Border Collie Training: Working with herding breeds

Border Collies struggle in urban environments when they’re not given appropriate outlets for their intrinsic desire to herd. We see so many Collie owners desperately relying on a ball chucker to tire their dogs out, but what is this really doing to the dog?

It’s sadly very common to see Border Collies transfer their herding instincts into chasing anything that moves, be that cars, children, bikes or even shadows.

What these beautiful dogs need is access to engage in herding in a way that is controlled, fun and harnesses their natural instincts. They can learn to herd while increasing their ability to recall from a distance, engage with their human, and enjoy more freedom safely.

If you are working with herding breeds or considering doing so, then this will revolutionise how you empower owners to understand their dogs so that they can live healthy, happy lives together.

Understanding breed history

Whatever dog breed you are working with, understanding breed history is critical. Over thousands of years, we have shaped our dog’s behaviors according to the jobs they were bred for.

While the dogs you work with may now be living their lives in pet homes, there is a strong

possibility that what lies beneath problem behaviours is linked in part to the breed’s natural instincts. What you’re really seeing is a dog performing breed-specific traits in a different environment, like a Collie trying to herd kids at the local park.

Border Collie Breed History

Border Collies are, of course, a herding breed. Herding is about stopping and controlling movement. They were bred to work alongside their shepherd to gather a large number of animals together and then control and drive those animal’s movements.

So when working with herding breeds, we need to be mindful of the characteristics that go along with being a successful herder.

Herding breeds are quickly aroused to meet the need to go from zero to 10 in the flick of a switch. If a sheep breaks from a herd, a Border Collie needs to respond immediately and stop and control the movement of the one that's running away.

The hunt sequence used in working dogs is wired into pet dogs too.

Eye - Stalk - Chase - Grab - Possess - Disect - Chew

For Border Collies, the part of the herding sequence that is most relevant is to eye, stalk, chase, and grab.

It’s intrinsically reinforcing for Border Collies to do these behaviours.

Border Collies need to be environmentally sensitive and aware of all the things that are going on around them so they can work with their handler at a distance while protecting their own safety and security.

When we think about all of these traits that are essential for them to perform their job of controlling the movement of sheep or livestock, we can see how and why behaviour problems can often show up in domestic environments for the breed.

For thousands of years, we've been creating a high arousal, easily frustrated animal that likes to be able to control movement and gets very, very easily upset if they can't do that. When a Border Collie isn’t able to perform the eye - stalk - chase of the hunt sequence, their innate need to fulfil those behaviours is stifled. And this often shows up with lunging, barking, nipping or chasing things that aren’t safe.

They’re hugely environmentally sensitive, have a very close bond with their handler, and have enormous energy to complete the task they were bred to do.

A Collie’s early life experiences were likely to be on a farm, in kennels and spent watching their parent’s work with their shepherd and the sheep. They had little to no exposure to homes, people, streets, cars and all the things they’re confronted with in an urban environment.

It wasn't important that they were super friendly to everybody that came into the farmyard or that they could cope with traffic. It was imperative that they had the endurance and natural herding ability, and quick action to instantly do everything that the farmer needed.

It’s possible to have an urban domestic Border Collie, who lies down by your fire at night or gets snuggled up on the sofa with you, with the right training and lifestyle considerations. A Border Collie can be perfectly happy, well-nourished, and a beautiful member of the family.

But we need to know what to avoid and what to do to bring out the very best in them.

We need to talk about balls

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Border Collie owner who has never thrown a ball.

When we throw balls consistently for herding breeds, we are allowing them to practise their herding behaviour. They are stopping and controlling the movement of the ball in the same way that a working Collie would do with sheep.

We are giving them something that is dynamic and moves, and we allow them to stop and control the movement of it.

Most Collie owners introduce a ball very early on. And when they do that, the dog is taught to practise the hunt sequence in a very accessible form. This can lead to frustration, herding, grabbing, and stopping movement from very early on in a Collie’s life.

We build an expert herder without even knowing we're doing it, and what this represents to the dog is that movement needs to be stopped and controlled. This practised behaviour can then show up in undesirable situations, with the Collie enacting this hunt sequence with cars, children, bikes… anything that moves!

We need to give our herding breeds access to an appropriate herding outlet and help them to learn to control that instinct in other environments.

Let’s talk about fetch.

When we play fetch with a dog, we are encouraging the dog to chase the ball out. The dog has to grab the ball and stop it from moving. Then, the dog has to retrieve the ball back to you and then let go of it.

The part of that sequence that a Collie enjoys is where they actually grab and stop and control the movement of the ball. You can see the warmth in her when she grabs that ball in her mouth and her tail starts to go, her ears come down, and her eyes soften. She'll bite down on it and chomp it a few times to make sure it's there, and she's really got it. That's the bit that she loves.

She will chase it, of course. She would chase it until her legs fell off, but that does not mean that that's a part of the sequence she's enjoying.

Often for our Border Collies, making them chase the ball is the part that builds massive frustration, because the ball just keeps getting away from them. If this happened with a sheep in the field, the Collie would be failing at their job, and this is where that frustration comes from.

So what we're doing with our Border Collies an awful lot of the time is building a super fit dog who's got loads of frustration and high arousal, which leads to undesirable behaviours in other areas.

A much healthier way for our Border Collies to enjoy a game of fetch is to teach them to run to a marker spot and wait in position to receive the ball. When the dog arrives at the marker spot, you throw the ball, and they get to catch it. The part where they're running away from you is a trained behaviour. It’s not full of frustration and not chasing something and desperately trying to catch it.

Common undesirable Collie behaviours

Herding traffic

Of course, moving vehicles need to be stopped and controlled in a Collie’s mind. Working on this behaviour takes an awful lot of work, and the results are not quick.

I always recommend that if you have a dog that herds traffic, do not expose them to any more traffic. Stop giving them a chance to practice the behaviour. It’s massively stressful for them.

No amount of corrections, yelling, or shouting is going to fix it. And no amount of positive reinforcement is going to distract them from it without some hefty, hefty work. For a Collie, there is nothing more rewarding than stopping and controlling movement. It will trump treats and toys every single time.

Put the Collie in a car and drive them somewhere nice, far away from traffic. And when you get there, do some breed-specific training with them. We need to teach them to herd appropriately so they can meet that intrinsic need without negative consequences.

Environmental sensitivity

We've talked about why Border Collies were bred to be environmentally sensitive.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time in everyday life, that means we have a dog who is particularly sensitive to everything around them in a domestic environment.

For a dog with a lack of confidence, that is really sensitive to certain things in their environment, teaching herding will dramatically increase their confidence levels.

If we can recreate that herding drive within the confinements of domestic life, it's massively reinforcing for them and will increase hormones that raise confidence.

Fears and phobias

This often is related to environmental sensitivities. A dog who is lacking in confidence or who is very sensitive can commonly lead to developing fears and phobias.

Once a dog has locked into that fearful state, they cannot access the parts of the brain involved in learning a new behaviour.

These issues need the attention of a professional to work through.


When we restrict how much movement a Border Collie can have, they find it frustrating, which can frequently lead to frustrated greeting reactivity when on the lead.

If the dog is only reactive on lead and is perfectly comfortable around people or dogs when off the lead, then it’s very likely you have a frustrated greeter on your hands.

If you've got a frustrated greeter, there is such an easy treatment plan for it. In short, there are lots of lovely positive reinforcement techniques you can do to teach them to focus on you before they can access the person or dog that they so want to meet.

If you're working with a dog who actively avoids other dogs or people when off lead, then you probably have a dog that's quite fearful. As above, this needs to be addressed with the help of a professional.

Loose lead walking

For most Border Collies, they repeatedly receive rewards away from their handler.

If we think about ball throwing, the Collie receives their reward a long distance away from their human. Their intrinsic reinforcement comes at a distance, almost always. And nothing can trump intrinsic reinforcement.

When we consider loose lead walking for a Border Collie, the most effective thing you can do is to use the longest leash possible to allow them that distance from you. Border Collies are naturally predisposed to prefer space between them and their handler. As working dogs, they work at a distance from their shepherd and take instructions from afar.

Of course, we have to consider safety parameters, but in essence, the more distance you can give your Collie, the better their loose leash walking skills will be.

Our Collies will also be very likely to feel over-arousal and frustration beginning to build just at the sight of the lead. The lead means going somewhere that I’m going to chase, and the anticipation of that is overwhelmingly exciting.

In order to work on being able to walk on a shorter loose lead, we need to build in reinforcement at closer proximity to us. So one of the things I do with my dogs is to reward them for staying close to me. The ball is the highest reward that I can give her, so I use that, really, really mindfully.

Sometimes we'll be walking along, and she's right next to me, and I take that ball, and I bounce it right down in front of me at my feet, and I let her catch it. So she’s getting to do the stopping and controlling the ball’s movement right by my side.

I'll also throw the ball between my legs, get her to run in between them, or call her through my legs and mark when she's directly underneath me. Then I deliver the ball.

Barrier frustration or fence running

Barrier frustration and fence running are two problems that arise a lot with Collies.

When there is a physical barrier between a Collie and someone else, you often get a lot of shouting because they can’t stop and control the movement of the thing on the other side. Blocking that vision to the other side so the Collie can’t see the movement is immensely helpful.

A Collie might run that fence boundary all day long, given half a chance. This is often because they want to herd something that's on the other side of that boundary. Perhaps you have traffic, a kid’s play park, livestock, another dog walking by, and this fence running behaviour develops.

This is caused by frustration. They want to get to the other side, and they can’t, so they do their best to dissipate the energy running through them.

Again, I recommend managing this situation by blocking the visual so they can’t see it and they do not have to deal with that every single day.

Repetitive behaviours

We have a breed that is predisposed to arousal and frustration and is highly sensitive to their environment, and that can lead to repetitive behaviours such as Shadow chasing, light chasing, and tail-chasing.

This needs the support of a professional who understands this type of neurological behaviour.

The dark side of dopamine

Dopamine is a chemical that's released during reward-based behaviours.

It's released in the body when we experience things that really trigger the reward centres within our brains. But dopamine also has a dark side. It has receptors within the adrenal cortex, which means the higher the dopamine levels are in the body, the more of a stress response is acting on the body at the same time.

So we need to be careful about how much dopamine we are exposed to and the length of time we're exposed to it.

Dopamine is also very closely linked to addiction.

When our pleasure centres get that delightful hit, our bodies can develop an addiction where we desperately try to seek that same reward again and again.

Think about our Border Collies engaging in herding behaviours. The more exposure we give them to that, the more exposure they're having to the effects of dopamine, and we need to be careful with that.

The more time we allow our dogs to spend in that herding zone, where they seek that pleasurable habit of stopping and controlling movement or trying to, they are building up the frustration in their body.

We need to be careful because big amounts of dopamine in the body can convert to cortisol at any point in time.

We often see this when we've got a Border Collie that's very, very seriously working. They are hyper-focused and hyper-vigilant on one particular task and can often end up being quite snappy and irritable with other dogs or anything that tries to interfere with that process.

This is a classic example of dopamine converting to cortisol. You then end up with this prominent reactivity where the Collie loses it.

We need our Collies to be able to shut down and take a rest from seeking these herding behaviours.

There is a healthy way for a dog to enjoy herding that doesn't build frustration, doesn't build arousal, and really hits the pleasure centres for a short period of time, And then they take a total rest from the game.

You help the dog with lots of arousal-reducing activities to ensure that we are giving our dogs access to herd in a completely safe environment.

Physical Health of a Collie

We should not be relying on making our dogs physically exhausted in order to control their behaviour.

Just because you have a working breed does not mean that they need to be doing four hours of cardio every day. If you turn to excessive exercise to tire out your dog, then you’re going to end up with an elite athlete on your hands.

The effects of that amount of physical stress on the dog’s body over their lifetime will mean that you're going to shorten the dog’s life.

Instead, combine your daily walk with training, mental stimulation, and arousal reduction activities for them to participate in.

Pain in a Collie

Border Collies are exceptionally good at hiding when something is wrong with them.

They are stoic characters who may not show the typical signs of pain, so you need to pay very close attention. Seek out a vet experienced in working with Sporting dogs and take videos to show your dog in action outside of the consultation room.

With my own dog, I knew that she had some arthritis in her shoulder and spine because I had scans to confirm that. But there were absolutely zero physical symptoms within her body beyond the odd bout of lameness now and again If she did some sharp twists and turns on solid surfaces.

I would urge owners of ageing Border Collies to speak to their vet about pain relief, especially if you're visually seeing signs of stiffness or lameness.

Dental health of a Collie

The traditional tennis ball with fur on the outside has a lot to answer for!

Over time, what happens with these balls is that they pick up little bits of grit and dirt that then act like sandpaper in the dog's mouth.

The dog is catching the ball and continually tasting it and chewing on it, and it acts as a really abrasive surface against the dog’s teeth. Over the years, it wears down the tooth enamel that's covering the dog's tooth nerve.

If you’re working with a ball, then choose once that's smooth on the surface.

Breed-specific training for Collies

You need to do very specific training with Collies to allow them to experience the herding need they have in a way that will not build any frustration. For this, I developed the Herding Game, which you can access here. <link to herding game>

I recommend combining the Herding Game with training that reduces levels of arousal and mental stimulation.

The Herding Game

A Collie will herd whether you train them to or not. They might be herding the kids, the cat, the ball, the traffic, or their owner even. We need to train Collies to herd in a way that puts their innate desires to use in a safe and controlled manner.

The Herding Game is a way to nourish that herding instinct while taking care of the dog’s physical and mental health.

Within the game, we systematically build layer upon layer of different levels of behaviour. We end up with directional control, a lie down at a distance we can recall them from, and we build in all of these lovely cues and controls along the way.

So not only are we giving our herding breeds some wonderful activities which nourish their instincts, but we're also developing control over the behaviour.

The behaviours we develop within the Herding Game are impressive. They allow the owners to control their dog's movement, which means their dogs can enjoy more freedom.

If we have more cues they understand, we can do more with them because we know that we can keep them safe.

Herding. They’re doing it anyway. You might as well turn that into something magnificent.

I’ve spoken about Collies because I love them! But this applies to all herding breeds, and it really is a complete gamechanger in dealing with common behaviour problems that arise within the breeds.

You can modify The Herding Game to suit various herding breeds. For a Corgi, they like to drive behind the heels, so you adapt the game to match that desire. A German Shepherd usually prefers a larger ball and line walking rather than the circular direction a Border Collie takes, so you adjust to make it an engaging and fun training activity for the breed you’re working with.

Get instant access to The Herding Game here now and transform your training with herding breeds


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