Which makes the best sheepdog, collie or kelpie? We’ve trained both so here are our observations.
We’re often asked which makes the best farm dog, a Border Collie or an Australian Kelpie?
Even within a breed every dog is different, and a particular combination of working and personality traits will suit one handler better than another. It’s impossible to give a definitive answer, but we’ve trained both breeds and here are our thoughts.
Buying our first Kelpie – Red
By 2010 UK-bred (as opposed to imported) Kelpie puppies from working lines were becoming more easily available. At the same time, we were eager to train a Kelpie for ourselves. So when we had a home-bred collie puppy who would benefit from some like-minded company, we collected our first Kelpie, Red.
We were able to see Red (12 weeks old at the time) with his parents, working around sheep. The older dogs were clearly effective workers, and Red had speed and enthusiasm. It was a good start.
Training a Kelpie and a Collie
Rearing and training the two puppies together unwittingly became a Kelpie/collie comparison. This was unfortunate for Red because his co-trainee, Mossie, proved an exceptionally easy dog to train. Mossie had a natural outrun and inclination to gather. She also had skilled sheep control, was extremely biddable, and mature beyond her months.
Mossie’s training progressed well, with improvement at every lesson.
Kelpie Red seemed frustratingly slow to learn, with only a small improvement over a period of time. Red would lose concentration, and was easily distracted. He would also grip or run into the sheep and scatter them with no attempt to bring them to us. Of course that’s exactly what happens with many young collies, we see it time and time again. It usually means the trainer has tried to progress too quickly, with a dog not mentally or physically ready for intensive work. Just as we would do with a collie, we gave Red a month off work, and before that month was up he was showing us that he was ready to try again. He simply needed time to mature, but from a sample of one we were unsure whether that was typical of Kelpies, or just Red.
What are Kelpies like?
Over the next few years we owned four Kelpies, three dogs and a bitch, and saw several brought to our weekend training courses. Some of these dogs were very impressive, showing focus, power and excellent sheep control. The four Kelpies we lived with, Red, Will, Tucker and Molly, were all lovely dogs and we became very fond of them. Interestingly the bitch, Molly, was the easiest to train while the boys were slower to mature into their work. But they were obedient, fun, sociable and companionable, and they all worked sheep – some more noisily than others! And that’s one aspect of Kelpies that we, personally, didn’t value.
In Australia and New Zealand, and probably elsewhere, Kelpies are used, either alone or with Huntaways and other herding dogs such as collies, to control huge flocks. For the dogs at the back of the flock to have influence over the sheep at the front, they need to use their voice. Barking is a very effective way of making sheep panic and move. However, with a small flock, or with sheep confined in a race or pens, we feel barking is threatening and causes unnecessary stress.
Kelpies run along the backs of sheep don’t they?
Another trait of Kelpies, when working with large numbers of sheep, is the ability to “back” stock. Backing, that is to literally jump on the backs of a tightly packed pen of sheep and run across them, means the dog can get to the head of a mob to unclog an obstruction or simply make the sheep go through a gate or opening.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to teach a collie to “back” sheep, or to bark on command. It could well be possible to stop a Kelpie from barking while it works, but if a breed works using a trait that you don’t want or need, it seems counter-intuitive to buy one.
Which would we choose – a Kelpie or a Collie?
So we can’t give a definite answer to the question, “which makes the best sheepdog, collie or kelpie?” Much depends on the stock to be worked, and the availability of a puppy from proven working lines. It also depends heavily on the skill of the trainer. But we will add that Kelpies and collies all need firm, fair and consistent handling.
If I were deciding which makes the best sheepdog between a Border Collie or a Kelpie my choice would be based on the following:
- How much time can I spare to train the dog? Kelpies require more time for training than collies.
- What sort of work will the dog be doing? Kelpies are great for moving large numbers because they make a lot of noise while they do it.
- How much skill will my dog need? Collies are the precision dogs. Properly trained, they can sort one sheep out of a mob and bring it to you. I’ve yet to see a Kelpie with anything approaching that skill level. You don’t see Kelpies in sheepdog trials in the UK. That’s because collies are renowned for their reliability and precision.
Personally, I would choose the collie every time. I love their precision, and being so quick to train makes them a natural choice for me. But that might not be what’s best for you.
Border collies are well known (even notorious) for needing mental stimulation as well as physical activity to avoid boredom and behavioural problems, and this applies equally to Kelpies and all other working breeds.