The Border Collie

The workaholic dog with a strong desire to please man


The top obedience dog in the US is OTCh Heelalong Chimney Sweep UDX, a multi-titled black-and-white Border Collie owned by Richard Guetzloff of Prescott, Arizona.

Closer to home are a dozen or more happy, hard-working Borders owned by members of Queen City and Kuliga and Hamilton dog training clubs.

Border Collies excel in agility as well as obedience competition, but their crowning achievement is in the sheep pasture where they gather the flock and, at the shepherd's direction, move it to greener pastures or to close confinement in paddock or barn.

Borders are the overachievers of the dog world, eager to please and gluttons for more work or play. The adage "Idle hands are the devil's playground" applies in spades to the Border Collie -- unless this dog is given a job to do, he can become destructive or neurotic or both.

Breed history

The Border Collie was born in the British Isles and grew to maturity in the border country of England and Scotland. There are several theories surrounding the derivation of the "Collie" portion of his name, but no doubt as to his purpose in life. Some historians claim that "colley" derives from a Gaelic word meaning something useful, some say it comes from "coalie," a word meaning black, and a third source trace the meaning from the name of a breed of Scottish sheep. But few would disagree that the Border Collie is the finest sheepherding dog, a marvelous competition dog, and a suitable if somewhat hyperactive pet for lively households.

The British Isles are home to about three dozen breeds of sheep. These animals had to be brought in from the fields periodically for shearing or driving to market or moved from one field to another as the seasons changed. Several breeds -- Smooth and Rough-coated Collies, Bearded Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Shetland Sheepdogs -- developed to do these tasks, but none is as fanatically dedicated as the Border.

Donald McCaig, farmer, Border Collie owner, and author, describes succinctly and colorfully the Border Collie style in Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men:

"A Border Collie moves livestock by controlled intimidation. He pushes them along with a threatening glare. This glare is called 'eye' and is probably related to the wolves' tactic of selecting a victim in the herd by catching its eye and asserting dominance before starting the attack run."

Today the Border Collie is one of the few breeds that is still used for his traditional purpose in his homeland and in the US. The US Border Collie Club is dedicated to maintaining the breed's skill as a shepherd's dog; many club members depend on their dogs to tend the flocks and many train their dogs to compete in herding tests and trials to prove their prowess.


The new American Kennel Club-approved standard describes the breed as "a well-balanced, medium-sized dog of athletic appearance, displaying grace and agility in equal measure with substance and stamina" and as "energetic, alert, and eager."

Most Border Collies are black and white, with broad skull, thick coat, large haunches, and the hypnotic 'eye' that mesmerizes sheep and bespeaks intense concentration on the task at hand.

But there is wide variety in the breed. Shoulder height can range from 18-22 inches for males with females a bit smaller. Ears can be erect or tipped over like those on a Rough-coated Collie or Shetland Sheepdog.

The coat can be medium-length or short and comes in several colors and patterns. The black and white dogs can be any pattern and can have tan markings on the face, ears, legs, and tail. Other acceptable colors and patterns are brown (also called red); sable (black-tipped hairs on a lighter background); and merle (dark blotches of color on a lighter background of the same color). The only color disqualification is solid white.

The Border Collie moves quickly, often in an almost-crouched position with forequarters lower than haunches and with the famous 'eye' on his work or his handler.

Border Collie as pet

The Border Collie temperament is well suited to life in the suburbs as long as there's plenty of work to do. No busywork for this dog, no occasional jogs around the block -- such may occupy his time and his body, but his mind will not be satisfied. The job must take into account that this is a dog possessed, driven as strongly as any corporate executive to fulfill his destiny.

He's a good watchdog, affectionate to his family and their friends, and quite intelligent. He'll play ball or Frisbee, herd the kids or cars or anything else, and learn more tricks than the average dog. (That's a Border Collie in the aluminum foil commercials, skateboarding to the recycling bin and sending her pups off to school with a well-packaged lunch.)

But skimp on the career opportunities and the Border Collie may become compulsively riveted on things with moving parts, things like analog clocks or dripping faucets, neighborhood cats, or the youth soccer team at the playground, and either stare fixedly for hours or try to coordinate the last great roundup. Left to his own devices, he may become an escape artist, all the better to chase cars, frolicking children, deer, or livestock, all without rancor but with the innate drive to herd. His compulsion can be the death of him if he runs into the street or chases and nips at children. Unlike some breeds that are active outside and quiet inside, the Border Collie can be a household busybody, into anything or everything to assuage his curiosity and his Type A personality.


Along with plenty of purposeful exercise, the Border Collie needs some grooming to keep his coat in shape, especially while shedding, socialization to prevent dominance or shyness problems, and some kind of training to direct his abundance of energy and enthusiasm.

Well-bred Borders are among the healthier breeds, but hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy and Collie eye anomaly can be problems. Breeding stock should always be x-rayed for hip dysplasia and have eyes checked annually for PRA and CEA. When looking for a Border pup, always ask about hip and eye health certificates.

AKC and Borders

The Border Collie has been included in the AKC miscellaneous group for many years. Usually, a breed enters this group for a year or two while the parent club complies with the recognition process. While in this class, the breed can compete in obedience trials but not in conformation shows.

AKC recently added the Border Collie to its registry of about 140 breeds, pushing it out of the miscellaneous class at the request of an independent breed club. Some Border Collie fanciers fear that inclusion in conformation shows will damage the working ability of the breed, and they have threatened a lawsuit to force AKC to change its mind. However, the fate of the Border Collie as an intelligent and lively working dog is in the hands of the breeders, not AKC.

If you think you might want one of these wonderful but quirky dogs, think twice, then twice again. Then call Border Collie rescue (see sidebar) and find out what happens when owners aren't prepared for the total commitment required for this breed. If you still want a Border, go to a breeder who produces dogs especially for obedience work and pets, not one who breeds high energy, totally focused stock dogs.

More information on this breed is available at The United States Border Collie Club home page

Norma Bennett Woolf

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