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Border Collies As Service Dogs

    Critiques will say that a Border Collie is not an appropriate breed as a Service Dog  because they are too "reactive".   In my opinion, it is a result of ignorance about the  breed that those opinions are held.  The best way to explain the proper temperament of  a working Border Collie is via the jobs that they were designed to do.  Anyone who has  ever worked with livestock knows that a dog cannot be spastic, crazed, out of self-  restraint or overly trigger-happy without serious ramifications.  A working bred Border  Collie must be able to remain calm and relaxed when facing a 1500 pound cow and her  calf or when squaring up against a 350 pound ram that wants to kill it.  It must believe it  can outrun wild range sheep that see a canine as a predator and spook very easily.   Herding is often about controlling animals that don’t want to be contained.   A Border  Collie must be able to take commands from a handler while moving, often at a fast pace.   It must stop on a dime and refocus its attention on a new directive.  It must work  autonomously yet always with obedience to the authority of the shepherd.   This last skill  makes it well adapted to Service Dog work, since Service Dogs must never forget that  they are subservient to their disabled handlers, even when they are expected to perform  jobs independently.    Good trainers who know how to tap into a Border Collie's work ethic (which comes from being bred for herding work) rarely struggle when asking a  Border Collie to transfer its innate abilities to perform non-herding jobs.  Border Collies excel at competition sports like Obedience, Agility, Disc Dog  and even Dock Jumping.  Although there are many herding breeds, Border Collies stand out at herding competitions.  They partner well in hobbies  such as skijoring, hiking and even lure coursing.  They also shine when asked to perform the rigorous requirements of Search & Rescue (Border  Collies are listed as one of the top five breeds used in SAR work at the FMEA website).  A SAR dog's job may require stamina and activity, but  critical evidence in a crime scene could be lost if the dog was not under absolute control of its handler.  A SAR dog that was not self-restrained and  obedient could perish in the rubble caused by a massive earth quake while it was seeking victims.  Whether the work is herding livestock, detecting bombs or illegal drugs or heading up a sled dog team, the trainer’s role is instrumental in the dog's  success.  The dog must be properly socialized and receive adequate education to perform at its highest potential.   Most Border Collies are easy to  train because they have a strong desire to please.  What makes Border Collies excel at herding work, in my opinion, is that the breed has an  excellent balance between biddability and the drive to perform a task.  A Border Collie is a unflappable worker that is constantly considering its  handler’s desire while it performs.  This near perfect balance between desire to work and to work for a person sets the breed apart and facilitates  its infiltration into almost any canine diversion.  To me, the definition of calm confidence is a properly bred and properly trained Border Collie.  A Border Collie that is working livestock cannot  trigger on other animals like squirrels, ducks, kids, a tractor going by.   They are focused and competent and capable of remaining on task for  hours.  But, the operative words are “properly bred and properly trained”.  I suspect that most people experience Border Collies in Agility trials  where they may be partnered with a bad handler or that experienced poor training.  A dog that is carrying its tail over it back, that is barking and  spinning and spitting while it runs a simple obstacle course is clearly not demonstrating calm confidence nor it is showing any self-restraint.  But,  Border Collies that are trained and handled by people who understand that Border Collies are designed to work with exceedingly high standards  will probably have a dog that carries the tail low, that doesn’t bark, spin or work harder than it must to achieve the goal.    As a breeder of Border Collies, I am not interested in placing a Border Collie puppy into a home where the exclusive training method is “all  positive”.  In my experience, that method can be very deleterious to a working bred Border Collie.  It is not based on high standards, respect for  authority, self-restraint, calm confidence – which are all qualities that a working Border Collie needs in a handler, since he almost always expects  impeccable leadership when working (else he could be killed by the livestock).  But, when a Border Collie is trained and handled properly, there’s  no reason that it cannot perform the work of a Service Dog.   They are brilliant, tireless and willing workers.  They can be easily trained to ignore  insignificant triggers in the world.  Anyone who doesn’t understand that is probably not a really great dog trainer since any breed can be trained to  ignore   distractions.  However, it is easier with a breed like a Border Collie than, say, a terrier.  There are individuals in the Border Collie breed that have a level of obsessive-  compulsiveness that makes them very challenging to train.  That trait is probably  heritable.  Scientists working with Doberman Pinschers have isolated a gene  that causes the obsessive-compulsive behavior (and they believe it is the same  gene that causes similar issues in Border Collies, German Shepherd Dogs and  Doberman Pinschers and Bull terriers, too).   The research continues.  When  choosing a Service Dog candidate, I would select against a dog that comes  from a parent who displays excessive eyeing behavior, fixation on objects,  circling/spinning.  That would be true whether you were selecting a Border  Collie or another breed that has OCD individuals in the population.  Border Collies are willing to learn, able to uphold very high standards of  behavior, creative thinkers, driven to excel and very easy to “shut down” if they  begin to act out because they are not aware of an expectation.  They usually  learn in one or two repetitions, which can be a problem for some handlers.  But,  many of them can also be very forgiving of imperfect training techniques.   In my opinion, what makes a great Service Dog is one that can partner with an individual and alleviate some of the hardship that the person  experiences because of her disability.  Partnering requires cooperation in the relationship.  A candidate Service Dog should have personality traits  that the handler finds advantageous.  It is like a marriage.  Two people can be great individuals, but that doesn’t mean that they will form a great  marriage.   Border Collies have their quirks, but so do Labrador Retrievers and any other breed.  Selecting the right breed for the job needs to  include an assessment of the breed’s idiosyncrasies versus the handler’s capacity to tolerate or even relish the breed’s peculiarities.  To exclude a  breed out of ignorance of its true character is to reduce the possibility for a wonderful match.    
Service Dogs