Many thanks to Laura Alfonso, Carolyn Chamblin, Robin French, Terri Hardwick, Kathy Kemper, Janet Lewis, Nancy Gagliardi Little, Rita Susanto, Richard Whorton, and M. Christine Zink, DVM, for their input. Most of all, thanks to my first Border Collie, Summerwind Shiloh, UD (9/83 - 5/94), who taught me more about Border Collies than all the books in the world could have.
This publication is not the official publication of any organization, my personal affiliations notwithstanding.
Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 by April M. Quist. All rights reserved. You may download and print a copy of this file for your personal use. Further distribution must be with the explicit permission of the author, except as noted below.
NOTE: Border Collie Rescue organizations and animal shelters may freely give a copy with each Border Collie they place, as long as the entire article remains intact, including copyright notice.
Table of Contents
The most outstanding characteristics of Border Collies are their working style, and their high energy, stamina, and desire to work above all other things. They herd with their heads lowered, eyeing the sheep with an intense, almost mesmerizing stare. They notice every movement of the livestock, and they react by moving, at times almost imperceptibly, to take advantage of it or to counter it. Movement of both dog and stock is usually calm and fluid. These dogs are the world's premier sheep-working breed and are known for their athleticism, intelligence, and strong work ethic.
Border Collies are heading or gathering herders, as opposed to heelers; their instinct is to run out past a herd or flock, gather the animals, and return them to the shepherd. Border Collies can be (and are) taught to drive stock away from the shepherd, but they do not usually do it by instinct.
Typical Border Collies are workaholics. They are happiest when they have a job to do, whether that job be herding, obedience, agility, or any of the other active occupations and dog sports at which they excel. They are extremely quick, high-energy, busy dogs, and they must have plenty of exercise. They are bred for endurance: a working Border Collie is able to run many miles a day over difficult terrain, then go out and do it again the next day; a one- or two-mile run is barely a warm-up for such an athletic dog. People without the time to give a dog plenty of good, vigorous exercise every day are usually happier with a calmer breed. A bored Border Collie can become neurotic, obsessive, and destructive.
Border Collies herd livestock, birds, other dogs, cats, children, squirrels, rabbits, deer, bugs, and often lawn mowers, vaccuum cleaners, brooms, rakes, and anything else that moves. Although Border Collies herd by "eye" rather than by nipping at the heels of livestock, many are still nippy and might nip at you or your children's heels and legs when you run. In other words, if not handled properly the herding behavior can turn a Border Collie into a real pest. They also tend to be car-chasers, and many Border Collie lives have ended early under the wheels of a car.
With a Border Collie, you have an extra shadow! They follow you everywhere they can and are always underfoot. These dogs watch you constantly (as if you are the stock), and rush in front of you if they think something is going to happen. They thrive on attention and are very affectionate and people-oriented. However, good socialization is important for them: they can be reserved with people they don't know, and aggressive with other dogs. Border Collies are highly intelligent and quick learners, but they are slow to mature - they are "puppies" until around 2 or 3 years (or older), and many 10- and 12-year-old dogs are still very lively and full of energy. Don't expect a Border Collie to start acting mature and dignified at 3 or 4 years of age!
I heard that Border Collies are the most intelligent dog there is. Is this true?
How are they with children?
Are Border Collies hyperactive? Do they need a lot of exercise?
How much exercise is enough for a Border Collie?
What active sports and activities can I participate in with a Border Collie?
Do they play "Fetch"?
Do Border Collies like to swim?
What other things do they like to do that will help me exercise my dog and keep it mentally stimulated?
Do Border Collie jump fences? Are they escape artists?
How big do Border Collies get?
Do they make good guard dogs?
Do they shed?
How much grooming do they need?
Do they bark much?
How long do they live?
Where should I get my dog?
Don't "rescued" Border Collies have a lot of behavior problems? Do they have trouble bonding with their new owners?
How do I choose a puppy?
The Border Collie originated in the border country between Scotland and England. It is a very old breed, with references in literature going back to at least 1570 in writings by Dr. Caius. Caius mentions him as "not huge, vaste and bigge but of indifferent stature and growth". The breed has been known as the Working Collie, Old-Fashioned Collie, Farm Collie, and English Collie. It was in 1915 that James Reid, Secretary of the International Sheepdog Society in Great Britain, first called the dog a Border Collie.
The first sheepdog trials were held on October 9, 1873 in Bala, Wales. In the United States, the trials started in 1880.
Famous Border Collies
Any history of Border Collies has to include mention of two particular dogs: Old Hemp and Wiston Cap. There are plenty of brilliant Border collies in Great Britain's past, but these two have had a great deal of influence on the modern Border Collie.
Old Hemp, a tri-color dog, was born September 1893 and died May 1901. He was bred by Adam Telfer from Roy, a black and tan dog, and Meg, a black-coated, strong-eyed dog. Hemp was a quiet, powerful dog that sheep responded to easily. Many shepherds used him for stud on their bitches, and Hemp's working style became the Border Collie style. It is believed that Old Hemp's blood runs in the veins of almost all Border Collies today.
Wiston Cap is the dog that the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) badge portrays in the characteristic Border Collie herding pose. He was the most popular and used stud dog in the history of the breed, and appears in a huge percentage of pedigrees today. Bred by W. S. Hetherington and trained and handled by John Richardson, Cap was a biddable and good-natured dog. His blood lines all trace back to the early registered dogs of the stud book, and to J. M. Wilson's Cap, who occurs sixteen times within seven generations in his pedigree. Wiston Cap sired three Supreme Champions and is grand-sire of three others, one of which is E. W. Edwards' Bill, who won the championship twice.
The Border Collie Controversy
The Border Collie brings out a great deal of passion in the people who love it, especially in regard to what is best for the breed. Unfortunately, there is much disagreement on that subject, and the disagreement has created some hard feelings among people who are all intensely concerned about the Border Collie's future. Following is a very simplified summary of the three main groups.
Many people, particularly Border Collie owners from the herding community, feel that American Kennel Club (AKC) recognition in the United States, and Canadian Kennel Club recognition (CKC) in Canada, will irreparably harm the Border Collie. These people believe that breeding the dogs to a conformation standard (that is, for beauty or a certain look) will, at best, split the breed in North America by creating a set of Border Collies that are pretty but can't work. They take the dogs' herding instinct very seriously, and believe it would be a serious injustice to the breed if this were to happen. These people refuse to have anything to do with the AKC, and do not register their dogs with the AKC.
Many other people, especially those involved in showing their dogs in AKC obedience trials and other performance events, believe that, with enough people committed to keeping the dog a working dog, and with an AKC parent club committed to the same thing, they will be able to keep a major split from happening by placing the emphasis on herding and performance, especially when it comes to breeding dogs.
There is also a group of Border Collie owners who are primarily interested in showing in conformation. Many of these people have imported conformation-bred Border Collies from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where the breed has been recognized by the Kennel Clubs for a number of years.
In 1994, breed clubs for all breeds that had been in the Miscellaneous group for many years without seeking full recognition (including the Australian Kelpie, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog) were notified by the AKC that they had to either seek recognition or be dropped from the AKC entirely. The AKC had made the decision that the Miscellaneous group should be used as it was intended: as a temporary holding place for breeds actively seeking recognition.
In December 1994, the AKC voted to officially recognize the Border Collie after decades of its being in the Miscellaneous group (no one seems to be sure exactly how long it's been, but it's apparently at least since 1955). Registration began in February, 1995, with stud books to be kept open for three years (in October 1997, the AKC decided to allow an additional three years; as of this writing, stud books are now due to close in January 2001). As a Miscellaneous breed, the Border Collie was allowed to show only in AKC obedience and tracking trials; on February 1, 1995, the breed also became eligible to show in herding and agility trials. In October 1995, Border Collies were seen for the first time in AKC conformation as part of the herding group. And finally, in the summer of 1996, the AKC selected the Border Collie Society of America (BCSA) as the AKC parent club for the breed.
The Canadian Kennel Club, due to its inability to recognize the breed at this time, removed the Border Collie from its Miscellaneous group. (The process of breed recognition is regulated by the Canadian government through the Animal Pedigree Act.) As a result, any Border Collies not CKC miscellaneous certified by the end of 1993 are not allowed to participate in CKC- sanctioned events. The Border Collie Club of Canada (BCCC) is continuing to work with the CKC to regain their showing privileges.
Emphasis is traditionally on intelligence, trainability, and herding instinct rather than on beauty. When a sheep rancher goes looking for a Border Collie to help him with the sheep on his ranch, or for a Border Collie that he can compete with in herding trials, what the dog looks like is usually the last thing on his mind. He doesn't care what color the dog is, or how big he is, or whether his ears stand up or flop down. The rancher does want the dog to be highly intelligent and trainable, have good herding instinct, and to be physically capable of performing the work. The rancher watches to make sure the dog has the Border Collie eye, with which he controls the stock. Tail-carriage is also important: the dog should carry his tail low along his back legs with an upward turn at the end, because a dog that carries his tail above his back (called a "gay tail") is not concentrating on his work.
In general, Border Collies are medium-sized dogs, averaging between 35 and 50 pounds, but individuals are seen that are as small as 25 pounds, and as large as 65 pounds. The most common color is black and white, but black, white, and tan (tri), red and white, red-tri, red merle, blue merle, and blue and white are also perfectly acceptable. Ear set can be almost anything, from floppy or "rose," to semi-prick, to prick, and both ears don't necesssarily look alike. Eyes can be of any color: some dogs have one blue and one brown eye. "Typical" Border collie markings are colored body with a white blaze up the face, white collar, white feet and legs, and a white tail tip, but there are many dogs that are almost solid-colored, which, again, is perfectly acceptable because it has no bearing on how the dog works.
Be aware that many excellent breeders do not breed to the AKC standard. They believe that working ability alone is the only way to define a Border Collie. In the writer's opinion, if a breeder is breeding toward the AKC standard, s/he should also be breeding for herding ability.
Border Collies are often "soft" dogs; that is, they are sensitive to rough treatment and corrections. You must be firm and consistent because these dogs will try to get away with as much as they can, but you must also be fair in your corrections and training. Typical reactions from a Border Collie that has been stressed by rough or unfair treatment are that it may shut down, possibly rolling onto its back in submission, or acting very engrossed in something else and paying no attention to you; or it may become more anxious and wound up, trying to do everything in triple time, which causes it to make even more mistakes. Motivational-type training, with plenty of treats and/or play, works best with soft dogs. It brings out the best in them, helping to turn them into excellent, happy workers that love their training sessions.
Attention-training is important for Border Collies that will be shown in obedience competition. These dogs are very sight-oriented, and are easily distracted by anything moving around them. A dog that is closely watching his handler cannot pay attention to other things that are happening around him.
Border Collies make wonderful trick dogs. They love to learn new things and can be taught many behaviors, such as sitting up, playing dead, and rolling over, and they usually love to show off. They can be very undignified and clownish if they think it will get them attention or make people laugh. This is why these dogs are so popular in movies and television.
Border Collies can be very sound-sensitive. This sensitivity manifests itself in a couple of ways: some dogs become very frightened at loud or unusual noises (i.e., fireworks, the sound of a smoke alarm, even something as simple as hand-clapping); other dogs might just be extremely distracted by different noises.
With the recent appearance of the Border Collie in movies, commercials, and television programs, many people are now considering one as a potential new pet. While Border Collies are very intelligent, they also require a larger time and energy commitment from their owners than many other breeds. They are active, spirited, and sometimes strong willed. Although some may be calmer than others, others are decidedly hyperactive, always wanting to be up and doing something. They often exhibit obsessive behaviors, like chasing lights, shadows, and running or dripping water. Many owners have no patience for this kind of activity, but breed lovers seem to enjoy this loony streak.
There is no way of telling how highly developed a pup's herding instinct will be. If you acquire one that wants to work above all else, its frustration may take the form of herding and possibly nipping at the heels of children, running adults, or other animals. This is not a sign of viciousness, but it is something that must be controlled, especially with small children who can become frightened with the behavior.
The people who make the most satisfied Border Collie owners are people who enjoy spending a lot of time with their dogs and are willing and able to make the commitment to exercise and train in some way every day; who are very active, who like to hike, jog, and/or take long walks with their dogs; who don't mind living with a dog that never really settles down, even in the house, even after a lot of exercise, even when its owner is tired from a long day at work; and most important, who have a real job for the dogs to do, whether it's one of the dog sports that these dogs excel at, or, of course, herding a flock of sheep.
In summary, Border Collies are much more work than most other breeds. They do not typically make easy family pets. If you have never been around one, try to spend some time with the breed before you decide to get one. Many Border Collies end up in shelters when their owners find that they are just too much trouble to have around because they need so much exercise, attention, and training/mental stimulation.
American Kennel Club
There is a mistaken belief by some breeders that the Border Collie's work weeds out unhealthy breeding stock and, as a result, the breed is unaffected by the genetic disorders common in other breeds. This is absolutely untrue! It is estimated that approximately 25% of Border Collies in the U.S. have disorders such as hip dysplasia, eye problems, and epilepsy. If a breeder tells you that the breed is unaffected by these problems, find another breeder. Also, if a breeder tells you he doesn't check and certify hips and eyes because his particular breeding lines are unaffected by hip and eye problems, find another breeder.
Like most medium- and large-sized dogs, Border Collies are prone to Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD), which can cause mild to severe lameness, so be sure to look for breeders that certify their dogs through the OFA and insist on seeing the certificates. Dogs do not have to be obviously lame to have this condition and pass it on to their offspring. As a dog approaches middle age, symptoms of CHD often show up as mild arthritis: the dog limps or appears somewhat stiff after hard exercise or upon getting up from a nap. Often the dog seems fine after he moves around and stretches himself a bit. These symptoms can become worse as the dog ages. Depending on the dog (age, activity level) and owner (finances, ability and williness to commit to helping the dog with its rehabilitation), treatment varies from pain management (using drugs, managed exercise, and rest) to several choices of surgery (including total hip replacement).
A disease that can cause lameness in the joints of young dogs (usually from 6 to 12 months of age) is Osteochondritis Desicans (OCD). This is a degenerative disease of the joints, and is possibly associated with over-nutrition and too-fast growth of puppies. Treatment includes rest and/or surgery.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) and Central Retinal Atrophy (CPRA) are two eye problems. PRA generally shows up in dogs around two years of age. At first it shows up as night blindness, and slowly progresses over eight years or so to total blindness. Dogs that are bred should have their eyes checked and certified by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Again, insist on seeing the CERF certificates.
Collie Eye Anomaly
Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) is another eye problem that is becoming more and more common in Border Collies. Like PRA, CEA can also cause blindness. The entire litter should be tested for CEA between the ages of six and ten weeks by a qualified veterinary ophthalmologist. An official certificate should be available if the litter has been tested, and every puppy in the litter should be listed as normal.
Border Collies are also prone to epilepsy, a neurological seizure disorder, which can be extremely serious. Although epileptic seizures can usually be controlled by drugs, that's not always the case. Dogs have been known to die of uncontrollable seizures. Unfortunately, there is no test for this. Ask the breeder if there are any known epilepsy problems. Ethical breeders will be more than happy to discuss this with you.
Canine Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (Storage Disease)
This is a rare disease found in some dogs, which affects the nerve cells of the body. It is caused by a metabolic defect that allows a waste product called ceroid lipofuscin to accumulate in body cells. Dogs appear normal until around 18 months, at which time the build-up is substantial enough that symptoms start to appear. Symptoms include: unreasonable fear of familiar objects and surroundings; abnormal gait, unsteady on feet, difficulty jumping; demented behaviour, mania, hyperactivity, or rage. There is no treatment for this disease, and it is terminal.
Congenital deafness can be a problem in some Border Collies, and more breeders are starting to have breeding stock and litters hearing (BAER) tested.
This is a very serious, although fairly unusual condition that affects some Border Collies. Typical symptoms include staggering after a brief period (5 or 10 minutes) of exercise. If left to run they would collapse. Body temperatures shoot up extremely high, and take a long time to return to normal, even in cold weather. Any exercise or stress can trigger an attack. If the temperature goes high enough, it can trigger seizures, strokes or even death. Dogs with this condition must have their exercise carefully controlled and monitored.
Because of their low body fat, some Border Collies may be sensitive to barbiturate-based anesthetics. This is something that you should discuss with your veterinarian before any kind of surgery or procedure for which your dog will be anesthetized.
Billingham, Viv, One Woman and Her Dog (Out of print)
Carpenter, E. B., Blue Ribband of the Heather: The Supreme Champions 1906 - 1988, Farming Press Books, Ipswich, UK, 1989
Combe, Iris, Border Collies, Faber and Faber, London
Jones, H. Glyn, A Way of Life, Diamond Farm Enterprises, Alexandria, NY, 1987
Larson, Janet E., The Versatile Border Collie, Alpine Publications, Inc., Loveland, Colorado, 1987
Longton, Tim, and Hart, Edward, The Sheepdog: Its Work and Training, David and Charles, London, 1976
McCaig, Donald, Nop's Trials (Fiction), Crown Publishers, New York, NY, 1984
McCaig, Donald, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, Burlingame Books, New York, NY, 1991
Wilcox, Bonnie, DVM, and Walkowicz, Chris, Atlas of Dog Breeds, TFH Publications, Inc., 1991
Zink, M. Christine, DVM, Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete, Howell Book House, 1992
American Border Collie
The National Stock Dog Magazine
The Ranch Dog Trainer
The Shepherd's Dogge
The Working Border Collie Magazine
United States Border Collie Club Newsletter
A mailing list is available for discussing issues and topics relating to Border Collies. You can join by sending a message to:
In the body of the message, put the lines:
There is also a mailing list specifically for herding with Border collies. To join, send email to:
In the body of the message, put the lines:
Most of the people listed below are experts at matching dogs with the right homes, so, for example, you won't end up with a dog with intense herding instincts if what you want is just an active companion. Most are also very knowledgeable about dog behavior, and are happy to answer any questions and help you with any problems you might have after you get your new dog home.
Border Collie Rescue Organization
Border Collie Rescue Organization
Border Collie Rescue
Kay Gaeta (NABCRN)
North American Border Collie Rescue Network, Inc. (NABCRN)
For lists of breeders, contact the one of the breed clubs listed later in this article. Be sure to interview the breeders very carefully, and expect them to interview you to make sure you can provide an appropriate home for one of their puppies. Responsible breeders are very careful about who they send their puppies home with.
The American Border Collie Association Inc. (ABCA)
The American-International Border Collie Registry, Inc.
The American Kennel Club. (AKC)
The North American Sheep Dog Society (NASDS)
Raad van Beheer
The Kennel Club
The International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS)
The Australian National Kennel Council
The United Kennel Club (UKC)
World Wide Kennel Club
Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with any inquiry.
The Australian Border Collie Society
The Border Collie Club of Great Britain
Border Collie Club Nederland
Border Collie Society of America, Inc (BCSA)
The United States Border Collie Club
Border Collie FAQ
April Quist, [email protected]