It's All in a Dog's Day For These Working Canines

When it comes to herding sheep, Border collies show their talents

Nan is pure concentration. Quiet. Still. Staring a half mile out at something she can't see yet, but knows is there. Feeling the instinct that pulls her forward, the training that holds her back.

Alasdair MacRae stands at her side, then gives the signal. "Come by," he says firmly, and in an instant Nan is at top speed, a blur of black and white, flashing out in a sweeping arc toward 10 sheep grazing on the hillside.

If they thought about it rationally and came up with a plan, these ten big woollies - bunched together on a hillside they're the size of a Buick - could butt and stomp the small dog into the alfalfa field where they stand. But to be charitable, sheep aren't big thinkers. And besides, they've got instinct too - an instinct that tells them they'd better act like lambs in the presence of the Big Bad Wolf.

And so, without so much as a bark or a snarl, Nan takes complete charge and through sheer will urges the flock toward Mr. MacRae, who gives an occasional whistled command. Over the next 30 minutes, man and dog will add another 10 sheep to the flock, move the 20 through gates, then separate out five designated sheep and put them into a small pen.

All in a day's work for a Border collie, Ph.D-smart and hardest working dog in the canine world.

At the National Sheepdog Finals, held at the Kerr Ranch in southern Oregon recently, the 150 top Border collies in North America came to show their stuff. Under the demanding eye of judges from Scotland and Ireland, they and their handlers worked groups of sheep for four days. On the last day, the 20 finalists faced one of the toughest courses ever designed for this kind of competition.

Border collies are certifiably the smartest dogs in the world. Several studies have shown this, including a recent survey in "Dogs Today" magazine. Contrary to what you might have thought from the popular film "Babe," they do not speak English. But their ability to communicate with humans - and especially with sheep and other livestock - is truly remarkable.

Red Oliver of Caldwell, Texas, whose "Roy" was one of the finalists, explains the characteristics that make a good sheepdog: an even, stable temperament, curiosity, initiative, agility, stamina, and that ineffable quality breeders and handlers call "eye."

It's more than just the mesmerizing stare as the dog crouches or creeps toward the sheep, he says. "It's an instinct that allows them to read the stock, allows them to read the physical reaction of the sheep even at great distances." And it's not just a question of having an "eye" or not, but a matter of degree.

"Some dogs take quiet control, some scare the sheep to death," says Scott Glen of Alberta, Canada, (whose "Dan" finished fourth in the finals). Judges will deduct points for dogs that are either "sticky" (display too much concentration) or are "loose-eyed."

As a breed, Border collies (named for the Border area between England and Scotland) were developed during the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution brought a growing urban market for lamb, mutton, and wool.

Taking the best aspects of other dogs, they were bred strictly for herding performance rather than looks. They can range from 25 to 55 pounds, have smooth or rough coats, be a mix of black, white, and tan in color. In recent years, in fact, there has been a fierce debate among Border collie enthusiasts over whether the breed should be judged strictly for looks or "conformation" and how they walk and move in American Kennel Club (AKC) competitions.

"Breeding for conformation limits the genetic pool," says Nicholas Carter, an animal behavior expert and owner of several Border collies.

"Looks first, ability second, intelligence somewhere else down the line," says Dr. Carter. "To me, this is completely backwards."

Over the objections of the United States Border Collie Club, the AKC in 1995 voted to recognize and begin registering the breed.

Here at the sheep dog competition, with snow-capped Mt. Shasta in the distance and the occasional bald eagle overhead the spectacular countryside, there was no doubt that herding ability was the bottom line.

It's not so much that the instinct has been bred into them, Carter says, but "bred out of them." That is, the killing instinct of wolves "has been toned down somewhat." And while Border collies are intelligent, he says, they require a lot of time as pets - mainly enough daily exercise. Carter offers another caution about Border collies as pets: they are typically not very good around small children.

"To a Border collie, a child is basically a sheep without much wool," he says. "A child running across the backyard or out the front door is, to the dog, a sheep that has decided to break from the fold." The result can be a very frightened child that may even be nipped or bitten, says Carter.

But at the National Sheepdog Finals here in Oregon, all dogs seemed to be on their best behavior. As the day proceeded, a spectator was struck by the off-field conduct of the dogs. There was no barking, no quarreling or displays of dominance. Unleashed dogs trotted along with their masters - curious but not rambunctious. Some, sitting by the fence and intently watching the competition, seemed to be plotting their strategy.

Under a canopy, judges David Lyttle from Ireland and Roddy McDiarmid from Scotland watched the action. Judges don't add points but subtract them from a maximum - in this case 170 points from each judge. "You're actually looking for the possible, for perfection," says Mr. McDiarmid, a ruddy-faced shepherd from the West Highlands of Scotland. But so far over the years, he added, he's never seen it in this exacting sport.

As they came off the field, the dogs each headed straight for a tub of water to cool down. The camaraderie between handlers was evident, and although the competition is fierce there was much mutual support and friendship.

In the end, the day belonged to MacRae and Nan, who edged out Bev Lambert and her "Lark" by a mere two points (out of a possible 340 total). MacRae's other dog Ben came in third out of the 20 finalists. MacRae lives in Virginia these days, where he now competes, trains dogs, and gives clinics full time. The burr in his voice betrays his Scottish roots, however. He used to be a shepherd not far from where "Braveheart" was filmed. He enjoys the moment of glory, but he's quick to acknowledge that it's Nan whose brave heart made the difference.

"She gave it all to me today," he says of her, as the dog leans into his leg and looks up for a pat, still wet from her tub soak. "I owe her a lot more than she owes me."

HERDING TERMS:

Outrun - Dog is sent left or right. It should go wide and beyond the stock before approaching.

Lift - Dog's initial contact with the stock at the top of the outrun. It should be steady, quiet, and in full control.

Fetch - Dog brings stock to the handler on a straight line.

Driving - Dog moving stock away from handler.

Shedding - Separating selected stock from the bunch.

Singling - Splitting one head of stock from the bunch.

Penning - Dog herds stock into pen.

Some Common Commands:

"Away to me" - Move counter-clockwise around the stock.

"Come by" - Move clockwise around the stock.

"Down" or "Lie down" - Dog should crouch low.

"Walk up" or "Steady on" - Approach the stock.

"Look back" - Leave the sheep and go back for one that has been missed.

"Steady," "Take time," or "Get back" - Dog is too close to the stock.

"That'll do" - Exercise finished; return to handler.

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