In the 1995 film, “Babe,” the protagonist piglet avoids becoming dinner by acting like a sheepdog. The intelligent little porcine’s good fortune is having a canine role model that some believe is the smartest of all dog breeds – the Border Collie.

The film’s story of friendship and self-discovery – as told through the voices of several barnyard animals – resonated with moviegoers around the world. It’s not every year that a film featuring talking animals is nominated for seven Academy Awards, but audiences and critics alike embraced “Babe.” Everyone was mesmerized that year by both the film’s tall tale as well as its special effects.

To watch a Border Collie work a flock of sheep or run an agility course, a spectator might well believe the dog is an animatronic marvel. So intensely does this dog perform that it’s hard to believe such a canine could be made of flesh and blood, and not smoke and mirrors.

The breed hails from the countryside that borders England and Scotland, where the terrain is rugged and the local industry is herding sheep up and down the hills. To assist the shepherd, a Collie was developed in the 19th century with the energy, athleticism and intelligence to spend the day taking direction by voice and from great distances. A good sheepdog, it is said, can do the work of three shepherds, and a trained Border Collie makes a most dependable partner wherever it is found.

Almost since its inception, the abilities of the Border Collie have been evaluated competitively. The first recorded sheepdog trial took place in 1873 in the U.K., where local farmers selected breeding stock based on the dogs’ biddable performances.

Today the breed remains a dependable livestock worker throughout much of the world. From North America to Australia and New Zealand, Border Collies are registered with organizations dedicated to preserving the breed’s working abilities. Their limitless energy and herding instinct are used to herd all kinds of animals, from the traditional sheep, to cattle, free-range poultry and even ostriches.

Border Collies are used to effectively remove wild birds from airport runways, golf courses and office parks. The breed’s speed and stamina allow them to excel in the sports of agility and flyball, and their intelligence makes them a supreme obedience partner.

Although Border Collies cannot actually speak as they do in the movies, it has been reported that one of these extraordinary dogs was taught over one thousand words and responds with an understanding of each.

The Border Collie is the world’s most widely utilized sheepdog. Photo courtesy of Debbie Butt.

The Border Collie is quick in both mind and body. According to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, the breed is “extremely intelligent, with its keen, alert expression being a very important characteristic of the breed.”

Expression is “intelligent, alert, eager, and full of interest,” with an intense gaze known as “eye.” Border Collies keep their eyes on their flock with an intensity that wills the sheep to go where the dog directs them. Something about the breed’s “eye” leads stock to instinctively obey.

Energetic, intelligent, keen, alert and responsive, the Border Collie is nothing if not intense. In fact, some would say obsessed. Sensitive enough to obey commands, the breed is also tough enough to stand up to the pressures of training and confident enough to work independently, if necessary.

The Temperament section of the standard describes a dog that should be “alert and interested, never showing fear, dullness or resentment.”

Fast Footwork
The General Appearance section of the breed standard describes the Border Collie as “a well-balanced, medium-sized dog of athletic appearance, displaying style and agility in equal measure with soundness and strength.” Additionally, the breed’s hard, muscular body should convey the impression of “effortless movement and endless endurance.”

A working sheepdog should possess exceptional athleticism, as demonstrated by fluid movement with a lightness of foot and the ability to suddenly change speed and direction.

The Border Collie is an agile dog, and endurance is its trademark. The breed standard describes the gaits most commonly used while working as the gallop and the moving crouch. Although neither is evaluated in the conformation show ring, the breed should trot with “minimum lift of feet” and with the head “carried level or slightly below the withers.” Side gait covers ground with minimum effort, and the topline should remain firm.

Even in the modern world, the breed continues to perform its original function. Perhaps this is why its breed standard emphasizes, “any aspect of structure or temperament that would impede the dog’s ability to function as a herding dog should be severely faulted.”

The Long and the Short
Black and white may be the most familiar coloration for the Border Collie, but the breed is seen in a variety of colors. The Color section of the breed standard indicates that the breed “appears in all colors or combination of colors and/or markings,” including merle and sable. All expressions of color “are to be judged equally with no one color or pattern preferred over another.” To emphasize the breed’s usefulness as a herder of livestock, the standard states, “Color and markings are always secondary to physical evaluation and gait.”

Two coat varieties exist in the breed – a rough and a smooth – although the rough variety is most commonly seen. Both varieties have “close-fitting, dense, weather-resistant double coats,” as described by the standard. The hair of the rough variety is of medium length without being excessive. Rough coats have feathering on the forelegs, haunches, chest and underside, while the face, ears, feet and fronts of the legs are short and smooth. The hair of the smooth variety is shorter over the entire body with a more coarse texture. A slight feathering may appear on the forelegs, haunches, chest and ruff on an otherwise smooth coat.

No preference is given for either coat type.

Border Collies should be presented so that the breed’s purpose as an “actively working herding dog” is “clearly evident,” according to the Coat section of the breed standard. Although the feet, hock and pastern areas may be neatened, the whiskers are to remain untrimmed, and any dogs that are overly trimmed and/or sculpted for the show ring are to be penalized “according to the extent.”

The Border Collies that Babe tried to emulate in the film of the same name were fine examples of this overachieving breed. As far as role models go, a more capable sheep dog would be hard to find – unless, of course, that dog could actually talk.