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Viv Billingham


My Way
Training A Border Collie

As a shepherdess and trials competitor my life long passion is the Border collie. Because of this I’ve been invited to various countries to judge trials and give training advice. Along the way I have met some interesting people - many of them believing there must be a different approach to training a sheep dog to the one they had been taught. ...I was able to explain in regard to Border collies - if you do everything the opposite way to what your inclination tells you, usually you will be right! Everyone has their own method of training that may or may not suit them. MY WAY is easiest for me and simple for a collie to comprehend. When dealing with animals it is important to get inside their heads & look at life the way they do. In regard to young dogs never be unreasonable; show empathy and compassion, keep irritation out of the voice - use exaggerated body language along with voice & whistle intonation.

I take pride in the fact I have had the same line of dogs for over 40 yrs - endeavouring to breed in the following attributes - intelligence, power, quality, lining up ability, a calm disposition and a willing nature.  It should be remembered a collie is not a slave. If allowed THEY will show YOU how to work sheep. These dogs are bred to herd- you are not!

FREEDOM is the key to unlocking a working dogs’ intelligence. The breed comes in many variations - I do not mean size or colour - I refer to distance off sheep when working and lining up ability. This depends on which part of the UK they were evolved - whether the sheep were light or heavy.

My collies are not treated as pets. I respect them far too much for that.
Above all else a working dog will teach you patience. Without this attribute nothing can be achieved. It has been quoted “There is a dog for the man and a man for the dog.” Rarely do we find people capable of adapting to the whims and ways of any dog - true trainers/handlers in every sense. Generally I have found a sensitive person to be suited to a sensitive dog. If I part with a dog I make the effort to match it up with someone of a similar disposition. Should a collie not suit me I am not arrogant enough to believe it will not suit someone else.

Besides my own I trained other peoples collies, often working with so-called ‘problem dogs.’ From the beginning I learned it was important to adapt to THEIR individuality. It is because some individuals wont, or are incapable of making the effort that dogs have problems in the first place.

Mental difficulties can occur in a herding dog if it is denied access to sheep. Substitutes such as encouraging it to retrieve a ball, chew on a squeaky toy etc can lead to obsessive behaviour. A collie is bred to counteract movement; this is why some of them chase vehicles. When a child runs by some dogs will go in pursuit. If a child cries out how is a dog supposed to discriminate between it and a squeaky toy in the excitement of the moment? It is my belief there is a rise in dogs biting people because of these toys. A few years ago I was asked to train a bitch for sheep work that had been a pet for the first year of her life. Until then her daily exercise consisted of racing down the middle of a field to retrieve a ball. The first time I turned her loose she did exactly the same - rushed down the middle of the field. Unfortunately on this occasion it was a sheep she grabbed and attempted to drag in my direction! Another bitch I was asked to train had been encouraged to pull on a “tug” - she savaged her owner’s arm and mine.

Keeping a working collie on a short lead when visiting sheep, can have a detrimental affect. Apart from making the dog anxious it can get it into the habit of remaining behind sheep instead of heading them. Extending leads I have found downright dangerous - encouraging dogs to surge forward unexpectedly.

On unruly individuals I practice what I term “The Rope Trick.” I have found that merely attaching a long rope to a dogs collar is in- advisable. When the dog pulls it invariably chokes and pulls all the more. To prevent this I use a length of thick rope of appropriate length. I attach this to the collar and then take it along the back, under the belly, up the other side and under the rope again so that it tightens behind the shoulders. This can be used to prevent a collie gripping sheep and to encourage it to walk calmly at your side. I tie a couple of knots in the end so I can put my foot on the rope when necessary. A glove should be worn as injury may occur to the trainer’s hand should the dog be overly enthusiastic! It is advisable to allow dogs to experience ‘The Rope Trick’ before going to sheep. I reserve this method for unruly dogs only.

When working with small numbers of sheep it is easy to position one’s self so as not to allow them to be abused. By using an upturned shepherds crook a youngster’s nose can gently be turned off the “CORNERS” and at the same time ask it to “KEEP.” It is advantageous to have an experienced dog to hold sheep in the middle of the field. Not less than three 3 acres is required. Personally I find the bigger the area the better, so that neither animals feel confined.

According to the author the late Iris Combe the word “COLLIE” translates as “USEFUL” in the old Q Celtic. The stipulation “Must have USEFUL dog,” continues to be used in Scotland when advertising for a shepherd. The shepherding profession being the oldest in the world, places herding dogs in the realms of antiquity. Because of the history behind them a collie is worthy of respect. Sheep dogs’ markings are proof of their primitiveness. Like many animals in the wild, a white breast assists youngsters to discover their parents whereabouts. A white tail tip is a helpful guide to follow when escaping predators.

Due to sheep’s eyes being positioned like wing mirrors, they can observe what’s behind them. I have found when herding nervous sheep a collies white breast to be a distinct advantage in pacifying them. A dark body has the effect of keeping sheep on the move. Obviously they associate the colour black with a predator. Theoretically a dog constantly weaving back and forth keeps sheep on the move in a required manner. It is advantageous if white & black collies are bold and black one’s cautious. Unfortunately due to “Sods Law” it can prove the opposite!

When domestic dog first put in an appearance it was required to hunt, herd and guard. Traits which in varying degrees are still evident. Some
teenage dogs “Pu’ wool” as they say in Scotland; this doesn’t mean to say all collies are killers. Usually it is a fearful, confused or an excitable animal that uses its teeth. Pre the use of quad bikes responsible hill shepherds endeavoured to breed dogs that were kind to sheep. This lack of killer instinct was essential where collies were required to work out of sight. Using careful selection dogs were evolved with the correct requirements to manage different breeds of sheep in different types of terrain.

Of recent inferior sheep dogs are appearing. We are travelling backwards. Breeders use the same popular trial winners to sire their litters in order to profit. Close breeding leads to large numbers of dogs lacking stamina, that have a low immunity and are not strictly vegetarian. Due to the demise of hill herds and the advent of quad bikes there is a marked deterioration in the way sheepdogs are being bred - especially regarding power and intelligence.

In Britain television programmes such as One Man and His Dog haven’t helped the collie, neither has using them in film work & advertising. Because of their unquestionable attractiveness collies are being sort after by anyone and everyone. If it were not for the demand there would not be the supply. Educating the public to leave collies on the farm is the course we must take. A stiff licence fee on herding dogs being kept as pets etc would help alleviate the situation.

The collie was never bred for its temperament. Living miles from anywhere it wasn’t necessary. It was obvious to shepherds the more sensitive a dog, the more receptive, intelligent and submissive. Their teeth being their only weapon it isn’t surprising that when afraid they will not hesitate to use them. This isn’t to say as a breed collies are vicious, however “The Soft Touches” are bad news for the others, as these encourage the misguided to take them on.

My best sheepdog - a genius among dogs, bit people out of fear: it was always objectionable people he chose to bite! I find it sad that due to circumstances many wonderful dogs like him end up being destroyed.

Working dogs in UK live out of doors - they need their space like we need ours. Why should a weary animal be forced to tolerate radio, television, heating, lighting, children & visitors? When their working life is over my collies are given the choice of living in or out of doors. Being a hardy breed many say, “ Thank you,” but “No thank you.”

In previous centuries if old paintings and engravings are anything to go by working dogs were rough tykes carrying high tails. These hardy dogs assisted drovers, lived on their wits and were capable of travelling home un-accompanied from Smithfield cattle market in London to the Outer Hebrides. It is since the advent of sheep dog trials and the forming of the ISDS that quality in sheepdogs developed .

An important saying regarding collies is, “If the tails right the heads right.” This means an erratic tail denotes an erratic brain. Ideally when an adult dog goes to sheep its tail should never leave its hocks. Some dogs “Wave their flags” due to confusion caused by impatient trainers and or the situation. Fast smooth-coated (bare-skinned) collies are more likely to throw their tails possibly because they act before they think. On the larger estates from 1600 onwards spaniels, setters and pointers were kept, there would be many instances of indiscriminate breeding taking place between the shepherds, keepers and nobleman’s dogs. The Black Pointer - later known as the Arkwright pointer in particular was famed for its speed, stamina and beauty. The original pointers - a slow and ponderous breed, were greatly improved by crossing them with black greyhounds; thus the black pointer came into being.

Black pigment in and around the mouth - said to be a sign of good breeding, is still looked for in collie pups today. On the hill a bare-skinned or smooth coated sheep dog is sometimes preferred because it doesn’t ice up in wintertime. The smooth dog can be more adept at Outrunning, Singling and …. GRIPPING - possibly due to greyhound blood in its ancestry. Both rough and smooth-coated collies are frequently born with a so called “Spaniel Spot” on their foreheads. Some have the coat, colouration and mannerism of setters and breeds renowned for their soft mouths. I have had good results crossing rough and smooth coats back and forth. In regard to hill dogs I would NEVER contemplate regularly breeding smooth on smooth.

It is important we remember a breed of dog known as the Shepherds Mastiff, used predominantly to guard kale yards and drive off predators. The loyalty of this breed is very noticeable in some collies - a good reason not to pet them. I have found some petted dogs become possessive of their owners and their owner’s property. Petting serves to encourage over protectiveness. It is humans need the constant reassurance of touch, considered as condescending by a superior breed with responsibilities. I have learned to reserve a pat for good work; how else does a dog know when it’s done well? Working in treacherous terrain, it is important concentration is on what’s up ahead.

Along with determination, an equally important trait to be encouraged is independence. A collie must not be over-trained to the extent it becomes a mechanical robot. It should not be afraid of the consequences should the need arise for it to refuse to comply. Should my older experienced dogs disobey me I know not to repeat a command. These attributes are essential in a dog required to work unsupervised and out of sight for long periods. To my way of thinking a collie, instead of being considered an Obedience Dog, should be looked on as a Disobedience Dog!

Border collies feel secure living as a family group. Kennels and runs should be erected in a quiet spot, there is nothing more frustrating than to be able to see what is going on around you and be unable to participate. When I am not around puppies are kept inside to prevent getting into the habit of barking. They rest and play at their leisure, with supervision given at feeding times. Shy feeders must be fed on their own otherwise the most submissive among them can develop the habit of not eating. A little bullying must be allowed so that dogs find their pecking order. Too much bullying and depression will appear in the recipients.

Should you prove yourself worthy you will be invited into the pack. Packs may have a male or a female leader whom will teach the younger dogs manners. If ruled by fear they should be found another leader. I do not class myself as “Pack Leader.” Neither do I seek to humanize dogs, preferring they identify with one another.

It is preferable that collies work with a low head carriage, eyes at brisket level. The reason being, eye contact is looked on as a threat or challenge - I describe the latter as “A Mexican Stand off!” Eventually something’s got to give - it’s either the dog’s or the sheep’s temper!

Freedom is essential so that a collie becomes confident in its own ability. It must be given the opportunity to learn by its mistakes. Domination ie too much control removes initiative, determination and balance.

Collies need space & plenty of exercise. They are on the whole claustrophobic animals that when confined in unfamiliar or un-natural surroundings literally go Stir crazy. When indulging in a life of idleness a collie may develop peculiar habits brought on by its lifestyle. Collies should never be allowed to roam unsupervised. When not working they should be exercised twice daily and be allowed to run off excess energy in play. A dog that has no purpose seeks other outlets e.g. sniffing about, eating rubbish - this should be discouraged with the command, “Leave it.” Seeking water to wallow in - is another annoyance. If allowed free access to bathe - a dog will leave you with a hill to gather. Chasing wildlife if not prevented can become a substitute for working sheep. All these traits need to be nipped in the bud.


In regard to schooling for sheep work, initially I train by not training.
I teach puppies their names and to come when called by walking away from them and or hiding. Other than this everything they learn is with the sheep. The theory being if they can see the reason and the benefit of doing something, they learn more quickly.

At four months I take youngsters to easily moved sheep accompanied by an older dog to ensure they are never hurt or frightened. Like abused children - pups never forget. Initially I encourage them to do their own thing. They see sheep two or three times a week until at around seven months I begin going walkabout, frequently changing direction encouraging the pups to head the sheep by making a shushing sound. Once they have run off steam I occasionally fit voice and whistled commands to what the pup is doing. This way you get a natural dog. When I stop the sheep stop; this gives me an opportunity to introduce the word “Stand.” I never insist a dog lies down; collies instinctively keep a low profile on wild sheep and are upstanding with bold ones.

At around nine months I begin to block pups either side of the sheep with my up-turned crook at the same time asking them to get back. The crook should be looked on as an extension of ones self, not as a threat. When I move away the sheep follow me and the pup follows the sheep so I ask it to walk on. When I change direction in order to hold the sheep to me the pup has also to change direction. This gives me an opportunity to fit in right and left hand commands. I frequently encourage pups to perform complete circles, following them to keep them going. Circling is the beginning of an outrun.

Because I enjoy working two dogs I use the commands “Out” and “Bye” for half the dogs I train, and “Way” and “Come” for the others. They also learn different “Walk On,” and flank whistles.

When teaching a dog to DRIVE encourage it to come in on half the flock. Walk in front of the sheep until a safe distance then rejoin the youngster walking to the side and fractionally in front. Line dogs are usually natural drivers. With flankers it is more difficult. Should the pup head go around to its side and begin again. Same applies if the shed sheep get back to the main flock, calmly repeat procedure. Keep irritation out of the voice. Look on mistakes as an opportunity for you and your dog to work as a team correcting them. Together walk sheep A away from sheep B. Because the pup is keeping two lots of sheep apart teaching DRIVING is simplified. At the end of the lesson walk towards the youngster encouraging it to LOOK BACK. There shouldn’t be a problem because the pup knows the remaining sheep are there. This teaches three things in one; to SHED, DRIVE and LOOK BACK.

By the time the pup is trained it should know six whistled commands and six voice commands. These are Stop, Walk On, Go Right, Go Left, Come Here and Look Back . Eventually variations of each of the whistles can be taught. Slowly given whistles and voice commands produce slow wide movements. Quickly given whistles, tight fast movements. Harsh whistles ask a dog to obey instantly. Directions given in this manner make it possible to place a dog anywhere on a hill and bring in different hefts of sheep. I visualise the scene as “A primitive Ballet, with whistling as an accompaniment.”

In regard to Schooling it is worth remembering “Rome wasn’t built in a day!” The biggest hooligan can end up a KING among dogs. It is however important to realise “BREEDING WILL OUT!”

Copyright Viv Billingham Parkes 2014

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