The Third Estate of the Border Collie

  • The First Estate of the Border Collie is as a working stock dog.
  • The Second Estate of the Border Collie is as a conformation show dog.
  • The Third Estate of the Border Collie is as a dog sport athlete.
  • The Fourth Estate of the Border Collie is as a house pet.

Purists in the first estate will be pleased with their ranking, but this list is not judgmental, nor preferential. It does not extend from most important to least important, but rather from monolithic to democratic, from specific and narrow to diverse and broad. Fundamentally, the list documents the history of formal organization. You might argue that conformation showing is the most monolithic and the most specific, and you’d be right, but it is far behind trialing in history and in moral ownership of the breed.

I firmly believe that the Third Estate of the Border Collie is a significant player in the future of the Border Collie, unadorned with romantic history and unbound by a rigid and arbitrary “breed standard.” The Third Estate is a meritocracy like the first estate but is not blinded to the full potential of the Border Collie. The Third Estate is more numerous than the first two estates combined, an readily accepts more converts from the Fourth Estate than either of the first two.

Many ranchers and trialers got into Border Collies because they were in stock first. Many conformation breeders got into Border Collies after they were in another breed first. I’d venture to say that the flow of traffic from rancher -> border collie enabled rancher and conformation breeder -> border collie conformation breeder is larger and more significant than the traffic from border collie owner into either showing or ranching.

The dog sport communities and the pet communities on the other hand have great inter-mobility. There are many other breeds in dog sports, although when the ability of the Border Collie shines through, many serious competitors in other breeds upgrade to a BC. Those that don’t upgrade are forced and inspired to improve their own breeds to be competitive. There are also many Border Collie pets that inspire their novice owners to get into a meaningful activity when normal house pet duties are insufficient fare for the BC.

Dog sports are fun and inviting, and dog sport people have more avenues for training than either of the first two estates. It’s easy and convenient to pick a dog sport and find several training centers in your area, competitive clubs who will help you get trained and involved, and a free market of avenues to compete, from the non-serious fun variety to super competitive avenues that lead to sponsorships and world travel. Neither herding nor conformation can say the same.

The Border Collie was developed as a working stock dog, and it is still used widely for this purpose today. That being said, no one today developed the border collie. That was done at the same time all the other breeds came about as part of the Victorian fancy for eugenics and a growing sophistication of farmers in creating hybrid crops. Remember, the pivotal moment in genetics research came from a bean grower:

The science began to evolve in 1865 when Gregor Mendel, an Austrian botanist and monk, identified what he called “hereditary factors” — now known as genes. Three years later, Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss biologist, unknowingly discovered DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid. In 1876, Charles Darwin conducted experiments in breeding and published Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom. A year after that, William Beal, a renowned horticulturist at Michigan Agricultural College (later Michigan State University), established the first seed testing laboratory in the United States and was the first person to cross-pollinate corn to increase yields. His research demonstrated to farmers the advantages of hybrid vigor.
Plant Breeding and Genetics: Harvesting the Power of DNA

The breed name and the romantic breed history evoke images of well dressed pasty men with lilting accents or thick brogues on lush green pastures with idyllic cloud-puff sheep milling about as the perfect dog keeps it all in order. If such images were ever true, they are not true now. Today’s shepherd is adopting the trappings of an idealized past culture just as much as today’s cowboys of the American West are adopting the trappings of another idealized past culture. This isn’t artifice, it’s natural cultural inheritance. But in both cases, these are not the good old days, those are past. These are the good old days of the dog sport athlete.

The American herding community owes much of its culture to both of the past cultures I just mentioned, the gentleman rancher from the UK and the American cowboy. Despite their many attempts to, the American herding community can’t honestly play the “we made the breed card.” They might have a good case for the Australian Shepherd and the McNab, but the romantic Border Collie will always be a product of the UK. You might take the ISDS’s decision to recognize the ABCA as the inheritors of the old guard giving respect to the new guard who has finally lived up to their standards. You might also see it as a herding community in England that is becoming increasingly smaller and less significant reaching out to their colony in America who is doing much better, bloated with legions of border collie house pet registrations.

I’m sure there are many who would say that conformation showing is crippling the breed in England, but I have yet to be convinced that any shepherd need ever seek an outside source for their dogs. If there is a dearth of quality herding BCs in the UK, it’s because the herders aren’t maintaining their own house. Holding on to a past culture is strong and weak for the very same reason: the past doesn’t change. While it is successful and logical to take what works from the past and sustain it, it also means that elements from that saved history become less relevant every day as modernity and entropy make the past more foreign and obscure.

Herding might be really fun for the dog, but I have no fondness for sheep. Herding is also the least inviting of the estates. Not only are the small elite group old and cranky, they are elitist and differentiate themselves culturally in numerous ways.

In sheepdog culture speech is laconic, and praise for man or dog understated. It can be funny to wacth the newly obsessed adapt to that culture that nurtures their dogs. As his (her) dogs improve, many a previously garrulous suburbanite stats to mutter like John Wayne.

Sheepdog trialing does not attract many young people, but handlers in their seventies are unexceptional.
– Donald McCaig, The Dog Wars p17 & 23

Herding is also inaccessible because sheep are sparse and rural and trainers are hard to find and expensive. I can train in flyball for $10 per two hour class. I can train in Agility for $8 per 90 minute drop-in or two dogs for $10, with in depth introductory classes easily less than $20 per hour. Frisbee is the cost of the disc and a nominal fee for Spring Training. Herding costs me $25 for one dog and $30-40 for two dogs per hour, and those appear to be the market rates. Herding has the most expensive overhead and flyball has the least.

You can’t herd on your own unless you have a significant investment in land, sheep, equipment, and investment money to start and run a small business. You literally have to be a sheep rancher or serious hobbyist living in the country to play that game. Many trialers who have sheep and a bit of land don’t have enough of it to be competitive at the upper levels, so they increase the overhead and truck their sheep to other people’s ranches to practice 600-800 yard outruns and nasty terrain and such. Herding is clearly a career and lifestyle choice not many are willing to adopt.

Conformation is boring for human and dog. It’s also an exclusive club because it’s inherently subjective. Even if you have a beautiful dog with great conformation, you won’t be welcomed with open arms. It’s a lot about who you know and who you bought from and their status. There is an art to showing since you’re sending signals to judges about how well prepared you are and thus how likely it is that you should win. In any event where the judging is subjective, you will find favoritism that is unexplainable by probability and chance. When one hot dog sweeps several shows in a row, taking Best In Show against a few thousand dogs each show, it is simply unfathomable that it’s not fixed. Breed standards are vague, so in any given ring you could make a clear case that all the dogs have no faults, so to have hot dogs win again and again is a signal that the game you think is being played is not the game that is really being played.

Judges supposedly don’t know the name and breeder of the dogs in the ring, but this is a small community and kennels try hard to develop their own look. You’ll hear it in the language: “that’s a Wizaland head” or “those are Borderfame ears” and such. It’s also not difficult to recognize a dog, a handler, or a breeder if they are campaigning the dog. It’s also simple to cheat as the judge reading the list of dogs before the show or during the show as they fill out rankings for the breeds they are currently judging to see what arm band number corresponds to which dog.

You have to buy into this sport and it’s advisable to buy from the winning lines with a breeder who is actively showing. They have an incentive to help you along (and they might co-own your dog and are making you show) to help their breeding program along. You might find that you put in a lot of time and effort and the credit goes to the breeder. They did make the dog pretty after all.

It’s also expensive. Grooming overhead can be massive. It’s why the two most popular professions in the showing community are hair stylists and lawyers. One has expertise in the only real investment the owner makes: grooming. The other has expertise in the schmoozing and social climbing with back door deals that make the show world go round.

Showing doesn’t lend it self to small incremental investments in time, money, and effort. It really requires a balls out effort and a high buy-in cost to make a go at it and get any kind of results that will please your ego and sustain interest in the hobby. Most breeders do this because they see benefits down the road. They meet potential buyers, they earn a championship for their stock, and this improves their reputation and their ability to sell puppies to the masses.

Conformation is something people do because they are already breeding, it is not a means to graduate to breeding for something you already do. As far as the upper levels of show culture goes, the Border Collie is hopeless. The Herding Group is the bastard cousin of the show world and in the entire history of the Westminster dog show, the only herding group best in show came from a German Shepherd (which is genetically and functionally the least like the other herding breeds, it is a mastiff in sheepherder’s clothing) and he was owned and showed by a Firestone heiress.

I also have a fundamental atheism to any written breed standard. There is no logic or value behind one, especially for the Border Collie. I have to refrain from laughing when people try to explain “and why do we need straight hocks, well to herd well, of course!” The breed standard is to the conformation community what the bible is to most Christians. Most haven’t read it, and despite being referenced often, the words don’t determine what wins, fads do. If you read the BC standard and then look at the top winning BCs, you’ll see that there is an implied standard that speaks to fashion fads, not the words on the page.

Pet owners, the Fourth Estate, might have the least clout and moral ownership of the breed, but every economy has businesses and consumers, and consumer demand drives many business decisions. The Fourth Estate is the consumer base for the breeders who belong in the first three estates. Anyone breeding to herd, show, or compete is going to create more puppies than they need. Those puppies need to be sold.

The Herding community is the least sophisticated at this process. If they are active trialers and doing well, they will likely have a few fellow trialers who want to try out a puppy from their dog and see what they can do with it. This is just part of the culture that trades dogs like professional teams trade athletes. Not all dogs are on the revolving pet circuit, many are pets and “forever” dogs, but a good number of dogs move around the country for various reasons, in full accordance with market forces. The herding community is unlikely to sell their dogs cheap, but they are also unlikely to do genetic testing, eye testing, hip testing, and other value-added measures, so the dogs aren’t sold at a premium. Some dogs come with papers, some not. Most are purebred, some are crosses with other herding breeds like the McNab.

Conformation stock is rarely traded or sold. Unlike herding dogs that might not work out with their current owner’s style but can flourish under another handler, a show dog is not likely to be helped by being traded. Showing also requires little training (stand still, walk straight, put your feet here, keep your tail down and your ears up) and the prime age of operation is less than two years. Many dogs get their championships as puppies under a year old. Since the dog can “compete” at such a young age, there is much more interest in spreading the seed of top stud dogs around than there is in trading dogs.

Since dogs can win so young, they can also be bred young and often. This is the key factor in population dynamics. If you look at any healthy breeding population that is growing, there are several factors that determine how fast the population grows: number of offspring per litter, how often one generation breeds (comes into heat), the average age of first mating. It turns out that the exponential effects of population dynamics means that the age of first mating is many times more determinative of the size of the population than any other factor. Even if you have only a few puppies per litter and only come into heat once a year, breeding young means that you will fit in more generations in any given amount of time.

The show community breeds sooner and more often than any other estate. It’s part of the game. If you want to make your dog look distinctive to your kennel and you have some physical ideal that you’re working toward, you’re not going to get there simply by finding a good stud and a good bitch. You’re going to need to inbreed and line breed and go through several intermediate generations until your flavor “breeds true.”

If your dog gets their championship young but you don’t think it has a shot at being nationally campaigned, then you’re out of the sport until you get a new puppy. Almost all of the “for fun” conformation show people show until they get a championship and then stop if they are not breeders. The same is true of many herding breeders as well, because the cost/benefit for taking a herding dog on a national campaign is poor.

The Dog Sport world is diverse in interest and diverse in breeding. Many people rescue dogs instead of breed them and there is a beautifully efficient effect where Border Collies that are put into shelters simply because they needed an activity find owners who take them out and train them and fulfill that need. Dog sports engender good breeding karma even when you’re not breeding.

The dog sport world also has every reason to breed for health and temperament. Sure, you need a healthy dog to work sheep, but when you have a fluid market and a lot of dogs are only as good as their work, killing sick dogs and getting new ones is just as attractive an option as expensive veterinary treatments or pre-breeding testing. The show folks DNA test because they have to. The cultural acceptance of inbreeding and the excess to which they do it and the speed with which they breed new generations means that disease genes that exist all over the Border Collie genome get seriously magnified by the show community. They increase genetic entropy.

Because the dog sport people often treat their dogs like children and keep them for their whole life, they have a vested interest in getting a healthier product as well as putting a greater emphasis on temperament and early socialization. These dogs have to live in the city with other dogs and cars and garbage and all the dangers and temptations that doing so entails. They live in homes and sleep in beds. These are needs that are not necessarily met by all herding breeders.

Whereas show people are easily tempted to but ribbons above other concerns, and whereas trialers are easily tempted to put shiny belt buckles above other concerns, most dog sport athlete owners would rather have a perfect pet and an imperfect athlete versus the opposite. I don’t believe the show or herding folks can say the same.

The dog sport world also offers a wonderful metric by which to judge quality and demonstrate ability. Herding folks will say that no metric is superior to stock work, but these people already have their own metric and have little experience in others. Despite them saying it often, the notion that a dog bred specifically and only to herd is maximally competitive in any “lesser” persuit like frisbee or flyball or agility is a lie. Herding dogs don’t need to be as fast as Flyball dogs can be, nor do they need to have the eye-mouth coordination. They don’t need to jump as high as Frisbee dogs can, they don’t need to track and catch a flying object, and they don’t need to be comfortable jumping off of their handler’s body. Nor do they need to excel at turn on a dime close handling like Agility dogs do. Nor do they need to be as calm and militaristic as Obedience dogs.

Dog sports have their own requirements and people should, will, and need to breed with those concerns in mind. The very raison d’etre for dog breeds is to have predictable behaviors and similar abilities. Strains within those lines take that notion one step further, when you want to bring out a certain characteristic but in doing so you don’t cross the line into forming a new breed.

Herding Nazis will say that you should call your dog something else if it wasn’t bred to herd. But if they weren’t being hypocrites, American border collies shouldn’t be called BORDER collies at all. That’s a reference to a time and a place very very far away, and since the style of American pasture, sheep, and herding is distinct from the land, sheep, and style used a century ago in the UK, today’s American Border Collie is certainly a distinct creature from the BCs of old, and so too is US trialing culture different from UK trialing culture: more women, more jeans and less tweed, more varieties and styles of border collies (less racism against red dogs, greater preference for shorter coats more appropriate for arid Western pasture, etc).

This is a moot point though, because the herding folks tried to capture the “Border Collie” brand to prevent the AKC from calling their show dogs “Border Collies.” They failed. It’s in the public domain and the definition is essentially determined by the masses.

They can call the show dogs “barbie” collies all they want, but they don’t have the numbers, the clout, or the connections to the hoi polloi that the Third Estate has.

The Border Collie is the dog people see walking in their neighborhood, the one catching the disc at the park, or the one streaking across the jumps at a summer fair. Those numerous and ubiquitous venues belong to the Third Estate.

Not only is this a warning call for the Third Estate to take their breeding obligations seriously, it is also a wake up call to the Fourth Estate that you can and will find great and talented pets from breeders in the Third Estate. They, much more so than the First or Second Estates are breeding for qualities that you are likely to value. And they are likely to do it without feeding you a load of dogma with your puppy.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.