The Rare Border Collie Mauling

The only thing Dublin mauls are Frisbees. Photo by Amy Irvin.

The only thing Dublin mauls are Frisbees. Photo by Amy Irvin.

You really don’t hear much about Border Collie maulings against humans.  One such incident hit the news recently, so I figure that an analysis is in order.

It certainly isn’t part of the breed stereotype, which typically reinforces their reputation as brilliant, energetic, athletic, human focused, highly trainable and desperate to please. The negatives are simple extensions of these virtues: devious, neurotic, hyperactive, easily bored, demanding, needy, and overly sensitive.

These qualities are the obvious consequence of the selective breeding for specific inbred traits.  They are brilliant because we’ve bred them to manage stock independently at great distances from human control, they must think complexly and on their own.  They are energetic and athletic because they must physically manage many times their number of stock over those distances with micromanagement and precision which requires agility and speed.  They are human focused because they are also expected to take quick and complex commands from a shepherd in the field and to be extensively trained in their youth.  Their desire to please has been cultivated in them so that the work itself is the reward for the training and flock management, no treats necessary.

What Border Collies have NOT been bred for in any substantive way is guardian, police, bite, or attack work.  Nor have they been bred to go after game, other dogs, or to bait or hold large livestock.  And this is why you’re unlikely to find them used “off label” for these sorts of pursuits. They are not large enough to be effective anti-personnel dogs, and their build is for speed and agility not power and strength.  Training them in Schutzhund work is an uphill battle against their nature and their liabilities.  For instance, many Border Collies are gun shy or fearful of loud noises and other distressing stimuli.  Their typical bite style is rapid snaps, they are not prone to hold and jerk their heads after a bite lands.  And this is often done in a submissive fearful stance with their head turned back over the shoulder as they move away from the target vs. a head-on assault typical of dogs bred to fight.

But they are still dogs.  And any dog can bite.  And all breeds have.  These are tautologies, and thus aren’t super helpful for those of us who then ask, but what’s the comparative risk of a Border Collie mauling your kid vs. another breed?

The reasons that Border Collies would be less likely to bite than other dogs are pretty obvious.  They are bred to be nice, biddable, small, and mostly incapable of physical damage. They are not composed of other breeds that are bred to be fighting dogs or baiting dogs or even serious hunting dogs or prey dogs of any sort.  At best we presume that there might be some whippet or other sight hound mixed in, but this is probably balanced with bird dog types which are meant to be attentive but not confrontational of prey.  Many of the sorts of behaviors that might be redirected on to humans have been actively bred against in the breed.

The relative absence of Border Collies being implicated in bites, maulings, and deaths speaks to the power of these breeding schemes.  Despite these genetic and cultural advantages, Border Collies are not the perfectly bred non-biting dog.

So let’s look at the reasons why Border Collies WILL bite your kid:

(1) Border Collies have been bred to herd, but not harm, stock. This is a modification of their prey drive and increasing the prey drive will increase associated behaviors like hunting, stalking, and attacking.  In Border Collies, worrying stock is a no-no, so dogs that bite stock are disqualified from the sport and are usually not tolerated on the farm. But this quality is being kept in check at a high degree of expression, we want the dogs to have much interest and to stalk the animals but not complete the kill or even initiate an attack.  This, of course, means that the dogs have been bred to be hot, but not boil.  And that’s a delicate and imprecise process.  Since this trait has not been bred OUT of the dogs or suppressed to a minimum, it means that when aiming for high interest but not attacks, breeders will miss and produce dogs that go all the way.

(2) Border Collies have been bred to herd stock, not humans. This too is an imprecise art, and despite there not being any advantage in dogs tracking humans, especially children, or cars or other moving things that we don’t want them to herd/stalk/bite, there is not a lot of negative reinforcement or ability to prevent breeding dogs to push stock making them more likely to herd groups of children or bicyclists, or the lawn mower, or cars.  If you think about it, many of the modern targets of Border Collies’ interests were not present in enough concentration in their historical realms to be bred against.  Shepherds didn’t have to deal with throngs of kids or highways full of cars in their day to day work.  The rare instances of such things could be managed with training and wouldn’t necessarily become the basis for breeding decisions.

When we bred Border Collies to work stock, it must have included preserving and combining their natural instincts to hunt, including a fixation on the size, shape, sound, smell, and movement-patterns of prey.  Stock dog trainers will tell you that different dogs will key off of these traits and some will be more reactive and responsive to goats over sheep or sheep over cattle, etc. These preferences also are what distinguishes how the dogs chose to stalk and where they will bite if they do so (head vs. heels, for example).  While no Border Collie has been bred to focus on the sense triggers displayed by children, there are undeniable similarities.  I know that I can stimulate my own dogs by making funny noises or moving in a jerky manner.

(3) Border Collies have been bred to be attentive to humans.  Not only does this put them in close proximity to humans (they are not generally an aloof breed), it also primes them to be hyper vigilant and watchful of what their humans are doing.  It is more difficult to trigger a dog that is not paying attention or not in the vicinity of a stimulus, and thus the ever-under-foot Border Collie who takes it as a geis to be attentive, is more likely to notice and react to unintentional signals, like those of a child who is not themselves very aware of what signals they are giving off and what signals the dog is displaying.

(4) Border Collies are permissive but sensitive.  Some breeds are not permissive at all, they generally make for good guard dogs because they treat unfamiliar or threatening stimuli with a higher degree of response more quickly, and thus ward off unwitting trespassers before they are close enough to be bitten.  Swift to growl can mean less chance of a bite, much like a rattle snake’s defenses not being very effective if they only rattle when you’re too close to deviate your path.  While Border Collies don’t intentionally lure you in with the intent of pouncing, they are more likely to signal with body posture and their eyes than they are to growl meaning that oblivious humans who are not aware or can not “speak” dog body language will miss the warning signs as the dogs become more and more agitated.  This combined with their general bent toward sensitivity and reactivity means that a bite out of fear (versus aggression, a responsive not self-reinforcing sort of bite) is not unheard of in this breed.

(5) Border Collies are still dogs, and thus all the non-breed specific reasons that dogs bite still apply to them.  They will bite when they are in pain, when they are startled, when they are threatened, etc.

My own bias aside, the numbers bear out the truth that the factors pushing Border Collies to bite, maul, and kill are clearly outweighed by the factors preventing such.  There’s zero reason to think that there is some media conspiracy covering up children killed and maimed by Border Collies in furtherance of some plot against other breeds.  There’s zero reason to think that breed plays no part in Border Collie’s good nature despite the tautologies that apologists seize on, like “all dogs can bite.”  And there’s zero reason to think that people who own Border Collies are magically superior dog trainers and handlers and environments that operate so much more efficiently and safely on a wished-for but false “blank slate” such that we might “blame the deed and not the breed” or hyperventilating about the “owners” and “how they’re raised” instead of correctly accessing that nature trumps nurture and man has so heavily steered the nature of dogs.

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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.