What black, white and “ruff” all over?
Fluffy, lovable, shrewd border collies are always a crowd-pleaser, and this year’s State Fair will feature what is often regarded as the world’s smartest dog breed.
A staple at the fair the past few years, Bill Coburn and his border collies will return to show off their agility, brains and talent.
Coburn, who owns Windy Knolls Farm in Laurens, said he first became interested in finding a herding dog out of necessity. He needed help putting his cattle in his barn, and he landed on a border collie about 30 years ago.
“I got one and never knew nothing about them,” he said. “I had seen them, but that was it. I didn’t know how to train one or anything. So that was it.”
Lucky for him, he settled on the perfect working dog, which jump-started a healthy obsession.
“I reckon it’s the worst vice I’ve ever had,” he said. “I used to eat, sleep and drink border collies, trials and competitions and stuff like that.”
Coburn has slowed down a little and participates mostly in demonstrations nowadays, all while running a farm and occasionally training dogs.
Coburn said the dogs are not difficult to train because they are so intelligent, and when there are problems, it’s mostly a breakdown in communication on the handler’s part.
“I just don’t know anything bad about them, any bad habits,” he said. “They live to please you, really. They try to do the best they can … They’re workaholics.”
But these brainy dogs are not immune to bouts of mischievousness.
“They know how to take advantage of you,” he said. “… They know the difference between a demonstration and working, too. They don’t try to take advantage of you working, but they know at a demo you can’t get after them like you do at home.”
A ban on fowl at the State Fair this year due to fears of Avian Influenza means Coburn has to change up his demonstration. He typically brings his ducks, and his dogs herd them through a tunnel and over a bridge.
Coburn will still bring his own Katahdin-Dorper sheep for his dogs – Lucy, Luke and Meg – to herd.
“We try to inform people just how intelligent these dogs are, what they can do for you,” he said.
One crowd-pleasing trick is called a “shed,” which happens when the dogs isolates one sheep from a flock. This goes against the dog’s herding instinct to keep the flock together.
“The question people ask (me is), ‘How do you get them to do this? How do you get them to do that?’ ” he said. “They can’t believe it hardly, unless they’ve seen it.”
Having a well-behaved dog starts with consistent training during puppyhood, but Coburn said there are no obvious signs in a puppy that determines whether it will be a “good dog.”
Coburn said he will sometimes do tests, such as dropping a bucket to see the puppy’s reaction, to see its shyness and curiosity.
“I can’t tell you how to pick one,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason. … (If I knew), I would have so much money I wouldn’t even know what to do.”
His most recent addition, a 9-week-old border collie puppy, picked him. He went with someone else to look at a litter, even though he was not in the market for a dog. At least he didn’t think he was.
“This little puppy, when (the breeder) let them out, he came right over to me and started pulling on my pants leg and shoestrings,” Coburn said.
Coburn said he may bring the puppy with him to this year’s demo to expose it to strange noises, smells and sights. One day, the puppy may grow up to participate in a demonstration like his much-loved siblings.
“People will come out just to see the dogs,” he said. “It’s not me, it’s the dogs they come to watch. It’s unreal what they can do.”
If you go
Border collie exhibition
TIMES/DATES: 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, and Thursday, Oct. 22
LOCATION: Abernathy Arena, State Fairgrounds
Among other animal fun at the fair:
▪ Barnyard Cackle Review, featuring singing hens
▪ Commerford and Sons petting zoo
▪ Michelle’s Magical Poodles
▪ Sustainable Midlands: What Happens if our Bees Disappear?
▪ Swifty Swine Racing and Swimming Pigs
▪ Livestock judging
▪ Equine riding competitions
▪ And, of course, the baby ducks
Check SCStateFair.org for more information. Equine and livestock schedules are online.