“Baa,” my six-year-old daughter insists, “I’m a sheep, and I’m going exactly where I’m supposed to go.”
My border collie, crouched in a master herding position and giving her the “eye,” follows the chid carefully for a few moments and, content that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be, backs away. Of course, not every kid knows how to control my dog’s herding instincts. When my daughter has visitors over, especially younger kids, the dog isn’t allowed to play with them, and for good reason: a gentle nip on the ankle of a startled kid could quickly become an “attack” in the mind of the child, which could be bad news for both the child and the dog.
I’m not the first or last border collie owner who has tried to train my dog not to herd children. It’s a problem that is universal to any home that has both collies and kids. Border collies were selectively bred over the course of hundreds of years to herd sheep and other livestock. Any good breeder will tell you that herding is not a trained behavior for border collies, although it can certainly be refined through training. It is in fact an inherited trait, programmed into her DNA along with the length of her fur and the color of her eyes. Border collies are born with an instinct to herd, whether their owners encourage it or not.
Some trainers, including those who have worked with my own nip-happy dog, say that because of this, it’s absolutely impossible to train a border collie not to herd. It’s part of the dog’s nature, like barking and running and enjoying human company. There is no fair way to completely eliminate all herding behavior from a well-bred border collie, and even those who have been trained not to herd will still have unpredictable instincts that may kick in unexpectedly. Many a “good” border collie has been seized and euthanized for biting neighborhood children, despite having no history of aggression.
If you have a border collie and a young child, your best bet isn’t to try to train the herding instincts out of your dog; that’s a fool’s errand. It’s in your better interest instead to teach your children how to respond appropriately if the dog nips them. Many children will immediately run or scream when the dog lunges or nips at them, but this is counterproductive. It will make the dog instinctively bite harder to get this unruly “sheep” under control. Teach your children to calmly and firmly respond to nipping with an assertive, “No,” and then reward your dog when she follows or “herds” children without mouthing them.
If your border collie does herd a child by nipping, divert your dog’s attention elsewhere by giving her another, unrelated command, like “Find your ball,” or “Sit,” and reward her with a treat or praise when she successfully routes her attention elsewhere. If she continues herding children, stop the behavior with a firm, “No,” and separate her from the kids. Understand that your goal isn’t to turn off your dog’s herding instincts– those aren’t going anywhere– but instead to divert her attention in more productive ways.
Finally, while it’s just fine for a kid who understands border collies to interact with a border collie who understands kids, bear in mind that children and dogs should never be left unsupervised. Even the best dogs with no herding instincts are prone to unpredictable behaviors, especially when they’re confused or don’t know the child, or when the child doesn’t know how to behave calmly and respectfully around animals. As a general rule, dogs of all kinds (not just border collies!) need to be separated from youngsters except with direct adult supervision.