Rising Star Border Collies

The History of the Border Collie

From The Border Collie Museum

Centuries before the industrial revolution, Britain's wealth was built on wool. Domestic sheep were herded by Neolithic man and likely sheepdogs were associated with him as well. The Romans brought pastoral dogs to Britain as they did sheep. John Caius, a doctor writing in the 1500s, mentions the "shepherd's dogge". His book, De Canibus Britannicus (Treatise on Englishe Dogges), may in fact be the earliest reference to the way British sheepdogs worked.

In Scotland, when a sheep economy took hold, the sheepdog was absolutely necessary. James Hogg (1772-1835), a shepherd and poet from the Ettrick Valley in the Scottish Borders wrote, "without [the sheep dog] the mountainous land of England and Scotland would not be worth sixpence. It would require more hands to manage a flock of sheep and drive them to market than the profits of the whole were capable of maintaining."

Sheepdogs varied more in the past than they do today. There were as many breeds of working dog as there were breeds of sheep. Most of Britain's breeds of pastoral dogs have become extinct, not only because sheep predators disappeared, but for other reasons, as well. Some vanished along with the need for specialized working abilities. Others disappeared when sheep and cattle were no longer being driven to market but were taken by rail, and later truck, obviating the need for a strong driving dog capable of moving large flocks long distances.

In Australia and New Zealand, and in parts of the United States, where there are still huge flocks of sheep and sometimes exceptional conditions, specialized types of sheepdogs have been developed and are still used--heelers, barkers, dogs capable of going over the backs of closely packed sheep or driving them long distances. But in Britain, and in parts of the United States as well, the Border Collie has emerged as the dominant herding dog.

Dogs like the Border Collie existed centuries ago. Old paintings and lithographs show the shepherd's dog as one resembling the Border Collie. Sheila Grew, in her book Key Dogs from the Border Collie Family (1985), said "a century ago many of the [working] collies were hard, powerful...dogs, difficult to control and rough with...stock; but their keen...instinct,... concentration and great power over...sheep or cattle were such useful assets it seemed worth trying to find a milder natured type of working collie to cross with [them]." A Northumbrian farmer, Adam Telfer, "succeeded," Grew says, "in finding the right blend of the two types of dog" in 1894. The Border Collie as we know it today is descended from that dog.

How a Border Collie works
Herding dogs are bred for working ability, and genetic makeup is the biggest factor in determining working characteristics. Each herding breed has somewhat different working behavior depending on the stockmen's needs at the time the breed was being developed. It is the working characteristics of the breed that essentially makes it different from other breeds.

Ability to "Gather"
Bred for hill conditions, the Border Collie is outstanding when it comes to working sheep. Unlike "specialists" of the past, the Border Collie is able to perform a variety of tasks. He is born with the instinct to "gather" the sheep to the shepherd and this trait makes him most useful on the hill. In Scotland, where the sheep spend a good part of the year scattered widely on high pasture, a dog must be able to circle around and gather the entire flock for routine management like dipping and shearing.

The Border Collie controls the sheep with "eye" which has a distinct meaning, referring to the amount of concentration on the sheep that the dog shows. The sheep are "held" by the strength of the dog's eye and a dog in which this characteristic is well developed is called "strong-eyed".

The Border Collie has a tendency to "clap" or go down and face the sheep with its belly close to the ground. This in combination with "eye" gives the Border Collie a singularly predatory look. Dogs were bred for clapping and strong eye for many years, but now some are being bred or trained to stay more on their feet so that they are ready to move quickly if necessary. However, even on its feet, a Border Collie still crouches forward and has a characteristic appearance.

Intelligence in an animal that cannot speak is hard to define. The Border Collie is usually considered an intelligent dog. By that, shepherds meant a dog that could think for himself. Border Collies were often sent great distances to gather the scattered flocks. Because they often had to work far away from their handlers, Border Collies had be intelligent and independent as well. They were relied upon to handle unusual situations without the assistance of the shepherd. Stories abound about how various sheepdogs handled themselves in these instances. In today's world, a dog that thinks for himself is not always appreciated, and can get into trouble.

Sheepdog Trials in Britain
It is almost certain that there were trials held in Britain as long as there have been agricultural shows, but the "earliest recorded" sheepdog trials, and the one considered most important because they spawned the first glimmering of an idea of an International Sheep Dog Society, were the trials held on October 9, 1873 in Bala, Wales. Arising out of these trials and the ones that followed was the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS), formed in 1906, its purpose to "improve the breed of the collie with a view to the better management of stock". Sometime after World War I, the term "Border Collie" was coined to distinguish it from the show collie.

See Sheepdog Trials in Britain & Ireland: The Real Beginnings at Bala, Wales

The ISDS is still the only registry of working sheepdogs in Britain and Ireland. Each year it puts on four prestigious National Sheep Dog Trials (the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh), which determine the four teams that will compete in the International Sheep Dog Trials. It is the culmination of the trial year and only those that "make the teams" from the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are eligible to run in it. They represent the top winners of the National trials for each country, the creme de la creme in dogs and handlers. People flock from all over Britain and indeed the world to see this trial. Our own American sheepdog trials derive from British trials, but differ in subtle ways.

The International Sheep Dog Trials: What's It All About?
by Mrs. E. B. Carpenter, UK
Judging sheepdog trials is a very complex and often controversial affair. These notes briefly outlining the general system are designed to assist visitors to the trials, to understand something of the whys and wherefores involved; but only experience can lead to true assessment of the varied situations that can, and do, arise in the course of a run.

Each dog starts its course with a full set of points, judges deducting points as they deem appropriate and mistakes occur. Each phase of a run is individually pointed. Judges consider all relevant circumstances, e.g., the behaviour of the sheep and their reaction to their surroundings; and mark according to their knowledge of sheep and dog behaviour.

If a dog grips (or bites) a sheep, the judges confer together, and if they decide unanimously that the grip was unwarranted (e.g., loss of dog's temper) the dog will be disqualified. If not in agreement, each judge will then deduct points as he considers appropriate.

The dog should be in firm command of the sheep from the moment he "lifts" them, moving them with a quiet, smooth flowing "method". This method is an indefinable quality of work possessed by Border Collies to a greater or lesser degree, some seeming to calm and give confidence to the sheep they work.

Because sheep successfully negotiate the fetch and drive obstacles does not necessarily mean full points are gained. That depends also on straight lines from one obstacle to another, and any deviation from these straight lines is penalised. Sheep should ideally be moved around the course at a steady pace--stops and starts being penalised and any rash or slack work by the dog also losing points.

The Outrun
The outrun, to left or right as the handler chooses, should take the dog on an arc so that he arrives behind the sheep, at a little distance from them. A wide outrun allows the dog to encompass them within the arc of his run, cutting off their escape back to the holding pen. A dog running too close, or straight up the field to them will panic and scatter the sheep, and thus lose points. Equally wrong is too wide and outrun. Points are deducted if a dog crosses the course, thereby approaching his sheep on the opposite side from that which he started his outrun.

The perfect outrun needs no commands to re-direct the dog. If a dog stops, or has to be stopped for further commands, more points will be lost than if he obeys re-directions while continuing his outrun. A dog that stops and eyes the sheep before he has completed his outrun will lose points, as will a dog that over-runs the sheep and has to be commanded back behind them to commence the lift.

The Lift
The lift is very important. A run can be ruined by a sharp approach that unsettles the sheep. Having arrived behind the sheep at the point of balance where he can move them towards the handler, the dog should pause to allow them to become aware of, and accept his presence, and then walk firmly and steadily towards them, quietly moving them down the course in as direct a line as possible toward the handler. A slow, hesitant lift, or a rough one, or many commands to encourage the dog to lift the sheep, will be penalised.

The Fetch
Any deviation from a straight line on the fetch will lose points, and points are lost for each sheep missing the gates. The wider sheep stray from a straight line the greater the loss of points. A wide turn around the handler at the end of the fetch will lose points, as will also happen if the sheep are turned too sharply and veer inwards towards the centre of the course as the drive away begins.

The Drive
As in the fetch, straight lines from gate to gate are required in the drive, and tight turns around the drive hurdles to maintain the correct line across the course, and also from the second drive gate to the shedding ring. Points are lost for faults similar to those in the fetch.

The Shed
Sheep in the ring, the handler is allowed to leave the post, and endeavour to separate two unmarked sheep (i.e., two that do not wear red collar bands). The dog is called to assist, and hold--wear--these two sheep, showing that he is capable of taking them away from the others if it were necessary. The shed must be accomplished within the ring, with points lost if sheep pass out of it, although when the two sheep have been shed, the other three may go out of the ring without incurring loss of points. A handler doing too much of the work towards shedding, failure to shed when the opportunity occurs, failure of the dog to come in when asked, or failure to show control of shed sheep, all incur loss of points. The sheep should be re-gathered in the ring before the handler proceeds to the pen, leaving the dog to bring the sheep.

The Pen
Once holding the six foot rope attached to the pen gate, the handler must not let it go until penning is completed. He may assist the dog--it is a partnership--but the dog must do his fair share of the work, or points will be lost. Slack work, hesitant or rash work by the dog, will be penalised. Sheep being allowed to go round or part way around the pen, being allowed to mill about in the pen mouth, or break away, will incur loss of points. The gate must be closed on the penned sheep, and when they are released the handler must close and fasten it before proceeding to the shedding ring.

The Single
The sheep taken back to the ring, one of the two sheep marked with red collar bands has to be separated--singled--the dog being called in to cut her out and hold her away from the others until the judges are satisfied of his ability to do so. A loss of points is incurred for similar faults as may occur in shedding.

The Supreme Championship
On the final day of the International Sheepdog Trials, the Supreme Championship is competed for on an enlarged course. Two separate lots of sheep have to be gathered from different parts of the course and united enroute to the handler. Judging is similar to that in the Qualifying Trial, points being deducted for faults in both outruns, and for any faults attending the dog's turn back for the second lot of sheep. Should the first lot of sheep, which have to be left at a post below the fetch gate while the dog turns back for the others, stray away across the course, the dog has to be sent at the most convenient point to fetch them to re-join the others. Points will be lost if the second lot of sheep are driven off line to collect the straying sheep.

The shedding of five sheep marked with red collar bands from the flock of twenty has to be accomplished in the ring, the unmarked sheep run off between dog and handler and the dog holding the marked sheep always in the ring. Should any of these be allowed to leave the ring and join up with the unmarked shed sheep, all of them have to be regathered and the shedding begun again. Points are deducted for faults similar to shedding in the Qualifying Trial. The five marked sheep are penned, faults being penalised as stated previously.

The Brace Competition
The brace competition is complicated by two dogs' work having to be assessed individually and also as a partnership with each other. Ideally, they should be working as a team. They are allowed to cross over behind the sheep at the end of their respective outruns, without loss of points, but if they change sides afterwards during the fetch or drive, points will be deducted. Similar faults occur during a brace run as in a singles run, and points similarly lost.

In the shedding ring, one dog is used to split the bunch of sheep in two equal lots. Usually this dog is left in charge of one lot, while the other dog takes the rest to the pen that has no gate. When safely penned, that dog is left on guard at the pen mouth to keep the sheep within, while the other dog pens his sheep in the pen that has a gate. Points are deducted for faults in penning at the individual pens, and also for any interference of either dog with the other's work; or if the dog left to guard the first pen leaves his position. Should these sheep escape from the pen before the second pen is completed, they have to be re-gathered and re-penned before the handler can attempt to pen the second lot of sheep.


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