All photos/art by Julie Bidwell
Border collies–athletic, agile, extremely intelligent dogs–have been the herding dog of choice for sheep owners for more than a century. Descended from a breed that originated along the border country between Scotland and England–called simply “The Border” in that part of the world–and trained to respond to voice and whistle commands, a single Border collie can go out and round up an entire flock of sheep and maneuver them into a corral. Picking up strays along the way, redirecting the herd if needed, forcing the animals into narrow passageways when required, getting them to start and stop moving on command, the collie accomplishes all this by running and circling and nipping–and also through force of personality.
I watched Border collies working for the first time at a sheep and wool festival in the mid-1980s in New Boston, New Hampshire. I saw how the stare of some dogs held more power than that of others, and I loved how David Kennard of Chesham, New Hampshire, described his 4-year-old female, named Annie. “She’s good because of her training,” he said, “but she’s the best because of the trust between us.”
He told us that Annie implicitly trusted him to command her to do what was right–but occasionally she’d know better than he did what was right and would override his command, trusting that she wouldn’t get into trouble for her defiance. Other dogs follow commands blindly, or hesitate when they’re not sure how to reconcile what they’re being told to do with what they know is the right thing to do. Annie didn’t hesitate.
The memory comes back to me on a sun-dappled day at Carol Campion’s farm in Hampton, Connecticut. Campion, one of the most highly regarded trainers in New England and president of the Northeast Border Collie Association, has been breeding and working with Border collies for more than a quarter-century. I’ve come here not to learn how she trains the dogs to do what they do (that would take weeks of subtle observation) but simply to watch some good ones work.
Some of the collies she handles are actual working sheep herders. Most Border collies in this part of the country, though, are trained exclusively to perform at sanctioned competitive “trials,” where dogs respond to commands and perform prescribed tasks as they move small flocks of sheep.
A fellow Connecticut trainer named Beverly Lambert describes those trials this way: “Border collies are judged one against the other, but by their work, not by their looks. The dog must be physically capable of covering as much as 100 miles in a day and then getting up the next morning and doing it again. The dog must be able to outrun a 200-pound ewe down the side of a mountain, get ahead of her, and turn her back. The dog must be capable of gently guiding a new mother and her lambs back to the barn. While it’s impossible to identify a good dog by watching him walk around a show ring, it’s hard to miss a good one in the field working.”
Standing at the top of a rise near Carol Campion’s barn, I look out over a long, open pasture and watch good ones in the field working. One of her dogs, a national qualifier named Flossie, flies along the left side of the pasture, turns in back of the flock of 40 Katahdin ewes, and splits off 10 of them. Campion blows short, mostly staccato breaths into a triangular brass whistle to send out her commands: “Come by me” (turn left) she signals with whit-whit. “Away from me” (turn right) sounds like wee-oo-wee, or high-low-high. She has cadences and pitches for walking, for hurrying “fast-fast-fast-fast,” and for stopping. She goes through all of these so quickly that I can’t even appreciate the changes, adjusting the volume to signal speed or urgency. Flossie reacts almost instinctively: She leaves the 10 ewes clustered together, returns to the flock, picks up three, pushes them into a small round pen, collects two inside that pen, and brings them out into the field.
She goes about her work geometrically, patiently, much of it done with a strong, fixed stare, and from a distance well back from the sheep. Campion calls her back, and the dog glides back up the left side of the pasture and stops at Campion’s side.
“Flossie, that’ll do,” says Campion. She doesn’t pat the collie or reward her for a nearly flawless job. “These dogs live to work,” she tells me. “The work is its own reward.” Flossie is panting lightly. At the moment, she is the number-nine-ranked Border collie in the Northeast.
Campion crates Flossie and comes back with Tam, a 5-year-old collie who was born in Sweden and had been trained in England before Campion bought him last year. She’d picked Tam up at Logan Airport and driven him straight here. “Within 15 minutes he was working sheep,” she tells me. “Some dogs take six months to do that. I knew right away he was special.”
Tam weighs about 29 pounds, more than 10 pounds lighter than the average male Border collie. Campion says he doesn’t have as much “eye” as Flossie and isn’t as serious, but he’s got better stamina, is a natural outrunner, and is looser, “flankier,” quicker. She sends him out and away from her, and Tam responds, a little impatiently for Campion’s taste, dividing the still-clustered sheep and delivering half of them to a larger corral. He circles back and divides the remaining sheep in half again, an advanced piece of work, requiring the collie to communicate two things at once: You come with me; the rest of you stay. Two ewes dart away, and Tam has to take extra time to get them back in line. “He’s been off for a couple of weeks, relaxing,” Campion tells me, “so he’s a little antsy. But he’s going to be a great one.” She calls him back, and Tam races back up the hill and stops by her. He’s barely breathing hard, ready for his next assignment. His energy is infectious, joyous, his running beautiful.
A client of Campion’s named Molly shows up with a 10-year-old dog who needs some exercise, and two promising young dogs who need seasoning. All of them are working dogs: their job not to move sheep but to move Canada geese off Connecticut golf courses and corporate grounds. Molly gives me some insight about what makes a trainer good at what she does. “These dogs have to blend instinct and obedience,” she explains. “One reason Carol is so good: She can somehow be inside the dogs’ heads and the sheep’s heads at the same time. That’s very hard to do.”
Tam is now competing for qualifying points for the Northeast Border Collie Fall Foliage Championship, set for October 6-8 (details at nebca.net). “I have many promising youngsters from his breeding line,” Campion told us this spring. “The talent is showing up in the next generation.” She added that she’d like readers to understand that Border collies don’t make great pets “unless the owner is willing to put in the work. They’re working dogs.”