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.

A hierarchy of needs

My clients are good dog owners.  Their older dog is delightful: Healthy, happy, friendly and easy going.  The dogs get walks every day, play in the house and in the yard, attention and affection, clear rules clearly enforced, a good diet, and good vet care.  But the younger dog is not so happy.  He’s inclined to charge the front door aggressively, reacts with agitation and barking to dogs he sees on walks, and has lunged and nipped at people who approached to greet him.  My clients note that while he seems excited to go for a walk, his tail is tucked for most of the walk and he has never, not once since they adopted him over a year ago, urinated while out on a walk.  When he gets home, he rushes into the backyard to relieve himself.  But, they have worked hard to socialize him by taking him out, hanging out at cafes, and taking him to dog parks (until he got too aggressive there).  What’s going on?

Those who have studied psychology will have bumped into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article:

Now, I have never formally studied psychology, so I’m simplifying here and trying to avoid a level of detail I am not really qualified to discuss!

Maslow proposed that all people have universal needs, and that these needs must be met for an individual to grow and develop and eventually reach a state he called “self-actualization.” (If that phrase sounds familiar, this is where it came from.)  The hierarchy is represented in pyramid form, with the most basic needs at the bottom.  Here is Wikipedia’s graphic (

First and most basic needs are physiological: Food, water, shelter.  If these needs are not met, the person is forced to disregard the “higher” needs to make sure these basic physiological needs are met.  Next: Safety.  If the person has enough food and water, then safety is next; avoiding steep cliffs, angry mobs, and saber-tooth cats all rise in importance. For modern humans, financial security and some kind of safety net against dire happenings are parts of this level.  A sense of love and social belonging is next.  This is a real human need, but a person cannot afford to attend to it unless safe and fed.  Above this are esteem — the need to be esteemed and respected both by self and others.  At the very top, self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential.  A lot of people never have a chance to make this journey because their lives are consumed with meeting basic needs such as food, safety, or some degree of financial security.

The Maslow hierarchy is widely accepted and used as a model of understanding people and helping them improve their lives.

What I’ve noticed is that we can apply a similar concept to dogs, and a lot of the problems my clients have with their dogs is that they are focusing on the higher levels without taking care of more fundamental needs.  Now, it would probably be a strain to try to wedge dog needs and experiences into the human-termed Maslow hierarchy, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities, especially at the base the pyramid.

That’s one way of looking at what’s gone wrong with my clients’ dog.  They have done a great job of meeting many of his needs.  He has food, water, shelter, security in his living situation, and good physical health.  They love him, he receives affection and play, and he has a good dog friend as well.  But what he does not have is a basic sense of physical safety.

The tucked tail is familiar — it tells us he is afraid on those walks.  The inability to eliminate on walks tells the same story; he’s just too vulnerable out there to stop and let down his guard while he pees or poops.  The increasing pattern through adolescence of defensive aggression suggests he has not been able to escape intrusion on his space by dogs or people.  While no one is out there beating him with a 2×4 or holding a gun to his head in exchange for his wallet… he feels about that scared when he is out and about.

His people had the information in front of them, but they know themselves to be good dog owners, and they also believe they have been doing the right thing by getting him out and socializing him.  This belief has obscured clear vision.  Once we identified what is actually happening, they could see it.  This (really charming) dog is now feeling better with greatly reduced walks and some basic training in coping skills.

I see this a lot: The dog is super well taken care of, but is scared.  And failure to meet this one primal need, for basic physical safety, is blocking everything else.  The owner says “he knows how to sit! He knows watch me! But he won’t do it when there’s another dog across the street!”  That’s because a socially cooperative activity like following a command is always going to take second place to trying to ensure monsters don’t kill you and eat you.  (Yes, we know intellectually that the chihuahua behind the fence is not actually going to kill and eat our fearful 80 lb Shepherd mix, but our Shepherd mix may still feel that way.)  Until we meet that need for a feeling of safety, there will be no easy response to obedience cues.

This brings us to one of the major flaws of some of the popular “dog psychology” dogmas.  The most damaging is this:  “If my dog recognizes me as pack leader, everything else will fall into place.  He won’t disobey or misbehave, because he knows I’m in charge.”  Listen — a wolf attacked by a bear, or a human, is going to fight, regardless of whether he is or is not an alpha, or lives in a pack with an alpha wolf, or respects that alpha wolf or is in constant conflict with that alpha wolf.  Social structure is not going to prevent him from engaging a direct external threat to his bodily safety.  Likewise, no matter how much your dog respects and trusts you, if someone is hitting him with a baseball bat, he’s probably going to fight back at some point.  And from your dog’s point of view, if he is afraid of men in parkas, he’s going to try to threaten men in parkas to make them go away because that’s a simply more fundamental need, in that moment, than obeying you, his questionable “pack leader.”

And here’s another situation where a hierarchy of needs can get us into trouble.  Food!  The need for food is even more basic than the need for safety.  Thus, a dog will put herself into danger to get food.  If she’s starving, she’s going to try breaking into a yard with a nasty yard dog patrolling to see if she can steal some of its food.  But since dogs are scavengers, they act as if they are always pretty desperately hungry, and that means even a happily plump dog will creep up to a scary stranger for an offered treat.  The imperative to obtain food overcomes the requirement to stay out of reach of those scary hands.  This is why I never want a scared dog offered treats by strangers; the dog will probably take the treats, but it will still be scared, and if the slightest little thing goes wrong, the dog is now close enough to bite.  (Slightest little thing could be the person talking or standing up, or worse, reaching for the pup’s head to pet “because now we’re friends.”)  It’s much easier to understand how this happens so often if we refer to a hierarchy of needs.

One final example of how disregarding this type of hierarchy gets us in trouble.  It’s this:  “Fluffy is very scared in the shelter, but all she needs is some love and she will blossom.”  I will leave it to readers to work out the flaw.

In the past, I’ve seen a proposed hierarchy of needs for dogs.  I can’t find it right now.  It would take some study to validate one for dogs.  But, the Maslow hierarchy can still provide some insight into knotty behavior problems.  Hope it helps.