A lot of people will tell you not to stereotype certain dogs, which I do agree with, however, Border Collies DO tend to have certain traits that are bred into them. If your Collie isn’t interested in movement for example, then you probably need to check that it’s actually a Border Collie! Or I’m afraid you just got a bit of a dud.
Another trait is that Border Collies are inherently clever. You hear time and time again that they have the same IQ as a toddler. My belief, and from my own experience with our Border Collie, is that his intelligence means that he is highly attuned to the environment. Sound, smell, sight, you name it, he follows it.
This in turn, regardless of the great socialisation he received as a pup, has made him incredibly nervous of certain things and situations. This can also be said of many different dogs of course.
This would great for a wild dog, and would mean that back in the day, their survival rate was good as they would have been cautious of EVERYTHING! They would have seen most things in the world as a threat. Perfect.
That’s not so relevant now, because WE are here to look after him. He really doesn’t need to worry about that kid having fun next door being a threat, it’s not a bear hiding in the bushes is it? But sadly, he doesn’t know that.
I feel I have some experience with the sensory system. My son has sensory processing disorder. He is sensitive to noise, touch, sound, smell and even taste, to the point that an overload, can lead to an almighty meltdown.
Over the years I have had to learn A LOT, about how to regulate his system. Notice when his bucket is starting to fill with sensory information, and stop him in his tracks before it overflows. Then we have to find ways to empty his bucket and to help make his bucket bigger. Some simple things we can do are sensory circuits, massage, exercise, jumping on the trampoline. ALL of these things help to regulate his sensory system and, in some cases, stop that meltdown before it happens.
Now if his bucket overflows to the point of meltdown, there really is only one thing to do, and this is to be in a quiet and comfortable environment where he can switch off and remove him from that situation as quickly as possible.
If we look at Border Collies in a similar way, It’s not a surprise then to know that when working Border Collies have been in the fields doing their job, working their brains to the MAX, they return to their kennels to totally switch off and sleep. Whatever Border Collie you have, it was bred to work at some point, and that work ethic is deeply engrained into most of them, regardless of whether they came from a farm or not.
I have noticed with my Border Collie that he finds it INCREDIBLY difficult to switch off, even in the quietest of rooms, especially when there are people around. If he doesn’t sleep, and switch off, he becomes more, and more overloaded with sensory information, to the point that he melts down. This can result in barking, lunging, and behaving out of character.
So, what can you do to help your nervous Border Collie from A, getting to that point, and B, give them a hand if they DO get to that point.
1 KEEP IT SHORT
Keep training sessions short, keep walks short if they find them stressful, and keep greetings short. Find a way to limit the rehearsal of any behaviour you don’t like. I believe it’s a myth that Border Collies HAVE to have 3 good runs every day. Mine has a 20 min walk once a day as he finds long countryside walks bucket filling, and the rest of the time is filled with short training sessions, and practicing calm. That way I’m setting him up for success on our walks, and helping him to feel less nervous. The long countryside walks will come, or we limit them to once a week or so.
Which brings me to..
2 EMPTY THE BUCKET
When they are NOT doing, like training or out on your walk, then help them to relax. Lots of chews, bones, kongs, licky mats, scatter feeding, anything that promotes calm behaviour. These things will really help to empty that bucket.
3. NOTICE THIER BEHAVIOUR
Watch them and observe what makes them nervous, what makes them calm. What do they like doing? Buddy feels calm in a ‘middle’ position. He also likes to have his paws up on me. It calms him and makes him feel safer.
Don’t worry about ‘traditional’ training and putting them into situations you know they won’t like and fail at. Find out what they DO like.
I encourage Buddy to jump up at me when he’s worried or anxious as he almost visibly lets out a sigh of relief like ‘ahhhh thanks mums that’s better’ and will happily stand with his paws up for a few minutes while receiving a shoulder massage! (Well who wouldn’t right?!) But why not if it saves him from being nervous about the thing he doesn’t like. No barking and no lunging. No rehearsal of behaviour.
Don’t give a jot about what others think; this is modern dog training with simple science, and you are helping your dog.
4 HELP THEM SWITCH OFF
Give them a quiet dark space they can go to sleep during the day. If like mine they don’t ‘take themselves off’ then pop them in a covered crate in another room. Then when they wake, they are ready and able to take on board training, and the world, with a recharged battery and a more relaxed mind. Crating them is not being mean, or cruel, you are HELPING them. No one likes to feel tired and ratty, and neither will your dog if he or she is one that finds it incredibly difficult to switch off on their own.
5 FIND A GOOD, MODERN DOG TRAINER, PREFERABLE WITH BORDER COLLIE EXPERIENCE
It has helped me no end to find a trainer that has Border Collies of her own. She understands our struggles and has been through it three times over! Do your research on your trainer and getting a recommendation is a must.
If you have a Border Collie, let me know if you agree with any of the above in the comments below, or what kind of Collie you have! You might also like one of my other latest blogs ‘6 Things you should never say to a Border Collie owner’
This is absolutely my dog. She just about walks round the block every 4 or 5 days. Used to roam the countryside on and off for 3 yrs or so but then just wouldnt go out. Lots of guns and fireworks here in Sussex. Have kept her calm and empty her bucket just like you do and she’s improving again.
Ah Wendy that is amazing to hear! It’s all trial and error sometimes to find what works for your dog and sounds like you are doing the absolute best for her well done! She’s very lucky to have you. xxx
I’m so pleased I stumbled across this post and your blog. I have had Cassie, a four year old Border Collie since she was eight weeks old. She comes from a farm- both her parents were working sheep dogs.
Although well socialised, her anxiety levels seem to have gone up recently. I don’t know why. Your post, and particularly the filling and emptying of ‘her bucket’ is spot on. I’m keen to continue learning how best to handle different situations, but finding a good trainer with Collie experience is not easy. Your blog provides some excellent resources though.
Geoff I’m so pleased you found the blog too and that it might be of some help! I really do recommend Absolute Dogs on the ‘people we love page’ As these are all the concepts we have been following and they are collie owners themselves. They open their training academy up twice a year but you can buy their ‘how to be a concept trainer’ book for about £20 on their site or on amazing which explains all the concepts we follow and the training games if you want more info. I will for sure he posting loads more though! 😊
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Excellent advice !
I have a rescue border collie from Many Tears . She was about to be shot on an Irish farm . I’ve had her for 9 months , she’s approximately 2 years old . At first she was very nervous and afraid ….as time went on, she started to show fear aggression by growling , lunging and nipping . Her triggers are men without dogs and anything with wheels . Your advice great , we are on a reactive dog fb site and we practice giving treats when she sees scary things . It’s working , but mainly I’m more aware now of her triggers and body language . We avoid scaring her and muzzle trained her just in case .
Julia you are the best! What a lucky girl she is to have you. Thank you so much for commenting it’s great to hear other people’s stories. Sending you guys lots of hugs.