The Border Collie Herding Instinct

You’ve probably seen pictures and videos of Border Collies herding sheep or cattle either on a farm or in a competition. It’s amazing to watch as the dog, seemingly by sheer will, controls several or dozens of animals at a time. In some of the sheep herding competitions you can watch as one dog, with minimal instruction from his owner, can split a herd of sheep in two and put the first group in one pen and the second group in another. The most amazing video I’ve seen so far is a 40 pound Border Collie literally staring down a 2000 pound bull that simply did not want to move. They both stood their ground for almost a minute until the bull gave in and went where the dog wanted him to go. That bull could have killed the dog in an instant yet the dogs force of will was stronger than the damn bulls! This Border Collie Herding Instinct is a deep seated behavior that is all but impossible to break.

What many people hear about these dogs is the “cutesy” stories of them herding kids or ducks and subtlety herding all the people at a party into one room. While it may make for a good story it does not make for good living conditions. Those that do not have experience with this breed are bound to radically underestimate the amount of focus and intensity they posses. These folks may feel that once they get one of these dogs into a family environment the dog will just calm right down and blend right into the family. What they need to understand is that the dog that will stand up to a 2000 bull and control it by it’s force of will alone is the same dog they are bringing home.

The herding instinct inherent in the Border Collie breed has been honed over the past several hundred years. While many people think that this trait has been bred into the breed it in fact has been there all along. What we refer to as the herding instinct is really the hunting and killing trait of the wolf albeit a modified version. As you may know pretty much all modern domesticated dogs are decedents from wolves. Wolves in the wild naturally run, live and hunt in packs and to bring down their prey they use the circling and grouping moves we see today in the Border Collie. The difference is the trait has been bred to keep the circling and grouping ability yet remove the final killing end of the equation. What simply must be understood for the Border Collie owner is that this is an instinct that is very much alive and present in the breed and is not something that can be trained out. I’m going to say it again; you can not train the herding instinct out of this breed. It will be there the first day you bring him home and for his entire life. So what is there to do?

It is essential that you refocus the herding instinct into something else and this is, simply put, not an easy thing to do….give them a job! Do your homework before getting one of these dogs. If you are not ready, willing and able to handle their unique characteristics it will be a trying and unpleasant time for you and your family. If you are prepared it will still be challenging but, in my opinion, vastly more rewarding that any other dog you’ve owned (it has been for me!). Be sure to do your homework and be ready to train, train, train!

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  1. Miss Cellany says

    My BC herds anything on 4 legs – except cats which scare him (he’ll stare down horses, bulls and billy goats but cats scare him… Go figure).

    Whenever we come across a herd of something in the national parks I take him to he’ll set about bringing it to me or driving it away from me (whichever he deems most applicable). It’s nearly impossible to get him to stop and I’m terrified he’ll get stomped one of these days (though he never goes closer than 2 or 3 meters to large animals).

    I’ve worked on his recall and it’s perfect as long as he hasn’t switched into herding mode. When he switches he acts like he can’t hear me. I’ve no doubt he’s simply ignoring me because he knows I’m going to spoil his fun and make him stop – as after a few minutes he leaves whatever he’s been herding and returns to me with a massive grin. I’m always torn between whether i should be yelling at him for disobeying and giving me a heart attack or praising him for (finally) coming back.

    How should I manage this? So far I’ve been super vigilant for livesock and called him back whenever I see them in the distance – and then leashed him to walk him past them, but every now and then he sees them before I do and it’s herding-fun-time again :(

    There is almost nowhere I can take him that is livestock free – the national parks all have free range cattle that get left out most of the year and are only collected for calving or slaughter (the meat from these guys is delicious btw). The cows and bulls have their horns intact – long sharp horns – and they aren’t particularly wary of dogs since the national parks are also full of feral dogs (they usually sleep during the day though so we rarely see them).

    The one place I know that doesn’t have cows has deer and wild boar instead (not much better to be honest). When he sees the deer his herding instincts seem to transform into hunting instincts and he chases them for miles with this absolutely insanely focused look. He does come back eventually but I don’t know if the deer will turn on him ? He chased a stag with massive antlers last time – was gaining on it in fact, I didn’t realise border collies could run so fast! He was only 15 meters or so away from it when they both went out of sight. He returned about 5 mins later looking out of breath. He’s 9 years old – do border collies ever slow down in their old age?

    He is probably so intent to “herd” because we live in a tiny apartment in the city – so when we do get out to the country I suppose it’s like being released from prison for him… He just goes wild. And he’s so well behaved at home too…

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