Everyone who experienced engaging and intelligent working Border Collies is mesmerized. But, their natural instinct to herd is useless without the training and guidance of the human element. Bill Coburn has been training and working with Border Collies since 1996 when he got his first dog, Joy. He was advised to get a trained dog, but as he says, “I was too hard-headed to do that.” So, with the help of a neighbor he trained his first dog on his own. He categorizes herding-trained Border Collies as “farm dogs” or “competition (trial) dogs.” This is not to say that many of them don’t fall into both categories. In Bill’s case, all his dogs are capable . . . and do . . . work sheep at Windy Knolls Farm, his spread in Laurens, SC near Greenville. Windy Hills is so-named because it is situated on rolling hills in an area where, at certain times, the winds whistle through the valleys and over the knolls. Bill raises a crossbreed sheep of Katahdin and Dorper for meat, training Collies, and breeding stock. So, his dogs, on a daily basis, do routine livestock work such as moving the sheep from one location to another, herding them into a corral, and shedding (isolating one sheep from the flock). Until recent years Bill also entered his Border Collies in sheep herding trials, a type of competition in which herding dog owners have participated since the first one which was held in Wales on October 7, 1873. His dogs have competed well and in Woodstock, Ga., he and his dog took Overall Winner in a competition where the shepherd could not communicate by voice commands with his dog once it left his side. Bill chuckles and admits that, in most cases, when mistakes were made in trials, it was his mistake, not the dog’s! Training methods, although fairly universal, vary some with individuals. Bill’s technique includes a great deal of patience and gentle, consistent commands. Border Collies live to please and are quick to learn. He compares them to young children in their ability to learn as well as their propensity for trying to get away with something they shouldn’t be doing. Depending upon the individual animal, it might take 5-6 months to train a working farm dog, while trial dogs are in constant training to improve. Both categories need ongoing challenges by being presented with new things to stimulate them mentally. According to Bill, a trained Collie can fetch a tidy sum. For a champion competition dog, the figure can jump considerably. One of the most challenging moves to train into a Border Collie is called a “shed.” This is when the dog is required to isolate one sheep from the flock. It has practical applications on a working farm, but simply goes against the natural instinct of the Collie to keep the flock together. Bill says, “It’s like asking a right-handed person to write with their left hand.” In Bill’s estimation 70% of a Border Collie’s ability is instinct, with the balance in training. Pups as young as 8 weeks are ready for some basic training in Bill’s world. They learn not to leave their enclosure until given a command, and discipline around the food bowl can come in handy. Exposure to livestock begins early, but he will not “put a dog onto livestock” for hard training before 8-12 months or even more. Bill’s satisfaction comes in watching the dogs progress in their learning and the application of their training in real situations. With trial dogs, it’s seeing them compete at high levels. The Border Collie’s intelligence is well known. They are quick to pick up new challenges and to respond to their masters. Bill tells the story of one of his trial dogs who learned to read his body language and responded accordingly. In a trial situation, when the course was complete and he would call the dog in, Bill would unconsciously lower his head. The problem came when Bill lowered his head before the course was finished . . . and the dog came in prematurely! (Bill’s mistake, remember?)
HERDING DEMONSTRATIONS During the course of several weeks in the spring and fall, Bill, his Collies, ducks, and sheep hit the road to 10-15 events throughout several Southern states doing herding demonstrations. His constant companion for years, before illness prevented travel, was Donna, his wife of nearly fifty years. Donna succumbed to the illness in 2011, but Bill carries fond memories of their travels together.