Border Collies: beauty and brains

19:28, Mar 20 2013

Ten years ago, back when I'd only ever been a cat person, I met a dog who in a few days began a shift in my thinking. She shifted me toward this life-changing thought: Dogs are terrific; I'd like to have one.

  Otis will drop his ball at the feet of anyone who he thinks may want to play.
She was a Border Collie, and since meeting her, I've been in a kind of soppy awe for the breed.

Here's the story. My partner and I stayed in a bach on Waiheke Island that summer for a few days each side of New Year. The holiday house next door had a family staying in it, and the black-and-white Border Collie was theirs. I heard them calling her, and the named sounded like Holly; Holly the collie.

Holly appeared one day in our bach's backyard. She was shy, yet we must have seemed friendly because she soon made her way on to the sun deck. From then on for the rest of our stay, she visited us several times daily, sitting with us, accepting pats, cocking her head as we addressed her. One of us played a game of fetch with her, using a stick that had been lying on the lawn, and thereafter Holly saw us as her fetch-pals, bringing with her on her visits a range of sticks, twigs or tufts of dead grass - anything that she thought we might throw for her - and dropping them at our feet.

Even after coming back from the beach with the next-door family, damp and salty from the sea and warm from the uphill run home, she was still eager to spend time with her fetch-pals.

We got quite attached to her. Then we had to leave.


But what I took away from that brief holiday pet-fling was two things: the beginning of a yearning to have a dog, and an affection for Border Collies.

They are bright-eyed, quick on the uptake and blessed with a long memory - which makes them great dogs to train for anything, whether as mobility dogs, show dogs, or obedience and agility competitors. Or, of course, as  farm dogs.

Border Collies are the way they are because their ancestors were bred to help farmers control their sheep and cows. Building on the ancient wolfish prey-herding instinct, breeders in the British Isles created dogs that were athletic, tenacious and intelligent. Border Collies are among the four most popular dog breeds in New Zealand, no doubt thanks to their familiarity and popularity as farm dogs. They're "people dogs", born chasers and herders that love to work - they'll drop to the ground and give the eye to a wandering sheep (or, it has to be said, a child or other small being), nudging it where the dog thinks it should go.

Famously, Border Collies are highly intelligent. Stanley Coren's Book The Intelligence of Dogs rates them No 1, ahead of the Poodle and the German Shepherd. A Border Collie named Rico was shown to know 200 words and be able to sort the grammar of a command. Another named Betsy knew 340 words and was "able to connect an object with a photographic image of the object, despite having seen neither before".

And as anyone knows who can remember the old televised herding competitions, Border Collies are brilliant interpreters of the human whistle.

Yes, Border Collies are intelligent, but that can create problems. "They're not for the fainthearted or lazy," as one owner told me. Border Collies are eager to occupy their brains as well as work their bodies, so merely walking daily is not enough; they need lots of physical action and stimulation through play and training, changes of scene and space to move and explore in. A bored dog is liable to dig holes in your garden, or chew your furniture, or seek to escape, and that tendency is strong in a Border Collie - so don't let it get bored!

As for training a Border Collie, it's not a task for an inexperienced or soft-willed person. Border Collies never stop thinking. As one website puts it, "Training a Border Collie can be like trying to teach a nerdy child that likes to overanalyse everything." Border Collie owner Christina Newell told me, "They're also very good at sneakily doing what they want (often it's sleeping on the couch) and when you realise it they begrudgingly obey - and you can tell their emotion."

Blog reader Cathy Townley can attest to Border Collies' bravery - she's had two, and each has saved the life of a child. The first "herded" Cathy's young son away from a rattlesnake in their front yard. The second fought off a violent dog that had attacked other neighbourhood children, but suffered such a bad throat wound that he died. His name was BD, and he "died defending his family", says Cathy.

Here are some more Border Collie photos sent to me by readers...

Border Collies are famous for their skills in agility competitions:

Exploring the wide outdoors: Kyla and Storm at Raglan.

Zeph and Cora turn a park walk into a pursuit course.

Kaiser grins in the sun.

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