Understanding the collie brain...
When Lee Windeatt
first started training his Border collie Shy, he fell for the myth that agility dogs had to be hyped up around the
agility ring to be competitive. So he followed everyone else and hyped her up. He's now
have learnt his lesson and attempts to do the opposite. When he came across the following
article by Sue Kinchin, he was so impressed with the sentiment behind it that he asked the author
if he could share in with other agility folk in order to give them a better understanding of
their collie. Although we write 'collie brain,' we are sure the underlying principles apply to most
breeds to some extent.
If you have a
Border Collie, you have a very special dog - a dog that is intelligent, sensitive, eager to
please and very quick to learn. Sounds like the perfect pet? Yes, with our help they can make
wonderful pets, but we need to remember that when we take one of these very special and complex
dogs into our homes we have a responsibility to try to understand all the factors
that make a Border Collie what it is. The more we can understand our Border Collies the less
likely it is that we, and our collie, will encounter serious problems.
Border Collies have been bred for
generations in a very specific and restricted environment for a very specific task and, as a
breed, are relative new-comers to life as pets. Some cope very well and others struggle. It is
our duty to try to understand these beautiful, clever creatures and to help them to cope.
We can easily find books that
tell us what Border Collies have been bred for. We will be warned about their sensitivity to
movement and tendency to chase things and about the fact that they need to have their brains
occupied, but what we are not generally asked to think about are those characteristics that are
not necessary in a working sheepdog, but which make life easier for a pet dog.
Anyone who has owned Border
Collies will be aware that they are generally cautious dogs. Without intensive and sensitive
socialisation as puppies, they are often wary of people, intolerant of unfamiliar dogs and
anxious about anything new or changing. Even with intensive socialisation, some retain
these characteristics. Border Collies are prone to being affected by a single bad experience
and have poor 'bounce back' when something goes wrong for them. They are very sensitive to
reprimands, but equally crave guidance and instruction. Because they are very sensitive to
movement, any fast movement that they cannot control can be very disturbing to them. No wonder
so many Border Collies hate traffic. Remember though, it is this sensitivity and intelligence
that we find so appealing.
So why are they like this? Why
can life upset them so easily? To understand our collies fully, we need not only to consider
what they have been bred for, but also what they have not been bred for.
do not interfere with
this task are likely to be ignored. Over the generations your Collie has
NOT been bred to:-
Cope with noise
Collies need to have very acute hearing to hear and interpret a
shepherd's signals at a great distance, but sheep farms are generally quiet places and their
sensitive hearing does not cause them problems. Urban and domestic life bombards our dogs with
noise and this can cause them extreme stress. Be aware of this and if necessary protect your
dog from excessive noise. Speak quietly to your Collie, he doesn't need you to shout at him.
Cope with change
Sheep farms tend to be
relatively unchanging places, there are sheep, the shepherd and his family, the barn where the
dog sleeps and an odd tractor or car. Sheep dogs don't generally need to cope with change.
Every time our urban collie leaves home the street outside will probably have changed (new
vehicles, new people, rubbish skips etc.). Just going out for a walk, even if the dog looks
forward to his walk, can generate stress and we need to be aware of this and help him to cope.
with the presence of strangers/visitors or groups of people
Sheep farms tend to be
isolated places. It is not necessary to be at ease with people to be a good working
sheep dog. In a pet home our dogs are surrounded by many strange people in the street
and visitors to the home. If you get your Collie as a puppy make sure he is sensitively
socialised to people at an early age. If he is older respect the fact that he may find
meeting strange people stressful.
Cope with the presence of
Apart from the familiar dogs with similar
characteristics that live on the farm with them, working sheepdogs are unlikely to need to mix
with other dogs. As pet owners we expect them to meet a lot of strange dogs, many with
appalling “dog manners”, and often with our dog on lead so that it does not have the option of
running away. Even if your collie does not react aggressively in these situations he could well
be very stressed.
Many sheepdogs will never
leave their farms so traditionally they haven't really needed to get on with other dogs
or unfamiliar people. Sociability and resilience are not characteristics that have historically
been important in the development of the Border Collie.
Although your dog may not
be directly from working stock, it will still have many of the characteristics inherited from
generations of working sheep dogs and equally he may not have inherited those characteristics
that would make life in a pet home easier for him.
Shepherds are the experts
with Border Collies and we can learn a lot from them. Yes, we've all heard of harsh and callous
shepherds, but many value their dogs very highly, not just as working dogs but also as members
of their family.
It is referring back to the shepherd for guidance all the time. His
impulses to chase and control movement are under very tight control. The shepherd is guiding
the dog and the dog is exhibiting self-control. Ideally, this is how we want our collie to be
with us. If he is checking in with us to find out what to do next, not only is he under control
and less likely to get himself into trouble, but he is also getting reassurance from us. He
doesn't have to worry. We will tell him what to do in any situation. Encourage your dog to look
to you for guidance. It shouldn't be too hard. It's in his genes!
Watch the shepherd, too
You just don't see excitable shepherds. An excitable shepherd would mean an excited dog and scattered sheep! Be a calm owner. Think
about this if you are considering Agility or Flyball with your Collie. A good working sheep dog
is fast and has lightning reflexes, but is not in a state of over-excitement. Teach your dog
calmly what you want him to do. If he understands and is enjoying what he is doing, he will do
his best. After all he has been bred from generations of dogs selected for their willingness to
work as a team with their handler. There is no need for your dog to be roused to a hysterical
state for it to perform well, and it is bad for its mental and physical health to be in such a
state. If your dog shows signs of stress or gets over-excited ask yourself if this is really
the best activity for him.
A final thought
When a working sheepdog
is not working alongside the shepherd he is shut away in a quiet, non-stimulating place to
rest and recover and to keep him out of mischief! Importantly, adrenalin levels that have
probably been quite high while he is working now have a chance to return to normal. Your
sensitive, alert pet Collie is being bombarded with information from his environment all the
time. Make sure he has plenty of opportunity to rest in a secure, non-stimulating place where
he can relax.
Think Border Collies, think working
sheepdogs... maximise their strengths, understand and respect their weaknesses.
Sue Kinchin has owned and trained a variety of dogs including
BOrder Collies for over 30 years. She's had adolescent rescue collies and also collie pups
from the age of eight weeks. At the moment, she owns two Border Collies - 12 year old Mist
and 7 year old Glen, both from working stock. As a keen hill walker in the past, she has always
had an interest in working collies and a particular interest in how they fare in pet homes.
Currently Sue instructs at pet dog
training classes and she does one-to-one training and behaviour consultations. Recently she
started holding Border Collie evenings for owners of pet collies who need advice on collie
ownership and activities to keep their collies occupied, but calm.
Sue is a member of the APDT 00922.
For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos with kind permission of Andy Nickless:
Sheepdog Web site
You can see more wonderful images of
Border Collie Sheepdogs -
Off Duty on Andy's DVD. Available from
I was very interested by your article about "how
to understand border collie". I think that you see perfectly what is a true Border.
I am French but I am living in Uruguay where I arrived 25
years ago with the first Borders from the ISDS. I spend a lot of years training to work with
sheep but now I cannot do it more. I am afraid that people now are wanting Borders as a pet
but they don't know how is really a border - a marvel dog but so special.
Is a little difficult for me to explain very well because
since I am in Uruguay I don't practice English.
First published: 07/11/10