Our specialist feature today is on a unique mental asset in the BC – but one we also so often take for granted:


Today in my specialist article, I want to look at one of the main mental assets in the Border collie that makes them such unbeatable livestock workers. It is an ability we may so often take for granted, too, in collies when training them for different pursuits, but without it these dogs would be something far less special.

The mental asset in question is dual sensory processing. Or in other words, the ability of the dog to both absorb, and respond to, visual and sound information at the same time, as most dogs cannot do this, at least not to such a high and consistent level.

In order to better understand why this ability is so special in collies, we first have to appreciate that different senses – i.e. sight, sound or smell – tend to share the same processing space in a dog’s brain, meaning a dog will often find himself having to prioritise one particular sense at the expense of others. With many dog breeds this may well be smell (which takes up such vast amounts of processing space in the canine brain), meaning that when a dog is more fully concentrating on a scent, he may appear ‘deaf’ to any sound going on around him – including an owner’s exasperated commands! Other dogs, like sight hounds, will prioritise visual fixation on movement over any other competing source of sensory information.

In the Border collie, however, you have a dog that is not only a prime visual fixator – i.e. will readily lock his vision on to moving things – but can simultaneously stop/start/change his behaviour towards these moving things, even while he is still visually fixated on them, in response to sound cues or commands from his handler. You can see this process at work in my illustration, and also realise why it underpins the whole ability of shepherd and dog to work together so effectively as a livestock managing team.

Dual sensory processing will also come to the fore in pursuits like Agility, where the dog needs to constantly remain visually fixated on the obstacles ahead of him, while still taking in his handler’s sound cues. Or in Obedience, in exercises like the Sendaway, where you verbally command your dog to drop down while he is still visually fixated on the markers ahead or around him. As I say, it is an ability we use so often in collies, for so many different purposes, but do not always sufficiently appreciate.

Of course some collies will always be far better dual sensory processors than others, with regards to how readily they can simultaneously process, and respond to, sight and sound information, or switch rapidly from one to the other in their brains. Some dogs are very strong visual fixators, finding it harder to ‘unlock’ this sense when given sound information. But a lot of this ability will also be down to training.

I begin working on strengthening my dogs’ dual sensory processing abilities from when they are very young, with exercises like down on the move – when they are en route to chasing a toy – or the mid-chase recall, or any number of distant control exercises that keep the dog’s mind constantly anticipating a sound cue from me, before making a next move, even when they are very far away from me.

Meanwhile, anyone wanting to know more about this subject, and how to train your own dog’s dual sensory processing abilities to the max, will find the information in this book of mine:

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