Dog breed works hand-in-paw with owners
By Marsha Walton
(CNN) -- For hundreds of years they've worked hand-in-paw: shepherds and their dogs, caring for farms and ranches all over the world.
One animal expert compares the working relationship between man and dog to that of famous Hollywood dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
"It really is like having a dance partner in a sense: the more they practice, the more subtle the communication becomes," said Lore Haug, a veterinarian at Texas A&M University who specializes in animal behavior. "A good herding dog can anticipate what the handler will tell them next. It's almost like the dog is reading their mind."
Thousands of spectators turned out this month to watch the choreography of trainers and dogs at a herding competition in Dawsonville, Georgia. Herding or stock dogs can be of many breeds, and even a fictional pig did the job in the movie "Babe." But it's the border collie that is most closely associated with the practice.
"Border collies are what we call 'class on grass,' " said farmer and dog trainer Mike Northwood. "They've got style and class, and do their work on grass."
Northwood, from northern England, was one of the judges at the U.S. Open Stock Dog Trials in Dawsonville. He runs several farms and owns more than 5,000 sheep, and says he is "absolutely dependent" on his dogs.
The dogs act as both traffic cops and psychologists when herding sheep, cattle, and even ducks or geese.
Because the dogs and livestock may sometimes be far out of whistle or voice range of the shepherd or rancher, experienced dogs are trusted to make decisions about how best to move the animals on such occasions.
"We have a tendency to let the dogs work out the problems for themselves," Northwood said. "They can't hear your commands if you are a half a mile away. And that's the beauty of the border collie. It thinks on its own."
Barbara Decker brought her two dogs to watch the competition. Simba, her female Labrador, "watches the action like a person would watch a football game on TV," she said. Decker, a primatologist who spent many years in Africa, said she loves observing the animals' intelligence.
"Sometimes they almost seem psychic," she said, adding that the dogs often use keen senses of smell and hearing that humans don't have.
Hubert Bailey, who plays host to the trials at his farm in north Georgia, said the border collie's smarts are no accident.
"It's the fact they've been bred for their intelligence for 300 years," Bailey said. "No other dog has been bred strictly for intelligence."
Bailey has trained hundreds of dogs during the past 30 years and has scores of whistles in his repertoire. He can direct several dogs at once with whistles that indicate such commands as "left," "right," "forward," "stop" and "come here."
Not good house pets
The Web site of one border collie rescue group puts it bluntly: "You should think twice (maybe 9 or 10 times) before getting a border collie."
When border collies were named in a book a couple of years ago as the smartest breed of dog, thousands of people flocked to breeders to buy them. The result, Haug said, was too often a lot of frustrated dogs and owners.
"These dogs have a compulsive need to have a job, that's one reason that so many of them make miserable house pets," Haug said.
Some dogs go berserk in a house or even a small yard; others develop obsessive-compulsive disorders, and because of that many get dumped or even euthanized. For the most part, Haug said, the desire to work and to herd is inherent in the breed, and a border collie can't be turned into a lap dog just because that's what an owner might want.
Good at other tasks
Border collies' intelligence is not limited to their natural instinct to herd. They can quickly learn other tasks that are helpful for humans, from sniffing out drugs and explosives to competing in agility or athletic competitions.
Agility competitions put the dogs through timed obstacle courses, with hurdles, ramps and tunnels. Most such competitions are open to all breeds of dogs.
In northern climates, some border collies are used as sled dogs.
Do border collies ever resent having to work for a living?
"I don't consider them pets, I consider them partners," Bailey said.
And because they are of such value to farmers and shepherds, most herding dogs are "very, very well cared for and loved," Haug said.