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Friday, 6 March 2009

A shadow over his character

I recently took over the care of Shadow, a stunning Border Collie who is approximately five years old. His previous owner died and I wasn't expecting to be a dog owner, but I'm really enjoying it!
He was on Baker's Complete when I got him, but his teeth were yellow and his skin was very dry. I asked at the pet shop for advice and they advised me to feed James Wellbeloved dry food and half a tin of Pedigree Chum.
His coat now looks lovely and glossy and his teeth are white, but even though I'm am walking him a great deal he just never seems to get tired. I take him on a two hour walk every day that involves lots of ball throwing and lots of other shorter walks throughout the day - but it just doesn't seem to ever be enough.
He has started herding me on walks and when I want to stop playing ball he seems annoyed and wants to continue the game.
Yesterday he rushed behind my legs as I put the ball away and he nipped me like I was a naughty sheep. His teeth went through my jeans and drew blood. I was quite shocked as he's never done anything like this before.
I already love Shadow so much and will do whatever it takes to make him happy - but I am very worried by his latest behaviour, I have kids and would hate them to get a nip.
Could his behaviour have anything to do with the change of diet?
Julie Wallace, Sunninghill, Berks

I just want to say thank you for all the replies and for pointing out that we were making some of the classic Collie-owner errors! We're taking them all on board and we've stopped playing ball games. Has anyone any good ideas for other games we can play?
Julie and Shadow

The wrong diet can certainly make a lot of collies more hyper, especially those containing too much protein, or those containing artificial additives, like colourings. So the first move I'd recommend is to keep Shadow exclusively on James Wellbeloved, which is an additive-free brand. Don't add anything else to this apart from boiling water to moisten it, and maybe also some gravy and steamed vegetable, particularly green leafy ones.
Also make sure you do not give Shadow any treats or titbits that contain artificial additives or colourings of any kind.
This possible exacerbating factor apart, Shadow's behaviour is still primarily to do with him being a sheepdog - it's just that you, at present, are failing to understand the nature of the breed.
The first thing to appreciate is that Border Collies were bred to work tirelessly, over all terrains and for countless miles, from dawn to dusk each day. That is why your dog never seems tired after what you might consider a 'long' walk.
But chiefly where you have gone wrong is with the endless dreaded ball thowing. People are always doing this with collies. They throw the ball and the dog brings it back, drops it, then stares at it or barks until the owner throws it for them again. On and on it goes incessently, and all the time the owner thinks that he or she is in charge of this whole interaction when in fact it is the dog who is constantly dictating what his owner does.
Once a collie spots this weakness in an owner, he will not stop the pressure to keep the game going, as this activity has brought out the more obsessive working instincts in the dog, with owner and ball replacing sheep as chasing/herding targets in his mind. That is why Shadow has begun trying to round you up. When you put the ball away, you then frustrate him, while he is in a highly aroused state, prompting him to nip you, to keep you moving, like - as you rightly surmised - a stubborn sheep.
To solve this problem, you have got to start acting a lot more like a shepherd and less like a sheep. Shepherds control what sheepdogs do and not the other way around.
Start by understanding that collies are obsessional, strong-willed dogs who need to be handled sensitively and respectfully but also with suitable authority. They also need to be properly training, because if you don't keep dictating the behaviour agenda to them, they will impose their own agenda on you, and others, instead.
A priority for you right now, other than learning how to convey greater authority to Shadow, is to teach him some pretty basic control commands like 'stop', 'stay' and 'down', as without such trained-in commands your dog is pretty much like a car with no brakes or steering. If, for example, you had trained Shadow to lie down and stay while you put his ball away, he would not have been able to rush up and nip you instead.
Similarly, is you got your children to make Shadow lie down and stay down, whenever he became excited around them, this would avert any nipping risks to them. That said, however, no dog should ever be left unsupervised with children, and it is also vital that Shadow has some quiet place of his own to rest any time he wants to, totally undisturbed by anyone and away from any source of noise or other ongoing stimulation.

Collies, toys and the nip reflex
- The instinct of collies to nip, offensively, in response to weakness, and defensively in response to any sudden sense of mental pressure (eg excitement, frustration, fear) is a vital part of their genetic repertoire as livestock working dogs.
- In some dogs, especially those from pure working lines, the instinct can be far stronger, and more easily triggered, than others.
- Many collies end up in rescue centres, or develop more serious aggression problems, simply because their owners failed to understand, and suitably discourage, this instinct from earliest puppyhood onwards.
- Ways to discourage it include making the dog instantly lie down and stay still every time he becomes too excited, and consistently training the dog to retain a calmer mental state, intesting situations, and rewarding him for it.
- Classic ways this instinct can be dangerously exacerbated is through continually over-exciting or over-stimulating the dog with endless chase, tug or 'rough and tumble' games, or poor socialisation, meaning the dog responds more fearfully to stranger dogs/people/experiences, or deliberately winding the dog up in training or competition events like agility.
- Toys can play an important part in collie training but only if you follow these rules: You must be in charge of any toy at any time. You dictate when any game starts or ends and what your dog must do for you in order to continue the game eg he must place the toy back in your hands, not on the ground, then lie down and wait until you tell him he can chase it again. If your dog tries to pressurise you into throwing a toy, instead, instantly stop the game. Do the same if he becomes over-excited, and make him lie down, still, until he calms down again.
- Only throw a toy in this way for a few short and random bursts, to encourage your dog to keep his attention on you, and then continue a walk. Never let your dog become over-excited or over-obsessional about it. Do not keep throwing the toy at the same place, each time, on a walk. Keep changing it.
- When out, also continually make your dog use his brain to find hidden toys. Make the hiding places more and more testing. This will keep him happily occupied and also much calmer.
- Be aware that collies who are perpetually over-stimulated with toys and chase games when out tend to come back from walks more hyper than ever, and can sometimes take hours to fully wind down again.
- The more you wind collies up in this way, the more rarely you will ever find them in a truly calm, balanced and non-reactive mental state, due to the continual impact of adrenalin on their minds and behaviour. Their bodies read this as an ongoing stress response, so it can also have a serious impact, short or long term, on their physical health.

Ideally you need to find a good local trainer near you, who is highly experienced with collies, and can teach you how to better understand and train your dog and show far greater authority to him. All these sujects are also covered in full in my book, 'Understanding the Border Collies' (Broadcast Books: 0117 923 8891). If you have any trouble finding a suitable person locally, please contact me again via Dogs Today.
I am glad you are enjoying owning Shadow so much, but you could be getting so much more out of him with better understanding and training. Believe me, it will be well worth the effort, as once they are suitably understood and well trained, collies can be the most remarkable and rewarding dogs in the world to own.
Carol Price, trainer and behaviourist

What you are describing is normal collie behaviour! If you are going to keep a farm animal bred for hundreds of years to work tirelessly, then you must give it an activity that satifies those instincts. You cannot change a collie into a Labrador or any other breed. Physical exercise alone will only make the dog fitter for more physical exercise. Mental stimulation is what tires dogs. Go to a good dog training school and give him a job to do. Nipping heels is normal herding behaviour for collies and they have not been taught that it is unacceptable to do it to the people they live with.
I suggest that Carol Price's book 'Understanding the Border Collie' should be purchased to start with. Unless you really understand how the breed 'ticks' the behaviour can develop to even more unmanageble levels - obsessive compulsive disorders, self-mutilation, herding children etc.
As for diet, I would certainly not make things worse by feeding foods full of chemicals. If you must feed 'convenience' food, then James Wellbeloved is certainly one of the better ones, but cut out the canned food. Adding Missing Link might be a good idea too.
Gail Gwesyn-Pryce, Dogs Today Advisor


  1. I've heard of border collies behaving like this. I absolutely love them but am not sure I could cope with their need for stimulation and exercise. I read once a comment by a vet, which was that they could easily have up to 30 miles a day running and still not be tired.
    But many people do manage very well and I'm sure you could if you knew how. At least you are prepared to give your BC a decent walk.
    Why don't you get that book by the border collie expert Carol Price? I'm sure she would have some helpful tips.
    Julia L

  2. As a matter of urgency (particularly considering you have children), STOP throwing a ball for Shadow - before he begins exhibiting similar over-stimulated, adrenalin-fuelled behaviour in other situations too. There are endless more constuctive ways in which to keep a collie physically and mentally stimulated. I too recommend 'Understanding the Border Collie' by Carol Price. Also, enrol in a good training class ASAP. The better Shadow's general obedience, the easier it will be to promptly correct unwanted behaviour in a potentially difficult situation. As a starting point I recommend a class which will help you and Shadow achieve the Kennel Club's Good Citizen Awards. These will concentrate on training Shadow to be under-control in every-day situations. You don't say how old your children are, but obviously you need to take precautions and ALWAYS err on the side of caution. I would install baby-gates in your house so that Shadow can be seperated from where they are playing when you are unable to supervise. If they are old enough, take them to training classes with you. Consistently reinforce in them the appropriate way to interact with Shadow - and how to spot the early signs of unwanted behaviour so that they can call on mum for help.

  3. Hi There Border Collie owner. May I start by congratulating you on the amount of time you give your dog. Far too many people don't walk their dogs enough. 2 Hours is great. Bakers complete is a bad food, particularly for the more active breeds. It is crammed full of food colouring which is the equivalent of us feeding our kids skittles- not good. Collies need mental stimulation as well as lots of hard work. Try making your walks more about training. I would start by asking him to sit and practicing how far you can get from him, then sometimes call him to you and other times go back to him. You could also use the ball in a more productive way- try throwing it, walking him to heel away from it then send him back to find it- my Border Collies love this game. It may be that he is running off the adrenaline from chasing the ball. Also just chasing after the ball will prevent any actual socialisation and redcue his natural behaviour of marking and sniffing which will make him feel more relaxed. Both my Collies also work sheep and this is the only time they are truly tired as they have to use their bodies and their brains at high speed.

    I think the behaviour is part of a pattern of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and removing this pattern has caused your dog frustration and he is displaying this by nipping you and trying to persuade you to throw the ball. Try to spend most walks without it and when you do bring it try the above to make him work for it.