Sheepdog Breed: Canine Closer Look

Sheepdog canine breedEvery time I go to the county or state fair, I like to watch the sheepdogs. You know -- the dogs who go into a ring with their handlers and, with a couple of tweets of a whistle, have rounded up a herd of sheep.

I've seen sheepdogs at the dog park, too, busy trying to round up other dogs, or chasing a Frisbee with such focus and intensity. And recently, I fell in love with the dog that played Lucky on Hallmark Channel's You Lucky Dog.

I had to know more about the sheepdog canine breed, so I turned to Joyce Geier, an experienced sheepdog trainer and successful competitor. Joyce and her four dogs live on a small, working farm in upstate New York, along with 27 or so sheep and one cat.

Here's what Joyce had to say about the sheepdog canine breed.


Why sheepdogs?
Border Collies are the world's top sheepdog -- they are one of the very few breeds that can truly work livestock for a living. (The New Zealand Huntaway, and some Kelpies, are the others.) And since I work with livestock, I need a reliable working dog -- hence a working Border Collie.

Joyce Geier and sheepdog

How did you come to “own” them -- through what breeder or group(s) and what is/was the process like?
Long story short, I crashed my bicycle 30-some-odd years ago and shattered my wrist. While I was admiring the cast, I impulsively signed my dog up for obedience classes. That led through obedience, tracking, search and rescue, and into herding. Sixteen years ago, I bought a puppy from some good working stock; and the rest is history.

Initial cost(s) to adopt?
Adoption, I am sure, depends on the organization you adopt from. In my case, all of my dogs have been obtained from solid working lines; some in Canada, some in the U.K., some in the U.S. The purchase price, as with all similar instances, depends very much on the breeding, the guarantees, and similar factors -- and so it does vary, just as would any other dog from any other breed.

What type of household/family is best for a sheepdog (are they good with small kids, in apartments, need lots of space, etc.)?
Working Border Collies are obsessive, compulsive, neurotic workaholics who NEED a job to do. They are driven to work; if they do not have a job, they will invent one; and they will work until they literally die. The odds are very, very good that you will not like the job they create or the commitment with which they pursue it.

Because of this, working Border Collies should go into structured, very high activity, working homes. I tell people that, if they are a marathon runner and want a dog to run with daily, a Border Collie could possibly be happy. But they had better also have a job that  occupies their brain, or the exercise won't be enough to prevent problems.

Ironically, space isn't really an issue for these dogs. Letting a working Border Collie run in a fenced backyard that's an acre or so in size may seem like enough exercise, but it isn't. It also doesn't create a mentally stimulating job. But a dog living in an apartment, going for a long bike ride or run every day, and getting competitive obedience, agility, tracking, or working training daily will be quite happy.  

Of course, the very best situation for a dog bred to work is a lifestyle where they can routinely do the work they were bred to do. For a Border Collie bred to work, that means a farm job; daily work with sheep, cattle, geese, or similar.

These dogs are not always good with children. Children move erratically, and the working Border Collie has been bred over hundreds of years to "collect and control" livestock, and livestock, particularly escaping livestock, moves erratically. This triggers all of the dog’s "control" instinct and often results in a quick and hard nip. Fantastic if this subdues an errant ram; not so good, obviously, on a human.

So in summary: A very active household, with lots of time every day to devote to exercising and training a dog, every single day of the week. That will do.  
How many sheepdogs have you owned to date?
In the past 16 years, I have owned about 15. I usually buy pups or young dogs, and then train them; if they will not suit my work and competition needs, they are placed into working homes where they CAN become a star. Although this seems extremely unusual for many pet owners, remember, these are working Border Collies. Their number one goal in life is to work. And they will work for anyone; transference is not an issue (for the dog!) as long as there is work to be done. I'm happy to say that the dogs that I have placed have gone to working homes -- and are still there, living out their lives happily and working every day, with families who adore and understand them.

When did you start?
In "serious dogs", over 30 years ago; with working Border Collies, 16 years ago.

What are the names, ages and personalities of your current personal pack?
Currently, there are four dogs in the pack. This is about typical; I rarely have more than five, or fewer than three. Five is at the limit of what I can keep exercised, trained, and working; and three is the lower limit for keeping a strong working and competitive team.

Clue, at 11, is the oldest. She is semi-retired; and still doing light farm work and some specialty chores (she is a wizard at loading recalcitrant sheep onto trailers!). However, she retired from competition after the English National last year. Her career highlights include joining me on the U.S. Team for the past two World Sheepdog Championship Trial (held every three years), and many other wins and victories. Aside from the memorable competitive moments, she has been an invaluable work dog. One of the most useful moments had to be getting sheep out of my burning livestock trailer, and then nonchalantly moving them down in and out of traffic on a busy road and penning them into an empty kennel on a nearby property. No person or animal was injured (and yes, we saved the trailer). Clue is incredibly bright, incredibly intelligent, somewhat opinionated, and has a thing about watching cats. She is also the only dog who sleeps on my bed -- occasionally, that is.  

Jim, at 4, is the number one dog. He is just entering his prime. He is a big, honest, devoted, reliable, and biddable dog; a real partner, and possibly the best dog I've had. Even though he is young, he has his share of major competition successes as well. His real value is on the farm, where he manages a very wide range of sheep effortlessly. Jim is so devoted that sometimes he is a nuisance, and so keen to work that he can be a pain to live with -- but I wouldn't trade him for the world. Sending him a half mile into the hills, out of sight, to gather sheep, and having him deliver them calmly to my feet -- priceless.

Buff, at 3, is the number two dog. He is one of the few adult dogs that I've bought, and I really really like him. He is a kind, quiet dog with a calm but no-nonsense way of working and viewing the world, and he is a joy to live with around the house. He does have his opinions, though; every time we go to get in the car, he very politely reminds me that this just might not be my best idea, and he really would not like to volunteer, thank you, so I could I please insist on it? Again?

Tiz is the clown. At 14 months, she is small, extremely clever, and likes to ricochet off of furniture (and the walls and the doors, and my legs, and the sheep, and trees, and the porch, etc.). She believes that all toys are hers; all cats are hers; all sheep are hers; and, well, that the world and everything in it is all hers too, I guess. Despite this, Tiz really wants to please. Her work is very natural and spectacular, something very nice to see. Tiz is -- fun.

Any other pets in your personal pack?
Good grief, four working dogs is enough to drive me to distraction!  We do have a barn cat, though, and a large flock of sheep.

Joyce Geier and sheepdog
How is training sheepdogs similar or different than other breeds?
There are similarities: All training explains to the dog what you want, and then labels that behavior so it can be executed when desired. And maintaining that training means the human then being consistent, and fair, about it.

But there are major differences. When we train the working Border Collie to work livestock, we are dealing with modifying and shaping a genetic instinct. If the dog didn't get the talent, or the drive, or the "want to," we can't create it.  

For instance, we can create a sit or a retrieve or a recall in any dog of any breed -- but we cannot create the desire to herd livestock, or the talent to head off an escaping sheep before the sheep actually makes a serious attempt. In fact, it's this complex combination of drive and talent that makes the working Border Collie unique; and it's this combination that's lost so rapidly if we breed the dogs for anything other than good work. One generation, in fact, and it’s gone, and it can’t be reclaimed.

So we work with modifying the genetically inherited instincts and talents; we gradually bring these under our control, and channel them for our purposes, to do the job at hand. It's a constant dance of making the dog listen, while still letting the dog think and make decisions, all put into the context of the job you are trying to do. Oh, and we add another variable: the livestock, which does have an agenda of its own, and often triggers unexpected behaviors in the dog.

This brings on some additional complexities. The working Border Collie is smart, way smart -- often smarter than us, and we must work within that. Many times a dog seemingly disobeys a command; but the dog is right and we aren't, and that can be a hard pill for us to see, let alone swallow.  

Lastly, on livestock, these dogs are always in a "high drive" mode; getting through that, and channeling it, is very, very difficult. It's like trying to get the attention of a dog committed to chasing a car or a squirrel -- definitely challenging.

Do sheepdogs make for good “stars” (in TV and films)? Why?
Sure. They learn quickly, they generalize, and to a large degree, they are environmentally stable. They are capable of learning complex behaviors, and they are biddable. "Lucky," in the Hallmark film You Lucky Dog, shows this; not only does she help demonstrate what it takes to train a working Border Collie for work, and how the Border Collie can generalize behaviors into other seemingly unrelated situations, she also acts like the star she is.

Readers, what quality do you like the most about sheepdogs?


Images via foshie/Flickr and Joyce Geier

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