The Border Collie is a herding breed native to Great Britain. Internationally renowned as the world’s premier sheep herding dog, Border Collies regularly take home championships in a wide array of performance events. Intelligence has always been highly sought after by Border Collie breeders and the breed is now acknowledged to be the most intelligent of all dogs. For many years the Border Collie was bred almost entirely for working ability. In recent years, the breed has been registered with several major kennel clubs, and some Border Collies are now being bred for conformation despite the protests of many Border Collie groups. The Border Collie is also known as the Working Collie, Scotch Sheep Dog, Collie, and Sheepdog.
Prior to the late 1800’s the history of the Border Collie is a mystery. It was during this time that the various modern Collie breeds began to diverge from the landraces and random bred dogs that had existed previously into unique more uniform types. It is well known that Collie-type dogs have existed in the area that is present day Great Britain for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, but no one knows for sure when the dogs first arrived or who brought them. Even the name Collie is disputed. Most experts believe that it originated with the Anglo-Saxon word, “col,” meaning black. The sheep of Scotland traditionally had black faces and were known as Colleys or Coalies. According to this explanation, the dogs that herded the Colley Sheep became known as Colley Dogs and then simply Collies. In recent years, some experts (especially American, Scottish, and Irish ones) have begun to question this theory. Instead, they claim that the word Collie comes from the Gaelic words, “cailean,” and “coilean,” both of which are terms of endearment for dogs and can roughly be translated to mean, “doggie.”
Many have made claims about the origins of Collies, but there is virtually no evidence to back up any of their claims. All that can be said for sure is that these dogs have been present in the British Isles since time immemorial and that their primary use has been to herd sheep and other livestock. Although found throughout Britain, Collies were historically most numerous in Scotland, Wales, and Northern England. The most prevalent theory holds that the ancestors of Collie-type dogs arrived in Great Britain with the Romans who conquered and controlled what is now England and Wales beginning in 43 A.D. This theory is based on three facts: the Romans were accomplished dog breeders who created several types of herding dog, the Romans had a major presence in Britain a long time ago, and that the Collies are very similar to a number of Continental sheep herding dogs such as the Beauceron and the Belgian Sheepdog. The primary competing explanation holds that Collies are in fact much older, and were actually the Sheepdogs of the Ancient Celts. This theory is based upon two major premises, that Collies are quite distinctive from continental sheepdogs and that they are limited to the British Isles, one of the last strongholds of Celtic Culture. Proponents of this theory also use the fact that Collies were more common in those parts of Britain with the strongest Celtic influence.
Although much less commonly discussed, it is also possible that the ancestors of Collie arrived even earlier than the Celts or later than the Romans. Some have even suggested that Collies were actually first bred by Britain’s indigenous inhabitants, the mysterious people who preceded the Celts and who crossed over a land bridge in Britain from the European mainland prior to 6500 BC. Traces of early humans have been found at Boxgrove Quarry, Sussex from some 500,000 years ago. Although any such claim is based on little more than wishful thinking as virtually nothing is known about them, much less the dogs they may have possessed. Others have suggested that the Collies may have come with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who colonized England after the Roman legions abandoned the island. It is also possible that Collies are the descendants of Scandinavian dogs brought by the Vikings during the period when they raided and ruled parts of Britain, lasting from roughly 790 A.D. to 1470 A.D. The truth of the origin of Collie-type dogs is probably some amalgamation of these theories. Collies are probably primarily descended from some admixture of Roman and Celtic dogs, but crosses with Germanic, Norse, and Pre-Celtic dogs likely played a part as well. Additionally, it is also probable that during this time Collies were regularly crossed with both the Greyhound and various Spaniels.
However it was that Collies first came to reside in Britain, it was there that they were developed into their modern form. For countless generations, Collies were bred for one purpose, herding sheep and other livestock and the breeders of these dogs only cared about one thing working ability. Collie breeders only bred the hardest working, most trainable, and most intelligent dogs, as well as those with the strongest herding instincts and most successful working styles. Appearance only mattered to the extent that it impacted working ability, aspects such as the ideal size and a weather resistant coat. These breeding practices resulted in a collection of closely related landraces that were collectively known as Collies. At one point, there were dozens of semi-distinct working Collie varieties found throughout Britain and when the dog show craze first erupted in Britain, most fanciers of the working Collie were uninterested. Although various working types of Collie were exhibited at early dog shows, Collie breeders had no desire to breed their dogs for appearance rather than working ability.
The working breed only mindset held by most Collie breeders would begin to change in the in the 1860’s when Queen Victoria began to keep a kennel of long-coated Highland Collies after having fell in love with the breed during visits to Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She made the breed quite fashionable and many exhibitors strove to refine and standardize the Collie, which they called the Scotch Collie. In order to do so, these fanciers not caring about herding ability, only appearance and conformation, collected and bred what they considered the best examples of the various Collie varieties, especially the Highland Collie. They crossed the Scotch Collie with the Borzoi and possibly other breeds as well. The resulting dogs were quite standardized and elegant, but had considerably reduced working drive and ability.
Because of what they considered a serious reduction in quality of the Scotch Collie, working Collie breeders began to seriously distrust the Kennel Club. At this point, show and working lines of Collies were so distinct as to be separate breeds. However, working Collie breeders did see the benefits of keeping studbooks to preserve the purity of their lines and to confirm ancestry. They also saw that they could improve their dogs’ working abilities by holding organized competitions so that the dogs abilities could be judged against each other. These early breeders decided that the most practical competition would be one that tested the dogs sheep herding abilities. This gave birth to first sheep dog trials and by the end of the 1800’s, sheep dog trials had become extremely popular in the United Kingdom. One of the most successful dogs in the early sheep dog trials was a tri-color male named Old Hemp. Old Hemp, a greatly sought after sire and the dog to which most modern Border Collies can be traced back to was a very quiet dog, with an intense stare.
Building on the success of the sheep dog trials and dogs like Old Hemp, the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) was founded in 1906 to promote not only sheep dog trials, but also to improve the Working Collie. The ISDS was initially focused on the Border Region between England and Scotland, it was the Working Collies from this region that were considered to be the highest quality of all British sheep herding dogs. In 1915, the Secretary of the ISDS, James Reid first used the term Border Collie to distinguish the dogs competing in ISDS events from the Scotch Collies competing in Kennel Club events. It is somewhat unclear whether the ISDS created the name or if they were using the name of a particular variety of Working Collie. Regardless the term quickly caught on, and soon almost all varieties of Working Collie were being called Border Collies and many of these varieties would be completed absorbed into the Border Collie, including probably the Cumberland Sheepdog and Rutherford Collie. Many farmers began to keep breeding records and studbooks of their Border Collies, and in late 1940’s the ISDS began to do so as well. Although newly pedigreed, the Border Collie was still bred almost exclusively for working ability and remained incredibly variable in appearance.
Collie-type dogs had been exported to the North America beginning in the 1600’s and Australia beginning in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Many of these dogs would have been considered Border Collies if that term had existed at that time. Stockmen in these countries bred these dogs and developed their own unique breeds, including the Australian Shepherd and English Shepherd in America and the Australian Kelpie and Australian Cattle Dog in Australia. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the first pedigreed Border Collies were exported to the United States, Canada, and Australia where the breed quickly gained a large number of admirers. In the United States and Canada, the Border Collie eventually occupied the same position it did in the United Kingdom, that as the most popular, numerous, and highly regarded sheepherding dog. The breed was somewhat less popular in the American West, where the larger and slightly more aggressive Australian Shepherd remained the strong favorite. The Border Collie also became quite popular in Australia, but considerably less so than in other parts of the English-Speaking world. In that country, the very well-adapted and much beloved Australian Kelpie continues to greatly outnumber the Border Collie. Major Border Collie registries and associations were founded in Australia, Canada, and the United States, that last of which currently has at least four major Border Collie registries. As was the case in the United Kingdom, the Border Collie would remain strictly a working dog in those countries.
In 1965, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted official recognition to the Border Collie. The UKC does hold conformation shows, but its primary focus has always been on working dogs. For this reason, breeders of hunting and herding dogs have heavily favored the UKC over the American Kennel Club (AKC), an organization which they have traditionally distrusted. The UKC also worked to develop a Border Collie standard based on appearance. Border Collies were a member of the AKC’s Miscellaneous Class beginning in the 1940’s. Membership in this class allows dogs to compete in events such as obedience and agility but not conformation. For many years, the AKC had no interest in granting full recognition to the Border Collie as it was the prevailing opinion of the club’s leadership that the breed was not standardized enough to compete in conformation events. During this time, the AKC enjoyed very good relationships with several Border Collie registries and clubs, including the United States Border Collie Club (USBCC) and the American Border Collie Association (ABCA). Bred strictly for working ability, Border Collies regularly claimed championships at a number of AKC events when competing against breeds that had been bred largely or partially for conformation. Due in part to the breeds performance and in part to its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the AKC’s opinion on granting full recognition to the Border Collie began to change.
Although fanciers of many breeds dream of one day getting full AKC recognition, those of other breeds are staunchly opposed. Many breeders of working dogs claim that breeding for conformation rather than working ability ruins the working ability of dogs, and also decreases their health. Although this claim has many refuters, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that it is true. Additionally, AKC recognition leads to greater public exposure, which often leads to poor breeding as disreputable breeders take advantage of newfound public interest. This was the position taken by Border Collie fanciers, who also argued that the Smooth and Rough Collies were technically the conformation show variety of the Border Collie. In 1991, the AKC granted full recognition to the Australian Shepherd over the objections of its breed club. Nervous that their breed was next, Border Collie organizations held meetings with the AKC to express their strong opposition to full recognition. That same year, a group of Border Collie fanciers in Louisville formed the Border Collie Society of America (BCSA) with the goal of obtaining full AKC recognition for the Border Collie. In 1994, the AKC suggested that it would no longer allow Border Collies to compete in AKC events unless the breed was fully recognized. Some participants gave up competing while others joined the BSCA. Around this time a group of breeders who were more determined to show Border Collies in the conformation ring broke off from the BSCA and formed the American Border Collie Alliance (ABCA).
Late in 1994, the AKC wrote to the USBCC, BSCA, and ABCA asking if they would like to become the official parent club with the AKC. In response, the USBCC, the United States Border Collie Handlers Association, the three largest Border Collie registries, and every single regional and state Border Collie club told the AKC that they strongly opposed full recognition and provided a series of alternatives including the creation of a performance-only registry. A massive written campaign was waged by Border Collie owners to prevent AKC recognition, the vast majority of whom were strongly opposed. On the other hand, the BSCA and ABCA began a competition to become the official parent club. In 1995, the AKC granted full recognition to the Border Collie even before an official parent club had been selected. Those opposed believed that the true motive behind the AKC’s desire to recognize the breed was financial. It should be understood that the AKC essentially gets paid twice for every dog in its registry; first the breeder sends money to the AKC to add their puppies to their database and in return the AKC provides the breeder with ‘AKC registration papers and numbers for each puppy. The AKC then makes more money off the puppy buyer because they must send money to AKC in order to register the puppy in their name. It’s actually big business as evidenced by the fact that the AKC which reported an annual operating expense of just over $60 million in 2010, made $41.1 million from registration fees, recording and event fees, and providing certified pedigrees. Thus the more breeds they have in their registry the more fees they are able to collect.
In response several Border Collie groups sued to AKC to prevent the recognition from taking place, or at least to prevent the AKC from using the name Border Collie. Regardless in 1996, the AKC selected the BSCA as the official parent club and later that year, the oppositions legal efforts were ended for a variety of reasons. Most Border Collie fanciers were furious that the AKC recognized their breed over their objections, and most remain so to this day. In response, many of these organizations have barred AKC Border Collies from their registries and from their events. The way it currently sits, most AKC registered Border Collies are ineligible to compete in any non-AKC Border Collie event and the offspring of AKC Border Collies cannot be registered as Border Collies with non-AKC registries. Some breeders began to put clauses in their sales contracts that forbade the dog from ever being registered with the AKC; at least one breeder made the penalty $10,000. Now most Border Collie fanciers have taken the position that AKC Border Collies are an entirely different breed from their dogs, although this position has yet to not be accepted by any major kennel club. The stance taken on UKC dogs is somewhat different. Many groups lump UKC dogs in with the AKC and others don’t.
The Border Collie is now frequently recognized as the world’s smartest dog breed. Many different rankings of dog intelligence have placed the breed at the top of their lists. As a result, Border Collies are now commonly used in studies of both canine and animal intelligence. At least one Border Collie has been proven to know over 1,000 different commands. Because of its intelligence and trainability, the Border Collie is now being used for a number of tasks unrelated to herding. Border Collies are frequently found in use as sniffer dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, service dogs for the handicapped, and seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired.
After the breeds recognition by the AKC, the Border Collie became an increasingly popular companion animal in the United States. Now, a sizable number of Border Collies have no other job than companionship. However, the vast majority of American Border Collies are either active or retired herding dogs. Although the exact number varies from year to year, on average over 20,000 Border Collies are registered with non-AKC organizations and over 2,000 are registered with the AKC at a minimum cost of $60,000 in registration fees. In 2010, the Border Collie ranked 47th out of 167 total breeds with the AKC, and it appears to be increasing in popularity. It is unclear what the future holds for the Border Collie, but it is highly likely that the breed will one day become two separate breeds with the same name, one bred for conformation showing and companionship and the other for working ability.
The Appearance of the Conformation Border Collie
The Conformation Border Collie is fairly uniform in appearance. Males typically stand between 19 and 22 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 30 and 45 pounds. Females typically stand between 18 and 21 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 27 and 42 pounds. This breed should be slightly longer than it is tall, but otherwise well-proportioned. Border Collies should not have any feature which impedes their working ability, and this breed is largely free of exaggeration. Border Collies tend to be sturdily built, but never thick. This dog should be extremely toned and fit. The tail of the Border Collie is relatively long and usually carried low. When the dog is excited it may be held higher and with a slight curve towards the end.
The head of the Border Collie is proportionate to the size of the body, and is neither wide nor narrow. The muzzle should be approximately the same length as the head, to which it blends in smoothly but distinctly. The muzzle ends in a nose that matches the color of the primary body color. The eyes of the Border Collie are usually brown, but are occasionally blue. These eyes should give off an intelligent and intense expression. The medium-sized ears are either erect or semi-erect.
The coat of the Border Collie comes in two varieties, smooth and rough. Both coat varieties are double-coated, with a softer, denser, and closer-fitting undercoat. The rough variety is now several times as common as the smooth, and is greatly preferred by breeders and fanciers of Conformation Border Collies. The rough-coat is medium to medium-long in length over most of the body, but shorter on the head, face, and fronts of the legs. The backs of the legs are well-feathered, as are the haunches, chest, and underside. The smooth-coat has a short coat all over its body, although it often has slight feathering on the backs of the legs, haunches, chest, underside, and ruff. Border Collies may come in any color or marking. Solid color dogs are seen, as are bi-color, tricolor, merle, and sable. In practice, certain colors and patterns are greatly preferred and predominate. Black and white bi-color dogs are by far the most common, and probably make up the majority of the Conformation Border Collie population.
The Appearance of the Working Border Collie
The Working Border Collie is incredibly variable in appearance. They are generally similar in size to the Conformation Border Collie, but can be both larger and smaller. Generally, the Working Border Collie is leaner than Conformation dogs, as well as being more toned and fit. The heads and faces of Working Border Collies look somewhat less refined than their Conformation cousins. Most of these dogs have somewhat narrower heads and muzzles, but that is more of a generalization than a rule. One of the most significant differences comes in the ears. Working Border Collies may have erect ears, semi-erect ears, slightly-folded ears, or completely folded ears. Many of these dogs have two entirely different ears, for example one complete folded and the other completely erect.
The coats of working Border Collies are among the most variable of all dogs. Essentially all Border Collies have double-coats with a dense, short, and soft undercoat. However, the outer coats may be very short, very long, or anything in between. The coat of an individual Border Collie may be quite different in length over different parts of its body. In contrast to Conformation Border Collies, most Working Border Collies have shorter coats. Working Border Collies may come in any color or pattern. As with the Conformation Border Collie, black and white dogs are the most common, but not nearly to the same extent. Red and white dogs are almost as common, and a sizable number of these dogs are tricolor, solid blue, blue and white, blue merle, red merle, solid tan, tan and white, sable, solid lemon, and lemon and white.
The Border Collie is the epitome of a workaholic, and this is perhaps the most driven of all breeds. The conformation Border Collie is significantly less so than the Working Border Collie, but the distinction would only be noticeable to a working stockman and not a pet owner. The Border Collie is a very people oriented dog. This breed wants to be in the constant presence of its owners, and does not handle being alone very well. Border Collies left alone for long periods on a regular basis will almost certainly develop serious behavioral issues. Border Collies vary tremendously in their affection levels. Some of these dogs are serious lickers and snugglers, others are fairly reserved.
Border Collies tend to be wary of strangers. With proper socialization, most Border Collies will become polite, albeit aloof. Without proper socialization, Border Collies often become nervous and highly suspicious. Although outright human aggression is rare in Border Collies, some of these dogs do develop aggression issues. Many Border Collies have a strong urge to herd strangers, often by nipping at their heels, although this can be corrected with training. Border Collies are highly alert and intelligent and make excellent watch dogs. Because this breed is neither territorial nor aggressive and also bores very easily, Border Collies do not make good property protection animals (unless that property is livestock). However, some trainers have been experimenting with Border Collies as personal protection animals with mixed results.
Most experts and fanciers do not recommend Border Collies for families with young children, usually those younger than 8 or 10. This breed has very strong herding instincts and usually rounds up toddlers. These dogs were bred to nip at the heels and hind ends of animals to maneuver them, and many do so with recalcitrant children. Also, Border Collies are extremely sensitive to noises and movements and young children often frighten them, confuse them, or stress them out.
For untold centuries, Border Collies have been bred to work with livestock, often with the aid of other dogs. As a result, this breed tends to form very close bonds with other dogs it knows well and rarely has issues with them. However, Border Collies were also tasked with defending their flocks against marauding dogs. Most breed members are highly suspicious of strange dogs, and often show them aggression unless they have been properly socialized. Additionally, same-sex aggression is not uncommon among Border Collies, especially between unneutered males.
When socialized, Border Collies are generally not aggressive with non-canine animals. However, they have an incredibly strong urge to herd them and to nip at heels in order to do so. This can cause serious issues with three types of animals: horses/ponies/ponies, which may kick and seriously injure a dog in response, cats, which do not like to be herded, and small animals such as hamsters, which may be seriously injured by a well-intentioned nip. Well-trained Border Collies can adapt to life with all of these creatures, but issues may occasionally develop.
Border Collies are usually regarded as the most intelligent of all dogs, and regularly top the lists of most intelligent dog breeds. A Border Collie is capable of learning and performing any task that any dog is capable of, with the possible exception of some that require tremendous strength. Border Collies are widely considered to be the best stock herding dogs in the world, and also the premier breed for use in almost every dog sport, including competitive obedience, agility trials, Fly ball, and Frisbee. These dogs are absurdly fast learners and often need fewer than five repetitions to learn a task. Once learned, a task is rarely forgotten. Border Collies are extremely driven to please, and most of these dogs are highly obedient. Surprisingly, Border Collies can be quite challenging to train for many people. This breed is so intelligent that it is often several steps ahead of its owner and rapidly grows bored with the training process.
Most Border Collies figure out exactly what they can and can’t get away with and live their lives accordingly. Many breed members become manipulative to get what they want. Perhaps most frustratingly, Border Collies can be hyper-reactive to sounds and gestures, and these dogs may react incorrectly based on anticipation of what about to come next or be trained accidentally. Border Collies also tend to challenge their owners for authority in adolescence, meaning that owners must maintain a position of dominance at all times. Experienced dog trainers can mold a Border Collie into the most highly trained of any breed. Inexperienced owners often end up with an out-of-control monster.
Border Collies are extremely energetic and require tremendous amounts of exercise. With the possible exceptions of the New Zealand Huntaway and Australian Kelpie, no dog breed needs as much activity as a Border Collie. It is virtually impossible for the average family to provide a Border Collie with what it needs. At the bare minimum, a Border Collie needs between two and three hours of intense physical activity every day, meaning running, not walking. Ideally, a Border Collie should get between five and seven hours of exercise a day, although they are capable of more. It is absolutely imperative that Border Collies get the exercise that they need, or they absolutely will develop severe mental and behavioral problems. Border Collies that are not provided an outlet for their energy will find one of their own. This dog is likely to become highly destructive, excessively vocal, ridiculously hyper-active, overly excitable, and extremely nervous.
Although not very large, the intelligent and driven Border Collie is a dog that can and will completely destroy a home and everything in it. Exercise alone is not enough to satisfy a Border Collie. This breed absolutely craves a job to keep its mind active as well. As a result, many owners turn to events such as agility and obedience. Anyone who is not willing or able to provide three hours of vigorous physical and mental activity to a dog every single day should not acquire a Border Collie, or problems will result. The high energy and physical capabilities of the Border Collie are actually seen as highly desirable to many owners. This is the ultimate canine athlete and can go anywhere and do anything, no matter how extreme. Border Collies have accompanied their owners mountain climbing, skiing, surfing, and virtually any other imaginable physical achievement.
Border Collies are infamous escape artists. This breed is constantly in motion, extremely intelligent, and unbelievable athletic. Border Collies can jump over fences up to six feet tall with little problem. They can climb over most fences that they cannot jump. If there is any way out of an enclosure, a Border Collie will find it and use it. These dogs are so intelligent that many have figured out how to unlock gates and even doors.
In general, the longer a Border Collie’s coat, the more grooming will be required. Conformation Border Collies need to be brushed and groomed on a regular basis to keep their coats in prime condition. Some owners chose to have their dogs professionally trimmed in warm weather. Working Border Collies usually require no grooming, although they could certainly benefit. Border Collies do shed, although the amount varies from dog to dog. Most Border Collies will leave dog hair on carpets, furniture, and clothing, but some will absolutely cover them with hair. Also, most Border Collies are heavy seasonal shedders and leave a trail of hair wherever they go for a few weeks several times a year.
Working Border Collies are considered to be some of the healthiest of all dogs. These dogs are bred almost entirely for working ability and any health defect is eliminated from breeding lines upon first detection. Working Border Collies also have a comparatively large gene pool and are considerably less inbred than most modern pure-bred dogs. Breeders of working Border Collies commonly claim that Conformation Border Collies are significantly less healthy, but the evidence is somewhat unclear. Certain conditions do seem more prevalent in Conformation Border Collies, especially Collie Eye Anomaly and Ceroid Lipofuscinosis, but this may be a result of reporting and veterinary visits than actual predispositions. Largely because so many of these dogs are working shepherds in rural areas, it is virtually impossible to get accurate health and life span statistics on Border Collies. However, it is clear that the Border Collie is one of the longest lived of all dogs, especially among breeds of this size. Barring accidental deaths, (this breed tends to chase cars in an attempt to herd them and is a frequent victim of traffic accidents) Border Collies typically live between 12 and 15 years, and these dogs reach ages of 16 and 17 with surprising regularity.
One health problem which is known to affect a sizable percentage of Border Collies is known as Collie Eye Abnormality or CEA. Collie Eye Anomaly is less common in Border Collies than Scotch Collies but is still frequently seen. CEA can range in severity, some dogs only have mild pigment differences, others a few blood vessel malformations, and some have complete retinal detachment. In severe cases, the dog is left completely blind, but the vast majority of cases result in mild or no impairment. This condition is detectable by six weeks of age and does not worsen as the dog ages. Genetic testing and responsible breeding are beginning to reduce its occurrence, and breeders of both Working and Conformation Border Collies are making major efforts.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems that have been identified in Border Collies would have to include: