Sharpest dogs in the West 

Border collies might just be the most useful creatures in Montana, when we know what to do with them.

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Another part of that curriculum focuses on history, such as the way border collies have evolved and emigrated with humans from Scotland to the U.S. It's not a mere matter of celebrating the bond, though, says Perkins. It's accessing an angle on history that's as important as politics, art and science. "It's like the role of the horse throughout history," she says. "Oh my gosh, it's like, guns and germs and steel and all that don't even a hold a candle to the role that the horse played in how we civilized the world. If you had a horse, you were a conquerer, and if you didn't, you lost. And dogs have played an important role, too. We study the relationship so we see how it's evolved and where it's going to go."

If you go to Montana State University's Sheep Institute website, you'll notice a photo of a sheep and below it a photo of a border collie. Two things are happening now with the sheep market, the institute says. Droughts in Australia and New Zealand have led to a sheep shortage, and that coincides with a demand in the U.S. for more ethnic foods that use lamb. A demand for lamb could be a demand for more of the kinds of dogs that can round up sheep, says Rodney Kott, the institute's sheep specialist, "because most sheepherders do want a border collie. And a well-trained border collie is very valuable."

However antiquated and romantic the sheepherding dog might seem to urban culture, and however mechanized the world of agriculture has become, there's nothing quite like a dog and her sheepherder. "We have four-wheelers and we can put microchips in sheep," says Perkins. "But with herding dogs–and I don't want to quite call it the last vestige, but it really is a hold onto a very ancient relationship where dogs are supporting humans and their job is just as important and relevant."

click to enlarge Even when not working, the Mason’s collies keep a close eye on the sheep. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Perkins had a border collie who used to gather her sheep. She recalls when three sheep got away and were completely out of sight. She told her dog to go get the sheep. "He looked at me like, 'Are you crazy? There aren't any sheep.' But he left and then he turned back about four football field lengths away to make sure that's what I wanted. And over the ridge he went, and maybe three miles away, and back he comes with the sheep. You wait and there they come, bringing the sheep back. What kind of bond is that? How could you do that with a machine?"

Beauty over brains

There's a bumper sticker that perfectly exemplifies the controversy of breeding dogs, specifically working dogs. It says, "Border Collie: Brains Before Beauty." There's also a T-shirt you can get online that says, "The Kennel Club is Darwin's Nightmare," and underneath, "Unnatural selection, unfit for function." That slogan is from Terrierman's Daily Dose, a blog mostly about politics in the dog world. You've seen the parody of this world if you've ever watched Christopher Guest's 2000 film Best In Show. The superficial, obsessive display of dogs and owners is exaggerated in that case, but the focus on beauty and standardized features is not.

"The rough collie—the Lassie dog—was a herding dog at first, but they've almost lost that instinct," says Joan Mason, the St. Ignatius breeder. "And do you know why? Here's our rant." The American Kennel Club "recognized the border collie and these other breeds too. They put in standards about what a border collie should look like."

For about 40 years, the AKC allowed border collies in its miscellaneous category for performance—which is, of course, what it's known for. But in the early 1990s, the AKC started hinting that the border collie would soon be required to be a show breed—meaning its looks would be standardized and its breeding for work would be a secondary. The American Border Collie Association and its supporters went nuts. If there was one way to quash the instinct of a breed cultivated through centuries, they protested, this was it.

"The ABC hired lawyers and lobbyists to prevent the AKC from recognizing the border collie as a breed," says Mason, but the AKC did it anyway, "against everybody's wishes, and so that locks in that. In the ABC, there are no standards, which is why you really don't know what a border collie looks like. You know what they act like."

Donald McCaig, a Butte native and author of the 2007 book The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club, also opposes this standardization of the breed. In the book, he talks about the dying art of sheepherding in Scotland and laments that so many working dogs end up only doing field trials and agility contests, which, he claims, dilutes the arcane subtleties of the dogs' instincts. He charges that the Scots have learned to work with the genetics of the dogs whereas Americans try to dominate them. He writes, "It is the job of the dog trainer to summon the dog's genetics, not to impose man's will over dogs."

As with so many purebreds, working dogs that are bred for certain physical characteristics can end up with issues. The desire for the red or blue merle pattern on a collie can lead to congenital deafness. Border collies should never be bread merle to merle, Mason Says.

click to enlarge After passing through the tunnel, Kip eyes Jackie, eagerly waiting for further instruction. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • After passing through the tunnel, Kip eyes Jackie, eagerly waiting for further instruction.

These dogs often end up almost colorless. Some are born without eyes, or with light-blue eyes that have a tendency toward blindness. With this kind of breeding for beauty, a quarter of a litter can end up with these defects—and that often leads to them being euthanized.

In Corvallis, in the Bitterroot Valley, Jackie Loeser helps rescue deaf border collies from that fate with her nonprofit organization, Bangtail Dog Rescue. People breed border collies merle to merle, she says, "because they want to get those really flashy colors that get rewarded in the confirmation ring. And unfortunately, a lot of breeders, if they have a puppy that's born with excessive light color, they'll just kill them. Which is pretty sad, because they'll make pretty good pets."

Most of the dogs Loeser fosters are deaf herding breeds from shelters that are overcrowded. "I think a lot of shelters, they get in a deaf dog and they think, 'Oh, we'll never be able to adopt them out,'" she says. "I don't think it's necessarily true, but I see their point. If they have 20 dogs in there and one of them is deaf and 19 aren't, it's probably harder to adopt out a deaf one."

On a recent visit, Loeser was fostering—along with her own nine dogs—a happy, deaf border collie-great Pyrenees cross named Hush, a tall, sweet dog that liked to jump up on people. Once he had his paws on your forearms, he'd carefully gaze into your face as if looking for some kind of signal. When he played, he pranced sideways, watching all the human faces to see their reactions.

Loeser owns a working dog, Flyer, who's also deaf and as sweet as Hush and as attentive to facial expression. Loesser's blue heeler-cattle dog, Ruby, is also deaf and mostly blind; she follows Flyer, her seeing-eye dog, around.

The deaf dogs sleep soundly. Sometimes their ears perk up, apparently apropos of nothing, although if the air is very still, they can feel the vibration from a clap or someone walking on the floor. Some bark in strange high pitches.

Loeser says that deaf working dogs also seem prone to OCD behaviors if they're kept in a shelter for too long. One deaf border collie she took under her wing was like a whirling dervish, spinning in circles from a neurotic excitement. He was a happy dog otherwise, but the behavior for most people seemed both bizarre and annoying. The first time she adopted him out, he was returned at 3 a.m. in a snowstorm. The second time, he was returned within a couple of hours. "I didn't think I'd ever find him a home," she says. "I kept telling people, 'You've got to give him time.' I think the longer he's in a stable home, the more that behavior will diminish." He was recently taken by a young college woman who, so far, has had him for three months.

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