Category Archives: Sheepdog Training

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Sheepdog collection, black and white, tricolour and merle

Where did the Border collie come from?

We’re often asked how and where the Border collie breed was developed.

It seems that everyone has a theory, and there’s an undercurrent of dispute as to whether the Welsh collie is/was the Original and Best, or if the collie was developed in the Scottish/English borders.

Border collie puppies in a basket
In a household auction, this would be "a mixed lot"

Here are my thoughts on the origins of the Border collie (to save time writing and re-writing similar email replies).

I doubt there’ll be anything controversial, it’s based on what I’ve read and heard, but for anyone with a passing interest in the breed it might make a useful jumping off point.

For as long as shepherds have been using dogs to move or restrict sheep, they’ve needed a consistent supply of useful, amenable dogs. I imagine that, being farmers at heart, the less they had to spend on these replacement dogs the happier they were, so it made sense to ask around and find out who amongst their neighbours had a good dog or bitch, and would be prepared to breed from it.

{rick-eared female working sheepdog
Amongst the best pricked ears I've known. Tess was bred here, but I don't know where her ears came from...

The dog’s working ability would be only one of the criteria when choosing a mate. Health, stamina, soundness and tractability would all be important considerations, and the last is by no means the least. At this time (certainly pre-1860s) shepherds spent a good deal of time with their dogs, in all weathers and for long hours, and the dog needed to be a good companion as well as a good worker.

The sheepdog who sloped off to find sheep when his master was resting, for example, shows at best a lack of commitment to its handler, and at worst a seriously misplaced predation instinct. The line is thinly drawn between predation and herding.

The instinct that makes a sheepdog is simply the instinct to hunt, but it’s been modified and controlled across the generations. It has to be there, but without discipline it can be fatal to sheep and, ultimately, to a dog too.

The dog that became the Border collie was probably never bred primarily for its looks, and even today they can seem a miscellaneous bunch.

Rough coated red and white collie dog
After his first moulting, Roy proved to be a traditional black tricolour!

A good dog is never a bad colour or poorly marked, and short or smooth coated (often referred to north of the border, as bare-skinned), rough coated, medium, straight or curly coated, long legged, short legged, long bodied, short bodied, short tailed, long tailed, prick eared, tip eared or one of each, everything is acceptable so long as the dog itself is a sound worker.

There is no Breed Standard for a working collie. Sickly specimens with poor conformation would lack the stamina and hardiness (and hence, possibly, the will) to work for long hours in harsh conditions, and wouldn’t be chosen for breeding.

So sheepdog breeding was active in the UK during the nineteenth century. The first organised and recorded sheepdog trial was held at Bala, in Wales, in 1873. It was won by a Scotsman. Thirty years later, in 1906, the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) was formed.

The ISDS website describes its foundation as “following a meeting of English and Scottish sheepmen” in East Lothian, and the society’s activities were clustered around the Borders region between Scotland and England.

Whether or not the name Border collie stems from the breed’s origins in the border country can only be speculation now. It’s a fact that the majority of the first 100 dogs in the Stud Book come from the Borders area but, given the original demographic, hardly surprising and probably not significant.

Tricolour collie female with one blue and one brown eye
And for a little extra variety, let's throw in a blue eye or two

Trialling was active elsewhere, of course (the Welsh must have had a collective eye on putting the Scots in their place after 1873) and in 1922 the ISDS was invited to hold its next International trial at Criccieth, with Wales becoming the third nation of the society.

Still Wales couldn’t win, and the trial was won by the whispering, whistling William Wallace who’d already made a name for himself.

Mr William Wallace is said to be the first shepherd who handled his dog in a way that modern handlers would recognise (or at least aspire to).

Apparently, while competing at Hawick Trials in 1883, he commanded his dog using “a mere hiss at hand [close work] and a low whistle at distance”, whereas shouting and gesticulating were common features of dog handling at the time (and not uncommon now).

Trialling was a result of the aim of the society, not the aim itself. The aim was the establishment of a Stud Book and the improvement of the shepherd’s dog. Trials served as, and still are, a test of the dog, but it’s arguable whether they’re not really a more rigorous test of the handler.

Smooth coated, traditionally marked Border collie
In looks at least, Max is my ideal of a Border collie but I know he wouldn't be to everyone's taste

It was (probably) never the intention of the good founders of the ISDS that an entire breeding population would trace its roots back to a single dog, but that’s what we have today in the registered dog gene pool. Adam Telfer’s Old Hemp, born in 1893, was a popular stud dog who fathered over 200 puppies.

Later, Wiston Cap, born in 1963 won the International just once (in 1965) but became a popular, dare one say fashionable, stud dog to the near exclusion of other available registered working dogs.

He fathered so many litters that certainly most, if not yet quite all, ISDS registered collies today can trace their ancestry back to him. Better resourced handlers than I have tried to find a Wiston Cap-free dog since 1995, and failed, but I believe there are one or two still around.

Wiston Cap died, a husk of his former self I imagine, in 1979.

Online Sheepdog Training Tutorial Videos
Image for How Long, How Often training tutorial Cover image for the Coming Out 01 tutorial

Why not have a look at our online sheepdog training tutorials? For a very modest monthly or annual fee, you can watch our very latest training sessions in your own time, and if you have a mobile device, you could even watch them out in the field where you train your dog.

You can watch as many times as you like, and we're adding more videos regularly, but if you choose to unsubscribe you can continue to watch until the end of the period you've paid for.

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How to train a sheepdog

A Beginners' Guide to Training a Border Collie to Herd Sheep.

WARNING! Long Document
First published on the internet February 8th 2003

sheepdogs watching a training session

Struggling on our hands and knees in the base of a hedge one day, it occurred to Gillian and me that there ought to be more information for beginners to sheepdog training and handling. We were vainly attempting to extract some Texel-cross ewes which had taken refuge and were stubbornly refusing to come out and be worked.

Beginners sheepdog training courses by Andy Nickless
Sheepdog Training
Courses for Beginners

We are now offering sheepdog training courses, classes and experience days for beginners, intermediate and advanced handlers.

This is an ideal opportunity for you to get a good indication whether your dog will work sheep.

Courses are tailored to the skill of the participants and will progress at each individual's own pace.
More info

The last straw came when, trying to ignore the pain inflicted by countless thorns and using every ounce of our strength, we triumphantly heaved the first ewe into the open field.

Our novice dog, which we'd taken into the hedge to help us remove the sheep but had done nothing thus far, suddenly shot out to drive the sheep back into the hedge!

Having already studied most of the books and videos available at the time, we were well versed with the theory of how to get a dog to lie down behind the sheep or to flank right or left - but none of the instructions we'd encountered mentioned how to get to such an advanced stage from where we were now!

The information currently available on herding and sheepdog training is mostly written by sheep farmers who go to great lengths to instruct us on the tiniest intricacies of training a sheepdog - but they overlook the fact that these days a growing number of sheepdog handlers are part-time smallholders with regular employment outside agriculture altogether. Not being experienced farmers or shepherds, these newcomers simply don't understand what the instructor's talking about.

They need much background information which the top handlers and trainers take for granted. Information which is second nature to the professional shepherd or sheep farmer. What was needed was a source of information on training sheepdogs - written by someone who's experienced the difficulties of sheepdog training as a complete novice.

Sheepdog Training – basic requirements

Basic Requirements for Sheepdog Training.
Trainee sheepdog Carew at work

There are a few basic requirements you'll need to attend to if you wish to train a sheepdog. Apart from the dog, you'll need something for it to work with. Sheep, ducks or cattle are the usual animals to start your dog with, but all manner of other animals including goats, geese and turkeys are commonplace.

You may be interested to know that we produced our own sheepdog training DVD called "First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training" aimed specifically at beginners who want to learn how to train a sheepdog. The (2x) DVD set is different to others because it shows things going wrong (sometimes badly wrong) and then shows you how to put them right. It also spends time explaining how and why sheepdogs herd sheep and there's advice on choosing the best kind of sheep and which to avoid if possible.

Dog Trainer

The most important attribute a dog trainer can have is Patience.

The next: Determination.

If you want to train a border collie to work sheep, you should understand that it's a long term project and put aside any desire for instant gratification and results. Having said that, every dog is an individual and sometimes, a dog's progress can be meteoric.

If every dog is an individual, then just as with humans, some are sensitive and some are hard. A working border collie can be a tough cookie - to train one, you sometimes have to be even tougher!

Before you can properly train your first sheepdog, you should have some knowledge of the way their minds work and be prepared to take the blame for nearly everything that goes wrong because it will, in all probability, be your fault.

It's quite rare for a dog to be deliberately disobedient - more usually, they simply don't understand what we want them to do, so their instinct takes over.


A Working Border Collie Can Be A Tough Cookie!

To train one, sometimes you need to be even tougher!

There may be times when your dog ignores your commands and you would be justified in thinking he's just being disobedient - but the reason he's ignoring you is because he's not sufficiently bonded with you yet. He doesn't respect you sufficiently.

Work on gaining his total respect before anything else. It's up to you to demonstrate that by doing as you say, the job will be more efficient. And pleasurable for all concerned. This can take an awful lot of patience and understanding with some dogs   be quite a quick process with others.

Some time ago, some neighbours stopped to watch a training session and asked me how I could get the dog to work so well and for so long without giving it some praise or reward. I know little of training other breeds but in the case of Border Collie Sheepdogs, the greatest rewards you can give are:

  • To allow the dog to work or continue working.
  • Show the dog you're pleased with its work by the using the tone of your voice when giving commands
  • Verbally praising the dog when it's working well, with an enthusiastic, gentle voice.

My first dog Dot is a classic example. Like most working Border Collies, she was desperate to work sheep and responded well to praise. At home, she craved attention - desperate to be held or stroked - when there were no sheep around.

Working Sheepdog Dot

When she was working, Dot would immediately obey the "that'll do" command - and come racing back to me with the most joyful of expressions. In the early stages of Dot's training I encouraged this immediate response by crouching down and stretching my arms wide to welcome her whilst calling "that'll do" enthusiastically.

Quickly I realised she wasn't racing back for the congratulatory hug I had in mind for her! Inches before we made contact, she'd spin around and face the sheep again (completely ignoring me until I gave a command for her to work again).

Dot came racing back enthusiastically because once I'd called her off, it was her best chance of continuing to work the sheep! Dot flew to the USA in December 2003 where she worked on a cattle ranch.

Dogs need to be corrected during their training but it's important to note that just as we humans hate being bellowed at all the time, so does a dog - and just as we're more likely to be cooperative if we're instructed in a civil tone, so's our canine friend. (I wish I could remember this more often, myself)!

To train a sheepdog from a puppy is a long process and will take you through various stages from euphoria to utter despair. Sometimes, you'll think your dog can read your mind and at others, you'll feel utterly humiliated and think the dog's forgotten everything you taught it. You must be prepared for this (just like us) and remember that the bad times will become fewer if you believe in your dog and yourself. When you hear someone say: "I had to get rid of Fido - just couldn't stop him (doing this, that or the other)". What really happened is that they couldn't work out the reason Fido was behaving the way he was.

If you think carefully about your dog's behaviour, you can normally find a way to correct faults. It'll take time and patience but it can be done. Trials winners are the trainers who are best at this and of course, the clever trainers are the ones who can choose a young dog which is likely to have the least number of problems. I believe that almost any young Border Collie can make a useful sheepdog - in fact to test this theory, I advertised on our website for young Border Collies that people needed to rehome.

Whenever the advert appeared, the telephone didn't stop ringing - and over a year or so, we took on ten of these "rescues". If I remember correctly, I only turned one away from our gate (he bit me while I was talking to his owners).

I mention that because every one of those "rescues" became a sheepdog that I would take with me to get the sheep back in.

Some were certainly a lot better than others, but I'd have taken any of them to get my sheep in if I had no other dog. Having said that though, some of the ten dogs had big problems (not of their own making) which I had to overcome. If you start off with a young dog which is from good working stock, you're likely to find training a lot easier.