So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ..


I work with many herding breed dogs, and, not too surprisingly, there’s a pattern to the types of issues which crop up with these dogs.  Border collies and Aussies are very popular in the Pacific Northwest and are justly appreciated for the intelligence, trainability, owner-focus, and athleticism.  That doesn’t mean they are easy!  I think this article does a wonderful job of explaining the dichotomy.
I received kind permission to reprint this article from the Border Collie Trust GB website (  Copyright Sue Kinchin.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….

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.
When a shepherd is selecting dogs to breed from he is selecting for a specific task and characteristics that 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 cope.
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 strange dogs…… 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 a 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 he 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. Watch a sheepdog working, 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 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 genesl
Watch the shepherd to, he has to keep very calm and guide his dog at all times. 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 is 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.

Making it easy to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing

A standard piece of advice in training dogs and horses has long been to make it easy for your learner to do the right thing, and hard for your learner to the wrong thing.

This comprehensive directive embodies a great deal of the training we do. I like it a lot as a rule of thumb to help clients learn how to problem solve. On the other hand, it’s ambiguous.

Ambiguity occurs when a statement is equally susceptible to more than one meaning (usually conflicting meanings). In the practice of law, there are rules for dealing with ambiguity in the language of contracts or laws, but in real life, we have no such guidance.

“Making it easy to do the right thing” is reasonably clear. If I want my dog to sit to greet, I might exercise her first so she’s not bursting with energy; I might practice sits a lot outside of an exciting greeting context so that she is likely to choose sitting as a recently reinforced behavior; I might move slowly and quietly so that she doesn’t get excited and feel like becoming airborne. I might hold a treat in my hand at nose level to keep her focus low. Or I might stand on her leash to prevent her front feet from leaving the ground.

The problematic phrase is: “making it hard to do the wrong thing.” “Hard has a lot of meanings. Ignoring those which don’t really apply here, it can mean “arduous” or “strenuous” (the opposite of “easy”). That could come into play: for example, standing on the dog’s leash would make it arduous to get up high enough to jump on the person being greeted. It could denote difficulty (being puzzling, complex, or intricate — the opposite of “simple”).

But “hard” has quite a few other meanings which some trainers invoke. “Hard” can denote “tough,” “uncomfortable,” “distressing,” or “awful” (opposite of “comfortable”). It can also be “harsh,” “firm,” “strict,” “exacting,” “callous,” “hard-hearted,” “unkind,” “ruthless,” “merciless,” “cruel,” and “pitiless.” (Antonym here is “kind.” My goodness, my thesaurus has an awful lot of synonyms for this particular meaning of hard. Such focus on the grim!)

Another set of meanings involves “sharp,” “powerful,” “heavy” and “violent.” The antonym here is “light.”

It is easy to imagine this latter, large, set of meanings informing training choices. These meanings easily encompass acts like hanging a dog from a choke chain, kicking or kneeing it, applying an electric shock, or pinching its toes when it jumps up. I don’t use these techniques for training* and I don’t want to encourage my students or clients to use them either.

I’ve found myself wanting to say “make it easy for the dog to the right thing, and hard for the dog to do the wrong thing” to students to help remind them of a simple problem-solving algorithm. But I keep regretting it since it leaves too much room for reactive, abusive, or unnecessarily aversive training techniques.

If it were me, I’d change the phrase: “Make it easy for your dog to the right thing, and inconvenient or impossible for the dog to do the wrong thing.” The problem is, this is really a lot less catchy sounding. Anyone else out there have a better suggestion?

Footnote: *I will lift a dog from a collar or knee it IF we are in emergency management mode; the dog is overaroused and/or behaving dangerously, and I need to get control fast. This is not the same as choosing a training technique and using it systematically.

Predation and prey drive

Dog people throw the term “prey drive” around a lot.  There is a technical difficulty with this usage — modern scientists do not regard “drive theory” as a valid or accurate predictor or explanation of behavior.  I’m going to skip right past this old debate and focus on the ambiguity in the term.

People who use this term may use it to refer to dogs who like to play with toys: Balls, tugs, etc.  Or they may use to describe dogs who like to chase and kill other animals.  Or they may use it to describe liking to chase cars.  There seems to be an assumption that there’s this one quantity, the desire to chase moving things, which will apply across all types of chase objects in the same way.  And of course that doesn’t actually  happen.

Actual predation is chasing, killing and eating small animals.  Many breeds and individual dogs don’t do this.  They may or may not chase; fewer will kill; very few will actually eat, unless they are starving.  All parts of the predatory sequence are present:  Scan, Eye, Stalk, Chase, Grab-bite, Kill-bite, Dissect, Consume. (See Coppinger.)  Wild canids display these intact sequences toward any game they can catch; typically, they will focus on whichever prey species they can catch and eat with the least net expenditure of energy.

Most dog working behaviors reflect portions of the predatory sequence.  We have manipulated the original intact predatory sequence in various ways by selective breeding to produce various types of working behavior.  Border Collies do a lot of Eye and Stalk, with some Chase.  Grab Bite is discouraged and Kill Bite gets the dog shot behind the barn.  Labradors have a hypertrophied  and also truncated Grab Bite.  That is, they want to grab, but they are not supposed to actually bite down… just hard enough to prevent a dead bird from falling out of their mouths.  Pointers are all about Scan and Eye, and they can get really stuck there!  Many terriers and sighthounds have much more intact sequences, and will move rapidly all the way from Scan to Kill Bite.  It’s possible to identify which pieces of the sequence have been emphasized and which inhibited in various breeds as we examine their desired working behavior.

This differs from actual predation, even in most of the cases where the breed’s working behavior involves catching and killing animals.  The specific animal species targeted are often heavily narrowed.  Terriers are most turned on by small vermin; Labs even at 8 weeks will often show great intensity toward ducks and much less interest in cows or even in  blackbirds.  Working-bred Border Collies focus much harder on sheep or cattle than on birds.  This, in addition to the truncated or punctuated sequence displayed once the chase is on.  And in fact, it can get quite complicated.  A Border Collie might never bite a sheep, but will happily dispatch a vole (this does not get the dog shot behind the barn). The genetic plasticity of this sequence is really quite amazing.

This differs, again, from toy drive.  Some dogs will chase a lure-coursing lure (usually a flappy plastic bag pulled quickly on the ground) who wouldn’t chase a live animal.  Some will show far more interest in a braided fleece tug toy than an actual animal.  Ball-obsessed dogs are legion, and this trait can also be amazingly narrow.  I have a dog who will chase balls all day, and freezes up if he gets two of them in his paws and mouth at the same time, but he has never shown the slightest sign of noticing squirrels, would not chase a lure, will not play tug.  He was bred to play flyball – go figure!

In other words, this desire to “chase moving stuff”  varies wildly from dog to dog and breed to breed.  Is it all “prey drive”?  I don’t like using the same generic term for all of it, because it tends to mislead people.  A lot of people I talk to assume that because their dog kills stuffy toys, it will kill live animals.  Not necessarily so.  And many dogs who will hunt live animals or herd live sheep refuse to acknowledge toys.

The main group of dog folks who promulgated the use of the old “drive theory” were the people training police and military dogs, and dogs who compete in the related sports, such as IPO and ringsport.  They are referring to the dog’s desire to get to the bite sleeve, the running decoy.  This is obviously not predation.  So I propose, and try to stick to, using the term “prey drive” to refer to the desire to interact with toys in a play-predation mode.

I acknowledge that many working behaviors are based in predation. But they are not, in fact, predation.  My Border Collie will chase sheep all day (sadly, she is not terribly talented), but she has no interest in killing them.  She’s working, or at least trying to work, bless her heart.  I can call this behavior “prey drive,” too.

But I suggest that when we are talking about predation, we use the term “predation,” and avoid the term “prey drive.”  For the purpose of dogs, whose predatory sequence we have so severely messed with, I suggest we can include in this slightly incomplete predatory sequences.  I think we can call it “predation” if it moves smoothly from Scan through Kill-bite.  I realize this is a little sloppy.  I’m not a scientist, and right  now I just want a usable set of terms.

You may be wondering why we care.  Clarity is important.  The way these terms are used now is unclear and misleading.  I run into the following scenario pretty often, because of the work I do.  A client will tell me, “my dog has a high prey drive, and I’m really worried about him hurting my cat.”  If “high prey drive” turns out to mean “loves chasing tennis balls,” it’s possible there’s very little to worry about with respect to the cat.  Dogs who kill cats are predating, not playing.  (There are rare cases of more or less accidental death during play, but most cat kills are pretty fast and silent — predation.)  Or, a client may tell me that the dog is safe with the toddler because it has no prey drive.  The dog doesn’t play with toys, so there must not be a problem, right?  If the dog might kill in a predatory fashion, I want to be very clear to label the behavior predatory!

I suspect I will have more to add about this  once the comments start to come in…