Border Collie – a problem dog!?

Border Collie

Due to many requests and the success of our original article about the border collie, we have decided to provide an English translation online.


A transfixed gaze, the body tense, the tail tucked with concentration, he slowly creeps on – always keeping his eyes firmly on the sheep. On a whistle command, he turns away and runs a wide arc only to lie down on a second whistle. Never losing concentration – never really looking away, on another whistle he continues creeping forward again. Now the sheep start running and the Border Collie follows them in a firm, solid and determined manner until the sheep are with the shepherd.

How fascinating it is to see a Border Collie at work! One quickly realises just how special these dogs are. Unfortunately, only few people stop to think about what it really means to keep a Border Collie. Of course, people will inform themselves and try to be as fully prepared as possible – yet, it often goes wrong. Why?

Border Collie Dino hütet
A fascinating sight: The Border Collie is driving the sheep toward the herder.

The Border Collie has a strong “will to please” which is the basis for its ability to interact so closely with the shepherd. Its athletic build, delicate and sensitive nature and, of course, the pleasant appearance makes the Border Collie very attractive also for non-shepherds.

Border Collie Obedience Metall-Apport
A Border Collie doing the obedience test: in this image it retrieves a piece of metal.

This dog breed will frequently be seen in dog sport events, where they show considerable performance. Whether agility, obedience or traditional dog training competitions – wherever the Border Collie participates will it be found in the upper rankings. This, of course, makes it even more desirable. He seems to be a guaranty for success, and since he is easy to train, Border Collies are a popular choice.

If, however, you take a look around the help-pages for dogs, especially for Border Collies, you will quickly realise that many of them are being given away. A common reason for this are its „excessive demands“ often associated with bite accidents.

There aren’t many people who haven’t met a “crazy” Border Collie yet. You can see them in competitions once and again: barking dogs that are taken out of the box before the start, race through the course yapping and then quickly disappear in their boxes again.

What’s the problem with Border Collies?

The Border Collie is a sheepdog. Used to herding sheep on the vast plains of England but usually not accustomed to the presence of human beings, they take flight easily. No other dog can do this job as well as a Border Collie, they have been bred for this task.

The Border Collie has been selected because of certain qualities which make it the perfect dog for working with livestock. These qualities, however, may be cause for trouble when Border Collies are kept a family dogs. So, what are the characteristics that make it a problem prone dog? Why is it, that they soon become too difficult for the average dog owner to deal with? Why do these dogs so often end up in animal emergency centres because of bite accidents, when the Border Collie is actually known for its friendly nature?

The Border Collie is a work dog.

Mutterschaf Many people know that a Border Collie needs to be challenged and it is very common for Border Collie owners to hear comments like „Gotta work him a lot, don’t you?” or „This one will only get tired if you keep it busy all day long!” But by assuming that the Border Collie needs a lot of activity, people already make the first mistake. Starting out with this assumption in mind, disaster is inevitable.

Of course, a working dog needs a „job“. It needs a task that challenges it but this does not mean that the dog requires permanent attention!

A shepherd uses his dog when he needs it. In winter, when the sheep are in the barn or in spring, when they get lambs, the shepherd will certainly not set up an ‚agility course‘ in order to keep the dog busy. The dog has to work when it is needed – and when there is no work to do, it leads a joyful and “unemployed” live for weeks on end. A situation which actually doesn’t cause the dog any problems at all.

The extensive activity programme some in this country feel inclined to submit their four-legged companions to, is downright deadly for these dogs.

Two times a week agility training, then lunging, then dummy work, not to forged the weekly obedience training and last but not least long walks. Not only is this too much for other dogs, it’s far too much for the Border Collie. In terms of activity, the Border Collie needs challenging tasks – and in between a lot of rest. When working with the shepherd, he herds – that’s all he does. And this is the criteria one should follow when organising your dog’s training programm.

The Border Collie hunts!

Kurzhaariger Border Collie bei der Arbeit
Guinness, a short-haired Border Collie at work.

„But it’s a herding dog!“ will spring to your mind immediately. Of course, the Border Collie is a herding dog, but herding behaviour is nothing other than hunting behaviour.

You won’t find a wolf keeping a few sheep for eating one now and again. The wolf hunts its prey. For herding dogs, breeders have taken advantage of this hunting behaviour while merely suppressing certain behavioural sequences. The “attack and kill” instinct has been eliminated by selective breeding whereas the remaining hunting sequences have been emphasised.

As a result, the Border Collie not only stalks and courses. It makes a wide circle around its ‚prey‘ so as to remain unnoticed, then runs to a point situated – from the shepherds view – at 12 o’clock approximately and herds the animals towards the shepherd, who will finish the hunt. The Border Collie hunts in collaboration with its owner.

The problem, however, arises when the human doesn’t want this hunt while the dog pursues its genetically determined program. And when the dog thinks it has to hunt down and herd some children towards its owner, the situation can quickly become dangerous.

Border Collies are very sensitive to visual and acoustic stimuli

For the ‚job‘ it is important that the dog sees a sheep escaping in the distance. It is also important that he can hear its owner’s whistle from far away. The Border Collie needs to see the smallest changes in the sheep-herd and react immediately. Accordingly, it reacts a lot faster to visual (motion) and auditory stimuli than other dogs.

This can quickly turn into a problem in everyday life. Of course, a Border Collie doesn’t know that that’s actually a sheep moving in the far distance. It reacts to the movement in the distance. If there happens to be a jogger on the horizon, the dog reacts to the runner. On New Year’s Eve with all the noise-makers, the Border Collie will probably go mad because it is so sensitive to these stimuli.

Situations like these can be difficult to handle for the average dog owner. Before you even realize that there is a banging noise somewhere or something is moving in far the distance, like a Jogger for example, a prefect ‚prey‘, the dog has already disappeared… which leads us to the next point:

The Border Collie is very excitable

The Border Collie needs to be able to react very quickly. As said before, he must react immediately to the slightest stimuli, this gets him from naught to sixty in no time. When a sheep breaks away from the group, the dog doesn’t have time to think about whether or not it should really bring back the sheep or if it is going to be in danger by doing so. It must retrieve the runaway right away, without any fuss and without evaluating the risks beforehand.

In everyday life, this is difficult because the dog also responds to all stimuli. If there is a car passing by, the Border Collie doesn’t think about the dangers. Instead it perceives a fast moving stimulus to which it reacts with hunting behaviour – not leaving enough time for the owner to counteract quickly. The dog is off, chasing after the car as fast as lightning and this can result in death for the dog and in a dangerous situation for the occupants.

The Border Collie isn’t calm by definition – he has yet to learn to be calm

Border Collie Hund bereit wenn die Arbeit ruft.
Diego is always ready for work.

Many of the Border Collies that are still working with sheep in the traditional way, spend the rest of their lives in a a dog kennel in the yard or in the barn. If there’s any work to do, the shepherd gets the dog and when there’s nothing to do, the dog stays in the kennel. When working, however, the dog has to give it all.

The shepherd cannot afford to lose a sheep because his dog is exhausted. When at work, the Border Collie often goes beyond its own limits and it has to rest when the job is done.

In everyday life this means that the Border Collie hardly shows any signs when things are getting a bit too much for it. No matter how worn-out the dog is – it will continue. Border Collies don’t have an emergency stop button, that’s the way they were bred. And so it may happen that after hours of ball games, you dog still doesn’t seem to get tired – because it rather drops dead than stops by itself. Therefore, it is the owner who has to take the relevant decisions. The dog can’t afford it. Calmness is something that these dogs still have to learn.

The Border Collie is sensitive

Border Collie Strand

For effectively controlling a dog with so much ‚drive‘ even over great distances, a substantial amount of sensitivity from the dog towards its handler is necessary. Border Collies are very ‚impressionable‘, they react with delicacy to the slightest signs from their owners.

In everyday life a ‚firm hand‘ can do more harm than good. To severely chastise your dog in a fit of rage can render it very insecure – if it doesn’t make it panic altogether. The Border Collie reacts to violence with fear and loss of confidence. What doesn’t necessarily impress other dogs, sits particularly deep with a Border Collie.

The Border Collie is a quick learner

Now, anyone thinking that they have to treat their dog with velvet gloves, is forgetting that these dogs are extremely intelligent, they learn quickly. As a work dog that has to collaborate with people, the Border Collie comprehends very quickly what it is expected to do.

But, of course, this concept doesn’t only apply to the desired behavioural patterns – it works just as well for non-desired conduct.

While you can be tolerant to some extend with other dogs, you do not have this option with a Border Collie. He immediately detects every weakness and learns from it. This dog draws its own conclusions and then consequently uses the newly learned behaviour.

The Border Collie doesn’t need many repetitions – sometimes one is enough to turn the dog into a little tyrant, mercilessly pursuing its strategy. If you allow such a dog to have his own way let’s say with a tense leash only once (for getting to the a smelly fence post for example), it has learned the lesson ‚leash pulling = success‘.

Once the dog has discovered that it can avoid unpleasant situation with bared teeth, it will quickly apply this behaviour policy to all similar situations. If it has learned that by barking it can get rid of the stupid dog next door, as a consequence it is going to do so with all other dogs as well.

Because of its intelligence, the Border Collie will never get tired of trying out new strategies. Especially during the first years of life, dog holders should not allow their dogs to go through this negative learning experience. This requires a certain amount of knowledge about dog keeping and dog education.

The Border Collie is capable of asserting itself

Schafe Border Collie Hüten
You can tell that the sheep are displeased. Here Ben must show authority!

Anyone who has ever seen an ewe defend her lamb or a ram defend his ‚chicks‘ will understand why a Border Collie needs to be assertive.

Who said that a Border Collie would never bite? With its gaze (also called the ‚eye) and its body language it takes advantage of the sheep’s vanishing point. Their reaction to such a threat is flight. If, however, the Border Collie doesn’t manage to succeed, the sheep will fight back – instead of fleeing they’ll attack.

Under threat, an ewe tends to defend her lamb. Now is the time when the Border Collie has to be assertive to get the sheep to run into de given direction. And biting might be a necessary tool for this purpose.

In the hands of an average dog holder, this can turn into an explosive situation. Border Collies are friendly towards people but they also make use of their teeth if they consider it to be necessary. Since they are very intelligent and quickly perceive every mistake their owners make, they will also do this in other situations.

If a Border Collie has set its mind on hiding the bone from its owner, it will bite. It will also show its position when it thinks it cannot allow the person outside to come any closer. And in case it considers it necessary to ‚bring back‘ the child, it’ll do that as well.

The Border Collie has to make its own decisions

Once the dog has received the order to herd the sheep toward the herder, so it will do. But, if a sheep tries to escape, the dog has do react quickly, bring back the sheep to the herd and then continue with the original task. A certain amount of ‚intelligent disobedience‘ is therefore necessary in this kind of dog.

This behaviour can turn out to be rather difficult in every day life. Especially if you keep in mind everything that has been mentioned before. When a Border Collie thinks it has a task to do, it makes its own decisions – against its owner if necessary. Wanting to solve a single problem is to no avail here. Instead, you need to carefully consider the whole way of dealing with the dog because its tendency of taking the initiative when reacting to situations can never be suppressed.

Finally a few words to retrieve-game enthusiasts

Border Collie Welpe
Even the youngest dogs are already crazy for the prey. Therefore it is even more important to counter-act this ‚ball-addiction‘ very early in a dog’s life.

There is no substitute for the herd we cannot offer the Border Collie and there is nothing unlike sheep. An equivalent activity to herding simply doesn’t exist, balls don’t react the same way a sheep would.

Because of its hunting instinct, the Border Collie loves to run after the prey. Retrieve-games trigger its chasing instinct which releases certain stress hormones in the dogs body. These hormones dispel just as quickly as they are released.

So, if you continue throwing the ball over and over again, the dog only gets more and more stressed. As a result you get a ‚ball-junkie‘ which can only think of getting the next ’shot‘. Since these dogs have learned to surrender to this sensation without restraint, they react to all other stimuli, which set off this same sensation, with their hunting behaviour. A point to be considered, since this can get very dangerous.

Just imagine some children playing with sticks and your dog uncontrolled and uncontrollable wants to bring the sticks back…

Not to mention the bad influence a permanent stress-situation like this can have on the dog’s psyche and health in the long term. It’s OK to play the retrieve-game every now and again but it has to be done in a very controlled manner. If the dog turns into a ‚ball-junkie‘ something has gone wrong and the use of this toy needs to be reconsidered.

Is the Border Collie a family dog?

Border Collie als Familienhund
The Border Collie as family dog? As you can see, Barney is always up for some mischief.

Of course, the Border Collie is also ‚just a dog‘ who thinks, learns and acts as dogs do. It does, however, come with some characteristics and behaviour patterns typical for this breed which should be considered before deciding on whether or not to get one.

The difficulty lies not so much in keeping the dog busy and active but in educating it correctly while always reminding yourself that you are dealing with a highly specialised work dog. Therefore, instead of asking yourself “Will I be able to keep the dog busy?” the crucial question should rather be “Am I capable of educating such a dog and do I really know how to handle it?” Most of the times it’s not a problem of keeping the dog busy but of incompetent owners who don’t know how to interact with their dogs in the appropriate way.

The characteristics typical in this breed might cause trouble in everyday life, when you want to keep them as a family dog and companion. In this sense, the Border Collie is a problem dog to a certain extend.

Those who ‚only‘ want to have a nice dog, easy to educate and fit for a bit of sport too, should go for a different type of dog. For such a use, other breeds are a lot more suitable.

But those who want a dog they can work with, a dog that challenges them, who enjoy this kind of intelligence in a dog and who have enough experience and know-how not to make mistakes – or at least know how to correct them – and who have furthermore enough knowledge about how to avoid undesirable attitudes and also know how to canalise them, who can offer their dog security, peace and consistency, those will get a wonderful dog they can keep as a family dog which is willing to walk through fire with them.

The diversity of Border Collies – closing words about the features

Border Collie Arbeitslinie Showlinie.
To the left, a working Border Collie – to the right, a show-dog.

The Border Collie as a breed has the good fortune of possessing a large genetic variety which shows in its appearance and nature. Nowadays there is a special breeding-line of Border Collie ‚show-dogs‚ which are particularly sold as family dogs.

In this case it’s the appearance that counts for the selection, not the work. On the other hand there are certified work dogs, bred for their utility, not for their looks. These dogs should really only go to owners who actually need them for herding. As already mentioned before, the strong inbred herding-instinct in these dogs cannot be replaced by any other activity.

If dogs cannot live according to their instincts, they usually develop abnormal behaviour such as extremely possessive attitudes, the ‚herding‘ of people and other dogs, the ‚herding‘ of toys, chasing cars and so on. There is no use in closing your eyes to the situation, the underlying problem continues boiling as if it was a pressure cooker and disaster is unavoidable.

Of course, when a work dog is only selected because of appearance without considering the original use of the breed, the question arises, to what extend this dog is still authentic. The Border Collie’s character is intrinsically tied to its utility. By leaving out the utility, typical characteristics for the breed may also disappear.

Here one has to consider that a typical Border Collie out the working line will never be happy with a non-shepherd and will probably end up with the above mentioned issues. You cannot make the instinct go away by training or exercise, it’s part of their nature.

Herding behaviour, as found in Border Collies, is extremely complex and it is also a very complex inheritance. There are always exceptions to the rule; a dog out of the working line might be completely useless or lose interest in sheep altogether. But the same is true for show dogs, every once in a while one will feel the need for herding.

Apart from the show-line and the working-line there are many other breeding-lines, for example selecting for sport dogs, work dogs apt for families, work dogs apt for shows and many more.

In order to increase the likelihood of finding ‚the right dog”, a breeder should be chosen with care. Do not hesitate to question him thoroughly about his dogs and his breeding-ambitions. The parents are just as important as the progenitors. Therefore it is indispensable to see certificates showing the dog’s ancestors. We strongly advise you not to get a Border Collie directly from a farm because these dogs most certainly descent from work dogs. On the other hand, breeders who offer “family dogs without herding instinct” are not very reliable either. A selection made over centuries cannot be eliminated within a few generations.

Border Collie Nothund
Rescuing a dog in need of a new home is a good alternative. This Border Collie has also found a new home with another family.

Another alternative is a non-border, an adult dog that has been tested with sheep and whose nature and attitudes can already be seen. Whereas getting a puppy might turnout to be like opening Pandora’s box, an adult dog is a lot safer.

No matter what your decision is – it is important to consider the nature of this breed and ask yourself sincerely, if you are really up to the task. Border Collies are no “easy dogs”. They are work dogs and they should be regarded as such.

Certain behaviour-patterns and characteristics are part of the package, as well as the amount of activity needed. If you are not sure you can cope with it, you should go for another dog.

The Border Collie lives in the extremes. It can convert from a cosy sofa dog into an efficient and assertive work dog in milliseconds. People who can appreciate and handle these qualities will get a friendly family dog, easy to keep and willing to give it all in sports or at work.

Everyone else might end up stuck with a problem dog, one that will act up and tyrannise the whole family. This is the reason why it is so important to really question yourself thoroughly and chose your dog with care. Only with capable dog holders will a Border Collie develop its full potential.

Writer and editor: Nina Dany / Translation: Martina


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4 Kommentare

  1. Sehr guter und gedankenreicher Artikel. Als Halter eines Borders habe ich vieles wiedererkannt, obwohl für nach meinen Erfahrungen wurden die negativen Aspekte zu stark herausgeholt und die enorme Flexibilität und Anpassungsfähigkeit der Rasse nicht genug gewürdigt.

    NB. Dies wurde auf einem iPad geschrieben und ich habe aus Versehen (dicke Finger eigentlich) nur 2 Sterne vergeben. 5 wären richtig. Sorry, aber eine Korrektur war nicht möglich.

  2. Hi! Ich hätte eine Frage und wäre dankbar wenn mir vielleicht jemand weiterhelfen könnte. Ich bin daran interessiert mit Schäferhunden anzufangen, bin mir aber bei der Rasse nicht sicher. Ich hatte schon einen Hund, ich könnte sie aber fast als perfekter „Beginner Hund“ bezeichnen. Mich interessieren besonders belgische Schäferhunde, die Groenendaeler zum Beispiel, Border Collies aber auch Niederländische SH und sogar, obwohl kein się SH sind Tschechoslowakische Wolfshunde. Ich bin bereit viel Zeit zu investieren und vieles dazu zu lernen und wäre sehr dankbar für einen Hinweis oder ein guten Rat von jemanden der mit den Rassen schon ein wenig Erfahrung hat. Danke!

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