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From Scotland to the Ozarks: One Border Collie Uses Instinct, Intuition to Become a Livestock Farmer’s Best Ally

"Flash," a Border Collie in southern Missouri, is in training to become a livestock farm dog
Border Collie
Marcos Christopher, who trains Border Collies and Bird Dogs out of Moody, Missouri, says one of the things he likes most about Border Collies is that they're affectionate. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU)

[Sound: gate opening, chain on gate]

Marc Christopher unlatches a chain and the metal gate swings open. Several border collies and a couple of bird dogs greet him from their kennels.

Flash is a nine-year-old dog who came to the United States on an airplane seven years ago from her ancestral homeland.

“She’s an imported dog, from Scotland. And this breed, the border collie breed, originated in the borders of Scotland and England. And that’s why they call it a border collie,” Christopher said.

Based in Moody, Missouri, just two miles north of the Arkansas border as the crow flies, Christopher travels the country as an expert on training border collies like Flash.

“We’re gonna let her empty out. So once she’s done with that business, we can get down to business,” Christopher said. He has the dogs go to the bathroom before instructing them in the field, so they “don’t have an excuse” not to perform well on the job.

[Sound: chain, another gate]

Once Flash has “emptied out,” Christopher calls her to attention.

“And so, now I’m telling her to stay with us. We’re gonna go through a gate here, and she’s got a job to do,” Christopher said.

You can see the difference—she’s alert, ready to respond to command.

[Sound:  "Here, Flash!  That’ll do….come here."]

With commands like, “Here, Flash!” and “That’ll do,” Christopher releases her from what she was doing, and prepares her for a new task.

 

We walk into a field with tall grass.

“So, she’s poised here at my left side. And that communicates to her, just by body position, that I want her to gather going to the left.  So she should be going to the left, or in this case, clockwise, and looking into the center of the clock,” Christopher said.

Across the field are about ten sheep and one cow. Christopher and I can see the livestock because of our height advantage, but keep in mind, this is very tall grass, and Flash has to use instinct to find the livestock in this large field. He gives the command.

“So, I’m gonna hiss at this dog…”

And with that, Flash is off. When she first sees the stock, she automatically flares out, giving them more space so she doesn’t disturb them from the wrong angle. Again, that part is by instinct.  She crouches low and jogs around behind them, so that the livestock, completely oblivious, are now directly between her and us.

 “See, the livestock don’t even know she’s behind them.  And she’s creeping up really slowly here. And you’re gonna see the livestock all of a sudden take notice of her. Okay, now you see the sheep heads are raising.  They’ve now been alarmed that there’s a predator behind them—in this case, my dog,” Christopher said.

Gently, yet steadily, Flash guides the flock of sheep and one cow right toward us.

“And she’s making all kinds of adjustments as she fetches them to us,” he says.

In a matter of about 30 seconds, the animals come right to us. They tryto go past us, but Flash flanks them on the left to keep them precisely in one spot.

Border Collies aren’t just trainable; they’re intelligent. And there’s a difference. For example, Flash uses her own judgment all the time: when to nip a sheep that’s being stubborn, for example.

Marc Christopher trains his dogs to learn two languages: verbal and whistle, and he uses them interchangeably.

[Sound:  Commands, whistle]

Flash has had to learn three languages, since she originally learned some bad habits in Scotland, Christopher says.

They also sort livestock—for example, if there’s one sheep or cow about to give birth, the collie can separate that animal from the others, and keep them away.  They can also protect an open gate so that no animals pass through  or go into the woods to find a lost animal.

To find out just how helpful these dogs are for local farmers, I called Dusty Shaw. He owns one of the biggest beef cattle operations around: Shaw and Company, based in Thomasville, Missouri.

“Well, these dogs are just really, really, really good. As far as gathering up cattle, [each one is] probably worth about three people. Those dogs can do as much as three people on horseback,” Shaw said.

And trainer Marc Christopher says that’s why some farmers will pay up to $10,000 for an exceptionally-well trained border collie.

Join us this afternoon at 4:30 as our Sense of Community Series continues. We’ll be going into a nursing home to see how animals help residents in the last chapters of their lives.

I’m Jennifer Davidson.

Flash the Border Collie responds immediately to trainer Marcos Christopher's commands in moving this flock of sheep. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU) Flash, the Border Collie, is nine years old; she moved to the United States from her homeland of Scotland when she was two. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU) Marcos Christopher praises his dog, Flash, after she rounds up the livestock. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU) Marcos Christopher also has a guard dog that protects the livestock from coyotes and dogs throughout the night. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU)