Dogs Work for Man

From National Geographic, August 1958

Dogs Aid the World’s Herdsmen

Since man first domesticated livestock, he has recognized the worth of a dog to guard and move his flocks and herds. This task has molded a variety of herding dogs.

The rough-coated komondor protects–and even resembles–the semi wild sheep of Hungary’s wide-swept plains. Half a world away the agile kelpie shuttles flocks across Australia’s outback.

For centuries the stumpy Welsh corgi, favorite of Britain’s Royal Family, has nipped at laggard cattle’s heels. So have Germany’s Rottweiler, a remnant of Roman invasion; France’s Briard; and the Low Countries’ Bouvier des Flandres. Even the Russian Laika breeds tended reindeer herds long before a mongrel by that name won fame as the first space dog.

But the most worked shepherd’s dog in English-speaking countries is a canny little Scot known as the working, or Border, collie.

A Ring of Border Collies Closes In

These dogs, bred from Scottish stock, demonstrate herding techniques at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station near Wooster. Obeying their master’s signal, five crouch at guard as a sixth inches forward. Much of the collie’s value lies in its ability to bunch the flock.

I was reminded recently of an English physician, Johannes Caius, who in 1570 wrote the earliest treatise on the dogs of Britain. Of the shepherd’s working partner he said:

“This dogge either at the hearing of his master’s voyce, or at the wagging and whisteling in his fist…bringeth the wandring weathers and straying sheep, into the selfe same place where his masters will and wishe…wherby the shepherd reapeth his benefite, namely, that with little labour and no toyle or moving of his feete he may rule and guide his flocke, according to his owne desire, either to have them go forward, or to stand still, or to drawe backward, or to turne this way or to take that way.”

Doctor Caius’s dog my well have resembled today’s Border collie, traceable to the Scottish-English frontier more than three centuries ago. And aside from whistling through his teeth rather than his fist, Carl Bradford of Wooster, Ohio, might well illustrate the old writer’s remarks.

This specialist in sheep research at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station has happily joined his work with his avocation–breeding and training Border collies.

I watched, amazed, as Bradford worked the black-and-white pride of his kennels, Roy, with a flock of ewe lambs.

Bradford first scattered the sheep out of sight behind a low rise. Then with a snap of his fingers, he dispatched Roy on the “outrun”–a wide sweep around the flank–to bring them back.

The dog sped low across the meadow. With two whistles, one low the other high, Bradford corrected his course a bit to the left. Roy vanished over the rise.

Collie Gives Sheep the “Eye”

“Now he’s on his own,” Bradford said. “A good herding dog must be obedient, of course. But he must have initiative too, for he often works out of sight of his master, like this.”

A minute later a sea of dust-stained wool flowed like heavy sirup over the brim of the hill. Patiently, never approaching too closely except to head off an errant sheep, Roy darted in an arc behind. When the flock edged toward a fence, Bradford split the air with two low-pitched whistles. Roy shot instantly to his right, heading off a difficult situation.

By stops and starts the sheep approached like a company of awkward recruits. At each halt Roy crept closer with a crouching, almost hypnotic movement to start them again.

“That’s what we call ‘eye.'” Bradford explained. “All good herding dogs have it to some degree. It’s the ability to creep up with trancelike attention on the flock and force it to move without stampeding.”

“Move!” Barks This Bossy Sheepherder

Border Collie leaps aboard to break up a woolly traffic jam. Specially trained for work in close quarters, this dog uses a bridge of backs instead of running around the flock. Experienced sheep respect a dog but have no fear of him; they rarely need to be nipped.

It was indeed an astonishing display, as a 40-pound dog silently pushed balky sheep hundreds of times his own weight at his master’s wish.

Bradford or one of his sons annually combs the English and Scottish countryside for working Border collies to augment their kennels.

Although these dogs are consistently black and white and run 30 to 50 pounds in weight, color and size are of secondary importance. None can be registered in the North American Sheep Dog Society without certified working parentage. This breed’s fanciers believe with the Highlands shepherd that “pretty is as pretty does.”

Training develops the Border collie’s long-inbred herding instinct. As with all working breeds, basic obedience comes first–except for the command, “Heel.” The last place a shepherd wants his dog is at his side. Fifteen minutes a day for six or seven months trains the dog for most herding work.

Swine are the hardest of all stock to move, Bradford told me, requiring a forceful dog. A cattle dog needs the courage to return for a second nip at the heel of a kicking heifer. Sheep usually prove the most tractable. Herding poultry, particularly turkeys, the dog can work closest of all, using slighter movements to control the flock.

Carl Bradford, Jr., and his brother Jerry demonstrated for me the difficult feat of working three dogs simultaneously. The subjects were four reluctant ducks that flapped and skittered in ragged circles to escape the canine fence around them. Oddly, a few fowl are harder to work than a large flock.

With whistles and different commands for each dog, Carl skillfully directed his charges as they herded the quacking quartet back and forth between wooden barriers.

Even an unpracticed eye could discern differences in style. Fly, veteran of sportsmen’s shows and State fairs, pursued her duties with artistic flair. Nan tended her business with grave concern. Towser let the others tire themselves on the flanks as he ploddingly shutoff escape to the rear.

Bradford furnishes trained dogs to livestock farmers throughout the United States. He has sent dogs to herd sheep on mining-company land high in the Peruvian Andes, and he has received inquiries from as far away as China.

Ancient Welsh law said a good herding dog was worth a prime ox. In recent years one Border collie sold for $1,500. Whatever the cost, it is fully repaid in faithfulness to flock and master.

A memorial stone was erected at an English roadside years ago to pay t
ribute to Tip, a female Border collie. Her master, an 85-year-old shepherd, took her along on his last winter’s walk on the lonely moos, where he died. Not for 15 weeks was either seen again, until searchers discovered the feeble, emaciated dog, 12 years old herself, still standing vigil over her master’s body.

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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.