The need to control and herd flocks of livestock has been a staple of the farming industry for thousands of years. The history of the ‘herding’ working dogs can be traced back through Neolithic times. The Romans used large, aggressive dogs in order to not only protect the livestock, but also need to be strong enough to tackle wolves, mountain lions and other predatory animals.
One of the earliest written references to the more modern herding dog came from a book called “Of English Dogges” by Johannes Caius (Printed 1576) which observed that herding dogs were bred to be “not huge, vaste, and bigge, but of an indifferent stature and growth, because it hath not to deale with the bloudthyrsty wolf, sythence there be none in England”.
The same book states that wolves were hunted to extinction “about the yeare of our Lorde nyne hundred fifty, nyne” at the orders of “King Edgar”. This suggests that our modern herding dogs owe their nature back to the unique way in which the dogs were only needed to look after the flock, as opposed to having to guard them from wolves too.
So, somewhere between the year 959 and the 1500s, the herding dog as we would recognise it today was born.
It is often stated that ‘Old Hemp’, born at the beginning end of the 19th century was the foundation upon which the collie breed was built. And while it is true that his bloodlines and achievements have had a big effect on the breed, examples of earlier collies with his traits certainly endure.
For example, in a book called ‘Wood’s Natural History Mammalia’ by the Rev. J.G Woods, printed in 1862, nearly 40 years before Old Hemp’s birth, the following story was published, referring to the “SCOTCH SHEEP-DOG, more familiarly called the COLLEY”:
“One of these Dogs performed a feat which would have been, excusably, thought impossible, had it not been proved to be true. A large flock of lambs took a sudden alarm one night, as sheep are wont, unaccountably and most skittishly, to do, and dashed off among the hills in three different directions. The
shepherd tried in vain to recall the fugitives; but finding all his endeavors useless, told his Dog that the lambs had all run away, and then set off himself in search of the lost flock. The remainder of the night was passed in fruitless search, and the shepherd was returning to his master to report his loss. However, as he was on the way, he saw a number of lambs standing at the bottom of a deep ravine and his faithful dog keeping watch over them. He immediately concluded that his Dog had discovered one of the three bands which had started off so inopportunely in the darkness; but on visiting the recovered truants he discovered, to his equal joy and wonder, that the entire flock was collected in the ravine, without the loss of a single lamb.”
This is a story we have heard time and again over the years, highlighting the intelligence, fortitude and problem-solving abilities of the Border Collie.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the history of the Collie becomes more unclear as we go back, is that the Collie was never a fashionable dog. Used for working sheep or cattle, it was a ‘commoner’, doing a manual job for which there was no glory. Whilst hunting dogs were revered for their ability to put food on a posh table, or Spaniels bred to look like Royalty, the Collie was the domain of the working farmer or shepherd.
People often believe the term Border Collie was coined because they were originally found working the ‘Borders’. Romantic as that sounds, it suggests that only Shepherds on the Borders used herding dogs! That couldn’t possibly be the case.
In actual fact, the term ‘Border Collie’ was believed to be first coined in the early 1900s by James Reid, the first secretary of the ISDS (which stands for the International Sheep Dog Society). It is believed he used the phrase to distinguish the working dogs from other ‘collies’, such as the Rough Collie and Bearded Collie recognised by the Kennel Club for showing.
The ISDS registers pedigrees for working dogs, and as such their focus is on the purpose of the dog. They do not apply any rules over how a collie should look. Like the long history of the collie itself, they believe the dogs should be bred for purpose, and not looks.
On the other hand, the Kennel Club does apply rules to the way they believe a Border Collie should look. This is known as the ‘Breed Standard’. Unfortunately, people can get obsessed by the desire to have a ‘Pedigree’ Collie. These people are often very surprised when they learn that the “Border Collie” was only recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club in the 1970′s.
As you can see, the history of the Border Collie and Working Sheepdog reaches much further back than the Kennel Club ‘breed standard’ applied to the ‘pedigree’ show Border Collies of today.
When a farmer or a shepherd would look for a working dog, his focus is on the behaviour and instinct of the dog – the looks are a secondary consideration. In a lot of ways, the ‘show’ way of breeding is entirely contrary to the way Collies had been bred for hundreds of years.
Border Collies can be black and white, tricolour, red and white, red tricolour, blue and white, blue tricolour, red merle, red merle tri-colour, blue merle, blue merle tricolour, sable and saddleback. There are at least 12 variations already, and we didn’t include ‘speckled’ dogs of each colour!
They can also have a smooth coat, short coat, medium coat and a long coat, not to mention the different types of hair from coarse to soft. They also vary in size from the smaller, leaner type (often referred to as ‘Welsh Collie’) to the larger, stockier dogs. Then when you throw into the mix the differences in shape for boy and girl dogs, there are hundreds of variations of the way a collie can look.
Whilst the ‘chocolate box’ collie is what people would consider the ‘traditional’ collie (stocky, long-haired, black and white), farmers and shepherds would often prefer short coated dogs – after all, do they really have the time to brush out the burrs, thickets and other stuff that gets caught in a long glamorous coat?
For us, a collie is about what goes on in their brain. The physical attributes may change, the size, colour and shape of them may vary but what intrinsically makes them a collie is that intelligence, and that intelligence can show itself in many different ways.
Due to the way they have been bred, the collie has a wonderful nature and temperament. Unfortunately, the BC does get a bad reputation because some people don’t understand what ‘motivates’ a collie.
For example, some people believe a collie is ‘aggressive’ because they growl, bare teeth, and nip. Here’s the thing: what use is an aggressive dog when herding sheep? Farmers don’t want their sheep ripped to shreds by their dog! They have to be strong-willed and ‘coax’ the sheep using all the weapons in their arsenal:
* ‘The Eye’ – a collie will give a sheep ‘the eye’ to say ‘come on, let’s go I’m not taking any nonsense’.
* Growl – again this is another way of saying to the sheep – ‘I mean business pal, shift it!’
* The ‘Nip’ – The Nip is the most commonly misunderstood ‘weapon’ in the collie arsenal. The nip is designed to give a short sharp warning to the sheep it wants to move – often on the ankles of the animal. It is not there for the dog to savage the sheep – it isn’t even supposed to break the skin.
If your collie is becoming frustrated because they don’t have enough mental stimulation, all of these actions can become more acute. If you don’t understand what your collie is telling you, they must increase their determination to get a message across.
These behaviours are instinctive, and cannot be ‘trained out’ of your collie – this is what they were bred to do. This is when problems can spill over especially when this behaviour is misdiagnosed as ‘dominance’.
A lot of ‘problems’ with collies come if the collie doesn’t feel it’s being given a job to do. As a working breed, a collie needs to feel useful, important and respected. If they don’t have a job to do, they will find a job to do. It is the owner’s responsibility to make sure their collie is physically and mentally stimulated.
Some Collies with an intense working instinct are often described by their owners as ‘nervous’. A worky collie will live very much on it’s nerves – ready to spring into action should they be required at a moments notice. This is completely different to actually being a nervous dog.
Often, people will call and say that they have a ‘typical’ Border Collie. In our opinion, there is no such thing! As a breed they may be intelligent, active and ‘worky’, but no two collies have the same personality!
In our opinion there is no more rewarding dog than the Border Collie. However, you have to be prepared for lots of hard work, and to be open-minded and learn that a collie is an extremely bright, intelligent dog that requires the same type of attention, boundaries and education as a human toddler.
When a toddler gets bored, they get into mischief because of their inquisitive mind – the same can be said for the Border Collie! Unfortunately when a collie exhibits these frustrations, they are described as having ‘behavioural problems’…
Next section: “The Workaholic ” Coming Soon >