A Little Bit About Border Collie History

The Extraordinary Scottish Herding Dog

The Border Collie is a medium sized working dog classified as a member of the herding dog group. This sassy Scottish dog is said to be the smartest of all the breeds and also one of the most popular of the herding dogs. Herding dogs are bred to control a variety of livestock. They are virtually tireless, and they love to work. There are many dog breeds that are included in the herding group; German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, Corgis, Australian Shepherds, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Briards are just a few. In total there are over 30 different breeds included in this fascinating canine category.

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Herding breeds can range in size from medium-small to medium large and come from all over the world however they all have significant prey drives, and it is this drive that makes them so great at what they do. Over the years, the predatory behaviour of herding dogs has been modified to create the strong herding instinct we see today. Instead of treating livestock such as cattle or sheep as prey to be eaten, their behaviours have been honed to create a strong desire for the dogs to move and steer the livestock to assist their masters, the shepherds. Herding dog breeds are associated with the development of cattle breeding.

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The herding dogs each work in a particular way. Some will nip at the heels of the livestock to get them to move. These dogs are called “heelers” and they are best used at the back of the herd to drive them or push them forward. Others will stare down the livestock to move them. These dogs are referred to as “headers” and they are used to keep the livestock in a group, to turn the herd or to stop the herd. Using headers and healers together enables a shepherd to handle large herds of livestock which is something that would be impossible to do alone or even with a group of people. There are even a few breeds that can perform both the heading and healing tasks and they will run from the back up to the front and back again to move the herd. Their energy levels are extreme as they must run tirelessly for long periods of time. Examples that can perform both heading and healing are the Australian Kelpie and the Australian Koolie.

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The Border Collie is known as a header with a very strong eye. They stare at the livestock to make them move. They are used most often to herd sheep. Border Collies are extremely intelligent, athletic, playful, and hard working. Border Collies do best when used as a working dog or farm dog. When kept as a pet, these dogs can be quite demanding and crave attention and stimulation therefore they are best suited for homes that can properly meet their needs so that behaviour issues do not develop.

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Border Collie History

Border Collies fall within a distinct group of dogs called Collies. The group includes the Rough Collie, the Smooth Collie and the Welsh Sheepdog. Collies originated in Scotland and Northern England, and they all descended from Landrace (Native) Collies which originated in the British Isles.

What is a Landrace?

A Landrace is a species of animal or plant that has developed over time. Landrace animals were developed specifically to serve the needs of humans. They are locally adapted to the climate and landscape within a specific ecological niche. Their development through time was a result of environmental adaptations and influenced mainly by the pressures of natural selection. But also, from human preferences and interference. Landrace dogs are bred without any formal registry however the farmers who bred them often kept informal written records.

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Unlike breeds which are homogenous in nature (typically highly inbred), landraces are heterogeneous (genetically diverse). They have enough characteristics in common to be seen as a group but since they are bred more for their working suitability out of necessity, their appearance is often quite different than other members of the same landrace group. Landrace dogs are often referred to as stock dogs because there were many different breeds that arose from a particular stock or foundational group.

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Landrace dogs have better stability of their characteristics and can resist or tolerate adverse influences better. They are adapted to their environment, in fact, they were created because of their environment. Their genetic entities are consistent and predictable. A Landrace dog is one which is at the early stages of their breed development, prior to formal breed registry. They are bred for working ability and not bred to breed standards or registries hence there is more variety in their appearance. Both the Rough Collie and Border Collie standardized breeds emerged from the Scotch Collie.

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Naming of the Border Collie

Border Collies were developed over hundreds of years by Shepherds around the time of the Border Reivers. The Reivers was an historic feud between England and Scotland that date from the 14th century through into the late 17th century. Stories of cattle rustling, feuding, pillaging, and murder emerged from these long-lasting border wars. The Border Collie likely inherited the name because it originated along the Anglo-Scottish border. Old stories about the Reivers tell of black and white dogs trained to herd stolen livestock away from their owners to discrete hiding places where thieves would then come to collect them and keep as their own. Raiding or plundering livestock was the principal business of Border families during the Reiver feud.

The majority of recorded Border Collies can be traced back to the end of the 1800’s, to one dog called “Old Hemp” bred by Adam Telfer from Woodburn in Northumberland. Old Hemp was believed to have sired over 200 pups in his lifetime.

There is an old Scottish saying that goes something like this: There is no good flock without a good shepherd and there is no good shepherd without a good dog.

Herding dogs have worked side by side with humans since ~9000  BC,  when the domestication of animals such as sheep began. Without these incredible canine aids, humans would not have been able to progress the way they did, as it would have simply been impossible to raise and care for the vast amount of livestock, they had without an army of men to work them.

“A single shepherd and his dog will accomplish more in gathering a stock of sheep from a highland farm than twenty shepherds could without dogs, and it is a fact that without this docile animal the pastoral life would be blank. Without the shepherd’s dog, the whole of the mountainous land in Scotland would not be worth sixpence. It would require more hands to manage a stock of sheep and drive them to market than the profits of a whole stock would be capable of maintaining” James Hogg (Scotland sometime between 1780 and 1835).


A Little Bit About Livestock Guardian Dog History

Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD’s) are a type of dog bred for the purpose of protecting livestock from predators such as wolves. Instead of helping shepherds move their livestock like herding dogs, LGD’s protect the herd from external threats. There are currently about 50 different breeds of LGD’s. The groups include breeds such as the Maremma Sheepdog, the Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog, the Alentelo Mastiff, the Anatolian Shepherd, the Akbash, the Tibetan Mastiff and the Komondor to name just a few. LGD breeds are usually large and powerful, and they will fiercely protect their herd. They use several methods of protecting their herd. Some will chase predators away. Some will take their herd to safety. Others will notice when one has strayed and go retrieve it to bring it back to safety. They are independent and live full time outside with the livestock in all weather and terrain so they must be rugged and agile. LGD’s have water-repellent coats and tend to retain heat better because they carry more fat reserves, and this helps protect them from severe cold and allows them to go longer without food. Most often, their colouration will depend on the colour of the herd they live with so they can easily blend into the herd. Using LGD’s to protect livestock is an ancient tradition however their use as livestock protectors from predators remains the most efficient and sustainable method. With the reintroduction of many large predators around the world, the use of LGD’s is currently growing in many regions.

A Livestock Guardian Dog and his flock

Where Did the First Livestock Guardian Dogs Come From?

The use of livestock guardian dogs (LGD’s) has been pivotal to the coexistence of domestic livestock and predators such as wolves. They have been used in Europe and Asia for thousands of years to guard livestock against wild predators, from thieves and from feral dogs. This group of distinct dogs were developed throughout Eurasia over a period of several centuries. It is believed that the origin of LGD’s began in what is now known as Turkey, Iraq and Syria nearly 6000 years ago. It was also in these and surrounding Near East regions around 7000-8000 years BC, that sheep and goats are thought to be first domesticated. Since this time, humans have had to protect their livestock from wild predators.

Great Pyrenees Dog, one of the many LGD breeds
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Archaeological records indicate a relationship between the existence of dogs used to protect livestock from predators dating back to 5600 BC but without any real indication as to the use of the dogs. The oldest clearly stated description of livestock guardian dogs on record is found in Aristotle’s History of Animals, Book IX, written in the 4th century BC:

“Of the Molassian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere; but sheep-dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals. Dogs that are born of a mixed breed between these two kinds are remarkable for courage and endurance of hard labour.”

Two women shepherds and their flock
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From those first ancient times of livestock domestication in the Near East, livestock breeding soon spread across most of the world. Currently both stationary and nomadic livestock production systems (pastoralism) cover approximately one quarter of the Earth’s surface, with up to 200 million people depending on the highly sustainable practice of pastoralism. Pastoralism is a sustainable system of subsistence farming, involving the raising of domestic livestock characterized by high mobility. These practices are vital to the survival of people in many countries. It would have been nearly impossible for shepherds to keep their herds grazing safely without the presence of LGD’s to watch over and protect their massive livestock herds. LGD’s were essential to the development of these bio-cultural systems which allow humans to inhabit some of the world’s vast dry lands. Pastoralism and the use of LGD’s are still very relevant and important in today’s world.

A Sheepdog watching over his flock


Changing large carnivore conservation policies in the 21st century includes the reintroduction of many large carnivore predators to areas where none or few have been for the last century and LGDs are regaining relevance. LGD’s represent a key component to facing the challenges of extensive livestock grazing and the co-occurrence of these newly reintroduced predators. In Western and Northern Europe and in North America, many farmers and shepherds are returning to using LGD’s as a non-lethal method to protect their herd. LGD is a cost effective method that can reduce a farmer’s animal loss by 11%-100% hence many government agricultural programs support their use. One thing is certain, LGD’s have a long history working with humans and are an important component of our cultural heritage.

A shepherd and his livestock guardian dogs

DISCLAIMER & PRIVACY: I participate in affiliate marketing programs. If you click on a link from my blog to one of these affiliates for product purchase, your origin here will be tracked only for the purpose of paying me a very small amount (with no effect on pricing for you).