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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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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