In My Boots: Long live barn dogs

This week our columnist Kristen Kovatch, a border collie owner, shares her experience of showing a dog the ways of the barn.

From Kristen:

Disclaimer—I don’t profess to be a canine expert (I don’t profess to be an equine expert either). The following piece simply describes my experience with raising a “barn dog” and advice that I think can help fellow animal lovers enjoy all of their companions simultaneously.


Meet Sage. She is my border collie companion of about a year and a half, my eternal sidekick, trail ride buddy, cattle mover, bear and other intruder alarm, and best animal friend. She was born to be a barn dog.

Sage and I nearly missed our connection completely—when my mentor-cowboy conspiratorially whispered that his dog would be having puppies and he wanted me to have one, I thought long and hard about the prospect of trying to raise a high-energy puppy in a shared apartment in a college town, and ultimately turned the offer down. One of our students instead was destined to receive her. Fate, as it does, intervened, and when the student was unable to take her about a month after the litter was born my mentor continually paraded photos of the endearing-looking little eyepatch puppy before me until I had to say yes. It seemed more than coincidence that the offer came up twice, after all.

When my mentor returned from wintering in Ocala and dropped this black-and-white puffball of a pup in the snow for me, I was immediately smitten. From that day on, Sage went almost everywhere with me—working at a university equestrian center allowed me the privilege of bringing my dog to work with me, and she soon learned to wait patiently in the car as well as I ran errands or walked all over town with me on a leash. Despite her breeding—border collies coming with a notorious list of various “neuroses” or tendencies towards hyperactivity—she matured into a pretty mellow dog that still had the energy to be at my side all day long.

She’s not perfect, of course—she barks at strangers intermittently, she stalks cars if we’re walking on sidewalks (but only when leashed, oddly) and she howls like she’s being murdered if she’s bathed with cold water. For some reason the message that brushing up against the electric fence is a bad idea hasn’t quite stuck. She loves rolling in dead things and poop. I’m hoping that after the first skunking incident she will steer clear of the little stinky creatures but we’ll see.

Regardless of these shortcomings, numerous people—students, other staff, faculty, parents, strangers—compliment me on her behavior, loyalty, personality and of course her natural good looks. Upon reflection, I believe the following factors helped Sage become the ultimate barn dog:

  • 1.      Basic commands and obedience

I did not attend a puppy class, nor read up on any puppy-raising literature, nor did I have experience raising dogs. My childhood included two off-the-track greyhounds who adjusted very well to retired life and required very little maintenance—not a good basis for raising a high-octane herding dog. While I’m sure having some education would have been extremely beneficial, it’s quite possible to raise an obedient and responsive dog if you’re consistent and firm: I decided on a set “vocabulary” for Sage as well as some hand signals and backed them up from the first day with a bag of puppy kibble in my pocket. By establishing these commands and ground rules from the onset, Sage learned within a few weeks to come to both her name and a whistle, to sit, lay down and wait.

  • 2.      Exposure

Whenever I could, I brought Sage with me into the barn—first on the leash, then eventually off the leash as she learned her boundaries around me. She learned quickly to stay out of the arena, entering only when summoned (unfortunately her herding instincts are too sharp to sit quietly in the ring with me when I am teaching.) She learned to stay out of stalls, out of the way of the farrier (though not immune to the offerings of hoof trimmings) and out of pastures. She will run the fencelines of the paddocks at turn-in or turn-out time but respects the boundary of the actual fence. When we took trips with the draft horses and the hitch wagon, Sage naturally came along for the ride. I decided to expose her to as much as possible right away and I think this early education helped her not only be comfortable in a variety of environments but see me as her natural leader, developing a respectful bond.

  •  3.      Luck

As much as I would love to imagine that I was an amazing puppy trainer and developed arguably the world’s best barn dog, I do know that I simply got lucky with Sage. She is very smart, but also sensitive—there was no way I could develop what did not already exist. She is naturally playful and eager, but not pushy or over-energized. Good barn dogs can come in any shape or size; my coworkers own a variety of pound hounds and cross-breeds, with one of my favorite barn dogs of all time a Chihuahua/Jack Russell cross. I’ve known other border collies that make terrible barn dogs. Just like the mysterious “X factor” that gives horses the heart and guts to be champions, barn dogs  just seem to have it. I am also lucky to have a dog-friendly barn full of college students who always appreciate having a dog around to snuggle on, giving Sage almost constant stimulation and a steady fan club.

Long live barn dogs.


About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.


Kristen & her horse Playgirl

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