In sheepdogs, a family likeness doesn’t make a clone

It’s important to train the dog you’re with!

Border collie puppy with wellington boots and a ball
Pomme isn’t quite ready to join in the rough and tumble of pack playtime. Her half-sister Pru, on the other hand…
Closeup of trim-colour border collie puppy Reggie
Reggie – what a sweetie; but you can’t tell what he’s thinking
Photo of two Trials-colour border collie sheepdogs in a sunny field
Ronnie – looking heavenwards, as well he might

My overarching impression of this time last year is of the dogs and me being wet, more or less constantly. (That’s not entirely accurate of course. There were times when I wasn’t wet, such as before I went out to do the dogs in the morning, and before I went out to do the dogs in the afternoon.) The other thing that late October 2012 is memorable for is the arrival of Ezra’s first litter of puppies (and, to date, only litter. What does that tell you, EZRA?)

Kay gave birth to her clutch of 8 boys on 31st October, and I haven’t quite forgiven her yet. The three we kept, Reggie, Ronnie and Remus, have spent their first twelve months justifying their Hallowe’en birthday.

When they’re out together they remind me of a playground brawl. Ronnie would be the boy who grabs your satchel and tries to pull you over, while Reggie and Remus would creep up on girls and pull their hair.

The gruesome threesome is sometimes joined by Preston, who worships each one of them individually, but, as is often the way when you fall in with a Bad Lot, the boys will sometimes take the easy route to entertainment and turn on Preston instead.

Their behaviour shouldn’t be a surprise when I consider that their primary role-model is Ezra, whom you just know would part you from your dinner money the instant you showed any sign of weakness.

I may be taking anthropomorphism a tad far, but you get the idea. It’s led me to think about collie families over the last few days.

It’s because we’re lucky enough to be able to keep several puppies from a litter (if not all) and keep them until they’re adults, that we have lots of opportunities to spot family likenesses and character traits. Sometimes it can give us an advantage when it comes to training.

When Carew was taking such a long time to take any interest in sheep work (or even have the courage to stay in the sheep field) we had the experience of other Mel puppies who were slow to start, and could console ourselves that she’ll “work when she’s ready”. And she did.

On the other hand, while we hardly encourage it, we try to not be too hard on a young dog if, early in its training, it nips at the sheep; it’s usually just a sign of inexperience, over-exuberance or a lack of confidence (and often, all three).

Maggot is a very focused sheepdog
We didn’t ever need to question that Maggot had inherited her father Max’s commitment

However, when Max and Kay’s puppy, Maggot, was ‘nippy’ in her first lesson (she was a little under a year old at the time) we were concerned, and inclined to think we should address it with some urgency in her next lesson lest it become the established habit it appeared to be in her father.

Maggot’s sire, Max, originally came to us because of his grip, and he was very hard on the poor sheep. (Max was ultimately sold as a cattle dog, and is now much-loved and enjoying his work, we’re delighted to hear.) The next time Maggot came out for training the grip had disappeared, and she behaved beautifully, but if it hadn’t we’d have risked being unfairly severe on her.

We could have frightened or spoiled Maggot, simply because of her father’s sins. (Euripides, Horace, the Bible and Shakespeare have all had something to say about that.)

Each dog is an individual and we must remember to judge it on its own merits.

Such devoted sisters - border collies litter mates
There were never such devoted sisters – Audrey’s girls, Isla (left) and Tiny
Red and white and tricolour border collie sheepdogs
Audrey (left) with Kay. Strictly speaking, the capacity to get very wet isn’t considered a family trait
Photo of two young border collies looking enthusiastically through some sheep hurdles
Whoever the parents are, the next generation (Dash) benefits from an honorary big sister (Madge) to point her in the right direction

Until now, Reggie’s attitude to sheep has been (shall we say) unmethodical; showing signs of brilliance and then losing interest, or just doing something silly. Remus is pretty good, showing he has power, but still very one-sided.

Ronnie, who’s spent hardly any time in training, came out for his first “proper” lesson earlier this week, looking very business-like. He quickly convinced the sheep he was in charge (without needing to use his teeth) and was able to control them, move them around, scoop them out of a very testing tight, dark corner and even evict sheep from an over-grown ditch where some opportunists had thought to catch him out.

Compare the three of them with Ezra and Kay, and other than inheriting Ezra’s rounded backside and pace, and Kay’s politely insistent way of attention seeking, it’s really only in their play that we can draw any similarities.

They’re their own dogs, and we just have to learn how to handle each one of them in the most appropriate way.

Audrey and Eli had a litter last year, and we kept three from the litter – Tiny, Smudge and Isla. At the two extremes, Isla was a late starter, but made meteoric progress once she started, and Tiny has always been lovely. Smudge fell somewhere in the middle, but all three out-stripped Audrey’s work ethic to a considerable degree.

Where the girls do compare with Audrey is in their play: a quietly mischievous sense of humour and a wholehearted enthusiasm for ganging up en famille to wreak havoc on everyone else from time to time.

My only conclusion is that although you might spot similarities with its parent/s in a dog’s work (Carew, for example, has her mother Mel’s relaxed attitude to moving sheep; she’s so sure they’ll move for her, she hardly seems to need to try) it’s a mistake to try to train the dog in exactly the same way you trained its parents.

Rigid rules have no place in sheepdog training, and that’s partly why training – and breeding – are so fascinating, and so frustrating.

Anyway, tomorrow will be Ronnie, Reggie and Remus’s birthday (and Piper, Mac, Josh, Chip and Rebus’s birthdays too, of course) so it’ll be celebratory Birthday Night Pigs’ Ears all round – I think we’ve all earned it.

I’d better braise ours.




Watch Pearl Glen, Mel and lots of the dogs you saw in our first DVD Border Collie Sheepdogs – Off Duty! PLUS MANY MORE! The DVD is available from our DVD Store – and we automatically ship the correct format for your country. More info.


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