Border Collie Origin and History

blue Border Collie puppy playing


Border Collies originated in the border area between Scotland and England. Often called the world’s premiere sheepherding dogs, Border Collies are renowned for their ability to move sheep in a silent and controlled manner, all at the will of their masters. Border Collies control stock by using their “eye,” which has been described as “the ability to control stock by staring at them in a fixed and steady manner.

Although history of the Border Collie is unrecorded, it is commonly accepted that they developed from crosses between the Roman drover dogs and the progenitors of the Finnish Spitz. As time went on, the dogs were also crossed with other Working and Sporting breeds, including Beardies, Setters, Pointers, and Sighthounds.

border collie herding sheep

Often called the world’s premiere sheepherding dogs, Border Collies are renowned for their ability to move sheep in a silent and controlled manner, all at the will of their masters.

Sporting breed records indicate that certain lines of Pointers worked differently in the days when birds such as grouse and partridge were hunted on foot with nets, rather than with guns. Like modern-day dogs, these particular lines were able to point to where a covey of birds was hiding in the underbrush. But instead of flushing the prey, the dogs would circle around the perimeter of the covey, indicating to the hunters exactly where to lay their net to capture the birds. It seems likely that Border Collies inherited not only their “eye” but also the uncanny ability to know how far off the perimeter they need to stay in order to not disturb their “flock” from these early hunting dogs.

The Border Collie dog has been bred throughout history solely for its working ability. Because of the difference in terrain between the English Lowlands and the Scottish Highlands, farmers raised different breeds of sheep based upon their locality. The type of stock and the surrounding topography led to different physical attributes being required for the dogs to be efficient workers.

For example, to survive in the rough hills and rocky crags of the highlands, sheep had to be light and fast. Thus, the good working dogs in the Highlands tended to have long legs and lean bodies. In contrast, the Lowlands could support slower, heavier sheep. To work these large, heavy sheep on gentler land, the dogs did not need as much speed and agility. Instead, they needed a lower center of gravity and enough size to be able to withstand a charge from big, angry ewes defending their lambs. Therefore, the dogs in the Lowlands had shorter legs and heavier bodies.

So, even though the dogs were bred for working ability (as opposed to being bred for “looks”), recognizable physical types evolved. The types are divided by physical looks; however, general working style and temperament also seem related to type. It is generally accepted that there are four distinct types, noted as:

  1. Northumbrian Type;
  2. Wiston Cap Type;
  3. Nap Type; and
  4. Herdman’s Tommy Type:


Northumbrian Type

Almost all present-day Border Collies can trace their pedigrees back to a dog known as Old Hemp. Hemp was born in 1894, bred and owned by Adam Telfer who lived in the Northumbrian region of England. Hemp was a cross between a very strong-eyed, black bitch with a reticent temperament, and a black and white tri-colored dog with loose eye and a good-natured, outgoing temperament. Hemp was a powerful, keen worker who sired over 200 puppies. Physically, Hemp was the epitome of the Northumbrian type: medium-sized with a rough coat and very little white trim.


Wiston Cap Type

This type developed from J.M. Wilson’s dog, Cap, through Jock Richardson’s outstanding trial and stud dog, Wiston Cap. Also rough-coated, these dogs tend to be larger, with big, blocky heads and much more white trim—collars, chests, forelegs, etc. They typically have tremendous natural outruns and biddable natures.


Nap Type

Of the four types of Border Collies, the Nap Type is the only smooth-coated one. The name comes from a dog called Whitehope Nap. These dogs are strong, fast, and powerful. Their coat is short, but has an undercoat to act as insulation from cold or heat. Many have longer legs and shorter bodies, making their outline more square than the other types. Because of their short coats, speed, and power, many Americans used them to work cattle on large ranches in the Southwest.


Herdman’s Tommy Type

The last type is named after a Hemp grandson, Herdman’s Tommy. Three of the four main breeding lines to Hemp go back through Tommy. Physically, Tommy was a medium-sized dog with a lot of bone. His rough coat was black and white with tan markings. This type is known for their good nature, power, and strong-headedness.


The first sheepdog trial was held in Bala, Wales on October 9, 1873. Trials were designed to showcase the working ability of the dogs by having the dogs move sheep through a series of obstacles, penning the sheep and shedding one or more sheep away from the rest of the flock. The International Sheepdog Society (ISDS) was formed in 1906. The ISDS developed the first Border Collie stud books and still registers working Border Collies today. The ISDS holds annual competitions to determine National Champions and, the ultimate goal, the International Supreme Champion sheepdog.

To become an International Supreme Champion, a dog must first compete to become a member of its National team. The four teams, representing England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, then go through a series of qualifying rounds. Only the top 15 dogs make it to the grueling final round where the dog must perform two separate 800-yard blind outruns. A blind outrun is where the dog cannot see the sheep until he is in the proper position to begin his lift. After collecting twenty sheep (ten each outrun), the dog must guide them through obstacles, separate five marked sheep away from the group, and then pen the five—all within 30 minutes.

Border Collie history
Border Collie History

The first sheepdog trial to be held in America was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1880. The first U.S. National Championship sheepdog trial was in Staunton, Virginia, in 1941. Today, the United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA), the American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA), the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), and the American Kennel Club (AKC) hold herding trials all over America. The trials have various courses and formats, and also have choices of sheep, cattle, ducks, or goats as stock.

Many trials, including the very first one in 1873, also had a “type” competition after the dogs ran the course. The “type” competition was, essentially, what we call a dog show today. The dogs were evaluated on physical structure to determine which was best-suited to perform the job of sheepherding. The farmers and shepherds who participated in the first trials and type competitions were, above all else, stockmen. (Women did not get involved in sheepdog trialing until much later.) As stockmen, they were comfortable with the idea of evaluating an animal’s physical structure against a standard based upon the animal’s purpose: whether that purpose was wool production, meat for marketing, or working stockdogs.

Border Collies have been shown in the American Kennel Club (AKC) Obedience venue since the early 1950s. However, they were not fully recognized by the AKC until 1995, allowing them to begin showing in the Conformation ring on October 1, 1995. While herding instinct and ability cannot be assessed in the Conformation ring, the physical qualities that allow the dog to work can be. Breeding based on this working ability has made this breed the world’s premier sheepherding dog, a job the Border Collie is still used for worldwide.

Border Collie History: 1950 Westminster Kennel Club dog show herding demo
Border Collie History: 1950 Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Photo courtesy by AKC.
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