WORKING STYLE: AUSSIES VS BORDER COLLIES

by Jeanne Weaver

I have been asked to explain the difference in working style between the Aussie and the Border Collie. I will attempt to touch on some of the more obvious differences. Admittedly, I am no expert on the subject of Border Collies. I have worked with Border Collies and numerous other breeds for the past three years at our weekly training classes. You could definitely say that the students and I are learning together. The following are observations that I have made while working with students, attending trials and clinics, watching videos and reading whatever I can find on the subject.

Aussies and Border Collies do not and should not work alike. Border Collies, in general, have strong eye and very precise balance. Aussies, in general, have loose eye and do a lot of wearing (flanking from side to side of the flock). I say “in general” because within each breed there are many variations of style.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain differences is through example. We have a flock of Romneys that numbers around fifty the summer before the lambs are sold. Romneys are calm and sensible. They dog break easily and quickly become heavy (flight zone short to zero, depending on the dog).

The Aussies have absolutely no problem moving the Romneys. Close work, force when needed, and a lot of wear come naturally. The Border Collies, on the other hand, can be very frustrating. Heavy sheep are not impressed by the eye and caution with which they attempt to control them. Gathering and penning our flock of Romneys, a five-minute job for the Aussies, can be an exercise in handler patience when attempted by the Border Collies.

We also have a small flock of Barbados. They are flighty, fast and very light. They need to be handled with caution and finesse, two very strong Border Collie traits. Nothing can beat Border Collies on very light sheep. In order to give our dogs as much experience as possible, we vary the type of sheep used for practicing both outruns and penning. We rotate groups of straight Romneys or straight Barbados or a combination of the two. The Border Collies’ finesse and precision more easily pen the Barbs, while the Aussies’ willingness to put pressure on when needed is much more effective when penning the heavier sheep.

Border Collies have been bred to think on a broader scope. They “see” stock that is three or four hundred yards away. Aussies must be taught to look for sheep at that distance. Even after being taught to look, if in a strange place, they may look straight at the stock and still not see it.

Of course, one of the major difference between the two breeds is the way they use eye. This is difficult to explain. Border Collies generally remain in constant contact with stock, even when lying down. The looser-eyed Aussie quite often loses contact when asked to lie down. When working, the Border Collie uses eye constantly, often even before the stock is aware of their presence, while the Aussie uses eye only at certain times, such as when penning or when being challenged. Some lines of Aussies rarely or never use eye.

Generally, the looser the eye, the more difficult it becomes for a dog to instinctively find balance. The looser eyed dogs do more wearing. There aren’t many Aussies who don’t instinctively wear. This is a strong breed trait and should not be criticized. If a dog is taught to rate properly, he can still wear and keep even a small number of stock moving in a straight line.

As I said earlier, wearing is necessary when moving large flocks or herds. Border Collies have been developed by the trialing community to control small numbers of sheep. This they do to perfection. When trialing Border Collies, straight lines are of utmost importance. When moving large numbers of heavy stock, Border Collies quite often must be manually flanked by the handler. If left to their own devices when being faced or challenged, they will become more and more cautious in an attempt to keep the group together. This type will likely keep the group together but won’t make much progress at moving them.

An untrained Aussie in the same situation would put too much pressure on, causing splits and general chaos. Aussies usually need to be taught that stock can be controlled at a distance.

Many people are under the misconception that Border Collies are easier to train than Aussies. The fact that Border Collies are generally more comfortable, sooner, with putting less pressure on stock may make it seem so, but in my experience they are no easier to train. Each breed and each individual has its own set of training problems that must be worked through.

Of primary importance with either breed is to begin with the best breeding possible. Dogs who do not possess the right combination of traits for the work to be done are a waste of time and money.

The above will hopefully help you to understand that these breeds should not be compared. Each breed should be appreciated for its own unique characteristics.

this article was originally published in the January/February 1993 issue of Aussie Times
© Australian Shepherd Club of America