It was a dog day afternoon on James Thomas’ back porch in Slocomb, a back porch he shared with two friends, two border collies, and a common love for one of America’s shaggiest herders.”These border collies are the smartest dogs in the world,” Herschell Nelson, a 64-year-old retired helicopter mechanic from Opp, declared as he thumped the cover of the book, “The Intelligence of Dogs,” by Stanley Coren. “This was written by a man who didn’t have border collies, but he studied dogs and he knows how intelligent they were. Of course, people who have them already know that.””I’ve had Australian shepherds and blue heelers,” chimed in Donnie Pool of DeFuniak Springs, Fla., “but as far as natural ability and herding instinct, you can’t beat a border collie, especially if the breeding is right.””We don’t want to make anybody mad now,” said Thomas with a laugh. “We don’t want to downgrade anybody else’s dogs.”Even so, it’s hard to refute Coren’s findings — when it comes to fast learners, border collies may very well be the pick o’ the litter. “It doesn’t take as much time to train them as people think,” said Nelson, who trains his own dogs to compete in open trials. “You can work 10 or 15 minutes every day — you can even skip a day — and if you do the right thing, you’d be surprised at how much they’ll learn.”Of course, you’ve got to know how and what to teach them. For that, there are books, tapes, videos and trainers like Thomas, who put a dozen dogs through his 30-day training program last year at Valley Border Collies.
Give Thomas 30 days — and $400 — and he’ll have ol’ Shep (or Buster or Blackie or whoever) ridin’ herd on your cattle faster than you can say “Rawhide.” It won’t be long before the dogs have learned most of the standard voice — or whistle — commands like “away to me” (to send the dog to its right), “come by” (sends the dog to its left), “down” (a stop command) and “that’ll do” (quit whatever you’re doing and return to master).On this day, Thomas’ kennels hold 16 border collies of his own and five guest borders — all “students” in various stages of their training with Thomas. They practice with his cattle or sheep in a series of square pens, round pens, open pasture, and farm gates. “Most of the dogs I sell come back to me sooner or later for training,” Thomas said. “And I usually encourage people — if they can — to work with them, teach ’em to lie down, teach ’em to lead, and teach ’em to walk with you because it speeds up the training process. If they know how to lead on the left side and right side and a little bit about lying down, that helps me tremendously.”A case in point was Pool’s 5-year-old border collie, Casey. Although Pool had used Casey to move 12 head of Brangus cows, the dog was capable of much more. It just needed some time with Thomas to bring it out.”As a newcomer, I didn’t know what a ‘come by’ or ‘away to me,’ was,” said Pool. “You have to learn that to be able to handle the dog with the commands that he has put on him. You have to be educated and work with your trainer. In one day’s time, he can show you how to get the most out of the dog. It’s a continual learning process.”Thomas himself has been learning for about 40 years, ever since the day when he saw a Walt Disney featurette called “The Arizona Sheepdog” and knew a dog was just what he needed to move his father’s herd from one pasture to another. While he patterns his program from “an old cowboy,” he also utilizes other experts’ methods.”You’ve got to be able to determine what method you need with that particular dog,” explained Nelson. “It’?s good to know all the different methods, and then you apply it the way you need to.”But perhaps just as important as the dog’s training is the master’s training. A master giving the wrong command or standing in the wrong position can not only confuse the dog, but also create chaos among the herd.”The border collie knows how to read livestock — that’s its greatest asset,” said Thomas. “And most times, they are one step ahead of you. When you think they might be in the wrong place, they’re in the right place — you’re in the wrong place. And a border collie can’t bring cattle to you with you standing in the middle of the gate. You’ve got to open that gate, and get to the side.”Thomas says a good trainer is one who understands the breed, and realizes that its herding instincts are derived from the wolf. “The difference between a border collie and an Australian cattle dog,” he says, “is that the Australian cattle dog was bred to be a drover’s dog — a driving dog. They get behind cattle and push them the opposite way, whereas border collies will leave your side, cast out to get behind the herd, and fetch to you, bring the herd to you. I want a dog that brings things to me, not carries them away.”Another vital link in the training process are the cattle — or sheep — themselves.”If you buy two trained dogs and throw ’em out there with a hundred head of cows, most likely those dogs are going to get killed,” said Thomas. “You’ve got to break it down so those dogs can handle them. Then when you put the puppy around the cows. Let the cattle come up, and smell of him. Introduce him. When your cattle see a pup growing on up, they’re used to that dog. But you throw an older dog out there that you just bought, they think it’s a coyote and they’re going to come at him.”But the main thing, Thomas says, is to not give up.”If you want a dog but don’t have the time, go ahead and get you one and have somebody to train it for you,” said Thomas. “Don’t just give up because you don’t have the time. There are plenty of us older folks around who can help. When you get somebody helping you, you get into it deeper and deeper because the love for it never leaves. The reason I say love for it, is if you find out how these border collies can help you with your stock, you won’t be without one.”For more information, contact Thomas at: Valley Kennels, 21296 E. County Road 4, Slocomb, AL 36375, phone (334) 886-2524.