16 June 2008

The Meaning of "Work" and "Working"

If Molly were just about anything but a border collie, I wouldn't have to talk about this. She's a BC through and through, so it's an important issue to put on the table.

"Work" has a very special meaning in the BC world. It means herding. Nothing else is really work when you're talking BCs. It is what they were bred for. Yes, a BC can be very happy in a range of other jobs or even several jobs. But they're only really working when they're herding. It isn't meant to be a snobby thing, but it is an important nuance of language when talking to serious BC people. A quality BC is working bred, which means its parents are good herders. A border collie that doesn't have this herding background, well, it's just a dog. In the old days when BCs worked for a living, this was also a test of health. If they could stand up to the trials of working day in and day out, they had to be healthy.

Today a lot of "border collies" are bred without having their working ability tested in any way. As the offspring get further and further from these lines, they often lose the instincts and features that make the breed what it is. The BC as a breed isn't defined by its appearance or size, but by its nature and its working features. Without these aspects, you have a dog that is not a border collie, no matter what its papers may say. Unfortunately many of these dogs are registered, but in organizations like the AKC that do not prioritize the dog's working ability. Instead dogs are bred for appearance or in sports or obedience lines. Like the dog I met Saturday, it is not unusual for these dogs to lose all understanding of livestock and herding and even the basic signs like the border collie crouch and the border collie eye.

The issue isn't how the dog is used--a working bred BC is often just as suited for and very happy with a life as a sports dog, obedience dog, dog dancer, service dog, or active family pet--but how it is bred. Unless you have a BC with proven working ability, please do not breed it. Check out a site like the BC Rescue Resources Forum for information about finding a BC in rescue. If you can't find an appropriate dog that way (most people can, but there are exceptions, like when you live in countries that don't have much in the way of rescues), try to select a breeder and dog carefully, especially if you are looking for a service dog candidate.

When DH and I went looking for a BC, we already knew we wanted a dog whose parents could herd but didn't care about papers. We didn't do a 100% perfect job shopping, because we didn't make sure we saw the parents working, but we lucked out. Although her parents are probably chore dogs and have never been tested with real work, Molly has shown potential the time she has been on sheep. She has those traits of a BC. She isn't registered but her parents are. Another mistake I made was not studying the copies of her parents' papers well enough before getting Molly. It turns out that her mother had failing hips, so was not qualified for breeding within the Danish Kennel Club. Fortunately a recent x-rays shows that Molly's hips are looking good. Another lucky point is that research of Molly's ancestors shows a strong working background, including a Danish National Herding Champion as her paternal grandmother. We could just as easily have ended up with a dog with bad hips and no herding background because we didn't do our homework well enough.

Obviously Molly isn't working in the BC sense every time I use the word "work" in this blog. I just wanted to explain the nuance of the language in BC and herding circles.

I use "work" in the SD sense. A service dog is working when it is helping its person by doing the tasks it is specially trained to do. It can work with or without its vest, but a lot of the time "work" means putting on the vest to go somewhere. For example, I want to teach Molly to switch into work mode when her vest comes on. In the vest, her default behavior should be restrained and controlled. She shouldn't be soliciting attention, licking herself, or jumping on sofas.

Without her vest, I'd still like her to help me, but mostly she's allowed to be a dog. If she needs to scratch, she should go ahead and scratch. It's also fine for her to talk to people and find toys and ask us to play with her.

I hope that makes sense to everyone. Molly is a dog with a job and will soon be a working dog in the SD sense. But she will never be a full-time working dog in the BC sense. We'd like to get her trained enough to be able to work as a hobby on both sheep and cattle. Right now we don't have the finances to devote to her training. Herding will have to remain a future dream for the three of us at least a little while longer.

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