February 8, 2002
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 1
At first glance, the Border Collie (BC) looks like a typical working dog. Border Collie aficionados have graphically described the BC as a well-proportioned chunk of muscle. His coat is short to medium with color combinations that include black and white, red and white and merle with white. The ears do a variety of things from standing up to tipping over and pointing north and south. Many casual dog owners have mistaken this for an ordinary dog and taken it home. They spend an average of six weeks in rehab getting over the experience.
A few do survive owning a BC. There have been no formal research studies describing the characteristics of the successful BC owner. However, anecdotal reports would suggest that these people:
Have very strong egos that are not threatened by a dog smarter than themselves;
Have superior verbal skills that allow them to explain to the neighbors why all of their children are standing in a tight group, pinned against the house, under the watchful eye of their BC;
Are able to substitute other activities for the BC's desire to bring bikes, motorcycles, and cars to a standstill; and
Believe in a Supreme Being.
THE TRUTH ABOUT:
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 2
Let me explain that last, controversial comment. It became clear to me in my reading and observation for this article that ownership of a BC ceased to be about owning a dog at some point in history. It became a religion. In order to see if the relationship between BC and owner does in fact meet the criteria, let's start with the Webster definition of religion:
A belief in a divine or superhuman power to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator and ruler of the universe
Expression of belief in conduct and ritual
Let's see if interactions between people and BC fit this bill.
Church of the Divine Border Collie
Border Collie people believe, and possibly rightfully, that this is a breed superior to all others. They state unequivocally that they are the world's finest sheepdogs, that they have a stunning intelligence, and that even in a world of technology, they will never be replaced by a machine. Clearly this dog is seen as superhuman. This belief exists despite documented cases of BCs trying for several hours to herd a stump.
Border Collies have a trait called, "THE EYE." The eye is a hypnotic stare that the BC turns on anything it wants to control. BC owners talk about "THE EYE" with reverence and love to expound on the way the dogs use it to control sheep. It would be fine if these dogs used "THE EYE" only with sheep, but the BC turns "THE EYE" on anything it might engage to produce fun or work.
Recently I dog-sat a BC for the weekend. Two days. Forty-eight hours of being stared at. No blinking. Unwavering scrutiny. In human culture, staring is wrong. Parents invest incredible energy teaching children not to stare. Being stared at briefly is uncomfortable. Try an hour with a Border Collie if you want to experience serious discomfort.
Every time a BC stares, there is a single message embedded in the gaze. In the case of my house guest, the communication was clear: BALL, BALL, BALL, BALL, BALL. After several hours, I could not stand the tension. I threw the ball until tendonitis set in. I had to take three Advil and a nap. The dog stared at me during the entire nap from approximately three inches away.
Learning to live every day in the presence of "THE EYE" without being institutionalized for a mental or physical collapse is at the heart of success in this religion. Other religions have hair shirts and Hail Marys. The Church of the Divine Border Collie has "THE EYE."
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 3
Border Collie owners speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues, of course, refers to unintelligible sounds viewed by some as a manifestation of a deep religious experience. In the case of the BC owner, speaking in tongues comes in the form of whistles that communicate something between owner and dog. If you attend any sheepdog trials, you will be able to observe this phenomena first hand. The owner will stand in the middle of an arena, lost in space, uttering a series of whistles while her dog races around chasing sheep. It is touching to watch the dog continue his work although his human has clearly crossed over to another dimension.
Border Collie owners operate by a different set of rituals than other dog owner. They dedicate their days to channeling their dog's energy. They quit their jobs. They are forced to buy acreage. They are directed by their leaders not to leave the dog alone for more than three hours a day lest the pup become bored and remodel the house. Some religions ask members to take a couple of years off to dedicate to the church. The BC owner takes thirteen years off. Unemployment is the sign of the true believer in this church.
I rest my case. Clearly Border Collie ownership goes much beyond an ordinary human-dog relationship.
At dog gatherings, it is easy to identify true believers in the Church of the Divine Border Collie with or without their dogs. They are the cool ones. They walk with a certain swagger. They are the real survivors, and they are bonded by that knowledge. The rest of us with ordinary dogs sit near them, sign up for their training classes, and speak about them in hushed tones. However, we must face the truth that we will never enter their world without bringing a BC into our home.
Every church has a history. Let's trace the history of the Church of the Divine Border Collie.
The roots go all the way back to prehistoric man. This guy (or gal) was no fool, He recognized early on that those wild dogs would be useful for hunting and guarding stock. Some interaction transpired between these early dog trainers and the local wolf-like ruffians that resulted in the dogs giving up their wandering ways and going to work fending off predators from the shepherd's flock. The shepherd must have offered some very good benefits.
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 4
Things were going fine until the Industrial Revolution when folks began to gravitate to cities. People who had lived for centuries in the country struggled to adjust to a new life without their own flocks. For these new urban centers, a unified voice was heard: Where are the lamb chops? It became clear that the technology of raising sheep needed to improve.
In England and Scotland, shepherds began to breed a smaller, less aggressive, high-energy dog capable of turning inhospitable country into sheep heaven. Clearly the program was a success since canine historians suggest that the word "collie" means useful. In retelling this story, historians tell of generations of crosses between working sheepdogs, setters, pointers, and hounds. It also appears, when one watches the BC in action, that there was a cross that has been stricken from the history books. This otherwise proud dog travels with its head low to the ground, well below its shoulders. Church members write that this is simply a strategy to intimidate sheep. HA. The posture is clearly that of the vulture sitting on a fence, head drooped between its shoulders. It is easy to understand how this inter-species cross has been ignored in the historical records.
In the end, the urbanites got their lamb chops. They were happy. Off in the hills, the real story was happening. The shepherds looked at the dog they had created and said, "Oh my!" They had, by design or very good fortune, created spectacularly good workers, dogs willing to herd anything that moves. Over the next generations, the dogs continued to hone the art of moving ducks, geese, pigs, cattle, and of course, sheep. Interactions between shepherd and dog became a fine science, and the relationship at the heart of the church took form.
Border Collie as Supreme Working Dog
Border Collies are the Type As of the dog world. Every fiber in the BC's body screams that she should be working. With good training, a BC can win agility in the morning, hold down a paper route in the afternoon, and bring the sheep in at dusk. Consider that the well-conditioned BC can run 100 miles a day. With this sort of drive, it would be stating the obvious to say that BCs are happiest when they are assigned a job with their human partner. The challenge is that when they are left to their own devices, the BC reads the classified ads and goes out to get a job on her own.
Herding is, of course, the BC's primary and traditional job. While most BCs bring an instinct to herd to the party, teaching a BC to work as an effective partner requires a talented and persistent trainer. BCs may learn up to a dozen different commands or whistles that ideally control their direction and speed.
In recent years, an interest in herding has become international. This interest has lead to any number of scenarios in which novice shepherds (a.k.a. middle-aged women) stand in the middle of a pasture struggling to use the traditional terms: Away to me. NO, I mean…come bye. Quit biting that sheep, you little shit." This monologue is often accompanied by an interesting dance in which the new shepherd backpedals frantically to avoid being trampled by the dog-broken sheep that want to climb on her shoulders.
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 5
Recently, I went to a local trainer to introduce my pup to sheep. I found that the only command firmly within my grasp was the one showcased in the movie Babe. "That'll do!" I cried as I dove headlong into wet sheep do while trying to catch my dog.
In the hands of an experienced trainer, the BC takes herding to a new level. There are many stories in BC literature about dogs that stayed unattended to guard a flock. However, even these stories seem mundane when you consider the following story from The Ultimate Border Collie by Alison Hornsby:
A northern California cowboy loads his Border Collies in his airplane and flies to the cattle. When he finds a group, he lands and sends the dogs to gather them. The cowboy flies off. The dogs herd for a couple of hours at a time, moving the cattle along the roads to the ranch. The rancher lands periodically to check in. Eventually, dogs and cattle arrive at the ranch. Using this method, the dogs bring in all the cattle in three days, a job that used to take a dozen cowboys two weeks.
Be afraid, cowboys.
Herding is just one of the jobs at which the BC has been successful. Two of the earliest guide dogs were BCs. The steadier Lab eventually replaced them after the blind grew tired of detours to local farms. More recently, BCs are making a name as search dogs. Their obsessive nature has proven highly effective when they can be taught the mantra, "FIND DRUGS, FIND DRUGS, FIND DRUGS."
BCs have also proven to be the best of partners at the new dog games, agility and flyball. In the agility ring, these dogs run with afterburners. The crowd hushes. They finish the course in half the allotted time. They compete with each other for tenths of a second. Competitors in these sports who do not have BCs both admire them and pray for a new federal law requiring that they all be sent back to Scotland.
The Border Collie as Supreme Head Case
Literature about Border Collies is bluntly honest: BCs hate doing nothing. This is a breed with spectacular ability to perform and spectacular potential to melt down. The author of the American Border Collie Network writes that each dog has the energy output of a small nuclear reactor.
There are four key factors that are a challenge to those who seek to join the Church of the Divine Border Collie. While I have alluded to some, they bear repeating:
The BC is highly intelligent. While this sounds attractive initially, it means that they will make every effort to run the household. They can become quite hysterical in their demands. BC owners must establish a clear leadership structure with themselves as Chief Executive Officer and dog as Executive Vice President. The CEO must be ready to fend off regular attempts at an organizational coup.
BC trainers say that the relationship between human and dog is "complex." When explored more deeply, this means that BCs are more than willing to pout, get touchy, and get their feelings hurt if their desires are thwarted. One must have a Master's in Psychology to outwit this pup.
Although the BC is bright, their instincts often overshadow their intelligence. Their instinct tells them to chase and control anything that moves. In order to get this job done, the BC will grip or bite moving objects. This is not good when the moving object is a child. Those who worship this dog have a solution. Teach the child not to run. One can recognize the children of parents who belong to the Church of the Diving BC by their quiet, slow walk and unwillingness to run without first asking, "Is the dog in the house?"
The BC is prone to obsessions. These dogs can focus on a single thought without trying for 18 hours. "THE EYE" is their effort to transfer that thought into the mind of any human in the vicinity.
THE BORDER COLLIE - Page 6
Tension Within the Church
Every church has its own tensions and power struggles. The rift in the Church of the Divine Border Collie began in the United States when it was proposed that the breed be officially named part of the American Kennel Club Herding Group. While this sounds like a good thing to the innocent bystander, it signaled Armageddon to owners of the working BC. It meant (horror of horrors) that the BC could be shown in conformation classes, the beauty contests of the dog world. The deed was done in 1996.
With U.S. Kennel Club's stamp of approval, the blue collar BC owners feared the evolution of a froo froo BC with ratted hair and polished nails. But most of all they dreaded the breeding of a BC that could not tell the difference between a sheep and a pumpkin. As they had seen with many other breeds, they dreaded a potential emphasis on form over function.
Four years later, the reality is that the conformation BC looks different. Lovely, but different. However, that is the good news. Literature about the BC for the show ring suggests the following grooming techniques:
Toweling to prevent frizzy or fly-away hair
Trimming to give the appearance of longer legs
Teasing of hair to disguise a dip in the back.
Nightmare on Elm Street. Worst case scenario. Armageddon! Any beautician knows that the Border Collie does not look their best with teasing of any sort. Besides, the Border Collie should be working much too quickly and at too great a distance for anyone to see if it has frizzy hair or a dip in the back.
The rift in the church runs deep. Many owners of BCs refuse to participate in events sponsored by the American Kennel Club. Actually, I only know one BC owner who is this vehement, but I'm sure he must represent many others.
Joining the Church
Want to be cool? Get a Border Collie. Want to move a sheep across your 3000 acre ranch? Get two Border Collies. Want to really compete at agility? Get a Border Collie. Want to have a job, a life, and your sanity? Get a Lab.
If you are serious about BCs, check out Alison Hornsby's The Ultimate Border Collie from whom I borrowed extensively. Thanks, Alison.
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