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Language Concepts in Border Collies

Updated on January 2, 2017
Gurr and Larry.
Gurr and Larry. | Source
Larry, Christa, and Gurr.
Larry, Christa, and Gurr. | Source

But first, a child's exploration of language

Many years ago, I attended a potluck brunch. While everyone else was inside the small house, I explored the front yard with the two-year-old daughter of a friend, who was also inside. The daughter picked up a feather that had fallen to the ground. Not knowing what to call it, she described it as a "bird leaf." I thought that this was a very creative insight on her part.

This vignette illustrates an important principle of human language: Sometimes we are less-than-precise in our choice of the words that we choose to communicate ideas. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes the words that we need to communicate an idea or experience are simply not in our vocabularies, as was the case in the "bird leaf" story. Rather than remaining silent, we usually muddle our our way through these situations, communicating indirectly with the familiar words that are closest approximations to the ideas that we're trying to express. We generalize the earlier concepts.

At other times, we use indirect communication to spare the feelings of our listener. Communicating our feelings about the little things that the other person is doing that drive us bananas is essential in any long-term relationship. Of course, it's vital that we communicate the positive stuff as well.

It's equally important that we 'fight fair'. An important aspect of 'fighting fair' is to express ourselves in an indirect diplomatic way, when the need arises. Being overly blunt is not an endearing quality.

We humans like to think that we're unique in the Animal Kingdom in many ways. First, we took bragging rights for tool use. Then Jane Goodall observed termite fishing on the part of wild chimpanzees.

Chimps in the wild strip the leaves off a thin tree limb, poke their improvised tool into a termite mound, wait a minute, retrieve the tree limb, and then lick off the termites.

Later we learned that some birds also use rudimentary tools to get at the tasty insects in tree bark. Cockatoos, Corvids (Crows, Ravens, Blue Jays, etc.) and the Parrot Family are said to include the smartest birds.

Gurr the Border Collie has demonstrated a similar ability.
Gurr the Toy Maker

The next question: Are we humans unique in our abilities to use indirect communication, and to build upon earlier concepts? No, we're not. Border Collies--and perhaps some other dogs--have that capability.

Karen, Gurr, and Larry.
Karen, Gurr, and Larry. | Source
Christa, Gurr, and Larry.
Christa, Gurr, and Larry. | Source

Hikes are opportunities for communicating with your canine friend

Many years ago, my neighbor's older daughter came home from school, and said,"Guess what, Mom? We have a new puppy!" The mother did not have the heart to say: No, our condo is too small for a Border Collie mix puppy who will grow up to be a large active dog. Believe it or not, the dog's name was Gurr.

Gurr and I became good friends. I'd never had an inter-species friendship before. Of course, it could not have been an egalitarian friendship. When I took Gurr out for walks in the neighborhood, I kept him on leash. There was no way that I could explain to him that chasing cars was extremely dangerous. And I did not want him to learn that lesson the hard way.

When Gurr was 11 months old, I started taking him out on day-hikes in California's Northern Sierras and in the foothills. These were enjoyable and educational for both of us. Gurr learned that the natural world was less dangerous than he had expected. And I learned a thing or three about the canine psyche.

Our very first hike was to Glacier Lake, in the Northern Sierras. You can drive to the trailhead from Highway 20. As a safety precaution I kept Gurr on leash most of the time. On that hike, Gurr barked at every hiker and at every dog coming down the trail.

After the first few times, when I'd see another hiker approaching us, I'd try to be proactive, and say in my most authoritative voice, "Gurr, be nice!" I'm confident that he understood me by the third repetition. But here are Gurr's thoughts on the subject at the time.

"Yes, I enjoy hiking with my buddy, Larry. But I'm a Border Collie; I need to have a job. My self-appointed task for the day is to protect Larry from all of the suspicious hikers, and from all of the ferocious Golden Retrievers of this world."

Since then, Gurr has learned that hikers are a friendly bunch. When I felt confident in letting him off-leash on high-country hikes, he even approached strangers, while carrying a stick in his mouth, hoping that they wanted to play fetch. He assumed that they were all friends of mine.

He also came to the conclusion that I was strong enough to defend himself against small dogs. After that, Gurr only barked at dogs who were big enough to clean his clock.

I learned one other thing on that day. When we were about a mile from our destination, Gurr suddenly stopped walking. I thought: What gives? It took me a few minutes to realize that Gurr was thirsty. After drinking some water, he was ready to continue hiking.

Gurr really had me scratching my head on another hike. This was the Round Lake hike near Carson Pass on Highway 88. Gurr ran ahead for about 50 yards. Then he sat down, and started howling like a wolf.

To my human ears, the howling sounded like loneliness. But that didn't make sense, because Gurr was having wholesome outdoor fun with his human hiking buddy. Not knowing what else to do, I joined in on some of the howling. It took a long time to ask myself the obvious question: Why do wolves howl? Here were Gurr's thoughts on those two days.

"I really like it here. Attention all dogs and coyotes: We're the Larry-and-Gurr Wolf Pack. Stay out of our territory! "

Gurr also learned a couple of important things about water. For one thing, rivers are not always safe. Here's an account of that incident.

The Silver Fork trailhead is just off a road having the same name, which branches South from Highway 50 at the tiny town of Kyburz. After we had hiked above the white water, Gurr jumped into the river. He was quite alarmed that the strong current carried him downstream at the same rate that he was desperately swimming upstream, in order to stay close to me. Despite his panic, I was able to coax Gurr back to the river bank.

However Gurr's first lesson about water happened on the Lyons Lake hike. You can drive to the trailhead from Highway 50. A hiking acquaintance threw a stick into the water. Gurr interpreted this as a hint that the lake was safe for swimming. Then he fearlessly jumped in, and retrieved the stick.

Larry (left), Gurr, and 4 other friends on the Enchanted Pools loop hike, near Wrights Lake.
Larry (left), Gurr, and 4 other friends on the Enchanted Pools loop hike, near Wrights Lake. | Source
Gurr on the Clementine loop trail, near Auburn, California.
Gurr on the Clementine loop trail, near Auburn, California. | Source

Generalizing a concept

I took Gurr on the trail from the American River to the small town of Cool. The trail runs parallel to Highway 49. On foothill hikes, I always kept Gurr on leash, because I did not want him getting into the Poison Oak. On this particular hike, it was just the two of us. I wanted Gurr at my side, as a precaution against a mountain lion attack.

On this hike, I noticed an interesting 'troad' spur, going off to our right. A troad is a former dirt road that's currently used as a trail. I'd seldom seen dirt roads that steep before, and was curious about where it went. After getting to the top, we headed back down to the main trail. Every minute or so, Gurr would roll over onto his back, asking for a tummy rub. When we returned to the main trail, and continued our hike, Gurr stopped asking for constant affection. What was that about?

In an earlier hub, I'd written about teaching Gurr not to jump up on me. Gurr's jumping up was all about wanting to show affection with a doggie kiss. When he looked like he was even thinking about jumping up, I'd give the Sit command as a diversion. That gave Gurr a behavior for which I could reward him with petting. Being a super-smart Border Collie, Gurr quickly generalized the experience, and learned that he could ask for instant affection, simply by sitting down, and then rolling over.

Getting back to our Cool hike, here's what Gurr was thinking during his frequent requests for affection.

"Oh no! We're turning around now. It's too early to go back home! I need more hiking!"

It's a credit to Gurr's intelligence that he was able to reach any kind of conclusion--even if he had jumped to the wrong one. It's also impressive that he was able to communicate this complex idea, by building upon a behavior that was already a part of his communication repertoire. It also struck me as being very funny.

What about lying?

A certain amount of deception is hardwired into the genetics of many dogs. Suppose that you and your canine friend are out hiking, and you see a fresh cow flop. You'd probably give it the minimal attention needed to avoid stepping on it.

For your dog, it may be a different story. His first thought: Oh boy, doggy perfume! This is quite logical from an evolutionary perspective. A wolf who masks part of his odor with bovine odor will be better able to get closer his prey before giving chase. However I don't know if dogs and wolves think that way, or if rolling around in cattle feces is instinctual.

Hub author Dahoglund mentioned in passing that his Border Collie mix displayed a pattern of deliberate deception in one particular situation. Border Collies do have the capacity for occasional dishonesty. In this respect, they're on a par with chimpanzees.

Border Colies as pets?

Border Collies are the quintessential working dogs. If you don't give them a full-time job to do, like herding sheep, they'll create a job for themselves, like excavating the back yard. Here are some Border Collie horror stories, written by people who are in love with the breed.

Caveats. Yes, there are a few exceptions to the rule about Border Collies, just as there are probably a few wimpy German Shepherd Dogs out there. However if you don't live on a sheep ranch, attending to a typical BC's needs for exercise and for mental stimulation could turn out to be a full-time job for you. That's why the proportion of BCs who end up at the SPCA or in rescue is much higher than for most other breeds.

Don't let the striking good looks fool you. Most Border Collies are very high-maintenance.

About the photos

The first four photos, taken by Tiocampo, were from a hike in 2004. I especially like the fourth one, with the steep rocky slope.

We did half of the Stevens Trail, starting at Iowa Hill, and going down to the American River. Considering the elevation gain on the way out, it's an intermediate level outing for experienced hikers. And it's most enjoyable in the Spring or Fall. The Summer is too hot there. Iowa Hill has the only trailhead that I've ever seen with a bar next to it!

In places, the trail has a moderate grade, but it is built on the side of a steep hill. In one of those places, the trail was washed out for a short stretch. We humans cautiously picked our way across the short breech, using our hands for balance, until we reached the continuation of the trail. What about Gurr?

He casually trotted across, totally indifferent to the washout. Yes, he has much smaller feet than people do, and he can support his weight on footholds that we can barely see. I was gobsmacked nevertheless. My understanding is that Australian Kelpies have similar agility abilities.

If you're visiting in the Sacramento area, and want driving directions to the trailhead, just google in Iowa Hill, California as the destination. You won't need a specific street address in this tiny census designated place.


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