Why Do Border Collies Herd?

Border collies herd for the simple fact that they were selectively bred to be herding dogs. By taking a closer glimpse into this intriguing dog's past, it is possible to deduce why these dogs engage in certain behaviors. Channeling a border collie's instincts, rather than trying to suppress them, is the optimal way to deal with them.

Border collies herd because their bodies and minds have been specifically crafted for the task. These dogs are amazing herding machines who are naturally drawn to chasing and controlling movements of animals.

Many dog owners bring border collies into their homes without realizing what these dogs were bred for and why they behave in certain ways. Sadly, this incomprehension may sometimes lead to border collies being rehomed or even surrendered to shelters. 

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A border collie herding sheep

A Glimpse Back in Time 

In order to better understand why border collies herd, taking a glimpse back in time is necessary. Here's some history about border collies. 

At some point in time, humans began selectively breeding dogs for carrying out specific tasks for the purpose of survival. These tasks varied from place to place and were based on local needs. To a great extent, dogs were utilized for hunting (pointers, spaniels, retrievers etc), protecting livestock (livestock guardians) and controlling the movements of animals (herding dogs). 

Herding dogs, in particular, were specifically helpful for the purpose of controlling the movement of large numbers of herds comprising animals such as sheep, cattle, geese, goats, and pigs.

Border collies were utilized along rugged Scottish terrain where they controlled the speed and direction of large flocks of sheep. There is belief that their name derives from the fact that they were mostly used along the border between England and Scotland. There is also belief that the term "collie" may have originated from the old Celtic word for "useful."

And "useful" was for certain a border collie's second name! Border collies were considered a valuable asset courtesy of their inborn aptitude to follow a shepherd's requests and directions. Even from an economical standpoint border collies were quite valuable. It was estimated that in a typical pasture environment, a well-trained border collie could have potentially done the work of three humans!

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A border collie giving eye while crouching

The Herding Style of Border Collies

A border collie's herding style is quite unique and fascinating at the same time. Unlike other herding dogs who may follow flocks from behind (heelers), border collies focus on herding flocks mostly along the sides and at the front. 

Border collies control the movement and direction of sheep by employing a variety of strategic techniques. Following are some herding techniques border collies employ when herding sheep.

Giving eye: Border collies will stare intently at sheep, a behavior that's known as "giving  eye." The purpose of a border collie's stare, it to control the flock. By staring at the sheep, border collies exert psychological pressure to get them moving. Sheep appear to respond to this stare naturally because it mimics a wolves' tactic of selecting a victim in the herd by catching its eye before chasing. 

Stalking: on top of giving eye, border collies will also adopt another wolf behavior: they will crouch down carrying their head low, hindquarters high, and tail down. Just like staring, stalking helps control flocks of sheep because it mimics predatory movements. 

Gathering. Border collies may employ a variety of herding styles to control a flock of sheep. As mentioned, they tend to work mostly along the sides and at the front. They may therefore go to the front of the flock to turn or stop the sheep's movement and they may also gather the sheep into a group so to move them towards the shepherd. 

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Border collies work mostly along the sides and at the front of the flock.

Do Border Collies Bite Sheep?

The herding style of a border collie is for a good extent reminiscent of the past when a dog's ancestors (wolves) were hunting. When a canid predator was hunting, a precise sequence called the predatory sequence was followed.

The predatory sequence encompassed several instinctive behaviors including giving eye, stalking, chasing, catching, killing, and then eating. Of course, no shepherd would have wanted a border collie who was catching sheep, killing sheep and eating them!

Fortunately, domestication and selective breeding has allowed a herding dog's predatory sequence to be “truncated," in other words "cut short," so to speak (Bradshaw & Brown 1990, Fox, 1978).

However, not all is always cut and dried when it comes to behavior. It is always possible that variations may exist and border collies may show inappropriate predatory behaviors towards the animals that they are meant to herd. Sheep ranchers may occasionally stumble on such specimens (Green and Woodruff, 1988).

So in an ideal situation, with all the genetic wiring set up correctly, you should see for the most part, border collies staring, stalking, and chasing sheep. Occasionally, you may sometimes stumble on some nipping when dealing with particularly stubborn sheep, but fortunately, this nipping should not be very hard and should not cause major stress on the animal.

While gripping (the technical term for moving stock by biting) may be feasible with dogs working with certain animals (as seen in heelers pushing herds of cattle from the back and nipping at their heels), when it comes to herding sheep, the practice is frowned upon considering that sheep have thin skin. 

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Border collies may be drawn to chasing cars

Why Do Border Collies Herd Cars, Dogs, People etc.?

With a history of being utilized for herding, which was quite a physically demanding activity, it's no surprise why border collies are blessed with such high energy levels and stamina. On top of requiring high energy levels, herding sheep all day required also required a strong personality with a natural predisposition for controlling movements.

Border collies are therefore working dogs equipped with a strong urge to work and an instinctive predisposition to want to control everything that moves. 

Despite the fact that border collies are no longer used for herding as much as they were in the past, these traits and natural instincts will still be present to some extent in the herding dog you welcomed into your household. When these strong instincts are not properly channelled, border collies may want to chase and herd other dogs, people (in particular rowdy children playing), cars and cats.

These controlling behaviors often land these dogs in trouble. Chasing cars may lead to injuries and even death. Chasing joggers or nipping boisterous children may lead to unpleasant situations that may turn into big liabilities. At the dog park, border collies may be party poopers, stirring trouble because they tend to assume the "fun police" role. At home, barking in frustration while watching cars, people or other dogs walk by fences or windows may trigger neighbor complaints.

As seen, it's not easy dealing with a workaholic dog with a tendency to be a control freak! Hopefully, responsible border collie breeders give perspective dog owners a head's up as to what to expect and do their best to match their pups with owners who have the time, will and space to cater to this breed's strong needs for exercise and mental stimulation.

"Border collies have been said to be the smartest dogs. But that makes having one like living with a genius on too many cups of coffee." ~Nicholas Dodman, Puppy's First Steps

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Now That You Know...

Now that you know why border collies herd, you may wonder what you can do to channel all their energy and put those strong herding instincts to work. Here are several tips and ideas:

  • Accept your border collie for what he is. When your border collie misbehaves, consider that most likely all he's doing is just being a border collie. He will need your patience and gentle guidance (border collies are sensitive dogs!) to learn which alternate behaviors you want him to engage in. 
  • While it may be tempting to try to suppress or control your border collie's instincts, it must be accepted that they will never be completely eliminated.
  • Exercise your border collie. Many people assume that taking a border collie on a brisk walk around the neighborhood or playing in the yard will suffix. This is not your average dog bred for companionship. Border collies needs daily vigorous exercise which means jogging them for several miles, taking them hikes and letting them retrieve tennis balls or Frisbees. If you own a young border collie (like under 1 year old), check with your vet on the ideal amount of exercise and type based on his developing anatomy and physiology.
  • Provide mental stimulation. On top of exercising the body, you want to exercise the mind. Engage your border collie's mind with 'find it' games, interactive toys and puzzles. 
  • Invest time in training your border collie. Border collies thrive when they are given directions. Ask your border collie to perform desirable behaviors such as eye contact, sit, stay, heel, lie down, come or even tricks using valuable rewards to reinforce those behaviors.  Mix and match these commands so not to bore your dog.
  • Use your training to redirect your border collie's chasing instincts. Ask your border to make eye contact with you and heel when there are distractions. Ask your border collie to sit when there are cars passing by. Ask your border collie to lie down and stay when a cat is crossing the road. Reinforce with valuable rewards (treats, toys a game of tug)
  • If your border collie has a hard time focusing, it means that he hasn't been trained yet for that level of distractions and is over threshold. Increase distance from the stimulus and find that sweet spot where your border collie is better under control. Practice at this level of difficulty before moving to more challenging levels. 
  • Enroll your border collie in some fun canine sports. In particular, herding trials are great as border collies get to do what they were bred for, but if there are no sheep in your area, the sport of Treibball (where dogs get to herd large balls) can be equally satisfying. Other fun sports include Flyball, disc dog, dock diving and canine musical freestyle. 
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