Sharpest dogs in the West 

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

In a grassy enclosure, Nan is frozen in a crouch, staring down eight sheep. The sheep have packed themselves into a nervous ball, neck over neck, like one big, wooly, many-headed creature. They watch the border collie out of the corners of their eyes.

Lynn Mason stands just inside the fence with a long stick like a sheepherder's staff. He's a tall, practical, 72-year-old man with a short, white beard and a worn plaid cowboy shirt with pearly snaps. "Nan," he calls. "Nan, away to me."

The dog pops up and races counterclockwise around the small herd. They react by moving in one big blob toward the fence.

"Na-a-n!" Lynn says sternly this time, a warning for her to slow down. On the outside of the fence, two more border collies—Rose, a red merle, and Parfait, a 6-month-old pup—can barely contain their excitement. They're waiting for their turns with sheep. It's been a long few months since any of them have gotten much practice.

They may be idle just now, but these dogs are the seed stock for future generations of dogs that are bound up with Montana and the West, whether they're working stock with a drive and intelligence that seems to top any other breed's or just hiking with their owners or playing their border collie games at your local dog park.

click to enlarge Working sheep is a border collie’s favorite activity. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Having been bred for hundreds of years to work with people, border collies have largely been spared the beauty pageantry of the show-dog world. Breeding for intelligence over beauty has led to their rank as the brightest dogs in the world in instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence and working intelligence, according to a 2006 University of British Columbia study.

On a recent day in late February, Mission Falls Ranch is still enjoying a good deal of snow. The driveway up to the old St. Ignatius homestead is lined with stately box elders. At the front door, a happy pack of seven border collies bounds out to greet you.

Besides Nan, Rose and Parfait, there's Skookum, Wisp, Scarlett and Mac Duff. Not one dog looks like any of the others—some are the classic border collie black-and-white, others are either tri-color or an orangey-red, some are shaggy-haired and others are smooth. The Masons have carefully bred all of them for their herding instincts. At this working dog haven, they hone their skills.

The house, where Lynn and his wife Joan live, has been built onto many times since it was first settled in 1915. The 160-acre property, which is on the Flathead Reservation, was originally owned by an American Indian couple, then sold to an Iowa couple who raised pigs and corn. In the 1940s, it was run as a farm where people could come and pay for a sit-down chicken dinner. When the Masons took it over in 1985, they bought cattle and started learning about breeding and training border collies. Two years ago, they switched from cattle to 29 head of sheep, a herd that was recently decimated, leaving 12 dead, after what they think was an attack by roaming dogs. Occasionally, they sell a lamb, but most of their income now comes from selling puppies from their border collie litters and from the paintings—mostly of horses—that Joan makes.

At the base of a rolling hill are the sheep, penned at the banks of Mission Creek. Near to the old stone smokehouse are a pear and a crabapple tree, carefully trimmed to leave a sight-line from the house, where the Masons have set up a telescope fixed on a bald eagle nest. In a blue spruce tree next to the house, horned owls nest in a wicker basket Lynn hitched to the trunk. The whole place sits under the brilliant, looming shadow of the Mission Mountains, capped with snow and swirling in blizzards.

When they got their first border collie, Moxie, the Masons didn't know what they were in for. Joan went to look at the puppies at a woman's barn on a property that also was host to 1,000 sheep.

"How do they work?" Joan asked her.

click to enlarge The Mission Ranch in the Flathead Valley. - PHOTO BY MICHELLE GUSTAFSON

The woman replied, "I just tell her to go get—" and before she could finish, the woman's border collie shot out the door to round up the sheep.

"She had to call her back," says Joan. "From that point on, she spelled everything out so her dog didn't know what she was saying. And I thought, 'This is really something: spelling in front of the dogs?'"

When Joan brought Moxie home, she didn't know yet how to train her. One day, when the dog was six months old, Joan was moving heifers, trying to get them into a corral. But every time she was going in the right direction, one of the cows would break and climb up the hill away from her. Moxie stayed with her, but Joan noticed that whenever she called to the cows with a "ch-ch-ch," the dog would dive in to help. "Okay," she thought. "We can do that.... So I got them down to the bottom and I stopped watching the heifers and started watching her, and I'd go 'ch-ch-ch' and she'd dive in there no problem, even when they'd go up the hill she'd follow and I'd wait until she was in the right place and make the sound."

This is the real surprise: that the border collie already knows what to do, sometimes even before the owner does. Lynn recalls growing up on his family's ranch in Michigan and having a light bulb moment. He was helping to push cattle through the gate and out to pasture when he noticed that the cows weren't moving. No matter how much he shooed them forward, they wouldn't budge. All of a sudden, he realized he didn't know where the herding dog was. He peeked around the cows and saw that she was the one blocking the gate, not letting them move forward. Her instinct was to make sure they didn't get away, he says.

Like all dogs, border collies are descendants of wolves, which hunt big prey in packs. A non-dominant wolf will push a game animal toward a dominant wolf. Essentially, that could have been what was happening with Lynn's dog—her natural inclination was to gather the cattle toward her owner. Lynn knew he had to change his strategy. "If you open the gate and go through the gate ahead of the cattle, and let the dog follow behind and bring the stock to you, it works," he says. "Typically, the people that are not experienced using dogs, they'll always run into that situation with a border collie."

Instinct isn't everything, however. After the Masons figured out Moxie's abilities, they still needed lessons in how to hone and harness her skills. Herding-dog owners will tell you that obedience school softens a dog's instincts, which makes some sense: Training a herding dog is about maintaining her assertiveness while at the same time teaching her to promptly respond to vocal commands, body language and tone. It's a balancing act.

The Masons learned flanking commands and worked with Moxie on a long leash to teach her to stay in sync with them.

"It's not always pretty at first," says Lynn. "They can be hardheaded and you have to break them."

click to enlarge Lynn Mason lets the dogs out. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The flanking commands are international, stemming from early Scottish sheepherders who discovered the magic of their collies and used it to their advantage. There's a kind of formal beauty to the words. "Away to me" or "Way to me" tells the dog to go counterclockwise around the sheep. "Go by" or "On by" means go clockwise. "Steady" asks the dog to slow to a creeping walk. "Down" tells her to instantly drop. "Walk on up" lets her know she can walk toward the sheep. And "That will do" dismisses the dog from her duties. The dog reacts to the tone, too. A command said low alerts the good dog to go slow, and when it's said with more excitement, she knows to speed up.

But a border collie also has a problem-solving mind of her own. Knowing the commands to go counterclockwise or clockwise doesn't teach the dog at what point on the clock to stop, nor how far to be from the sheep. The border collie learns those lessons from experience—how far away from the sheep or cattle she needs to be so that they're aware of her but not so scared they'll scatter, and also where on the gathering circle she needs to be in order to push the sheep in one direction or another.

A good herding dog learns all these things. A great herding dog, a dog worthy of Montana, has an extra quality that's hard to pin down. And that's what Moxie had, says Lynn.

"She was a dog that when you entered a field, there could be stock out there—maybe 300 or 400 yards away—and they knew she was there. And when she started to go, they were aware of her. She very rarely had to bite. It was just the presence. She was probably the most powerful dog we've ever had, and power is something that is very hard to define. But you know it when you see it."

Smarter than poodles—and stealthier

Border collies seem to have a long history. In 943, a Welsh King, Hywel Dda, wrote of how impressed he was with a black dog that would take sheep to pasture and return with them in the evening. In 1486, a long-tailed dog was described that fits the description of a modern border collie. There's a record in 1514 of two Polish sheepdogs being traded for sheep in Scotland; those dogs seem to have been bred with Scots sheep dogs, which created a shaggy blue merle coat. In 1700, the English artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick mentioned the collie in his book The General History of Quadrupeds, saying, "Its aid is highly necessary in managing...numerous flocks of sheep in...extensive wilds and fells." The first sheepdog trial, a contest of skills, was held in Wales in 1873.

And then came Old Hemp, a collie born in 1893. Old Hemp not only became the reigning champ of sheepdog trials—speedy, quiet and exacting—but he's also regarded as the progenitor of all modern border collies.

"Collie" was a blanket term for herding breeds in general. The "border" part of the name became popular after James Reid, secretary of the International Sheepdog Society, inserted it to distinguish the top-notch collies that came from the border counties between northern England and southern Scotland.

And then the wizard dogs crossed the pond. Sheepdogs were brought to Montana in the early 1920s, if not before. After a sheep herder died at Fort Benton in 1936 and his body was sent east, a "big, gaunt shepherd dog" that looked like a border collie became famous for waiting by the railroad for his master to return. There is a statue of him there today.

One description of a sheepherder in Montana says, "The life of the herder is extremely lonely, both day and night being spent with the sheep. Once a week, a man brings him food; and for weeks, and even months at a time, the only company he has aside from his sheep is his dog and possibly his horse." Their sharp minds won them a place as workmates and even companions in the West, and they've never left.

A 1972 test in England rated the border collie the most intelligent dog breed (the poodle came in second), with the problem-solving ability of a 12-year-old human. Unlike so many other dogs that are bred for their appearance, border collies largely have been bred for intellect and trainability alone. It's not just about teaching a dog a trick; border collies appear to have more abstract ways of looking at the world and their place in it.

Joan and Lynn Mason's border collie bible, The Versatile Border Collie, tells this story: A border collie from Arizona named Commodore came back from a long day of sheepherding with a felt hat in his mouth. After he had penned the sheep, he pushed the gate closed with his paws and dropped the hat at the feet of the ranch foreman. The foreman recognized the hat as one that belonged to his sheepherder. Commodore tugged at the foreman's pant leg, so he followed him to a distant pasture where the sheepherder lay badly injured by a rock slide.

One border collie, Rico, was showcased on German TV in 2001 with the ability to understand 200 words, and the capacity to learn more. More recently, another border collie, Chaser, made the news for being able to identify 1,022 toys by name, plus being able to understand and execute complex demands like "fetch Sponge Bob and put him in the box" or "paw at the lamb." Yet another border collie, Betsy, is said to be able to look at a photograph and then retrieve the object depicted in the photograph, even if she's never seen the photo or the object before. All of these border collies are doing more than acing exams; they seem to be opening new doors onto what people and other animals can do together.

click to enlarge Long bred for work and not show, Border Collies are physically diverse, with a wide range of traits. - PHOTO BY MICHELLE GUSTAFSON

At Carroll College, in Helena, Ann Perkins started a program to study the bond between animals and humans. Farm and ranch dogs such as border collies are prime examples in her classes. "The progenitor for all domestic dogs was the wolf and our relationship with the wolf has evolved through a partnership: I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine," Perkins says. "Within the lifetime of a human, we changed predators that looked like foxes—and that were biting, aggressive and wild—to animals that looked more like border collies. Through training and primarily selective breeding, we have these incredible dogs that are absolutely driven to bring the sheep in. And it's all about that working relationship."

The Carroll College program started as a human-animal bond curriculum within the department of psychology. But having the human psychology focus turned out to be only half of it. Animal science, on the other hand, fell short, too. Those studies, typically represented in zoology or biology departments, look at all kinds of facets of animals: physiology, classification, ecosystem—everything except their relationship with humans.

"We love our dogs and cats, and farmers and ranchers have a relationship with their cattle and sheep—even if they're going to go to market," says Perkins. "I wanted to develop a discipline that would focus not on the kingdom-phylum-class-order-genus-species, not on the-leg-bone-is-connected-to-the-heel, but defining what is important about that bond."

In the canine wing of the program, students learn the best ways to work with a rescue dog to help it be the best dog it can be. The types of services those dogs end up in are incredible—not just working with stock but also helping people with autism so they can navigate visual and audio stimuli that might otherwise hinder them. In one famous case, a dog at Carroll College was trained to alert a person with diabetes when his blood sugar was too low.

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.

Loeser takes in just a few dogs at a time and teaches them the rules. She takes them on hikes, first with a long rope to make sure they'll stay close by, and then freely. "I find that these guys are better hiking companions because they don't tend to range as far," she says. "Since they can't hear you, they check back more often. I think they do pay more attention to people's expressions."

Loeser does agility training with her deaf dogs. She helps hone their natural working skills through hand signals rather than verbal commands, and with a penlight: They learn that the flickering of the light means different things—sit and shake, for instance—and once she gets them used to those, she can work on more advanced signals.

Hush is new to the lessons. Before she can ask him to sit and shake, he's already eagerly on his rump with his paw lifted.

A few weeks later, Hush is adopted by Laurie Gerhardt, in Livingston. Gerhardt loves border collie mixes and she is also a sign-language interpreter, which is another reason she thought Hush was a good match. He mostly needs training like any other dog, she says, although she also has been stomping on the floor and flicking the lights to get his attention.

"There are people who have taught their deaf dogs hundreds of commands," Loeser says. "I'm a little biased because I love the herding breeds. I think in general they're easier to train. They're bred to work with people."

Why we're here

Lynn and Joan Mason's youngest border collie, Parfait, is a greenhorn. She's only six months. By the time she was three months, she'd learned to scoot under the fence to watch the other dogs train with the sheep. She's a natural, says Joan, but still has a lot to learn. When Lynn lets her in with the sheep, she nips at their legs and they end up stuck in a tight bunch against the fence. Lynn grasps her collar, pulling her to position. Another issue Lynn has to watch for is what's called "the eye." A determined dog can get focused on one animal, honed in so hard that both dog and sheep are locked in a staring contest. Lynn taps a stick in front of the dog, trying to get her to break the gaze and pay attention to the entire herd, not just one sheep. That intensity is both the challenge and strength of a border collie. Context matters: On a ranch, the dog's perseverance is what makes her so powerful. As a pet, it can be called "obsessiveness."

Joan says that one border collie she knows of, living in a condo with her owners, was a sweet dog but was always startled by loud noises—thunder, gun shots, firecrackers. "The owners came back one day and she'd gone berserk. It looked like they had been broken into and somebody had been hurt. There was blood. She'd tunneled through the dry wall to the outside. She'd broken glass, the curtains were down. It was a tricky moment in the life of that dog."

Even if the border collie is a little more laid back, a person working long hours could come home to unexpected chaos. "We have discouraged some people because it was evident to us that they just want to take a dog home and have it turned out into the yard all day," says Lynn. "A border collie doesn't operate well with that. They are going to go find something to do, and if they're not supervised, what they find to do you're probably not going to like."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Working border collies have to learn a series of rules: sheep and cows are okay to gather, cars and deer are not. They can learn not to chase chickens, but Joan says that some owners can end up quashing the dog's will to gather if the owners are too negative. Once you do that, says Joan, you can't turn it back on—and then you have an unhappy dog. Positive reinforcement and consistent training is the key to the balance, she says. It's about providing a conduit for their energy but not letting them "freelance," where they go out on their own to herd and subsequently hurt another animal.

"If they go out and do their own thing without you, it can go bad fast," says Lynn. "And that's one of the hardest things with Parfait. She has an awful lot of drive and she can jump a fence, so she wants to go down there and do it herself. With nobody to stop her, it gets ugly."

Some of the border collies they breed and sell end up in agility training and sheep trials—a redirection of their energy from working a job to sport. Others end up working in unexpected places. Ellie works on a boat for water search and rescue and in the snow, on avalanches. In Arlee, Dooly directs weed-eating goats. Sophie helps with cattle on the Wise River. The Masons have sent dogs out to work on golf courses, where they can run off geese and other fowl that take over the green. Unlike other dogs that might chase those birds off temporarily, border collies go the extra mile to chase them off the grass, into the water and then away for good, perhaps because the border collie understands the overall goal—the reason she's there.

There's long been a joke in Montana, apparent on T-shirts and bumper stickers that say "Citizens for a Poodle-Free Montana." That might seem a little harsh in one light, especially as poodles are, supposedly, almost as smart as border collies, and Montana has always thrived by attracting clever creatures. Still, if Montana had a dog, what breed better suits the state than the one bound up with its ranching heritage, for whom looks are less important than getting the job done? What better than another creature, black-and-white or red or blue, who knows why she's here and is committed for the long term?

And it can't hurt that she works for kibble.

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