For over two hundred years the characteristic herding instinct known to border collies is something that has been deliberately bred into the breed. Breeders on farms in Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have continually chosen the dogs that display the strongest herding instinct to mate with each other passing on a stronger herding instinct to their offspring. This process has continued for so many generations of border collies that the breed has become synonymous with herding.
The border collie's herding instinct is something that is often severely misunderstood in that it surprisingly comes from the killing instinct of wolves. Wolf packs survive because of their ability to circle and gather their prey while working together with one another. The difference between the herding instinct of the wolf and that of the border collie is that the instinct to kill their prey is something that has been bred out of the dog. Breeders have for generations chosen dogs that show an increasingly less instinctiveness to kill while retaining the instinctiveness to herd for breeding with one another.
Though most border collies no longer possess this killing instinct, it is not fully gone from the breed as evidenced by an occasional border collie killing a sheep or calf. Because of the longterm threat to livestock that these dangerous border collies possess, these dogs are usually put down as some even think that a border collie which has tasted blood once should probably never be fully trusted again to not repeat its dangerous transgressions.
The herding instinct in border collies is unlike the typical herding instinct displayed by most herding dogs. The typical herding dog drives the herd of sheep away from the handler. On the other hand, the border collie herding instinct gathers the herd driving the sheep towards the handler. The border collie accomplishes this by circling around to the opposite side of the herd from where the handler is standing and uses its abilities to gather the herd together while pushing them in the direction of the handler.
What really makes the border collie special at herding is their ability to control the herd without the use of force. The breed uses their eyes to stare down the herd in such a way that the herd feels intimidated by the dog. The staring eye of the border collie is so threatening that the herd usually obeys the dog's directions of where he or she wants them to move to. The border collie combines the eye stare with a crouching stance and snakelike movements which add to the intimidation that usually gets the herd to obey the dog's desires. Sometimes a stubborn sheep will not follow these directions and the border collie then resorts to more forceable means to keep the herd obeying his desires. The herding dog will then try barking to gain the animal's attention and understanding that he or she in control. If barking does not work the dog will instinctively increase his show of dominance by nipping at the feet of the livestock or if absolutely necessary by biting the livestock.
For hundreds of years, Border Collies have been bred to do one thing and that is to herd. They are better at herding then almost any other sheep dog or breed. The agility, focus, and stamina make them ideal herding dogs. Watching a Border Collie work a herd of sheep is a beautiful thing to watch. They will control the herd move it wherever the dog wants them to go. A well trained Border Collie can bring a far away herd of sheep all the way back to the pen and even close the gate without any help.
Border Collies are instinctive at herding, which is keeping the group together. The dogs are also taught to drive livestock or sheep away and to keep the herd in a certain area. These abilities allow the dog to move the herd from one location to another.
The working gait of a Border Collie is to move with stealth. They gallop when on the move at a moderate pace. The pace will adjust automatically to be in sync with the livestock or sheep that the dog is working. A working dog will also anticipate the direction the stock is going to move and adjust its movements accordingly. A working Border Collie herding livestock on its own without commands is simply a beautiful thing to watch.
With agile, hardy, and untiring traits the Border Collie has the capabilities to master any type of herd. A common saying is that Border Collies have an eye that can hypnotize cattle. This power is seen when the dog is crouched down and intensely stares down the animal. The powerful stare coupled with the intimidating crouching position and a stealth, snakelike approach can seemingly hypnotizes the livestock allowing the border collie to control the herd.
This herding instinct does not end when the dog leaves the farm as pet Border Collies are well known to also display their herding instinct in a family setting. A majority of this breed will show their herding instinct by gathering toys, chasing ducks or even surrounding children or other pets. This herding instinct makes anything that moves a target for herding.