Why Do Border Collies Bite Children?

Adrienne Farricelli

Border collies bite children often due to driving instincts that were deeply inculcating in this dog after years of selective breeding. In order to understand this behavior, it helps to take a glimpse back into this breed's history as a herder of sheep in the Anglo-Scottish border.

Sadly, many border collies bite children. When it comes to picking a dog breed, it's always important conducting research on the breed as much as possible. This is even more imperative in the case of families with children. Sadly, children rank high in dog-bite statistics, and often this takes place due to lack of supervision or children not being taught how to behave around dogs. There are of course other factors at play such dogs lacking socialization and a fearful disposition. 

A Glimpse into the Breed 

Border collies are often misunderstood dogs. They have personality traits that are quite unique and often new dog owners struggle when they face them. Call them quirks, but in reality, many of these traits were purposely selectively bred in these dogs to make them the excellent herding dogs they were meant to be. 

To better understand these dogs, it therefore helps to take a glimpse back into history.

Border collies are workaholic herding dogs selectively bred throughout centuries for herding flocks of sheep. Herding, in this case entailed controlling the speed and direction of sheep and quickly gathering them through the rugged Anglo-Scottish border.

When it came to these dogs' "herding style," Border collies were mostly working at the 'head" of the flocks, primarily focusing on the front and sides of the herd.

In order to successfully herd, border collies were known to use specific strategies such as "giving eye". Giving eye in border collies simply meant staring at the sheep in an attempt to to exert psychological pressure.

 On top of giving eye, border collies also stalked in a lowered, crouch-like body position. The purpose of staring and stalking was to get the sheep to move, because sheep tend to respond to these herding behaviors naturally since they resemble what wolves do before attacking.

Keeping Border Collies as Pets 

When border collies are introduced in homes as pets, they don't forget about their past history as herders. Equipped with high intelligence, a body meant for energetically working in rough terrains all day, and a strong level of determination to move large herds of sheep, Border collies tend to struggle when they aren't provided with sufficient outlets for their natural instincts.

"Herding dogs aren’t born knowing the differences between cattle, children, and cars. They need to be taught to ignore their herding instincts and not try to control moving people or vehicles. Herding dogs who bark, bite, and circle anything that moves are not abnormal, stubborn, or out of control. They are normal herding dogs, engaging in normal, instinctual herding dog behavior in an unacceptable manner," explains Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell in the book: "Teach Your Herding Breed to Be a Great Companion Dog: From Obsessive to Outstanding."

Because these herding instincts are so strongly ingrained into this breed, forget about eradicating them. You'll have more success accepting them for what they are, using management skills to prevent them and at the same time also aiming to providing legitimate outlets.

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Border collie staring and getting ready to chase

Why Do Border Collies Bite Children?

As with many things "dog," the answer is that "it depends." There are many causes for a dog to bite a child, therefore, it's important to pay attention to the context in which the biting episode occurs. 

Namely, we can say that dogs in general tend to frequently bite when they are protecting resources such as food bowls, bones and toys, when they feel cornered and defenseless, when they are in a highly aroused state and when they are feeling in pain or just out of the weather. 

It's therefore important evaluating when the biting occurs. If it occurs when a child is approaching a dog who is eating or chewing a bone or toy, once can assume it comes from the dog's instinct to protect valuables. 

Was the child chasing the dog and cornering him leaving the dog with no way out? Was the dog trying to avoid the child as much as possible, but the child kept insisting in trying to pet him, hug him or pick him up? Was the child teasing the dog? In such cases, the dog may have felt the need to defend himself, by using a defensive bite. 

Was the child touching the dog when the dog was barking at something out of the window? Or when the dog was trying to fight with another dog? When dogs are in a highly-aroused state, they may easily get startled and instinctively engage in a re-directed bite. 

If your border collie was always a mellow dog and now has bitten a child in your household out of the blue, consider evaluating whether he may be suffering from pain or some medical problem. 

On top of these common reasons why dogs tend to bite, it's important as well considering a border collies' natural instincts, which can too play a role. 

Border Collie Herding Instincts 

Border collies may also bite when they are exposed to running children or a group of children acting rather boisterous from "their perspective." In these cases, it appears that their herding instincts may be kicking in. 

According to the Border Collie Rescue of Norther California, a large proportion of border collies are given up by owners because they have bitten someone, and that someone unfortunately often happens to be a child. 

In the rescue's words:"The herding instinct, if strong, is overwhelmingly incompatible with a household containing children - particularly when the child and adult owners have not been trained or educated in how to deal with the peculiarities of the herding instinct. Border Collies can make good family pets, but only for those dogs that do not have the intense herding instincts and for the families prepared to deal with the ramifications of this behavior."

Problems therefore occur because these dogs are overstimulated by the movement of children and their herding instincts kick into full gear. This only makes matters worse, because, once children notice being chased by a dog, they'll try to get away more and they'll likely also scream. 

This ultimately only stimulates these dogs more who feel the need to escalate, resorting to barking and nipping the heels of the child up to finally delivering a bite (gripping)- the last strategy of control.

Now That You Know...

As seen, border collies bite children for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, parents may be in another room and may not really know what may have happened.  In any case, if your border collies has bitten a child, it is best to play it safe and have your border collie assessed by a dog behavior professional. Following are therefore several tips if you have a border collie who bites children. 

  • Have your border collie see the vet. Your first step should be ruling out any medical causes of aggression in dogs. If any underlying medical causes are found, make sure to have them treated. 
  • Once medical problems are ruled out, consider consulting with a dog behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist or a dog trainer/behavior consultant specializing in aggression. He or she may be able to tell you what type of aggression your border collie is displaying. Make sure force-free training and behavior modification methods are being employed. 
  • Use management strategies. Prevent putting your border collie in the position of biting. 
  • On walks, keep your border collie on leash. If children attempt to approach, tell them to give you space or turn the opposite way. You can let your border collie wear a special vest that says "distance " in big letters to alert others. 
  • Let your border collie wear a muzzle. Here is how to train a dog to wear a muzzle. 
  • If your border collie gets overstimulated on walks upon seeing children running, consider implementing the "Look at That Game" for dogs under the guidance of a dog behavior professional. 
  •  If there are children in the household, create a safe area for them. Erect a baby gate so that your dog and children can "co-habitat" but in separated areas. Make sure your children cannot access this area. Never leave children and dog unsupervised, even when in their separated areas.
  • Train a solid "down-stay" and recall to redirect your border collie at a moment's notice. A smacking sound made with your mouth can also be used to tell your border collie to rush to you. Give a treat when he does.
  • Make sure your border collie receives sufficient levels of exercise, training and mental stimulation. 
  •  Teach your border collie to relax. Avoid going to over stimulating places such as dog parks or children's playgrounds unless she can handle it and relax. Go gradual, making sure your dog is under threshold before advancing to more stimulating places. 
  • Gift your border collie with a large ball used for the sport of canine Treibball. Herding this ball is much better than herding children. You use this ball as well to train him to reliably respond to your cues meant to redirect him. 
  • If you are considering getting a border collie as a family pet and have children in your household, make sure to get one from a reputable breeder who has invested time into socializing him to babies, toddlers, children, sounds, other dogs (many border collies "hate" other dogs), animals and a variety of environments. The breeder should emphasize continuing your puppy's socialization once welcomed in your new home, providing safe and enjoyable opportunities for your puppy to expand his experience of the world around him. 
  • As always play is safe and consult with the pros for safety and correct behavior modification implementation.
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