Training Border Collies and Herding Dogs
Border Collie stays down, but her laser focus remains sharp.
By Carol Davis
Young James "Jim Bob" McEwen was mesmerized as he watched the border collies herd sheep this way and that, nimbly steering them exactly where their human handler commanded.
The 10-year-old decided then and there that he would have dogs like the ones in that memorable demonstration at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
"That put a bug in my head to have a black-and-white dog," Jim Bob recalls. "My goal after that was to do the same kind of show."
Those black-and-white dogs became a major part of Jim Bob's life over the next six decades. Not only did he do that same kind of show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, but he's won national competitions and become widely known as a breeder and trainer of top-notch border collies.
The Evolution of the Border Collie
"Come by! Come by!" Jim Bob commands Len, one of four dogs he keeps at his home in rural Dunkirk, Ind. The dog responds by moving a small herd of sheep clockwise in the direction of her master.
When the sheep get to the spot where Jim Bob wants them, he changes commands. "Lie down!" That order halts the dog from herding, so the sheep stop.
The herding dog stays down, but her laser focus remains sharp, ready to hear what her master wants and respond instantly. Faster than instantly.
Jim Bob has trained border collies to respond to commands for some 40 years now. He doesn't train them to herd, he'll tell you; that's deeply instinctive to the black-and-white dogs.
Border collies originated in the highlands between Scotland and England, hence the name "border" collies, where shepherds relied on energetic, hard-working dogs to gather and herd sheep in the region's dense heather-covered hills.
They were known as "the shepherd's dog." Indeed, Jim Bob tells, for every mile a shepherd walks, the border collie travels 15 miles.
The shepherds' dogs looked much different than they do today, writes Sheila Grew, in her book, Key Dogs From the Border Collie Family Volume II.
"A century ago many of the (working collies) were hard, powerful, rather unfriendly dogs, difficult to control and rough with the stock, but their keen handling instinct, their concentration and great power over the sheep or cattle were such useful assets that it seemed worth trying to find a milder natured type of working collie to cross with these hard dogs," she writes.
Adam Telfer, a shepherd, worked to find the right blend, which resulted in the 1893 birth of Hemp, who inherited the best traits of his sire and dam: friendly, hard-working with a quiet strength, and a good "eye." Border collies control stock by using their "eye," which refers to the fixed concentration and control the dog shows by staring at it while he's herding.
Fellow shepherds noticed Hemp's superior qualities and bred their females to him so they too could have herding dogs whose temperament and methods caused less stress to their flocks.
Hemp sired more than 200 pups and became the father of the modern border collie. Indeed, many current competition champions can be traced back to that remarkable dog.
Breeding Border Collies
These days, Jim Bob's training is limited to the puppies he has bred and sold to customers who usually want either a working stock dog or a competition dog. His puppies are in such demand that the four litters he produces each year are sold before they're ever born.
Most customers want to train their dog themselves, and he encourages that.
"Everyone has their own way to train," he says. "Whatever works Ã‘ that's what you want to use."
His way is to think of the competition field or working pasture as the face of a clock.
"There are two commands we give dogs. 'Away to me' means to move livestock counterclockwise. 'Come by' means to move them clockwise," he says.
Those two commands, plus "lie down," will get the sheep anywhere you want them, he explains.
He focuses on three basics when he begins training a border collie:
- Outrun: This is the term for when a dog goes and gathers the sheep. "The border collie wants to bring everything to its master; that's why it's so easy to train," Jim Bob says. He starts a dog out by going a short distance, and gradually increases that distance to 400 yards or more.
- The lift: How the dog introduces himself to the livestock, Jim Bob says. The goal is for the dog to do this easily and start to direct them to the handler.
- The fetch: The step in which the dog brings the livestock to the handler.
Once the basics are mastered, he'll train the dog more complicated maneuvers, usually used in competitions, such as:
- Driving: Turning stock and driving it away from the handler, which is more of a competition exercise, rather than a working dog's technique. "This is the hardest to train, because it goes against the dog's nature," Jim Bob says.
- Cross-driving: Making a 90-degree turn and driving the livestock across a field while navigating obstacles such as gates.
- Penning: Putting livestock into a small pen.
- Shedding: Separating one or two sheep from the others.
Border collies are so intelligent that they can be trained to do all of this and more with minimal time investment, Jim Bob says.
"Just 10 minutes a day is plenty with these dogs if you do it in a proper manner," he says.
"You always finish training with something they like to do, whether it's a treat to eat or a tennis ball to play with," he says. "Then you put them in a cage so they can lie down and let them think about what you've just taught them."
While some say to wait until a dog is older to begin training, Jim Bob disagrees. "A puppy can get some bad habits, and you can train them to do 10 new things in the time that it takes to break them of a bad habit," he says.
The key is to train them in proportion to their age. "You wouldn't work a puppy with a cow and calf, but you could with a young duck. Then you would graduate from a young duck to an adult duck to a lamb, sheep, and then a cow," he says.
A dog isn't fully trained until he's about 2 years old, he says.
"A 1-year-old dog is equal to that of a 7-year-old child," he says, referring to the premise that one year in human years equals seven dog years. "Would you expect a 7-year-old child to round up 30 head of sheep? No, but a 2-year-old dog, which is equal to a 14-year-old (human), could do it."
Every dog is different and training methods have to be adjusted to fit each one, he says.
"Dogs are just like people," Jim Bob says. "Some are easily trained and some you have to stand on top of."
Part of training a dog means also training the owner to let the dog do its job and stay out of the way, Jim Bob says.
"They'll gather every hog in a 60-acre field," he says. "If you stand at the barn door, he'll bring them to you. But if you're out there trying to help, well, you're in the wrong spot."
Herding competitions, and now, agility contests, have exploded in popularity since Jim Bob began participating some 40 years ago.
"When I started, there were just three dog trials Ã‘ two in the U.S., and one in Canada," he says. He increased that number by one when he started a border collie herding competition there in Jay County that was open to 4-H members that lasted for several years.
"Now you can be in one every weekend if you can drive fast enough," he says. "That's how popular it's grown to be."
His competition days, however, are behind him. These days, he prefers to help train the puppies he's bred, and participate in community projects, such as helping the local high school raise the money to buy a large income- generating greenhouse.
Besides breeding and training border collies, Jim Bob remains an ardent advocate of the breed and willingly participates in events that will let him showcase the dogs' abilities.
He likes to illustrate his dogs' skills by first letting a small group of children try to gather his small flock of sheep.
"They scatter them," he says with a chuckle. "And then I put one 35-pound dog in there and she gathers them all up."