Training Border Collies to Herd

Have you ever watched a stock dog trainer put his border collie to work herding livestock? One word: amazing!

Border collie puppy, Doc

This was Doc as a border collie puppy. Adorable, but not a herding dog.

I’ve done a lot of reading on how to train border collies. The best ways to corral that natural herding instinct. What to do, and what not to do. So I feel like I had a pretty firm grasp on reality when I took Doc to Norman and Vickie Close at Handhills Border Collies up by the lake.

After 30 minutes with sheep in the round pen, Norman confirmed my original analysis of my border collie. He’s never going to be a great herding dog. In fact, he’s not even going to be a good stock dog.

I could sink a bunch of time and money into my border collie and end up with a handy enough type of pup to have around the ranch. That’s not going to happen. Maybe if I worked cattle every day? No, not even then. If I worked cattle every day, I’d take that money to invest in Doc’s training and put it towards a wickedly talented pup that could really be something amazing.

Mixed Messages
When Doc worked in the round pen with the sheep, we finally got him to circle around behind the sheep and balance them with the handler. It took a lot of work to get him to do that, though, and it never happened completely successfully.

The biggest issue? Doc has been on cattle his entire life. Usually on hundreds and thousands of acres. With me on a horse. I’ve spent two and a half years keeping that border collie with me. Additionally, I never felt comfortable letting him get his paws too wet in working stock that wasn’t mine so I tried to minimize his mistakes. Usually that meant calling him off the cows.

I don’t blame my border collie one stinkin’ bit for not circling around those sheep. I’d describe his actions in the round pen as confused. Sure he doesn’t have the type of skill I saw in Norman’s dogs, but the warring he felt of wanting to work being offset by two and a half years of being called back so many times was apparent.

Stock Dogs at Work
Norman showed me two of his dogs. A 12-month old pup who is going to be quite a dog, I think. He also brought out his older border collie, the sire of the young one. Wow.

We took the sheep out into a huge field so I could see what a trained herding dog could do. Which is just about everything. Norman could place that border collie anywhere he wanted with his whistle. Flanking, circling, lying down, coming back to him, a large outrun, fetching the sheep, driving them back the way they came in any direction Norman desired.

It was the first time I’ve watched a herding dog work stock like that. It was inspiring. It also permanently sealed Doc’s fate of never pursuing herding training.

I learned a lot this weekend, and I can see that if you want a top-notch border collie to work livestock like I saw then you have to start with a dog loaded with potential.

Doc is my best pal. He has good qualities, and he can work cattle a little. I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but he’s not going to be a herding dog. And I’m okay with that.

Sometimes the best gift we can give our animals – and sometimes ourselves and the people around us – is to wholly accept their strengths and weaknesses, to love them just as they are and not try to make them into something they aren’t.


  1. Sue McD says:

    Know we learn something everyday, but also know we learn something from every dog we have had in our lives. Sounds like a pretty cool visit. Thank you for sharing Erica!

  2. Aww Doc was so cute as a puppy! I want a border collie so bad but can’t have any more dogs. I have 2 Jack Russells and that’s all I need right now. Sorry to hear he won’t be a herding dog. 🙁 Are dogs like horses and some are bred for it while others just aren’t? Did his parents do any herding?

    • Doc has some instinct when it comes to herding. If I wanted to spend a lot of money and time with him, he could be pretty okay at it. Even with just the work I have done with him, he can be some assistance when we’re out working cows. (Though many times he’s more trouble than help!) His parents allegedly work stock, but I didn’t ever see them.

      It is quite similar to horses – some border collie lines are really exceptional at herding. It’s also just like horses that sometimes, even with the bloodlines, a dog doesn’t have it, and at other times, a dog with no special breeding will do really well.

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