Can a Working Border Collie also be a pet?

I have heard people say that a working Border Collie dog should absolutely not be raised as a pet.  I disagree with the statement because I have personally raised a lot of Border Collie puppies in my backyard that turned out to be very nice working dogs.  I do believe that how a puppy is raised has a huge impact on how trainable it will be.  I believe that Border Collies are capable of discerning work from non-work activities.  Red Oliver once told me that dogs associate many commands as either "on stock" or "not on stock".  An example is a dog that is taught to lie down only while on stock.  Some of those dogs will not immediately understand that command when livestock isn't present.  They can certainly be taught it and/or forced to comply, but they often don't necessarily associate the command with an action at first.  I know some folks will disagree with this example, but I have seen it a lot of times and  over the years and always think of Red when I do.

What I do believe is important is how a puppy is raised.  An important factor relates to the fact that a dog must be obedient during training.  If we raise a puppy with a lack of consequences for obedience, and then expect them to be cooperative when we start training, we have set the dog up for failure.  A dog also needs to learn that they way something is said is important.  Border Collies are very good at learning that when something is said in a low growling voice, that it is a correction.  This is important during training.  Dogs learn to take correction by voice and if biddable, will work to avoid those corrections at all costs.  That is a major underpinning of training a Border Collie dog.

Jimmy Walker authored an article titled "Raising Your Puppy Right" that was published on on June 15th of 2009.  This article does a wonderful job of summarizing things to keep in mind when raising a puppy that you or someone else hope to train once it's mature.  Each time I read it, I am reminded of something that I am not doing as well as I could with puppies in my kennel.  I have sent it to a lot of people of the years and I hope others have found it as useful as I do.

A working dog is a true companion.  Many folks spend more hours with their working dog than they do with humans.  To treat them as anything less than a respected member of the team would be a shame.  But just like any member of a well functioning team, they need to know their role and play it.

Sheepdog Economics...

Over the course of a year, I work a lot of dogs and speak dozens of people who are considering buying a dog.  Some have never owned a working dog, others have owned many.  Often, we discuss the going rate for puppies, started dogs and trained dogs.  They all want to know which they should purchase.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each and each person must decide which is the best route for them.  In this article, I will try to spell out some of the variables to consider.  Keep in mind that my price estimates are likely on the conservative side and are for farm or ranch quality dogs. Trial quality dogs will be more expensive in most cases.

Option 1: Buy and Raise a Puppy and Send It For Training

barry and puppy.jpg

This seems to be the obvious route for folks who are looking to get a sheepdog for the least amount of money economically....or  is it?  A well-bred Border Collie puppy in the United States will usually fall in the price range of $500 to $1,000 at 8 weeks of age.  There are few creatures more cute or playful than a Border Collie puppy.  Costs to raise the puppy are negligible.  We will assume feed costs of $0.50 per day and an annual veterinary cost of $75 for our calculations.   Being able to spend a lot of time with your puppy as it matures is a clear advantage of this option.  Once the pup matures, often around it's first birthday, it is ready to be sent for training.  Length of time in training will vary depending on the dog, the trainer and the level of training that you desire.  If you have interest in seeing a typical progression in my training program, I recently posted some video with explanation of a dog over 6 months of training.  If we assume that you want a dog to gather off of large fields and drive sheep in any direction away from the handler, four to six months in training would be a reasonable expectation.  For our calculations, we will assume five months.  Training costs range from $400-600+ per month.  For the purpose of our calculations, lets assume $500 per month.  The only other factor we need to consider is that not every puppy, even from well-bred working parents, will make a usable farm dog. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I send home a lot of dogs, that in my opinion, will never be trainable to an acceptable level.  My guess is that around 50 percent of puppies will be trainable to a useful level.  Obviously, this is higher in some cases than others and you can increase your odds by buying pups of of proven working dogs, but fact is that we see a lot of dogs that are simply not suitable for training for a variety of reasons, mostly between their ears.

Puppy Purchase: $500-$1,000
Feed for 1 year @ ~ $0.50 per day: $175
Veterinary care for 1 year: $75
6 months of training @ $500: $3,000
Total: $3,750-$4,250 if every puppy matures into a trainable adult, which we know is not the case.  

Option 2: Buy A Started Dog

The term "Started" can mean many different things.  To some, it means the dog that is keen to work livestock and perhaps has a "lie down" command.  To others it means they can send the dog on large gathers, but the dog doesn't yet drive.  It is imperative that you determine the level of training and the potential for further training before you determine the value of the dog.  Started dogs may range in price from $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the seller's definition of "started".   Likely, the dog will need more training before it will be fully useful, and this must be factored into the total final cost.  This will be variable, but a huge advantage here is that you can see the dog at maturity and assess if it is a good fit for your situation.  It it good around children, does it kill chickens, does it chase horses, all of these are things that are unknown with a puppy.  It will take some time for you and the dog to bond and become a team, a disadvantage that you will not have if you go with option 1.  Started dogs would typically between 1 and 2 years of age.

Started Dog Purchase: $2,000-$3,000
Additional training: 3 months at $500: $1,500
Total $3,500-$4,500

Option 3: Buy a Fully Trained Dog

The third option is the most obvious.  You will find variation in what a "fully trained" dog can do, but likely less variation than in "started" dogs.    You can assume this dog will be around two years of age or older.  This dog should generally be able to gather sheep off of a large field with little help, drive sheep in any direction, know directional commands by voice and whistle and have a "look back" command to go back and gather any sheep it might have missed on it's original gather.  One major issue with buying a trained dog is simply finding them.  Few folks are selling them, especially if they have a personal need for them on their own operation.  Nonetheless, they are out there and can be located.  I help a good number of folks locate dogs each year.  As of the date of writing this, (January of 2017), fully trained farm/ranch quality sheep dogs are commonly selling in the $4,000-$6,000 range.

I hope this has been useful to help put the costs of a sheepdog in perspective.  The one thing for sure is that no matter which route you choose, once you have a good dog, you will quickly appreciate how many steps they save you and you will question how you ever made it without him.   


Training Expectations...


One of the questions that I get a lot from folks who send dogs for training relates to what we can expect from their dog after one month, two months, etc.  It is a hard question to answer because just like people, all dogs learn at a different rate.  To further complicate things, some dogs fit my training style better than others and those seem to train up much more quickly than those who don’t.  I record a lot of video of dogs I am working and have recently compiled a bit of footage of a single dog’s progress over six months.  Gus arrived for training when he was ten months old. Gus is a very soft dog to handle.  A minor voice correction is very effective on him.  He rarely requires more than a growl to back him off of stock.  He is also the kind of dog that needs a handler to handle him.  He will get a bit pushy and grip if allowed to make too many decisions on his own.  Overall, he is a nice dog and he was a pleasure to train up.

First Week Of Training

When Gus arrived he was 10 months old.  His owners had not received his registration papers yet and believed him to be at least one year, so I agreed to have a look at him.  My first few times to work him were brutal...on my training sheep.  He was extremely aggressive and after the second work, I sent a text to the owner to let him know that Gus was really aggressive and that he might need to make plans to come and pick him up, If he didn’t become more cooperative.  We agreed to give him a few more days.  Over the next 3-5 days, Gus began to cooperate and balance.  I am certainly glad that I didn't give up on him after a few works, as he was a very fun dog to train.

Month 1

Gus progressed through his first month quite well.  What you will notice as you watch the video below is that the dog has learned a lot in 30 days time. 

  • He has a solid "lie down" and "walk on" command on him
  • He is balancing sheep to me with very little pressure from me
  • He gives ground as he balances, but still applies pressure as needed
  • He consciously doesn't push sheep past me as I walk backward
  • He is much more cooperative than just 30 days before

Month 2

Gus progressed through his second month quite well and took to driving in a small pen more quickly than most dogs. 
In the 40 days since the previous video, Gus has added the following to his skill set:

  • Short (20-30 yards) outruns with controlled fetch
  • Transition to driving away short distances at the conclusion of the fetch
  • Inside flanks and off balances stops

Months 3 through 5

By the end of the 2nd month, Gus had mastered most of the skills needed to be useful working in pens and small spaces.  My next step with him was to increase the distance of his outrun, distance he could reliably drive sheep away, begin cross-drives, etc.  I don't have much video from that time frame, but the two videos below show that he progressed fairly quckly to becoming a useful farm dog to gather larger fields.  When dogs reach this stage, I prefer to send them home to get a lot of experience and have their owner identify any issues that need correcting.  It isn't uncommon for a dog to return for 1-2 months (as Gus did) for me to help resolve some issues.

The End...

I love to have folks come and pick up their dog to take it home.  It’s an opportunity to see how much their dog has progressed.  For me, it’s an ending, but for the dog and the owner, it is only the beginning.  It can take a bit of time for the dog to understand the voice and/or whistle commands of the owner. This is basically a language and we must remember that to the dog, it isn't a word, its only a sound with a specific meaning.   It can take weeks or even months for dogs to fully adjust to a new voice or whistles.  The final video of Gus below is after he came back to me for a few minor corrections.  Gus is now competing in a few sheepdog trials and helping move sheep and cattle for his owners.  

I hope this post has been useful to help illustrate how my training system typically progresses. As always,  I welcome your questions and thoughts.