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Breeding and instincts of the Border Collie

The purpose of this leaflet is to explain - as far as space allows and without being too technical - the background of the breed and the way it has been deliberately developed by man to be what it is today.

We are not talking about a normal, common or garden variety of dog. - This is specifically about the Border Collie.

A unique breed with its own specific needs and requirements for a happy and fulfilled life, that are dictated by its instincts.

Instinct could be described as an intangible ‘6th sense’ in all forms of life that cause basic reactions to specific stimuli or certain situations. It helps all species to survive and develop.

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This cartoon copyright to Londons Times Cartoons  by Rick London and reproduced here with kind permission.

Without instinctive reactions to tell an animal what is poisonous and what is good to eat, individuals would not live for very long. Instincts are learned over many generations by a mixture of intelligence and luck, passed down to offspring.

We are all familiar with the expression - survival of the fittest. Instinct is how lessons, that have been learned by some individuals, are passed down to its descendants.

Without this accumulation of experience, passed down by its parents, each individual in each new generation would need to learn about life from scratch.

Few would survive.

The instinct of a species is deeply rooted within its genetic structure.

Since man has been advanced enough to understand these factors, he has sought to develop these instincts - mainly to his own advantage - by selective breeding. Selective breeding speeds up and re-shapes nature. Man, rather than natural selection, dictating which individuals survive to breed and reproduce.

With each succeeding generation we seek to develop and cement certain traits and characteristics that we find favourable. Over time, these traits become instinctive.

Compared to nature, we have not been doing it for long but we have been at it long enough to overlay our own requirements on those that nature has already developed.

The real trick is to breed to develop instincts that nature has already started and carefully extend what nature has implemented.

If we try to work against nature we are fighting a losing battle. Its bigger than us!

Instincts in the Border Collie.

The Border Collie has many instinctive reactions that have been started by nature and further developed by man - for his own purposes.

Principally, it is the herding instinct that has been deliberately developed and exploited, but there are others that have helped make the breed what it is today.

The herding instinct has developed from the natural chase instincts of the species we know as dogs. Man has seen what nature has offered and has selectively bred to develop the instinct nature has evolved for the survival of the species.

The breed of dog that we know as the Border Collie is not the only - or indeed the first - breed that man has developed in this way but it is the most successful because of the other instincts the breed contains (and man has developed) that combine to help it perform its function.

Selective breeding sometimes has its drawbacks. As we seek to develop certain genetic traits that we know will be to our advantage, we sometimes develop other - interlinked - genetic traits that are not so useful.

This can result in unfavourable characteristics being brought out in a breed, along with those we want, and to a certain degree this has happened with Border Collies.

In a sheepdog, we don’t just want a dog that will chase sheep and scatter them over the fields, virtually any breed of dog will do that. - We want a dog that will instinctively round up the sheep and bring them to us.

This means that we have to breed from dogs that naturally show these characteristics in order to cement this trait into the genetic material of the blood line.

In addition, we want a dog that is intelligent enough to adapt its instincts and training; to work out of sight of its handler and know what it has to do. So we breed for intelligence.

We want a dog that will be loyal and faithful to its owner and wish to please. In this way the dog will work - even when it is tired and not over inclined to exert itself; so we breed from those that show a strong inclination to bond.

We need a dog that is courageous, strong, tenacious and not easily distracted from the job in hand, but we also need it to be gentle and controllable.

A good working Border Collie is all of the above but along with these positive results has come one or two problems.

It is easy to see that, with all these instinctive reactions guiding the dog in its day to day work, there is room for conflicts and confusion. The breed is sensitive - in some respects over-sensitive and in the wrong hands things often go wrong.

If the environment that the dog is in is compatible to its instincts then problems are less likely to occur. In the wrong environment things can occur that conflict with these instincts or cause them to be misplaced.

This is not the fault of the dog. In its natural environment it is a superb animal and its sensitivity is an advantage. In the countryside, with work that satisfies the dogs instinctive needs, it can live a happy and fulfilled life.

In the town, with all sorts of distractions and stimuli reacting with the dogs natural instincts it can become very frustrated and confused. A Border Collie is a Country Boy at Heart.


  • Instinct develops naturally in an animals natural environment but when man steps in, nature is required to step aside and make way.
  • In order to avoid a constant fight with nature and to use nature to our advantage, intelligent men will work with nature.
  • Survival of the fittest is natures way but in human society we have made our own rules and it is not only the fit and intelligent that survive.
  • Humans have rights in human society and we have laws and rules that help protect the weak and exploitable.
  • Animals have no rights.

We cannot expect other species to work by our rules and it is vastly unfair of us to expect an animal that has its instincts rooted in a particular environment to be able to adapt to another - at the drop of a hat.

Border Collies belong in the countryside. The only thing that should be bringing out their instinct to chase and herd is the stock in the fields. This is natural for the dog.

In a town, where the dog is assaulted by noise and smells and fast moving objects it will apply its instincts in a way nature never intended.

It’s therefore not surprising that many Border Collies have problems in the city.

It is also unfair to expect a dog that is bred and built to work long hours, running free and thinking for itself, to adapt to a life where it is expected to wait all day alone in a house while its owners go to work.

The main pleasure from such a relationship is derived by the owner - not the dog.

It’s not surprising that the Border Collie is respected by people as a wonderful breed of dog - it has qualities that we would respect in a human and sometimes many that we wish for ourselves.

If we really do love and respect them, we should consider leaving them where they belong. In the countryside, working stock.

Most Dog Homes and Rescue Centres have a large proportion of Border Collies in their care.

Too many are bred because there is money in it.

They are a difficult breed for rescue centres to deal with, as they tend to come in with behavioural problems - mainly caused by confusion and frustration.

Often these problems are beyond redemption and many Border Collies are destroyed simply because they cannot be responsibly re-homed.

The Border Collie has the worst record of all the breeds for attacking people. They don’t use violence because they are an aggressive breed, they do it because they are frightened, confused or over excited.

The same happens with humans - just ask a psychiatrist !!


Copyright - Border Collie Rescue - 3037504 - 1999
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This cartoon copyright to Londons Times Cartoons  by Rick London and reproduced here with kind permission.


You are here >>> Breed Advice >>> Information Leaflets >>> Breeding and Instincts of the BC

Copyright - Border Collie Rescue - 3037504