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Border Collies Not Bored Collies!

Written by  Nikki Swanepoel
| in Landbou
| February 19, 2014

A lazy Sunday in the fields of Grootvlei Farm in the Overberg, the first warm and sunny day after a long, cold, wet winter and I am attending the finals of the 2013 National Sheepdog Championships.

In the centre of the lush field, a small herd of sheep stands still, staring into the distance. One stamps a hoof in the grass. A melodic rattling sound overhead breaks the silence; I look up to see a pair of blue cranes flying graciously towards the Riviersonderend Mountains. A shrill whistle pierces the sky and I see the handler, cupping his hands in front of his mouth. His fingers change position, the whistle tone changes, I notice a black flash rising; the thing the sheep were mesmerised by was a dog, the grass so lush it completely hid it from view. But the flock knew it was lurking there and kept a nervous distance.

"So begins the dance between the ‘predator’ and the ‘prey.’"

Ten sheep break into a trot, necks rigid and clumsy. The Border Collie drives the sheep towards a gap between two white farm fences. They drift to the left. “Come by!” booms the handler. The dog moves clockwise and the sheep trots neatly through the gap. They come closer. “Lie down!” and the dog drops into a crouch. The sheep wait to see what the next move will be. So begins the dance between ‘predator’ and ‘prey’, the moves choreographed by the handler. The sheep react to the dog, as their instincts shift to ‘alert’, they move away once the dog gets too close and never take their eyes off it. The dog’s herding is a modified predatory instinct; it chases, but has been thoroughly schooled not to actually attack.
Within 30 minutes, the dog must first fetch ten sheep a few hundred meters off to one side, then another group of ten on the other side, moving each group separately, then together, through a rather narrow opening between farm gates. The handler stands still and may direct the dog’s moves only. Once the dog has brought the flock safely to the handler, he may leave the post for the first time, to work with the dog to separate five marked sheep out of the group of 20. Neither dog nor handler may touch the sheep. Lastly, the five marked sheep must be moved towards and enclosed in a small pen. The dog must not move too fast or erratically, which would stress the sheep, yet the sheep must remain wary enough of the dog to keep moving in the desired direction; over-confident sheep might ignore a soft dog.  

"...driven, ambitious, sensitive, high-achieving workaholics."

After the single dog championship, a few handlers competed in the demanding ‘brace’ event, where two dogs work together to unite two flocks, then separate it again. One group gets moved into an open pen and left there to be guarded by one dog, after which the rest get herded into a closed pen on the opposite side of the camp with the other dog. Guarding sheep alone is one of the trickiest tasks, as dogs naturally want to be where the action is.

Most of the dogs and handlers here are from working farms, the tests are not meant to be fun. They are serious and this event reveals the practical abilities of the best and most sought after dogs. Dogs share the farmer’s workload; the dogs earn their keep (and more) on a farm.  

Border Collies are usually black dogs marked with white, typically also a white tail tip, the ‘flag’ the handler can see when the dog works at a distance. For herding dogs the appearance of the dog is less important than its ability to do the job. These dogs are fast, nimble, slim and lean – probably weighing less than your average Jack Russell.

"...life with a Collie can be just grand, old chap!"

Border collies are highly intelligent, learn to understand numerous commands, and can learn to identify hundreds of objects by name and show the ability to reason. They are also used to keep airport runways clear of wild birds, for tracking and search and rescue missions.

Some experts see them as typical type-A personalities, driven, ambitious, sensitive, high-achieving workaholics. This is not the dog to leave to sleep for hours while you work.

They need ‘a job’ and challenges. If their human does not supply these, they will make up their own, and their own might not be quite what their human had in mind. If they are under stimulated, they become frustrated and display neurotic, ‘hyperactive’ or destructive behaviour. Complaints include chasing cats, herding other animals and children, and often, more dangerously, chasing cars. A bored collie is not a happy animal.

Like other highly intelligent and attractive dogs, border collies are often acquired as ‘status pets’ by people who cannot possibly give the dog the intellectual stimulation it needs. Many land up at rescue organisations because of it; beautiful, intelligent dogs, desperately needing extraordinary homes.

If you don’t have a flock of sheep, alternative ‘work’ exists. They dominate in agility competitions, dog dancing, frisbee and flyball and traditional obedience work. Stay at home and have lots of fun with some lateral thinking. Teach your dog to help with everyday tasks around the house, from the classic cartoony ‘fetch the slippers’, to ‘find the other dog’. Finding the phone or car keys can become an exciting search and rescue game instead of the usual cursing. You can even teach your border to open the front door to let guests in, they already sport the black and white tuxedoed, neat and crisp butler look. Indeed, life with a Collie can be just grand, old chap!

South African Sheepdog Association:  www.sasda.za.net or 087 985 3567
Border Collie Rescue of SA:   Contact Julie on 011 395 2259 or visit us at www.bordercollierescue.co.za
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