The Border Collie War: ABCA vs. AKC


The most personal border war for me, and the reason this blog is so cleverly named border wars is the battle over the future of the pure bred Border Collie. Although Border Collies have been in my family for decades and there have been Border Collies at my side for most of my twenty-seven years, it has only been in the last three years that I have been on the front lines of the Border Collie war, drawn into the conflict when I began my search for a new Border Collie puppy.

I found two wonderful dogs, but I also found a bitter and nasty war of ideals and philosophy, rank with dogma, poor logic, and even worse breeding practices. As with most wars, both sides have blood on their hands and both reek of hypocrisy and the shit they’ve been slinging at the other side. Despite my fondness for vicious personal attacks and heated debate, I didn’t expect to find them while looking intently for a cute bundle of fur that would be my next faithful friend.

You’ll hear a lot about the two dogs I found in my search, Dublin and Celeste, for they are easily the best Border Collies I have ever had the pleasure of owning, as much for their own merits as for my growing sophistication as a Border Collie aficionado, and now Border Collie breeder.

Ground zero in the BC war is the battle between the two registries, the ABCA vs. the AKC.

Every border collie came from a breeder, whether intentional or accidental, and it is that small group of people who are going to determine where the breed is going. If you’ve purchased a purebred registered BC in the last 13 years, you’ve probably come up against the war between the two largest BC registries, the American Border Collie Association (ABCA) and the American Kennel Club (AKC).

In a sweeping generalization, the ABCA is the “working dog” registry and the AKC is the “show dog” registry, or at least that’s how they derive their cachet. Actual working dogs and dogs shown in conformation make up only a fraction of each registry. Despite both organizations’ claims to be about the betterment of the breed and breed health, their raison d’etre is to be book keepers that maintain a database of dog pedigrees for money.

The ABCA registers about 20,000 border collies–and only border collies–per year. The hundred year old International Sheep Dog Society registry in the UK registers around 6,000 border collies per year, and the two registries recognize each other’s papers with good faith and both bill themselves as the working border collie registry. The ABCA requires the breeder to register the entire litter at once, so even dogs that are not going to be bred are registered.

In comparison, the AKC registers just over 2,100 border collies per year, although this figure doesn’t count the numerous unregistered Border Collies that compete in Obedience, Rally, Agility, Herding, Tracking, etc. that are given Indefinite Listing Privilege numbers that allow participation in AKC events without being fully registered with the AKC. The AKC does not require that breeders register their entire litter, leaving this option up to puppy buyers, so not every puppy in every litter ends up on the books.

Even so, this is a far cry from the most popular breeds in the AKC like the Labrador Retrievers, Yorkshire Terriers, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, and Beagles. The Border Collie ranks 56th out of the AKCs 155 breeds and makes up only 0.25% (one in four-hundred) of the 870,000 dogs the AKC registers each year.

Breed 2006 Count
Retrievers (Labrador) 123,760
Yorkshire Terriers 48,346
German Shepherd Dogs 43,575
Retrievers (Golden) 42,962
Beagles 39,484
Dachshunds 36,033
Boxers 35,388
Poodles 29,939
Shih Tzu 27,282
Miniature Schnauzers 22,920
Chihuahuas 22,562
Bulldogs 21,037
Pugs 20,008
Border Collies 2,181

The AKC and the English KC register about the same number of Border Collies per year even though the KC registers only 270,000 dogs annually. The Border Collie is in the UK’s top 30:

Labrador Retriever 45,700
Cocker Spaniel 20,459
English Springer Spanial 15,133
German Shepherd Dog (Alsatian) 12,857
Staffordshire Bull Terrier 12,729
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel 11,411
Golden Retriever 9,373
West Highland White Terrier 9,300
Boxer 9,066
Border Terrier 8,916
Rottweiler 6,575
Shih Tzu 4,436
Miniature Schnauzer 4,396
Lhasa Apso 4,154
Yorkshire Terrier 4,042
Bulldog 3,522
Dobermann 3,388
Bull Terrier 3,361
Weimaraner 2,744
Pug 2,681
Whippet 2,672
Dogue de Bordeaux (Imp) 2,361
Bichon Frise 2,329
Border Collie 2,219

After 13 years of AKC recognition, the Border Collie has evened out at 9:1 ratio of Working Registry dogs to Show Registry dogs, compared with the UK where the Border Collie has been shown for over a decade longer than in the US and has a ratio of 2.7 ISDS dogs to each KC dog. As best as I can tell, conformation showing started in the early 1980s in England, in 1995 in the United States, and in the late 1950s in Australia and New Zealand. The significant head start that the “Oz” dogs had in conformation showing has resulted in a handful of Australian kennels dominating the UK and US show lines.

The ABCA started in the early 1980s, although it wasn’t the predominant US registry until the collapse of the American International Border Collie registry and the North American Sheep Dog Society registry, leaving the lone ABCA to cater specifically to the breed. The ABCA website quotes 100,000 BCs registered by 1997, and roughly 20,000 dogs per year since then. Unlike the AIBC and the NASDS which were privately held businesses run by individuals which promptly fell apart following the founder’s deaths, the ABCA is a more democratic organization that will likely survive future transitions of power despite its current leadership comprising many members who have been with the organization from the start.

The rise of the ABCA and the details of their fight against AKC recognition is documented in a book by author and Border Collie enthusiast, Donald McCaig. It’s called “The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club.” I’ve written about the book several times, and I’ll be reposting many of those discussions in the coming days.

Despite the advertising hype, dogma, and theoretical vitriol thrown at the AKC by the ABCA establishment, there are a list of things that neither registry does that is really troubling:

Neither registry requires any sort of health testing to register dogs from current stock. DNA, X-Ray, Eye Exams play no part in becoming a breeder or owner if you buy or breed dogs that already have registration numbers with the ABCA or AKC or a registry they accept transfers from. The ABCA requires PRA and CEA testing only for imported dogs and eye exams for the handful of dogs running in the National Finals. Despite CEA being a rather minor condition and the availability of DNA tests to determine carrier status, no puppies from a CEA or PRA dog can be registered even if they are clear or carriers.

The only required tests are for imported stock, ROM stock, dogs in the National Finals, and dogs that are registered more than two years after birth. This is a scant few dogs. CEA is a minor disease and PRA is very rare. There are more common and more lethal diseases that play no part in the current testing and registration scheme.

This scheme is essentially telling you to wipe your feet at the door, but pay no mind to the festering carpets inside.

Neither registry requires reporting or publication of any test results. Even if you do test, the registry and the world never has to know about good or bad results. You can bet that a false sense of security arises out of under-reporting of bad results and an over emphasis of good results.

Neither registry prevents in-breeding or line breeding to any degree. The ABCA website says the following:

Can in-bred pups be registered? Yes. No policy governs in-breeding or line-breeding.

Are there known health problems with in-breeding dogs? Yes. Ask your veterinarian’s advice, or read a comprehensive dog genetics book.

Read a comprehensive dog genetics book? HAH! What a plan! The people who chair the Health and Genetics committee of the ABCA need to read one of those books and so do the AKC breeders. I’ve caught both of them in serious misunderstandings of basic genetics and even outright buffoonery.

Having no proviso against inbreeding is very dangerous, especially since in-breeding and linebreeding are favorite tools of the self proclaimed elite breeders. Chasing after popular studs, trying to recreate a famous winning dog by inbreeding his descendants, or dangerous linebreeding to create a signature kennel look happen all the time with little to no remorse when it all goes bad.

Neither registry keeps any sort of health information database. The closest you’ll find is the option of including eye exam results or hip results on the pedigree, but there is no requirement, and the number of breeders volunteering key information is vanishingly small. You’d be hard pressed to find a pedigree with enough volunteered health information on it to be useful in making a breeding decision. is an independent publicly searchable health database for DNA testing of Border Collies. It should be said that the AKC breeder who is instrumental in establishing and maintaining this database recently supervised a close breeding on a past winning dog which produced a litter that was ravaged by the untreatable and incurable Trapped Neutrophil Syndrome (TNS). Most of the puppies died, and only one was clear. And guess what, no remorse from the breeders and the one clear puppy is currently being shown towards his breed championship.

Neither registry has any criteria for membership other than payment. There are no requirements for breeder education, there is not so much as an ethics pledge required. Although, the ABCA does suggest you be “of good moral character.”

Neither registry requires registered dogs to meet any performance standard or physical standard or any standard at all, written or implied. The ABCA won’t turn away your stud dog/bitch if it is aggressive and kills sheep, has no eye, can’t outrun because of horrible joints, and can’t even learn the sit command. The AKC won’t turn your stud dog/bitch away if it is ugly and has a fault in every element of the breed standard or if it can’t limp through an agility course or even if it’s congenitally blind and deaf and can’t hope to train in Obedience. So an ABCA pedigree says nothing about your dog’s ability to herd and an AKC pedigree says nothing about your dog’s Conformation or Agility or Obedience, per se.

For the excessive degree to which these organizations take themselves seriously as champions of the future of Border Collies, when you brush away the makeup, you’re left with a simple biblical list of dog begat dog begat dog begat dog, with about as much verifiability and relevance as such lists in the old testament have to do with modern dating, mating, and health practices.

Neither registry offers much protection against puppy millers other than the higher cost of registration than less reputable registries. The ABCA has only banned known puppy millers after they have been found to falsify pedigree information. There have only been 4 disciplinary actions. Here is the stated
reason Swafford (I think some of the other actions are related to Swafford, i.e. his children/associates) was removed:

It was determined through an ABCA investigation that Richard Swafford’s breeding practices and kennel conditions were not conducive to accurate registration.

Because the evidence showed systematic misrepresentation by Mr. Swafford of the identity and parentage of the dogs he sold, any dog which passes through his kennel must be regarded as suspect.

That being said, some of the removed parties now use associates to register dogs with registries and still sell them advertising ABCA registration (among others). Apparently one of them has also started their own registry that accepts transfers from just about anyone.

The AKC does investigate breeders who register 7 or more litters per year and randomly investigates breeders who register 4-6 litters. They don’t publish their disciplinary actions that I can find. The AKC has also worked with the Hunte Corporation, the nation’s largest puppy broker. They have begun using DNA testing, but again, this is not for disease, this is simply to prove that the breeder has been scamming the AKC by grouping puppies into fake litters to save on registration fees.
So for all the elitism involved with having either a “herding” bred BC or a “show” bred BC, these terms really only apply to the people who don’t herd, don’t show, don’t train, don’t compete and really don’t do anything with their dogs that’s noteworthy. Only these people find such advertisements as “champion sired” or “from working stock” to be valuable. Herding people will ALWAYS be able to produce more than enough dogs for their herding and trialing needs, and so will the show, obedience, agility, frisbee, and flyball people. So why do registries fight so viciously to fool the hoi polloi? Because the uninformed masses are their bread and butter.

People who breed for specific needs (the breeding members of the AKC and ABCA) and who are involved in dog sport of any kind produce entire litters every time they are trying to make just one special dog for their activity. All the other puppies must be sold. And for people who breed and sell all the puppies, they need receptive buyers who are unlikely to be sophisticated and know the intricate workings of dog breeding and selecting. The registry that wins the PR war provides the most fertile dumping ground for all the extra puppies that are produced. The more fertile the dumping ground, the more their membership can breed to succeed, and the more money the registry makes through all the extra dogs that get registered.

The AKC sponsors several performance activities and awards titles for those events. Having an AKC pedigree isn’t necessary for most of them. Conformation is the only event that doesn’t allow ILP dogs of all kind, and events like Lure Coursing only award points to Sight Hound breeds, but the menu of available dog sport activities is long and varied. Obedience, Agility, Herding, Rally, Tracking, Earth Dog, and Canine Good Citizen are among the many programs the AKC sponsors.

The ABCA’s sister organization, the USBCHA (US Border Collie Handlers’ Association) sponsors herding trials and doesn’t require your dog to be a border collie or have papers of any kind. Even though the ABCA will not register any dogs with AKC in their pedigree and kick out any dogs shown in AKC conformation, the prettiest show BC can still compete in the USBCHA’s trial system. The ABCA does partially sponsor the purse at the National Finals and has a program where members can get money to hold local events like sheep trials or eye clinics.

Even if you include the work of the USBCHA, the ABCA’s reach is mostly relevant to active breeders in the ABCA and the top level handlers who attend the trials that the ABCA is involved in. Despite “owning” most of the Border Collie gene pool, they really can’t compete with the size and scope of programs and polish that the AKC can provide its members. While the AKC might not own a lot of the Border Collie, it does own a LOT more dogs in general, and this is essentially a gravity well that will continue to suck in orbiting breeds that it slowly draws in.

No registry and no single dog activity seeks to create the best pet BC, and that’s what all dogs are 95% of the time. Herding sheep well or looking pretty doesn’t guarantee or even suggest desirable qualities of a pet. Despite their elitism, the ABCA and AKC zealots aren’t looking out for people who want well rounded dogs who are as much family as they are a work tool or a beautiful specimen.

Neither side fights the border war for me or the BC ideal I’d like to maintain for myself. I’m an instant outsider because I don’t believe in the holiness of a conformation standard, nor do I feel that the Border Collie need be only bred as a tool to move stock and all the other concerns and uses should simply subsist off of the leftovers and castoffs of the herding community.

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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.