinct has not been bred "into them" but rather, "out of
them". Border Collies retain the circling and gathering instinct so vital
in hunting wolf packs but refrain from actually going in and making the final
Rogue dogs however, are not uncommon, and in many European countries, Australia
and New Zealand, where the dogs are often allowed to roam free, sheep and
calf-killing Border Collies can pose occassional threats to livestock. Many
people say that once a Border Collie has tasted blood, they can never be trusted
again and normally, the dogs are summarily exterminated.
The instinct to herd in Border Collies evidences itself differently than in most
other herding dogs. Whereas most breeds of herding dogs drive the livestock away
from the handler, Border Collies circle the livestock at the far end and bring
them back to the handler (known as "gathering" or
"fetching"). Additionally, Border Collies tend not to use force
(initially) to drive the livestock where they want to but rather, use what is
known as "eye", a sort of threatening stare-down that intimidates the
stock into moving in the desired direction. If the non-physical means of moving
stock do not work, a Border Collie's natural instinct is to slowly escalate the
encounter into an ever-increasing use of force. Barking, nipping, and eventually
gripping (biting) are used to get the point across to the more stubborn sheep.
What are the two most common reasons people get Border Collies?
1) I heard they were really smart dogs and I wanted a smart dog so it would
be easy to train.
2) I heard they were great with kids and make wonderful family pets.
Though these thoughts may have some validity to them under certain
circumstances, for most Border Collies and owners, these ideas are fallacies.
Why do so many Border Collies end up in rescue?
There are generally three reasons that Border Collies end up in rescue and
they are all related to herding instinct. In order to understand these reasons,
you must be familiar with the instinctive qualities of herding present in these
1) Roughly a quarter of Border Collies entering rescue (though this
varies with the region) are those that have not displayed strong enough herding
instincts to make themselves efficient herding dogs on working farms. Rather
than trying to work against the natural abilities (or inabilities) of the dog,
the working family gives the dog over to rescue so that it can be placed in a
more appropriate, pet home.
2) A larger proportion of the dogs are given up because they have bitten
someone, almost inevitably a child. The herding instinct, if strong, is
overwhelmingly incompatible with a household containing children - particularly
when the child and adult owners have not been trained or educated in how to deal
with the peculiarities of the herding instinct. Border Collies can make good
family pets, but only for those dogs that do not have the intense herding
instincts and for the families prepared to deal with the ramifications of this
To a Border Collie, a child is basically a sheep without much wool - a sheep in
wolf's (kids) clothing if you will. A child running across the backyard or out
the front door is, to the dog, a sheep that has decided to break from the fold.
Seeing the child "making a break for it", the Border Collie's natural
instinct kicks in and it streaks out in front of the child to cut off its
escape. If the child is unprepared for this, the experience of a dog cutting him
off and staring or barking at him with seemingly evil intentions, is quite a
traumatic event. A normal child's reaction to this is to become frightened,
possibly let out a scream, and run further and faster to escape the dog.
Since this child (sheep) is being uncooperative, the dog must escalate his
attempts to round up the errant stock by barking and nipping at the heels of the
child. A child's normal reaction to this is to become even more frightened, run
faster, and scream louder. This cycle escalates until the dog must resort to its
last means of control - gripping (biting), normally used to grab an excessively
stubborn/brave sheep or cow. The two natural instincts of the child and the dog
are entirely incompatible. The child is doing what comes natural to him -
reacting in fear to a threat and attempting to flee. And the dog is doing what
comes naturally to him - trying to round up an escaping animal by
ever-increasing uses of force.
3) By far the largest percentage of dogs are turned in because they are
"hyper" and far too difficult to handle. Most people are either not
willing, prepared, or able to put in the large time commitment it takes to
adequately exercise a Border Collie. Border Collies have been bred to herd sheep
and that requires a lot of physical stamina and endurance. Herding sheep is an
all-day activity and often entails miles of endless running and sprinting across
uneven patches of farmland. Obviously, not everyone has the luxury (or burden)
of owning sheep, so another outlet must be found for this energy.
I train the dog not to herd the children?
No. The instinct, if present, is exactly that - an instinct. It is neither
trained nor learned. The behavior can be modified or channeled into other
activities (which is why Border Collies make such wonderful Frisbee dogs) or can
be redirected somewhat through training, but the instinct will always be there.
No amount of training, no matter how skilled the trainer is, can get rid of a
Border Collie's instinct to herd. A Border Collie in the herding
"mode" is a dog that misses, forgets, or simply ignores all commands
and no amount of pleading from the owner will work. Countless Border Collies are
killed by cars every year because the dogs, when the instinct kicks in, are
oblivious to almost all other external stimuli.
Can't I teach my children not to run from the dog?
Older children can be taught to stop dead in their tracks and avoid this
confrontation altogether. Since the dog does not perceive a continued threat of
the animal escaping, the dog relaxes and shifts into a more "normal"
Younger children may be taught to handle this experience with some degree of
calm but to expect a child that is younger than 5 to be able to confront a
running, snapping, growling, or barking dog with its teeth bared, may be asking
too much of even the most mature youngster. Parents can regulate and supervise
encounters with the family dog but for younger children, this means never
letting your dog alone with the child.
But even more problematic is the fact that children tend to hang around other
children. Unless you are prepared to teach each and every child in the
neighborhood and every child that enters your home how to cope with the dog's
instinct, the dog must be locked away in the presence of non-family members.
Border Collies tend not to be the kind of dog that you can let loose to run with
your kids around the neighborhood. It is often the "perfect" dog that
everyone felt they could trust that ends up biting a child - generally because
they are trusted and thereby exposed to many more of the potentially dangerous
How much exercise does a Border Collie require?
Actually this is an unanswerable question. It is similar to posing the
question "How much exercise does a hyper child need?" or "How far
does a thoroughbred horse have to run each day?" Obviously you could keep
the child locked in her room or the horse confined to his stall all day, but
this, for most of us, is an unacceptable response. To truly exercise a Border
Collie, you must be willing to put in a couple of hours each day, in some form
of exercise or activity. Border Collies can remain confined to the house all day
while you are away at work but do not expect to come home and relax. You don't
have to jog endless miles with your dog (though you can if you'd like) - mental
exercises are often the most exhausting activities for Border Collies - but you
must do something with them each day. Otherwise, they will find an outlet for
their excessive energy and countless Border Collie owners can attest to this
fact. I've included some of the Border
Collie "horror stories" from current owners just to show I'm not
making this stuff up. Border Collies have been described as having the energy
output of a miniature nuclear reactor. And like all nuclear power, it can be
quite dangerous if it is not controlled.
If Border Collies are so smart, then why aren't they easy to train?
If you are not a precise sort of trainer (most people aren't), then trying
to train an intelligent Border Collie can be a frustrating task. Yes, they can
pick up commands on two or three tries but they are also very perceptive and are
constantly thinking. If, in teaching your dog to sit, you raise your right hand
and say "Sit", the dog may pick that up the first time through.
However, if the next time you repeat the command, you raise your arm at a
different angle and use a slightly lower tone of voice or a different pace, a
Border Collie will often pick up the subtle distinction and think that you are
using an entirely new command. Border Collies have a difficult time learning to
generalize, basically because it takes a dog that is less "critical"
to be able to follow a sloppy command. Training a Border Collie can be like
trying to teach a nerdy child that likes to overanalyze everything - it can be
frustrating and an exhaustive exercise in patience.
What are the other problems with owning a smart dog?
Intelligence in dogs is a double-edged sword. Yes, Border Collies can learn
lots of tricks and can have quite a large vocabulary but they also can learn
lots of bad things too. Having a smart dog means waging a continual intellectual
war with your dog, trying to outsmart them as they figure out each progressive
intellectual step you take. Trying to confine a Border Collie can be an exercise
in futility. Just when you put in a gate, they figure out how to get over
(under) it. When you put in a door, they figure out how to push it open. You put
in a latch and they figure out how to turn doorknobs. Some owners even swear
that their Border Collies can pick combination locks - though their paws make it
hard to turn the dial. If you do not enjoy engaging in intellectual warfare,
especially with a non-human, a less "perceptive" and somewhat
"denser" breed may be in order.
Is all this hassle necessary?
Unfortunately, many people spend far more time choosing their next car then
picking the right breed and dog for them. The decision to get a dog should weigh
far more heavily than the decision as to what make and model car you should get,
even if the expense of a car is far greater. The main point is that a dog is not
just like a car. It is a living, breathing being with emotional qualities and a
unique personality. A dog will be part of your family from the moment you get it
home. They need to be loved and cared for with the utmost devotion and
You must always remember that a dog is not like a car because:
a) It lasts longer. Cars can last several years but we generally get rid of them
as soon as they wear down or we tire of them. A Border Collie will usually live
up to fifteen years and will need fewer replacement parts, making the decision
(to adopt) a very important one.
b) It can't be traded in for a newer model. A dog will be part of your intimate
family for years to come and should be with you, barring any unforeseen
circumstances, for its entire life.
c) It comes with a personality. Cars come in different colors with different
options but all are basically identical. Each Border Collie is unique in and of
Our concern is for the welfare of the dog in particular and the breed in
general. Nothing is worse than a "boomerang" dog, particularly in
rescue. Poor and hasty choices, along with nondiscriminatory matching policies
are the biggest cause of returned or abandoned dogs. Though rescuers sometimes
continue to monitor the adopted dog's early progress and hope you keep in
contact long into the future, it is their mission to ensure that each dog is
placed in a loving home and will not need to be removed for any reason. Like
adopted children, their long-term placement in a caring family is our highest
And yes, it is easier and faster to buy a puppy from a pet store. But none of
the precautions will be taken to ensure that both the dog and you will be happy
with the match. The process of picking a dog is a long and detailed one. You
must be absolutely sure of your choice. Having a dog come into your home, like
having children, is not a decision that you can easily go back on. It will
affect your life for years to come and should not be taken lightly.