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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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.

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