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Behaviour of the Border Collie

The Border Collie in a pet home

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Border Collies are a working breed of dogs and, generally speaking, it is the exception rather than the rule to find individuals that will make good pets in domestic family environments.

You may come across people who disagree with the above statement but it must be viewed in perspective.

Although the numbers of BC's in pet homes is rapidly increasing they are greatly outnumbered by those kept as working dogs.

Of those percentage kept as pets, a significant proportion cause problems for their owners. Many owners cope with minor problems because they love their dog and the problems are acceptable compared with the idea of parting.

The Border Collie is a unique breed with great intelligence and loyalty so once a bond with the dog has been established, a decision to part is not easy.

Unfortunately not all problems are minor ones and some are so significant that it is almost impossible for the dog to remain in its home.

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

The root of the problems.

The most common problems of pet BC's are rooted in the herding/chase instinct. This is there - to some degree - in all BC's, even those registered lines bred specifically as show dogs.

All blood lines of Border Collies originate from working stock. Even with careful, responsible, selective breeding it is going to take many, generations for this instinct to be bred out.

It is this instinct, coupled with 'eye' (the dogs ability to control stock by eye) and the bonding instinct, that makes Border Collies the worlds best herding dog.

If a BC has a strong chase instinct and it is not trained and worked to control and channel this ability, the dog is a liability - chasing anything that moves.

It is likely to become frustrated and then develop further behavioural problems that may include a degree of aggression. This often ends up with the dog only being walked on the lead and kept muzzled when likely to come into contact with strangers.

This is not a satisfactory solution in the long run as it will only add to the dogs frustrations. Under these circumstances it is certainly a more responsible decision to part with the dog.

The alternative - insisting on keeping an unhappy and frustrated dog, runs the risk of the dogs behaviour degenerating to the point where it ends up having to be destroyed.

It is surely better to re-home to a more suitable environment where it can lead a full, happy life.


As a working dog, the Border Collie needs to think for itself.

This ability has also been deliberately strengthened by breeding and allows the dog to adapt its training and to work under a wide variety of conditions, making its own decisions when it is out of the sight of its handler.

Because the breed is intelligent it will think for itself and may - sometimes quite rightly - believe that it knows better than its handler. If the handler is not as strong willed as the dog, the dog will naturally try to dominate and take over as leader of the pack.

All dogs have 'pack instinct' and all packs have a leader - the most dominant dog - that will hold its position by virtue of the respect it has earned from the rest of the pack.

Top dogs do not normally need to rule by fear or by aggression, their body language and confidence induces submissive behaviour from the rest of the pack and, apart from the occasional leadership challenge, they rule because other dogs accept them to be superior.

It is generally in the lower ranks of the pack that competition occurs - most fiercely between 2nd and 3rd in the pecking order - then to a lesser degree throughout all levels.

As dogs get older, pack positions will naturally shift, younger dogs rising in the pack as they mature, superseding the elderly as they weaken.

Apply this to the Border Collie in a pet home.

The family is the pack. - The dog is looking for its position in the pecking order and, being intelligent, will naturally ( and instinctively) exploit any weakness to enhance its position.

Unless the dog is particularly dominant, the natural leader of the household will be automatically accepted as top dog and will not be challenged. The dog may be less likely to accept the leadership of less dominant adults and children can be particularly vulnerable.

This is why it is very important for families who wish to take on a BC as a pet to be more concerned with the character and nature of the dog they acquire, than its appearance.

If the dog is inclined to be dominant and has a strong herding instinct the children of the household - especially the younger ones - will not get respect from the dog and will not be able to control it.

Children may be regarded as stock to be herded into corners and penned. If they resist they are likely to be nipped in order to oblige them to comply with the dogs wishes.

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


Children may be treated as litter mates to be played with - but playing is also 'training' for adult competitiveness and litter mates will compete in their play - the strongest and most agile being given most respect and rising in the pecking order. - If the dog sees a child as a litter mate it is likely to nip during play - possibly quite hard.

These situations are remarkably common with Border Collies in pet homes and are often mistaken for aggressive behaviour - in the majority of cases these 'attacks' would not occur if the dog understood its position in the family pecking order. Bites from Border Collies, under these circumstances, are not likely to be serious but they will be painful and may draw blood.

The experience can be traumatic to adults and children alike.


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

As we have said above, this is not bad behaviour - undesirable - but perfectly natural for a BC.

It does not necessarily imply that the dog is dangerous or suffering from behavioural problems. The dog is merely doing what it has been bred to do in a situation where its instincts are out of place.

If the dog is not getting its way with the animals (or humans) it is attempting to control it will re-enforce its will by diving in and nipping at the heels of stock. In working sheepdogs this behaviour is controlled but is not discouraged as it is sometimes necessary to encourage stubborn stock to move in the direction required. In the formal discipline of sheepdog trialling it is frowned upon - dogs are supposed to be able to move the sheep by 'eye' alone - but even the best may grip when frustrated.

A wilful Border Collie may nip out at arms, ankles or the back of the legs. This may also occur when a normally sound dog becomes overstimulated and excited.

Training may help control this but success will depend on the strength of the dogs instinct. In most cases nipping will remain an unpredictable part of the dogs behaviour all its life.


Another strong instinct of the BC is to loyally bond with its handler. This instinct helps the shepherd to control his dog and train it to carry out his commands. - One man & his dog.

An old trick of the shepherd is to keep his new puppy very much to himself, allowing no-one else to feed or handle the dog from a very young age.

This strengthens the bond between the dog and the handler but can contribute towards making the dog very wary and suspicious of strangers. As a result they may nip out in fear or confusion as a form of pre-emptive defence. This reaction is often interpreted as pure aggression, rather than fear aggression - there is a huge difference - although the end result is the same - blood can flow!

In the pet home, if this instinct is too strong to control or is inadvertently re-enforce by the dogs owner, the dog can become over possessive, leading to attacks on any perceived threat to the handler.

Over petting a Border Collie or making the dog over dependent on one individual will contribute to this sort of behaviour pattern.

Working Border Collies need to be courageous and extremely tenacious. Although not normally an aggressive breed they move very quickly and can bite hard if they loose control or feel the need.


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

When young it is important for a dog to be left with its litter mates and mother for the first 8 weeks of its life and for the puppies to be regularly handled by a variety of different people.

Mum teaches the puppy how to keep itself clean, how to fend for itself and behave. A well socialised Mum will also show the puppy that it can trust humans and need have no fear of them.

Interaction with the rest of the litter teaches the puppy how to play and how to relate to other dogs.

Early and varied human contact also teaches the puppy to like and trust people - even strangers. If a puppy is taken out of the litter too soon, it will miss this basic training and can develop a variety of problems.

These may include a wariness of humans, a poor understanding of doggy body language or at worse, fear aggression with dogs or strangers.

This is often misinterpreted as a reaction of a dog that has been abused as it will flinch, start or run when you raise an arm, move suddenly or approach quickly.

The reaction is not so much the fear of a blow, more the fear of the unknown - you - a stranger.

The furtive sheepdog lurking around the corner or peering out between a farmers legs is a familiar rural image and often a source of humour.

Unless puppies from working farm litters get the chance to socialise they can end up with these behavioural patterns.

Unfortunately, on working farms, time & opportunities to socialise are rare.

So if you buy a pup from a farm, you may be in for a lot of work if you want it to adapt to a 21st century, home domestic environment.

Our advice is - don't buy a farm bred puppy if you want a pet - you are likely to be in for a lot of trouble and the farmer will not be likely to take it back when things go wrong - you will end up seeking the aid of a rescue centre to take in your troublesome pet -  like 10,000 other people each and every year.


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