A dog as smart as a champion horse

“Nothing beats a collie for intelligence; the whistle is key to training success”

It would be hard to imagine the countryside without the ubiquitous sheepdog. So great is the urge to manage the movement of other species the border collie will instinctively round up sheep, cattle, turkeys, pigs and even small children. My own collie/Bernese cross, known as Handsome Jack, proved this point when he first came to us as a 12 -week-old rescue puppy.

He was a sad little thing in those days after a rough start to life during which time he’d been variously dumped in a ditch at around three weeks old, tied up and left by the side of the road, chased by farm dogs — and someone had attempted to drown him.

And yet, despite these horrors once he’d recovered himself a bit and checked out his surroundings, his first order of business was to crouch down at our small pond and happily herd the startled goldfish from one side of the pond to the other.

The Romans introduced the craft of tending sheep to Britain, and Celtic clans soon created their own varieties of sheepdogs to work their flocks. These dogs became associated with their regions.

The instigation of sheepdog trials began in 1876 when a Mr Lloyd Price brought 100 wild Welsh sheep to the Alexandra Palace in London.

Three sheep were picked out of the flock, which had been guided to a remote corner of the park, and were carried to a far hill and released. The sheepdogs’ responsibilities were to fold the sheep into a small pen in the middle of the park. An account in the Live Stock Journal of the day describes the astonishment of the spectators at the intelligence of the dogs whose only assistance was in the form of hand signals and whistles from their masters.

The sheep are held by the strength of the dog’s eye and a dog in which this trait is well developed is called “strong-eyed”. It allows the dogs to move the sheep quietly and calmly and is the single most distinguishing instinctual behaviour of the Border collie as a herding dog.

Intelligence in the Border Collie has been described as “trainability“, but shepherds had a different definition. To them, intelligence meant a dog that could think for itself. Stories abound about dogs that had to handle themselves in difficult situations where they worked far away from their handlers.

Shepherd James Hogg tells the story of one such incident, where his own dog Sirrah saved the day. James was working on a farm in the border areas where he was responsible for 700 lambs that escaped one dark night on the moor. Nevertheless, he called his dog and set out trying to find them.

But he had no luck and his dog was missing. He said “On our way home, we discovered a group of lambs at the bottom of a deep ravine and the indefatigable Sirrah standing in front of them, looking all round for some relief. We discovered that not one lamb of the whole flock was missing. How he had got all the lambs collected in the dark is beyond comprehension. From midnight to the rising of the sun, it had all been up to him.”

The International Sheepdog Trials took place at Kilbegnet in Roscommon recently and received international TV exposure on Sky 191 and on Irish TV in the weekly series Out and About in Ireland.

Con McGarry, Irish National President of the International Sheepdog Society, Irish national champion six times, three times winner of BBC’s One Man and his Dog and twice winner of the world trials, was delighted at the success of the event.

What sort of turnout was there, Con?

There were over 20,000 people there and a hundred dogs and their handlers. It was fantastic. And it was great that Irish TV filmed the competition this year. It showed all the hard work and dedicated training and effort on the part of the owners and their dogs to become champions. It’s been eight years since Ireland hosted this event and it’s the first time it’s been staged west of the Shannon. There’s a great hunger for these shows in rural Ireland.

Border collies, sheepdogs, are such an integral part of the farming process, aren’t they?

Oh yes, very much so. There’s no way that farmers can manage without their dogs, especially when so many farmers who work on rough difficult land have lost the help they used to have when so many of their families have emigrated. There’s just no way they can manage the stock on their own. Their dogs are their lifelines.

When did you first get involved with sheepdogs Con?

It was about 20 years ago. I’d lived in Manchester working as a plumber, but from a farming background. So when I came home I bought my first sheepdog for a small flock on the farm, near Tusk, Co Roscommon. I was hooked and I haven’t looked back. I’ve travelled all over the world because of the dogs and the trials and it’s been wonderful. I’m very competitive and to be the best at what you do is a real thrill. And the pleasure of seeing the dogs that you have trained working, doing their best and loving it, is a real joy. It’s in the dog’s blood of course, but it’s in our blood too, to stand on the hillside and gather the stock in with the help of a good dog.

What do you think is so special about the collie?

Nothing beats the border collie for intelligence; they’re like a champion horse. It’s like training any dog. But with sheepdogs, what’s important is the use of the whistle. There’s nothing like the collie for wanting to herd anything that moves. And if you get a good dog, you work with that instinct.

I train and rear dogs too. At the moment, that’s what I’m doing here in France, training some pups I sold over here earlier. It can be hard and demanding work but it’s exciting and we love it.


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