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So You Want a Border Collie: But You Don’t Have a Yard?

Eight month old Border Collie Jack at the park after spending an hour at the dog park playing Frisbee.
Eight month old Border Collie Jack at the park after spending an hour at the dog park playing Frisbee. | Source

Everywhere you look online you will find amazing stories and videos showing off the incomparable intelligence and agility of Border Collies. Pay some attention to K-9 commercials and you’ll find that roughly 7 out of 10 commercials with animals feature a Border Collie. If you take the time to research the most intelligent dog breeds, you will find that while experts don’t always agree on the 2 through 5 rankings, #1 is always the Border Collie. Contrary to what many experts say, no matter where I live I will always own a Border Collie, and I'm confident he will be as happy as my current best friend is today. That’s because many of the generalities about Borders are greatly exaggerated.

By now you can tell that if you’re looking for an unbiased article on the breed, you haven’t found one here. I’ve owned and been around Border Collie’s my entire life and while I love dogs in general, I’m “in Love” with Borders. I’ve read just about everything written about Border Collie’s that there is to be said. Most of the “general information” usually given about Border’s is “generally” true, but one needs to keep in mind that they are, in fact, “generalities”. And speaking in general about this breed is exactly like speaking in general about 5 year old kids. Most of it applies but there is so much more to be said that if you want to have an accurate understanding of them, you’re going to need to spend a significant amount of time with one. Perhaps even more time researching owner and breed forums, rather than articles or publications. This goes for both the Border and the 5 year old human.

What are the most notable traits of a Border Collie? They’re smart beyond compare, very independent thinkers, incredibly athletic and extremely loyal. Another very important trait that is often left out of such descriptions is that they are highly emotional.

What are the worst notable traits of a Border Collie? What’s the downside? They’re smart beyond compare, very independent thinkers, incredibly athletic, extremely loyal and highly emotional. You’ll know that this is not as humorous as it is factual by the end of your first 6 months of owning one.

As an experienced Border Collie owner and amateur trainer, beyond these well-known traits, I can’t say that I absolutely agree with the many generalities made about the breed. I’ve heard experts qualify potential owners by saying that “unless you have a large yard for Borders to run, you shouldn’t own one.” Sometimes true, but “generally” not true. Who doesn’t have a park down the street or some space to play with a dog? If you don’t, all medium to large size dogs in general are out. Not just Border Collies. I’ve heard other BC experts say “they’re easily trained, but not recommended as family dogs”, as they may exhibit dominant behavior over smaller children. This can be true, but it depends on the particular dog, his upbringing and you. Like many other breeds they can be jelous of the kids or protective of them, but generally this isn’t the norm. Most often they find their place in the family and do their best to do what they see as their job.

Two beautiful Border Collie's.
Two beautiful Border Collie's. | Source

Miraculous Border Collie behavior can be, well, miraculous.

We’ve had more than one border that would always sleep with the youngest person in the house. How did he know? I could never figure it out. When I was a child, I grew up with a BC that could do this. Then we adopted a two year old from a BC rescue when my kids were 12 and 15. He clearly had the same policy. When my daughter would have friends come for a sleepover, he would somehow know which one was the youngest, and sleep with by her. It soon became a game, and the girls would try to fool him. One evening they succeeded as one girl he laid beside was just over a month older than the girl he had chosen. Everyone laughed. For the first time in more than a year, the incredible miracle dog had been fooled! Then unexpectedly, the girl he was laying with began complaining of a stomach ache and had when I checked her, she had a fever. Her parents came to get her and as the girls all began to crawl back in bed, suddenly the girls were all screaming! Who did he lie down beside? That’s right, the youngest girl there. That’s when it began to hit the other girls that he had not been wrong at all. He was merely found his place beside the young lady who was sick, because he knew she was sick. He was never wrong again. Note; if you own a Border Collie for long, you will have a likely different, but equally amazing story.

Rather than how much room you have in your back yard or how big your family is, YOU as a well informed and dedicated owner are THE deciding factor as to whether a Border Collie is the best dog for your family. Or any dog, for that matter. I don’t mean you just make the decision, I mean your commitment to provide the time, attention, training and investment. Chances are, if you are willing to put in the time, learn to train and provide the attention, there will be no better breed for your family and you will never consider any another breed of dog again.

A friend of mine told me that she knew someone who was having a terrible time with their Border Collie. She said they couldn’t take the dog anywhere because it barked and jumped up on people and they had to put it outside because it was chasing her other little dog around the house and chewed up everything it could find. Even though she thought they just had “a bad one” she wanted to ask if I had any secret to raising such nice, polite Border Collies. Without asking a single question I knew, without any doubt, what the problem was with this poor dog. The owner. Without writing a dissertation, it’s easy to see that the dog was not getting its exercise/training time, had no behavior parameters, and had inadvertently learned the habits of the smaller dog, for the lack of any other instruction. In addition, his herding instinct was causing him to herd the smaller dog whenever he could and he was chewing as the outlet to his discouragement. Which all dogs will do when emotionally distraught from not receiving physical and emotional needs. Borders and many other breeds most often chew due to separation anxiety, but given the description, this was much more serious. What would have been a problem with any medium to large breed dog had become a nightmare with this, quite normal, Border Collie. The problems would have been the same with most other dogs, while the reaction was exaggerated in this much more intelligent and energetic animal. You might raise another breed without any knowledge of dog training or the breed itself. That’s probably unlikely with a Border Collie.

Your Border Collie isn't interested in a yard unless you are in it.

Waiting for the return of his owner.
Waiting for the return of his owner. | Source

It’s not “is a BC the right dog for you?” it’s “are you a good owner for a BC?”.

In researching online you will find lists that will say “DO NOT BRING HOME A BORDER COLLIE IF:” and in contrast, “A BORDER COLLIE MIGHT BE THE DOG FOR YOU IF:” along with a list of more generalities. This is because most BC shelter owners and breeders don’t want to see Borders taken back to the breeder or shelter they came from. And rightfully so! Many people don’t do their homework before bringing home a new dog. They see this beautiful creature or little cute puppy and think, “how hard can it be?” Then, faced with housebreaking and multiple daily walks, they cannot see their lives continuing like this, which leads them to return their new dog. It happens with all breeds but perhaps even more with BC’s because there are a few, who may just destroy your house if they are not getting what they need as puppies. When I read the lists that follow the qualifying statements above, I usually find things that would apply to any breed, or at least any medium to larger breed. As an example, a Border Collie is NOT for you if:

“You don’t want to spend a significant amount of time doing “dog” stuff daily” or “you don’t like going outside in bad weather.”

Come -on! Seriously? Who thinks anyone should own any dog, who doesn’t want to walk their dog in bad weather, or when they have an excessively “busy life, or 12 hour a day work schedule that a dog can’t participate in”? You don’t want to leave a Border locked up alone in the house for 8-12 hours a day, 5 days a week. I wouldn’t do that to any dog, but especially to one this smart and equally as emotional.

On the opposite side of the issue, another list says: A Border Collie IS for you if: “You are serious about sheep herding”, and “you want an athletic dog to do sports with”. There would be an enormous amount of Border Collie’s up for adoption if they all had dominate herding dog instincts or all remained exceedingly hyper and athletic despite all training efforts. I stress “dominate” herding dog instincts and “exceedingly” hyper. Most Border puppies do show occasional herding instincts, like creeping growling and biting at your ankles when they are playing, but they are usually easily taught better manners, and what puppy of any breed isn’t hyperactive?

Again, this can happen with several breeds, not just BC’s. If you want an accurate generality of which to gauge your dog choice, here’s one you can depend on. “Every dogs training, demeanor and personality is a direct reflection of the owner’s commitment, more so than of the dog”. Before making a choice of any breed, do your homework. Know what you are getting into. Have a plan. Learn basic dog training and housebreaking skills. If you do this, chances are very good that raising a border or any breed, will be far easier than you thought or even planned for, and you will be very happy with your choice.

What activity is more important to your dog?

  • Playing with other dogs?
  • Playing with a toy all to his/herself?
  • Being with you regardless?
  • Eating is always at the top of the list.
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One of the most carefully protected breeds, for most unusual reasons.

The American Border Collie Association (ABCA) is dedicated to the preservation of the breed as traditional working dogs and continues to make an effort to maintain the breed as a working or herding breed. They discourage breeders from breeding with any other outcome in mind, such as looks, personality, companionship, or any other trait. The ABCA has in fact been relatively successful at keeping the breed primarily a working breed. The American Border Collie Association registers approximately 20,000 Border Collies annually and continues to maintain working lineage of all registered dogs. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many different sizes and colors of purebred Border’s, it simply because they have been bred specifically for herding, rather than any specific look, size or physical trait like most other K-9 breeds. However, there are breeders who have bred dogs for other purposes from athletic ability to perfection in demarcation and even behavior. They remain rare due to both the demand for pure bread working Borders and their monetary worth. The pure breed Border Collie pup has a far greater value than any Border Collie bred for any another outcome.

Once again, the reason there are so many breeder and border-rescue websites with advice and lists stressing a long list of reasons why you might not want a Border Collie, is because they are trying to save both potential owners and these incredible dogs from experiencing the worst, by dropping their dog off at a rescue after 5 months or more of ownership. While many of the generalities may not always be true for full grown adult dogs, most of them are accurate for puppies. If you’ve never raised a puppy and don’t know anything about training dogs, or there is the slightest chance that you cannot remain dedicated to doing so, you might want to consider adoption. Although you will still need to plan for possible re-housebreaking, daily walks and an occasional afternoon at the dog park. Some BC’s can get very nervous when they enter new ownership from adoption, and can lose control of their housebreaking temporarily. Usually, this will subside on its own, but it’s good to practice the basics until they become comfortable. You need to remember that they are very emotional and highly intelligent. Just like a human, losing their family/owner and getting a new one can be extremely traumatic for them. But on the positive side, they also seem to know what has happened and will have such admiration for you that you will both be elated with each other when they have settled in. You may have heard this from others who have adopted dogs. It’s very common with all breeds but like nearly everything else about BC’s, it can be true times 10, compared to the other breeds.

Knowing how to choose the right puppy.

I’m not getting off on a tangent here. Unless you are adopting, knowing how to choose a puppy is probably where the first and most crucial error is made when brining a Border Collie into your family. Puppies of any breed can make your life miserable, at least temporarily. And just as Borders are several steps up from average on the intelligence and athletic scales, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the scale of the mischief they can get into during puppy-hood is far higher as well. Especially if you know very little about choosing a Border Collie puppy from a litter.

I’ve heard of people successfully choosing border puppies by picking the laid-back and sometimes even the runt of the litter, in an effort to avoid alpha traits. However, I personally don’t think you need to take it that far and you’re very likely to get an unhealthy puppy that way. Often there are health problems with the runt of the litter. If you know a little about puppy behavior and have prepared well or have some experience with Borders, you can probably handle training a pup that has alpha dog tendencies. If you know you want a Border but are a bit concerned about your training skills, or you’re afraid a more hyperactive pup might take a gourmet liking to your furniture before you can train them otherwise, you might want to favor a slightly calmer pup. Remember, this doesn’t always work and it doesn’t mean at all that the dog will not indulge in the long list of expected puppy behavior. It does, however, help the odds considerably that you will get the demeanor you are looking for. Just hopefully that your new pup will be a little better listener, a bit more respectful and be more self-conscious about getting into trouble. There are no magic bullets, or magic puppy tests. Your new puppy could be perfect and without the proper training and time put into your pups progress, the dog could develop all of the traits you’re trying so hard to avoid. You can pick the perfect puppy, but you need to keep your pup on the right track for the pup to become the perfect adult dog.

The best way to do this is to use common sense. Visit the litter with those in your family who will be living with the puppy. Or, if it’s just you, try to take two or three people with you. It’s even better if one is a child to get an idea of how each puppy responds to children. The puppies should be 6 to 12 weeks old. Ideally about 10 weeks is best but most breeders and even back yard breeders will begin showing their litters at 6 – 7 weeks.

If you are picking from a litter, look at the litter as a group. Evaluate them by establishing the most active and the least active. Look for the puppy that is most playful with his siblings, and the one that is least active. Try interacting with each puppy individually. Take them one by one away from the litter. You should be observing careful for the following:

  • Does the puppy seem afraid of you?
  • Is the pup showing signs of being fearful of humans?
    - In other words, are the tail and ears tucked?
    - Is the puppy cowering, urinating or rolling over?
    - Does the puppy run away when someone tries to pet them?
  • Does he or she pay attention when you talk to him/her?
  • Is the puppy distracted by wanting to return to the litter, or focused on you?
  • Does the puppy want to play or just investigate?
  • Does the puppy stop biting when startled?
  • Can the puppy tolerate being held down against his will for a few seconds?

Independent puppies will usually show very little interest in people. They will tend to wonder off and seem more interested in hiding or going back to the litter. You want to see how the puppy reacts to your reaction when he nips you. Let him mouth on your hand and fingers. He will eventually work his way up to a somewhat sharp nip. Respond with a sudden and somewhat loud “Ouch!” If he’s fairly excited from your presence you might need to repeat the procedure a few times to get a good idea about his responses to your pain.

Here’s what you’re looking for. Puppies that are either able to control the force of their jaws, or are showing early signs of being conscientious about others (dogs or humans), will stop nipping for a moment as a reaction to your pain response. This is a good indication that the puppy is prepared to learn easily. They only need to stop for a moment to indicate this. Don’t expect them to stop completely because he is a puppy and he will likely return to chewing your fingers very quickly, but that’s normal for a little guy.

Puppies who are not prepared to learn, not showing early signs of conscientiousness, or not ready to control the strength of their jaws, will repeatedly ignore your reaction. It will usually be difficult to get them to stop or even get them interested in doing something else.

Take a chew treat or toy and allow the puppy to play with it for a few minutes. After the pup is fully engaged in chewing, begin petting them on their back, neck and head. Then gently begin removing the chew treat away from his mouth. Stop if the pup growls, snarls or snaps at you. Repeat the exercise to confirm the pups behavior.

Puppies who remain relaxed when someone handles them during a meal or while chewing a treat are unlikely to have a food guarding problem, and not very likely to over protective either. This isn’t really a proof test because puppies can still develop guarding behavior when they are a few months older. However, if they already have it, that’s not a good sign. It can be corrected, but the puppy may have ongoing problems stemming from the issues that caused the guarding to develop so early. Choosing a puppy that doesn't show signs of a guarding response and similar behaviors should be easy to avoid. Puppies that snap and growl, gobble their food much faster or behave aggressively when approached while eating will likely continue this behavior as adults unless they receive early training to eliminate the problem.

Some puppies can be very relaxed and even comforted from being touched, held, examined and even restrained. Others, particularly alpha’s, aren’t at all comfortable with being handled or restrained in any way. When you have a puppy that doesn’t like to be handled it’s going to be a challenge to take care of them, and you’re going to miss out on some of the most enjoyable moments that there is in having a loving pet. They can become fearful or aggressive at the vet, during grooming and worse, during playtime or normal interactions with their families.

Hold the puppy in your arms on his back, like you might hold an infant child. Try to hold the puppy in the same position for a few minutes by using very gentle pressure with your free hand over his chest. If he seems frightened or becomes aggressive, release him. A bit of squirming or trying to wiggle away are normal and don’t count as being afraid or aggressive.
Be sure to touch the puppy all over. Start at the tip of his nose and go all the way to the tip of his tail. Be sure you hit all the spots that puppies can be sensitive about to see if he becomes fearful or aggressive at any certain spot. Hold each paw gently but securely for five seconds and fool around with the nails a bit. Hold him in front of you, get your face close to his and look into his eyes for about five seconds. If the puppy did well, and you have a 9 year old or older child with you. Allow the child to perform this exercise with the puppy, under your close supervision. Note, is the dogs behavior the same with the child administering the tests, or has changed?

If the puppy remained calm during these tests, put the pup on the floor in front of you lying down. Hold him just behind his neck and shoulders, restraining him and squat down with your legs under you and on either side of the puppy. Hold the puppy between your legs like you are riding him but with no weight, just your hands holding him down. Keep him in that position for about 10 seconds. If he squirms and tries to get away when you first hold him down, that’s ok. Most puppies do squirm for the first three to four seconds, then stop and settle down.
These are crucial tests because most puppies who exhibit extreme alpha behavior, or have biting, nervous or fearful issues will not tolerate these tests well. If the puppy screams, snarls, bites, has a tantrum, urinates or defecates when restrained, he is very likely to continue this behavior as an adult, unless they receive very specialized corrective training. On the other hand, if the pup remains relaxed, calm and almost playful with the experience, this is an excellent sign. Puppies that tolerate this test well will almost certainly become calm, submissive and playful adult dogs.

There is a long list of possible puppy tests for various behaviors and we could go on for pages. Although what you want is just enough to observe and establish an idea about each puppy in the litter. From the results, making an excellent choice should become quite easy.

When choosing a Border Collie puppy, most people would want a moderately active but submissive puppy with a longer attention span and a superior attraction to humans over the litter.

Here are a few “generalities” about Border Collies that I can go along with:

Border Collies are not “like” members of the family. They “are” members of the family and need to be treated as such. There is no getting around this and if you aren’t ready to take on a child with a short childhood and will have the intelligence of a four year old before his first birthday, don’t get a Border Collie. You won’t want a Border Collie if you or your family are not attracted to the idea of a dog that has to be in the middle of whatever is going on in the house, and needs to be with at least one family member at all times, not because he will get into mischief but because he requires this emotionally.

If you don’t have dog training experience, and probably even if you do, you will need to research various training methods and choose those which fit you and your dog. There are enough great step by step YouTube videos to keep you and your dog busy for a while. I would recommend this kind of training for any dog, but for most Border Collies, it’s a commitment that you really need to prepare and set aside a daily training time. If you thought sit, stay and lay down were all they need to know, you might want to consider a lap dog instead.

Border collie’s do need exercise every day, preferably outside but most of all they need to spend time playing with you or the family. If you live in an apartment, this could be some time running at the park (on or off the leash), playing fetch or Frisbee or just taking them with you wherever you go all day. I recommend an extended leash if you don't have a dog park or fenced area. You can even make one with some nylon cable and stainless steel fasteners from the hardware store. An extra-long retractable are great for puppies but not long enough for adults.

Inside or outside, mentally challenging games along with a training regime are vital to a Border Collie and even more so for a puppy. Just like a human toddler, if you don’t challenge them mentally and build your relationship with them, they will find ways to challenge that intelligence themselves and get your attention by any means necessary. It won’t be pretty. Furniture, carpet, shoes, towels, blankets, pillows, anything they can chew, break, climb or dig into, they will find a way. They are famous for being escape artists. I don’t want to get into puppy training methods here, but you should do your research and put together a plan for crating, housebreaking, chew-breaking, and all of the other necessaries. This too requires commitment, but if you have chosen your pup well, and have set aside exercise and training time, this shouldn’t be any more difficult than with any other puppy breed. Because they learn so quickly, it will likely even be easier once you’ve managed to achieve the first couple of milestones. As soon as they realize that this learning thing pleases you, it becomes part of the Border Collie sworn sacred religion that they live for, and would even give their lives, to do for you... Work.

You and your family must accept being followed around the house wherever you go, including the bathroom. So if you don’t like anyone watching you in the shower or on the toilet, you’ll have to get over it. Hopefully you won’t mind waking up to a snout not a half inch from your own belonging to your biggest fan.

Border’s DO NOT do well staying outside, in general. They are highly emotional and need to be with their family members. As I’ve pointed out, they will often sleep in the room of the youngest member of the family, or the child that spends the most time with them. The former more often, regardless of time spent. This is usually true even if adults feed them, take them out and do everything for them. They will still want to be with the kids and sleep with the kids. They may be loyal to an adult until nighttime, when they will retire to where the children sleep.

Most BC’s don’t mind getting dirty and wet, so if you have mud and water puddles or a pool about, expect to be hosing them down and giving them a bath from time to time, because you cannot leave them outside unless you’re staying out there with them. They usually like to be cold and will hang in front of the fan or AC or on the cold tile floor when they can. I say “most” because I currently have an 8 month old border that won’t go out in the rain unless he has to do his duty reeeeealy bad and he doesn’t like cold weather either. I can go outside when it’s rainy and cold and he will stay inside and watch me unless I call him. Very unusual but fortunately we live in California. When I say they are all different, I'm really serious.

Your dog will outsmart you from time to time. At first you will think its only coincidence. Later you will accept it as intentional. If you are as smart of a human as your Border is a dog, you will utilize this intelligence.

If you want a K-9 super-athlete to play Frisbee, fetch and spend time training to do miraculous things, putting every other dog to shame, there is probably no other dog for you. However, there are exceptions to this. Although it’s rare, there is the occasional Border Collie that doesn’t want to play and will just lay down after about 5 minutes. Generally this is because the owner has always done the same thing since he was a pup and now someone is trying to change the routine. However, as a precaution, be sure to take them to the Vet for a checkup, just in case it’s a heart issue or something serious.

Borders are so smart and so emotional, that most of them will fight their own instincts to fit in with their family and the family lifestyle as they grow into adulthood. Even if it means not getting all the exercise they prefer or having the responsibilities that they crave. If their owners like sitting around watching TV, you will find their Border Collie can be content doing that too. Some Borders are perfectly happy to lie around the house and sleep all day like a cat, as long as they can be with their owner or family. Staying near their family, keeping an eye on the house, becomes their job. This is not good for them mentally or physically, and I would never recommend such a life for a dog, but it does show the importance of a BC’s relationships over their own instincts and needs.

They really need a job to do and if you don’t provide one, they probably will. A young Border Collie will be constantly looking to show you that he can do anything you want and please you. Most of the time, that means protecting you and the family, but it can manifest itself negatively for brief periods, at which point you will need to spend some time training.

After growing up with a Border Collie, neither I nor my kids could understand why anyone would want any other breed of dog. In fact, I can honestly say that I don't know anyone who has raised a Border Collie that hasn't come away with the same wonder. I’ve raised several Borders from puppy-hood and if you educate yourself in not just dog training, but Border training, and you can make it through the first 6 or so months of potentially disastrous outcomes, then you will have a new and amazing member of your family, who fits in perfectly. And I say that only because of the common breed generalities! None of my Borders have been any trouble at all during puppy-hood. In fact, they were much less difficult than other breeds because they learned so quickly.

One thing is certain. Do your job as an owner and I promise that you will be so glad that you chose a Border Collie and will thank yourself a thousand times that you did your homework, and hung in there on the training schedule through the puppy months. Good Luck!

Watch NaNa! See what you can do with your Border!

3 comments

Pya 2 years ago

I honestly am not sure how old this post is, or if it's serious, but i highly doubt you should let your dog spend 100% of it's time with you, in other words, follow you everywhere, from the bathroom to anywhere else, outside or inside. That kind of obsession isn't healthy, nor right. All dogs, regardless of how emotional or what breed they are, can be conditioned to love spending time alone (through positive reinforcement training), and will be just fine staying by themselves in your absence, as long as you provide all the care they require.


Steve Garton profile image

Steve Garton 2 years ago from San Diego Author

Seriously? Obviously I didn’t mean every minute. As stated, Borders often lay around the house sleeping like cats, but when you’re home, or as sure as you get up and go somewhere, they will be right behind you. Yes, sure they are fine by themselves, but they would rather be with you anytime. Just as in the article, a Border Collie will follow you everywhere and their protective, family or pack instinct will keep them there. Every Border owner will tell you this about pure bread Borders. I disagree that “all dogs can be conditioned to love time alone”, although I do agree that they will be just fine staying by themselves. That doesn’t mean you can condition them to like it! I’ve had quite a few Border Collie’s and many other breeds as well. While all breeds are different in various respects, and we love all of them for a variety of reasons, Borders are simply not like other dogs in many ways.


Courtnay 19 months ago

Good information! I knew that Hank our BC was smarter than me! Haha

And yes he does follow me EVERYWHERE! He is the most funny and intelligent puppy, we love him

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