First of all, what I said in part I about being outsiders isn’t quite true. In fact, we were insiders because we shared with everyone else there the one crucial thing: an admiration of great dogs. It’s impossible to watch a seasoned Border collie working sheep and not be full of admiration.
A handler we met from Texas said what distinguishes Border collies from all other herding dogs is their “eye.” This cover of the program for the National Sheepdog Finals is an excellent example of the “eye.” You only have to observe for a minute to see what she means. There is little doubt that if the sheep (about whom more soon) could talk, they’d agree there’s something about a Border collie’s “eye-stalk” that’s unnerving and commanding. The sheep we saw would go on to point out that every time they’d stop and drop their heads to enjoy grazing on a little alfalfa, well, no sooner were there heads down than they’d feel an uncanny compulsion to lift them again. Why? Because this damn dog kept racing around their perimeter, gazed locked on them, periodically crouching down in the grass as if she were getting ready to pounce. So up come the sheep heads because something deep, deep in the blood tells them they better keep an eye on that damn dog. The alfalfa offerings meant that some of the dogs had a hard time keeping the sheep moving. But often when the dog moved from his crouched position, the sheep would also move, and if dog and handler were good—and lucky—they’d move in the direction that handler and dog wanted. Over and over again, I watched this mini-drama unfold on the field.
The friendly, knowledgeable woman from Texas (who was cradling a Chihuaha in her arms whenever we saw her—with her Border collie at her feet) said that all other dogs are “loose-eyed.” This makes it hard for even the talented herders among them to compete with Border collies, for while many dogs have herding talent, few can be so persuasive just by staring! It’s also remarkable that the collies work so quietly, without barking. This is, for obvious reasons, regarded as a desirable trait in a sheepdog. I know my German shepherd Aktis would be barking full-on if he had the great good fortune to find himself in a large field with four or five sheep. He’d make a racket, getting himself and the sheep worked up, and giving his handler a headache!
There’s an interesting backstory to the collies’ silence. Here’s one account from program notes to a trial:
It has been suggested that the working qualities of these small black and white collies were honed in the Highlands, when the plunder of neighboring flocks was not uncommon. Apparently, the most successful purloiners of sheep found that a well-trained dog was indispensable. A stealthy approach was not only more remunerative, but less exhausting and damaging to their physical well-being. Thus, dogs were trained to work sheep without barking, a trait that is still sought after to this day.
In my earlier post I mentioned that we saw quite a variety of Border collies; in fact, as a breed they come in an unusually wide variety: rough- or smooth-coated; black and white or black and tan; from 30 to 80 pounds in size. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that excellent working dogs don’t have to look alike, or even look particularly good; they’re not being bred for the runway, for the show ring, but for their working qualities. If more owners chose dogs for their qualities rather than their looks, there’d be fewer poorly bred, unhealthy dogs. Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox.
The dogs we saw were fast and confident, and the eye gave them an added intensity. I was surprised by how often—and how effectively—the dog’s (and handler’s) strategy was to have the dog just lie in the grass, crouched really, erect ears visible, and stare at the sheep.
I watched one dog persuade four sheep to walk into a pen just by lying nearby and staring them down. The sheep looked at the handler holding the gate in one hand and the crook in the other, and they thought, ‘Well, we’re not going that way, obviously.’ Then they looked over at the dog staring obsessively at them in that way that reminded them that they’re the “prey” in the “predator-prey” relation. So they walk into the pen. At least the dog’s not in there.