WHERE DID THE BORDER COLLIE COME FROM?


"When he hath found the [sheep], he keepeth sure and fast silence, he stayeth his steps and will proceed no further and with a close, covert, watching eye, layeth his belly to the ground." Caius. ". . . the dog is apt to break point if the [sheep] runs off, loop out in front, and reestablish point farther on." Charles Fergus. If you have seen working Border Collies, you may recognize these descriptions of 'eye'; you may or may not recognize that the word " sheep" in both these quotations was originally "bird." These are descriptions of good birddogs or gundogs--pointers and setters.

The concept of the "purebred" dog, the Dog Show, didn't originate until the nineteenth century. Before that time, people bred dogs for their own purposes. If the pups were dual purpose dogs who could both hunt and herd, so much the better.

Dogs were neither spayed nor neutered, and probably many ran loose. Breeds were therefore mixed according to the dogs' choice as well as that of their owners. Even after the formation of the ISDS (International Sheep Dog Society) and the stud book for Border Collies, dogs were still admitted if they could prove working ability. Quality of working dogs has always been more important than "genetic purity." We don't have records of all the dogs that went into the formation of the modern Border Collie, but we can draw some conclusions from genetic traits that are still in the breed.

In the Middle Ages, a type of spaniel was bred, the ancestor of some of our modern spaniels, that would naturally crouch when it located game. Hunters had no very accurate weapons for shooting small birds at a distance; they would throw a net over the crouching dog and the birds together. This "instinct" to crouch is probably the origin of the Border Collie crouch. Ever look at the color pattern on a Springer Spaniel? It is still present in the Border Collie, too.

Later on, the setter or pointer was developed, with the behavior described in the first paragraph. The hunting instinct of the primitive dog was inhibited, the dog would stop, stay back, and point to its prey instead of attacking it. There is little doubt that this is the origin of "eye" in the Border Collie. The strong-eyed dog that refuses to get up and move its sheep is no different from the bird dog that is "staunch on point." In the hunting dog it is an asset; in the sheepdog it goes too far. It is the same response. The original cross of birddog/sheepdog may have been accidental, it may have been a search for the multi-purpose dog. Whatever the reason, this behavior, added to the sheepdog, made a better working dog--one that was more effective and easier on the sheep than the old style that probably moved sheep by barking and biting.

We know that the Gordon Setter was created when the Duke of Gordon bred his good setting dog to his shepherd's good herding bitch in the early 1700's. Why would he have done this? History tells that the herding bitch was already an excellent hunting dog; the shepherd refused to sell, so the Duke's only recourse was to breed, and to be satisfied with the pups.

In a similar way, the greyhound and whippet were crossed with the collie. If the greyhound was faster than the sheepdog, she was bred to the sheepdog, and the pups were faster sheepdogs than the parent. They might also be smarter and have more stamina than the greyhound. (This was still going on when Glyn Jones' father was raising and training Border Collies in Wales.) These mixed dogs were called lurchers, and many of them and their descendants ended up registered as Border Collies. One of the common ear types in modern Border Collies clearly comes from the greyhound or whippet.

Even within the ISDS registry we can identify additions of Bearded Collies to the breed. The most famous is S.E. Batty's Maddie, bred by the great W.B. Telfer, and carrying the ISDS registry number 8! She is the great great great grandmother of Wilson's Cap (3036) the great wartime dog who appears in so many of our modern pedigrees.

People who are unfamiliar with Border Collies often look at my two mismatched samples and say "well, they really aren't a breed, are they?" I usually, indignantly, point out that they are one of the oldest breeds, in terms of purposeful selection of breeding stock over the generations. But, in a sense, the Border Collie is not a breed, not if the definition of a breed is "a group of interbred dogs that all look alike." Not even if the definition is "a group of dogs selected for genetic purity." The Border Collie is a breed in which selection has been for behavior, performance, utility to the stock farmer and shepherd. It retains the visual characteristics of all its many ancestors, and every puppy that is born is a delightful surprise, an individual who may look like his mother and/or his father, or like no dog anyone has ever seen before.

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