Border Collie Psycology and Carol Price

So a  little while back, out of the blue, author and Border Collie expert Carol Price sent us an email after finding our site…how cool it that?

Carol is an expert and publisher author on the breed and has recently written a new book called “Collie Psychology: Inside the Border Collie Mind” In addition to her books on the subject Carol also contributes to Borderlines Magazine which is the official magazine of the Border Collie Society of America.

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A note from Carol…

“I so understand where your readers and followers are coming from. Many, many, years ago I began my mission of trying to work out exactly what it was that made Border collies so unique (and crazy!), in the way they think and react, and thereafter what you needed to do to always get the best out of them. And it has been the most fascinating journey of enlightenment.

The whole motivation for my latest book, Collie Psychology: Inside the Border Collie mind, was to share absolutely everything I had learned about the breed with others. I love these dogs more than words can say.  My ongoing mission in life remains making ever more people understand the breed better, so that both owners and dogs alike share richer and more rewarding lives together.”

Carol was kind enough to send over a feature she did for Borderlines magazine and offered to have it shared here…

Inside the Mind of the Border Collie by Carol Price”

 Copyright (C) Carol Price

For a vast part of my life, I have owned, trained, loved and more latterly bred Border collies. And right from the start it was never enough for me to just appreciate them as clever and loyal companions, or win prizes with them at competitions. As a behaviorist, as well as trainer, I was always driven by a desire to get to the heart of how their incredibly special brains worked.

I wanted to know the exact mental mechanics that drove their reactions, thought processes and general character as a breed.  And whether there could also be downsides to breeding a dog so hyper-sensitive in its reactions to external stimuli, as well as one persistently powered by such compulsive and obsessive instincts and  drives. Not just for the dogs themselves, but also for any less knowledgeable person who happens to own them.

I began answering such questions in Understanding the Border Collie; a book I wrote about a decade ago, which went on to become, and still remains, a top seller in my native UK.

Ongoing learning

In the many years that have passed since writing this earlier book, I have been on an even longer, ongoing journey of enlightenment with this truly exceptional breed. Through training many Border collies for different tasks or pursuits, dealing with literally hundreds of ‘problem’ dogs brought to me as a behaviorist, and breeding and raising my own dogs, I have been faced with so many new questions about them that I needed to find answers to. And everything I learned has now culminated in my latest book: Collie Psychology: Inside the Border Collie Mind.*

From the start I wanted it to be a book that contained all the most useful, practical information any owner should know about the Border collie, whatever their level of personal experience with the breed; from its remarkable history, dating back thousands of years in Britain, to where you should, and should not, get a Border collie puppy from and why. Plus everything you need to know about breed specific health issues, basic early training and optimum exercise and feeding regimes.

But mostly this book is about the uniquely fascinating Border collie mind, with all its various quirks, neuroses, vulnerabilities and flashes of utter brilliance, and how you can use your heightened knowledge and understanding of it to improve everything from the later behavior of the puppies you rear, or rescue dogs you rehabilitate, to the everyday life quality you share with your dogs as companions, or the success levels you achieve in more advanced types of training, or different competitive pursuits.

Changing roles

For most of us purists, the Border collie is primarily a working dog, with a brain and body optimally evolved for a specific original function–working livestock. The original role, or function, of the Border collie is what has shaped everything, genetically, from its highly athletic frame, built for both agility and endurance, to the whole way it is programmed to think and react.

However, Border collies today are now too often owned by people who understand neither the whole genetic history of these dogs, nor the intrinsic psychology and instincts that tend to come with them as a breed. And as a result they can frequently live less fulfilling or more problematic lives with them.

The modern demand for collies to serve so many different or newer social, working or competitive functions has also had a genetic impact on the breed which is not always adequately considered.

Genetic fragmentation

First, it has led to the progressive development of new collie strains or types within the overall breed itself; such as the pedigree show collie, the Agility collie or the Obedience dog. People have had an understandable desire to want to breed like with like, in order to perpetuate a certain type of dog with a specific kind of look or ability for a particular competitive pursuit.

The downside to this, however, is the potential fragmentation of the Border collie breed, as a whole, into a series of smaller and much narrower gene pools, all of which produce a completely different kind of dog, physically and mentally, and which become ever more isolated from each other. And also far more interbred with each other.

This in turn paves the way for a greater incidence of genetic health and/or temperament issues in later offspring.

Problems linked to breeding

Time and again I will see ‘problem’ collies brought to me whose chief problem is the basic quality of their breeding. I.e., they have a fundamentally less sound genetic temperament.  

A popular notion can also exist among many pet owners today that their ‘problem’ collie would be fine if only it were working as a sheepdog instead; as if it’s the role of the dog, as opposed to the whole basic genetic shape of its brain, that has mostly gone awry.

In truth, most of the genetic factors that make a Border collie a lousy pet–such as heightened tendencies towards neurosis, nervousness or aggression–also tend to make it a pretty lousy sheepdog as well.

As outlined more fully in my new book, it is vital for any would-be collie owner to better understand the types of breeder and breeding practice that give you a far more inferior or superior type of dog, temperamentally.

High performance brain

The best way to see the Border collie brain is much like a top of the range, high performance car. When it is intrinsically well designed or made, and being handled sympathetically and respectfully, with all its sophisticated inner mechanics kept in perfect tune, it gives you an exhilarating, awe-inspiring ride towards the height of its abilities and then, in between, purrs quietly, calmly and contentedly down into lower gear or rest mode. There really is no better dog brain in the world to live with, or train.

But because the collie brain is, in essence, such a more sensitive, complex and sophisticated a machine, it also takes less for it to go badly wrong. Less good genes. Less good rearing. Less good daily handling or training. A more challenging or psychologically inappropriate daily lifestyle. All these things will take their toll on the collie mind and thereafter the kind of performance, or behavior, that comes out of it.

Mental over-heating

The whole second half of my new book is dedicated to commoner behavioral problems or issues in Border collies, because often these are just so misunderstood and thus mishandled. There are so many reasons why Border collies develop more serious kinds of problem, behavior wise, but one of the commonest exacerbating or contributing factors today is just stress or ‘mental over-heating’ in some shape or form.

Border collies are often regarded as an ‘excitable’ breed, when in fact their intrinsic neurochemistry is just that much more volatile and reactive to any form of sensory stimulation, be it in the form of noise, light, movement or emotional responses to external events.

The upside of this kind of brain design is that it gives you superb levels of response from your dog in everyday training or competition. Such acute reactivity is also how a herding dog always keeps one step ahead, mentally, of the livestock it works.

The downside is that you have a dog inherently far more vulnerable to mental/physical and emotional over-arousal, and thus stress. Over arousal results in sustained adrenalin/cortisol flooding throughout your dog’s body, which in turn–especially longer term–can do much damage to its mental and physical health. And also progressively change its daily behavior for the worse.

Behavioral byproducts of stress

More extreme obsessive activity or fearful/phobic reactions, neurosis, mania, aggressive lunge-nipping, frenzied–if not uncontrollable–barking; these are all classic behavioral by-products of an over-aroused/over-stimulated Border collie mind.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned is that every Border collie comes with its own mental thermometer. Some dogs take far less external stimulation to mentally overheat, others a lot more. But either way there is a point on each dog’s mental thermometer that marks when it is in perfect balance. At this point it is calm, clear-thinking, focused yet alert, with no signs of inner turbulence, tension or restlessness.

This is the healthiest, and most ideal ‘head’ for your dog to be in most of the time. And once you have identified what it looks like, or should look like, in your dog, you tailor your whole daily handling and training of him to keep him there as much as possible.

Lifestyle and competition stress

Today’s Border collies have so many newer mental pressures to deal with that were unknown to their earlier ancestors. First and foremost there are the everyday demands of living as social companions in our ever noisier, busier and more restrictive human world. Too many collies are not bred, raised or trained sufficiently well to cope with the kind of lives they are given as pets.

In my book I have looked at how you can train collies far more successfully for different tasks or competitive pursuits, via approaching each exercise more from your dog’s viewpoint, as opposed to just your own. But the issue of how much stress many competition collies get subjected to today, without greater handler empathy and insight, still concerns me; whether the stress in question comes from competition training, the competition environment or general handler pressure.

Not everyone who competes their dogs in more ‘fast and furious’  pursuits seems to appreciate that extreme excitement triggers exactly the same metabolic stress response, in an animal’s mind and body, as extreme anxiety or fear. Thus excitement is no more intrinsically ‘healthy’ an emotion for a dog to experience, especially longer term.

Winding up

I also have concerns about the widespread habit of further ‘winding up’ dogs already as mentally volatile as collies, and encouraging them to savage tugger toys, in both training and competition. Because after many years of observing the fallout of this practice, from a behavioral perspective, it seems to serve no function other than to unnecessarily further arouse/stress dogs, make them lose mental focus, and increase their chances of being more aggressive both within and beyond the immediate competition environment, due to a progressive loss of emotional self control and bite inhibition.

Moreover, tugging doesn’t actually ‘alleviate’ stress, as can sometimes be believed. It simply deflects it into aggressive activity which an owner/handler then actively encourages or condones. And thinking that aggression, of any kind, is a legitimate outlet, whenever it feels under any kind of mental or emotional pressure, is not really a good lesson for any collie to learn.

Keeping an open mind

Over the years I have listened to many differing viewpoints on Border collie training and handling, because I think they all have a right to be considered. They also all have a right to be challenged.

Too many trainers do not continually question what they do, or keep their methods and approaches towards their dogs under constant review. There is nearly always a better, kinder and more insightful way of doing anything with a dog, which we can only ever learn through maintaining an open mind.  

As time has gone by I have found myself basing my own views on the handling/training of Border collies less and less on something as shaky, and eminently more unreliable, as mere personal opinion and far more on the actual science of how animals’ minds work.  

Ultimately all behavior in Border collies, as in any other animal on the planet, comes from one basic place–their brains; that seething inner mental laboratory of neurological cells and chemicals and hormones which makes us all tick. Thus how that brain is fundamentally designed in any collie, and then shaped and managed by external pressures and events, is the key to everything that goes right with it. And equally to everything that goes wrong.”

Hope you’ve found this as interesting as I have. Be sure to check out the Border Collie Society of America and take a look at Carol’s new book “Collie Psychology: Inside the Border Collie Mind” right here…


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