Why do border collies choke

"Quo vadis Border Collie?"

Dream dog or problem dog?

The border collie is a fascinating breed. Anyone who sees a good Border Collie working on sheep can hardly escape its charisma. The willingness to perform, the perseverance, speed and cleverness arouse in many people the desire to want to own such a dog.

However, most of them are not aware that the Border Collie is a human-made breed that, in contrast to the wolf, has greatly changed ethologically. In their special working environment for which they were bred, the dogs appear perfectly adapted. In the home environment with children, cars and without work, things can look very different. The fact that a dog that is so mentally and physically active needs meaningful activity has already been mentioned many times and should not be discussed further here, as is the fact that Border Collies also need consistent handling.

But to understand why the Border Collie was able to advance to the number 1 problem dog, one has to deal a little with its history, its special herding behavior and heredity.

A typical work situation in the home of the Border Collies: the sheep are fetched from the hills and driven home. At these distances the shepherd can no longer recognize his dogs in the tall ferns and heather, he has to direct them almost blindly and only sees whether the dog has obeyed when the sheep change direction. Working in the hills requires talent, a good education and experience.


Border Collies originally come from the border area between Scotland and England. This is an inhospitable, hilly landscape with stony ground. There are no fat fields and pastures here, but the ground is covered with sparse grass, heather and rushes. The only animal that can be kept profitably here is the sheep. Due to the barren land, there are always relatively few sheep living in large areas. They are almost wild and shy of people.

To help round up these sheep, shepherds have always had dogs. A herding dog similar to Border Collie was first mentioned in the literature around 1560. For more than 500 years, the shepherds have continued to breed with the most talented dogs, creating a four-legged specialist in sheep herding who started a successful march around the world from the hills of northern England.

Border Collies must be able to work independently over long distances, sometimes out of sight and hearing. On the other hand, they have to be so cooperative and easy to handle that they can be guided to these distances by the shepherds' whistles if they have overlooked sheep, which often happens in the humped terrain.

In addition, they must master the typical way of working. Border collies walk in a wide arc around the sheep that are about to be rounded up. The genetic predisposition to this is called "cast". A Border Collie with "cast" will avoid the sheep appropriately even without much training. This behavior comes from the wolfish hunting behavior as well as the typical border collie driving of the sheep. They sneak up on their prey like wolves. The front body is lowered, the tail is drawn in with concentration, the gaze is fixed on the prey and the stride is slow. This typical posture in connection with a determined forward thrust and the rigid gaze directed at the sheep triggers an instinctive escape reaction in the sheep.

This Border Collie shows tense concentration on the sheep and unconditional determination to win the battle of will with the sheep. A look at his face makes it clear that you are dealing with a distinct personality. It is impressive to have such a worker - as a pure family dog, on the other hand, it can be a disaster

However, it is not enough just to restrain the sheep. The dogs must also have the appropriate urge to drive them forward, otherwise the sheep will recognize the harmlessness of the intruder after a while. The speed of the sheep's escape can be controlled via the speed of the Border Collie drifting along and the resulting distance from the sheep. This is particularly important in rough terrain so that the sheep do not fall to their death. Excessive stress also leads to weight loss in the animals and is therefore undesirable for all shepherds. Border Collies must therefore stop exactly on command and be able to regulate their speed.

Now sheep are not just supposed to be driven forward. For this reason, the Border Collie must be able to flank around the sheep at a distance to the right or left in order to change direction. This behavior is trained from the innate "cast". An immediate stop followed by renewed "sneaking up" enables the shepherd to control the dog precisely and thus to drive the sheep in a targeted manner.

A special feature of the Border Collie is helpful here: "sheep sense", the sense of what the sheep will do next and to confront them at the right point. "Sheep sense" enables a dog to keep a herd of sheep together, to drive them from one point and to nip breakouts in the bud. All of this is required of the Border Collie with minimal effort. Unlike the old German herding dog, the Border Collie shouldn't always run back and forth, but rather drive the whole herd as calmly as possible from one point. The better he can do this, the more "balance" he has. This way of working does not worry the sheep unnecessarily and is also energy-saving. Considering the distances and the terrain on which the dogs have to work, this is an important factor.

Border Collies were bred to work on quasi wild sheep, which also explains why he usually cannot find the right job with the German shepherd. With 500 tame sheep, you need more tackle skills than the fine balancer brings.

Controlled work at great distances can only be done with cooperative dogs. Natural talent for work and a high level of cooperativity and trainability were the standards that were applied in breeding. We see the result in the relatively easy to train and eager to learn working Border Collie. In Great Britain this is called "willing to please" and is a must for a potential working dog.

But sheep are not impressed with cooperativity. Not all sheep automatically run away from a creeping dog. Ewes with lambs or bucks can easily attack. Therefore, the Border Collie must have a great deal of courage and patience to be able to withstand these attacks. With large flocks of sheep, this is a recurring task and requires a high degree of frustration tolerance. The dog must not give up, even in difficult situations he must continue to work and must not run home or even go sniffing.

A soulful but determined approach is the key to controlled sheep herding. This bitch keeps an eye on all possible escapees.

A sure sign of lack of concentration or excessive demands is always a high carried rod. In contrast to all other herding dog breeds, whose disposition was bred out of the play instinct, the Border Collie is "on the hunt" when herding. Its drawn-in tail belongs to this behavior and is not a sign of anxiety during work.

However, the final act of hunting is strictly forbidden to him. Tearing sheep and biting people until recently led to the certain death of dogs. One consequence of this radical mercy is philanthropy with a tendency to be submissive. The aggressiveness of Border Collies, which often occurs in this country, is still hardly known among the dogs of British farmers. Even dogs that are terribly poorly socialized and live their lives in small, dark kennels are consistently friendly and usually greet strangers enthusiastically.

The range of character traits that are necessary for a good herding dog could be extended. The only aim here is to make it clear how complicated it is to breed a dog that should combine such different character traits as independence and at the same time extreme trainability, such as courage and sensitivity at the same time.

Certain parts of prey-catching behavior should be pronounced, while others should have completely disappeared - all of this is controllable and can be called up by humans at will.

The result of centuries of selection for these special behavioral traits are dogs that can look completely different on the outside. There are long-haired, stick-haired and short-haired border collies. Although the black and white fur pattern predominates, there are also three-colored, completely brown or gray Border Collies. They can be 10 kg light or 25 kg heavy, 40 cm small or 60 cm tall.

Despite its unusual coloring and blue eyes: a classic working border collie. The hating disposition, the special posture and the cooperativity are its real breed characteristics.

There is a reason for all of this: they were only bred for their very special abilities. That in itself is so difficult that you couldn't afford not to use a good dog for breeding just because it was short-haired.

A little digression into genetics:

The external diversity is not accidental. It can also be explained scientifically.

Every property that a body has can be divided into exterior features, such as size or coat length, or interior features, i.e. behavioral features. The externally visible physical characteristics are called the phenotype. In behavioral genetics, one has recently also spoken of the behavioral phenotype. This includes all behavioral characteristics.

All of these traits are, to a certain extent, determined by heredity and the rest are determined by the environment.

For example, a large breed puppy inherited the size facility from its parents. However, if he is malnourished, sick and worried, he may stay smaller.This would then be the environmental impact.

Conformation characteristics such as size, ears and coat length are mainly determined by heredity. Here the hereditary share (heritability coefficient) is approx. 60%. This means that the breeding process is very easy. If you select for certain coat colors, you will have predominantly dogs of this coat color after a few generations. The environmental impact on coat color is extremely low.

Behavioral traits have a fluctuating coefficient of heritability. Individual behaviors are highly hereditary. This includes special behaviors such as pointing hunting dogs. The "showing the eye" of Border Collies also belongs to this complex of behavior. Scientific studies have shown that anxiety, aggressiveness and nervousness also have a relatively high heritability coefficient. Up to 50% of this behavior is determined by hereditary disposition It is of paramount importance for dog breeding that fearful or aggressive dogs are not used for breeding. Otherwise, temperament errors spread just as quickly as, for example, hip dysplasia. Just like these behavioral characteristics are predominantly inherited through several genes. This makes them very difficult to eradicate later in breeding.

More complicated behaviors, such as trainability or the ability to solve problems, have a much smaller hereditary basis. One of the reasons for this is that complicated behaviors are made up of various simple "behavior building blocks". Each of these "building blocks" is in turn influenced by several genes. The more genes are needed for the complicated behavior, the lower the probability that all of them will be passed on to an animal at the same time.

The Border Collie is not a heavily inbred breed. The breed did not emerge from 2-4 parent dogs like most dog breeds, but a larger dog population was slowly changed. Therefore, despite a certain stabilization of the breed characteristics, there is still a high degree of variability. So it is on the breeding agenda that puppies can fall out of two working champions who are not at all interested in sheep.

This shows how difficult it is to reliably cultivate certain character traits. If you then have a breed with certain character traits, you have to constantly sort out the non-characteristic carriers from the breed in order to preserve the traits of the breed.

If one changes the breeding of these specialists from behavior to the pure external appearance according to the FCI beauty standard, then the breed must inevitably change.

It is obvious to everyone that the external characteristics of a race change when one no longer selects for them. A standing-eared breed only remains standing-eared if the floppy-eared representatives are excluded from breeding.

In the case of the Border Collie, which is bred purely for behavior, it goes without saying that the herding behavior and the friendly, willing character remains the same, even if you only breed for conformation. This is a blatant fallacy, which among other things has led to the fact that there are so many Border Collies with excessive misconduct. As explained above, the herding behavior of the Border Collie consists of many building blocks. If you no longer pay attention to the right mix, some behaviors are lost, while others are exaggerated. This can inevitably lead to inappropriate behavioral reactions in everyday life.

A good working dog must have a good temper. The hyperactive Border Collie, which is regarded as typical nowadays, is not necessarily typical of the classic working Border Collie! The ideal working dog combines physical endurance and lightning-fast reactions with mental strength. He must be able to exude calm and authority on the sheep. Nervous, hippy dogs are too nervous and difficult to train.

An experienced, old bitch: in addition to the brown color, the calm, confident charisma is particularly noticeable.

A behavioral trait that is still strongly inherited in the Border Collie breed on Standard is pointing the eyes, the breed-typical creeping up and protruding. This restraint is also often shown to other dogs. This is not to be considered normal as dogs are social partners and not potential prey. This inevitably leads to resistance from the stared at, who rightly feel challenged. The guarding of children, strollers or joggers is also usually misinterpreted. The Border Collie does not want to "protect" these people, but rather hunts them! This behavior is not "typical for a herding dog" and must be prevented. It is a highly self-rewarding behavior in which happiness hormones are released. This causes the Border Collie to stereotype the staring and rushing over and over again.

If at some point the dog can no longer be controlled, if it bites the children or dismantles the furniture, it is then: the dog has to go somewhere where it can herd. It's supposed to be a working dog, and it's probably just lacking work.

Unfortunately, it is now more the rule than the exception that these dogs are not suitable for training on sheep. They still show their eyes, but mostly have no "cast", no "sheep sense" and, above all, are hardly trainable. They are no longer so fanatical about herding that they would constructively implement corrections from the instructor. If you don't let them rush as they want, they usually leave the field.

The unique talent of the Border Collie can only be seen in remnants in these dogs. This is the experience of all Border Collie trainers. It is also noticeable that less and less talented dogs can be seen at herding seminars compared to 10 years ago. Many Border Collies have to be lured to run around the sheep. What a descent for the fascinating specialist!

But where should the problem dog go? As a house dog, he is too unbalanced, and mentally no longer suitable as a working dog. A "therapy" on sheep, which only serves the utilization of the dog, is unsustainable for reasons of animal welfare law. Sheep are not toys for dogs.

Conclusion and outlook:

As a conclusion from this development one has to learn that more attention needs to be paid to behavior when breeding Border Collies. If you want to breed a beautiful and unproblematic companion and sport dog from a highly specialized working dog, you have to make sure that it has the necessary behavioral inventory for these new tasks.

However, if the Border Collie is still to be used as a working dog, work performance must be taken into account as a breeding criterion in addition to health.

Anything else just leads to preprogrammed disappointment with the new puppy owners and, what's worse, a life without love and appreciation for the Border Collie, who was bought as a working dog and then fails through no fault of their own.

All Border Collie emergency placements, whether private or organized by associations, know this fate - and the number is constantly increasing

Dr. Viola Hebeler

About the author:
Dr. med. vet. Viola Hebeler

Practicing veterinarian with a focus on behavior and heredity
Training of Border Collies on sheep for over 20 years
Qualified 12 times for the German team of the annual European Championships for Sheepdogs with self-trained Border Collies, German Champion 2009