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They are the undisputed braniacs of the canine universe. Whether they’re chasing lost lambs on craggy Scottish hillsides, blasting through agility courses, giving the “eye” to a herd of cattle, or wowing readers and television viewers with thousand-word vocabularies, the Border Collie never fails to astound.

Their busy, no-nonsense take on the world has been perfectly summed up in a joke.

“How many Border Collies does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Just one. And then I’ll replace any wiring that’s not up to code.”

In his controversial 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanely Coren put the Border Collie at the top of the canine-smarts list. Coren ranked 110 breeds according to brainpower, based on assessments from 200 dog-obedience judges.

Naturally, there was outrage among people who love breeds that were at the bottom. But to Coren’s surprise, the fans of Numero Uno—the Border Collie—were upset as well. They feared that the number one ranking would give people the wrong idea about these dogs and attract owners who are not up to the task.

Sure, it’s great to dream about showing off an impressive array of titles and tricks, but the reality is that living with a fuzzy Einstein is very challenging. If you are not up to it, it can be a disaster. This dog will not be happy getting a few moments of attention at the end of a workday. He needs a job, and that means much more than fetching you a beer from the fridge as you settle down on the couch.

“While the Border Collie is most definitely loyal, loving and bonds quickly, this breed requires continual stimulation—mentally, emotionally, and physically, much more than the average dog,” according to the web site for Glen Highland Farm Sweet Border Collie Rescue, in upstate New York.

They can learn in an instant, and that goes for things you don’t want them to know as well as things you do. If they don’t get what they need, they can become “neurotic, obsessive and destructive.” Glen Highland Farm takes Border Collies who have been dumped because of these issues, rehabilitates them, and finds them new homes.

Since the 501 c3 non-profit started up in 2001, they have placed more than 2,000 unwanted Border Collies. And this organization is just one of many. The Border Collie Society of America, the AKC parent club, lists about 50 separate rescues on its web site, and there are many more throughout the country.

So before you fall for that sweet bundle of fluff and soul-piercing eyes that is a Border Collie puppy, here are a few points to consider:

  • A need to have a meaningful job, and work hard every day, is in their blood. The breed descended from livestock dogs who accompanied Roman troops when they invaded Britain in the first century, a.d.  These tough canine workers evolved into lightweight sturdy herders known for an obsessive “no lamb left behind” attention to detail. Don’t expect a Border Collie to let things slide.
  • In 943 a.d., Welsh king Hywel Dda marveled at these farm workers, describing one black dog who, without help, took a flock out to graze in the morning and effortlessly guided it back in the evening. His observation is the first written record of the breed.
  • Old Hemp, born in 1893, is considered the breed’s granddaddy; all modern Border Collies are believed to have descended from him. He was a mere 6 weeks old when he started showing the sheep who was boss. So strong were his working instincts that “he knew what to do with very little training,” wrote Sheila Grew in Key Dogs of the Border Collie Family. Many modern BCs exhibit the same inborn talents. But without a herd of hoofed creatures to manage, they tend to create their own jobs, and humans rarely appreciate those kinds of activities.
  • The breed’s birthplace is the region between England and Scotland, an area notorious for forbidding climate and terrain. Their hair, which has a dense undercoat in both short and long coat varieties, provided protection from the elements. What does that mean to the average dog owner? Get a good vacuum.
  • If you want that Border Collie pup to live up to her potential, you must be prepared to devote a lot of time. Take Chaser, the wonderdog CBS 60 Minutes declared the smartest in the world. She understands more than 1,000 words but those words didn’t pop into her head overnight. After owner John Pilley retired from his job as a college psychology professor, he started teaching his black-and-white student, who is the subject of his book, Chaser, Unlocking the Genius Behind the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Pilley tutored her four to five hours a day for nine years to give her that prodigious vocabulary.  “Lazy, loafing, slacking off,” and “lounging” are obviously not on the list.
  • They are the Uri Gellers of the canine world. Geller, a magician, earned his fame for bending spoons by looking at them. That’s kid stuff to the average Border Collie, who can move herds of huge animals just by give them “the eye.” This laser stare, another legacy of Old Hemp, is unique to Border Collies. It’s not just a facial expression but more of a movement, a kind of dance. BCs have been known to use it on children, other dogs, birds, cats, and essentially anything that is living and moves. In fact, the target of the “eye” doesn’t even have to be an animate object. On one BC chatline, a woman described how her dog did this to everything, including a nativity scene on a neighbor’s front lawn. If you find the idea of living with a creeping hypnotic eye unnerving, it might make sense to seek canine companionship with a less intense breed.

For more information on training, visit the AKC Canine Good Citizen page.

old hemp

Old Hemp

Puppies courtesy Paige O’Donnell

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