"A Good Dog Knows What to Do" | Science | Smithsonian
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"A Good Dog Knows What to Do"

In competition, workaholic Border collies fetch, pen and shed to prove they have the right stuff

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"Like most people these days who have seen Babe or caught a sheepdog trial segment on TV," writes Timothy Foote in his paean to Border collies and the wonders of sheepherding, "I have a slight grip on a few words in sheepdog-speak." There's "Away to me," which tells the dog to swing counterclockwise to head off the sheep, and "Come bye," which sends the dog into a clockwise curve instead. But it would take some time before Foote became familiar with even half the dozens of calls and whistles that handlers use to direct their Border collies in sheepherding trials.

At the Seclusival trials, on a 200-year-old farm in Shipman, Virginia, Foote spent a weekend with dog handlers and dogs, judges and observers, trying to get a feel for the sport and an understanding of its complexities. "Decisions — flank left, flank right, slow, stop, come on — are commanded and countermanded in fractions of a second. They are made by the handler, but ratified and then executed by the dog in an exquisite complexity, with the handler playing god but the dog still capable of free will."

And Border collies — famous for their intelligence and workaholic tendencies — apparently know what they're doing at least as well as their handlers. It would be nice if they could simply converse with the sheep, as Pig did in the movie Babe. But even without the benefit of language, these dogs seem preternaturally able to "read" a sheep's movements and intentions — far better than your average human, or even your better-than-average handler. As one disheartened handler confessed to Foote after a bad run: "I blew it. He read them right, but I gave him the wrong commands."

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