The predator approaches his prey quickly, then slows down and calculates his next move. He crouches and waits until the prey settle down. The predator is patient, but is quick to act as soon there’s an opportunity for a capture. As the prey start to move, the predator moves too; in perfect harmony with the prey, and always ready to change plans in the blink of an eye.
This predator/prey relationship is what makes the Border Collie such an effective livestock handling tool. Just as a wild predator works with ‘eye’ to stare down his prey, the Border Collie’s natural instinct makes him effective as a stock handling assistant.
Mark Soper and Nancy Cox Starkey, both experienced Border Collie trainers and trialers, provided a crowd-pleasing demonstration of working Border Collies at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival held recently in Howard County, MD.
For those who watch a working Border Collie and entertain a desire to have such an intelligent companion, Soper is quick to point out that there are two distinct types of Border Collies — the ones that are pretty faces, bred mostly for the show ring, and the true working dog. Working dogs are bred for working ability, soundness and stamina. Serious breeders of working Border Collies will often go to Scotland for new bloodlines.
Working sheepdog demonstrations provide a glimpse of what actual sheepdog trials are like. The first sheepdog trial was held about 120 years ago in Wales, and started much like the first horse races. “The sheepdog trial is a contest,” said Soper. “One guy says, ‘my dog is better than yours’, and the other guy says, ‘no, your dog can’t beat my dog’. That’s how they started competing.” Soper is quick to point out that the sheepdog that wins a trial isn’t necessarily the best farm dog, and not every farm dog can be a trial dog. “Trial dogs are precise, they take commands and listen impeccably,” he said. “You want a big brain and a lot of heart. They’re good at what they do, and when you have a tool that’s good, you take care of it.”
But Soper says people who think it would be fun to have a Border Collie should be careful what they wish for. “They’re wonderful dogs, and they make most of their handlers look smarter than they really are,” said Soper. “These dogs are hard-wired to do what they do.”
That hard-wiring is what makes the well-bred working Border Collie a pleasure to work with. Soper says when someone asked Stuart Davidson, a friend of his in Scotland who has had multiple national champions, about what he looks for in a dog, Davidson’s answer was simple: brains. The Scots needed serious dogs for serious work; dogs that would run out and away from the handler, travel up to one mile away, find the farmer’s flock of sheep and bring them back to the barn.
Soper explains that in the UK, people raise sheep because they can make money with them. In the United States, many people get a Border Collie and then get sheep so that the dog has something to do. Soper says training the Border Collie comes down to praising the dog when he does something right, making appropriate corrections, dropping the subject without holding a grudge, then going right back to work. For a Border Collie, the worst punishment is to be taken away from his sheep.
When it comes to the new handler who isn’t accustomed to working sheep at all, let alone with a dog, Soper says it helps if the handler has stock sense. “Know how the sheep react,” he said. “Sheep are prey animals, and have eyes on the sides of their heads. Predatory animals have eyes on the front of their heads. Those sheep have 180-degree field of vision — the only thing they can’t see is the tip of their nose and the top of their tail. They know where that dog is. They’re hard-wired for survival, just like these dogs are hard-wired to work.”
Although Border Collies are quick learners, handlers can run into some challenging training dilemmas. Soper says handlers should pick the fight that’s worth fighting, and if it isn’t worth fighting, let it go.
Soper says although demonstrations such as the one held recently at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival are a good way for people to watch Border Collies in action, most people really can’t comprehend their own pet dog doing what the Border Collie does.
During a trial or demonstration, the outrun is what people usually see first, and it’s impressive. For the outrun, the dog waits for the handler’s command, then runs away from the handler, out beyond the stock. The handler’s command will be either ‘away to me’ if he wants the dog to move counter-clockwise or ‘come by’ for a clockwise move. Once the sheep are gathered, or ‘lifted’, the handler uses a series of commands, either verbal or by whistle, to direct the dog. Good Border Collies soon learn what they’re supposed to do, and often anticipate the handler’s commands. When the work is finished, the dog hears ‘that’ll do’, which means he must step away from the stock and stay with the handler.
Soper, who started out raising sheep, goats, cattle and horses in south Texas, now lives and works in Maryland. In addition to keeping several Border Collies in top condition, Soper is a blacksmith, and also trains and competes with cutting horses. He does several Border Collie demonstrations and they’re always crowd-pleasers.
“The only difference between a coyote and this dog is that I can stop this dog,” said Soper as his dog waited by his side for direction. “I can’t stop the coyote. But they both have the same thing on their mind.”