Collies: A journey from cunning Victorian sheep dog to canine movie star

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In the early nineteenth century collies considered something the superheroes of dogs: he was guardian of the flock, who performed acts of heroism to keep its charges safe. Perhaps more than any other dog, he (and he was thought of as “he”) had transcended his primitive animal nature. Instead of trying to kill and eat the sheep, his natural prey, he cared for them tenderly, protecting them from his wild brothers, the wolves.

Stories of his abilities have an awed quality. James Hogg (1770-1835), the Scottish writer who called himself the Ettrick Shepherd, wrote in Blackwood Magazine in 1818 of his own “Colley,” Sirrah, a dog of uncertain parentage, “almost black,” who had an uncanny aptitude for sheep-herding. When a big flock of lambs sped off in three directions to get lost in the hills in the dark, Sirrah went after them, collected them all in one place, and guarded them overnight in a ravine. Hogg also recounted the stales of Sparkey, a shaggy, white collie who could find sheep that were buried in snow – 300 of them at once. Hogg’s favorite collie was Hector, a small red dog, who liked to sing hymns.

The Ettrick Shepherd

During roughly the same period, English veterinarian William Youatt, in The Dog(1845), recounted this tale: While trying to collect his flock, a shepherd lost his four-year-old child and his collie in the Scottish mists. Despondent after a long and fruitless search, he went back to his cottage. The following day the dog came home for his food, a “piece of cake,” then left. This went on for four days until the somewhat dense shepherd decided to follow the dog and found him in a deep gorge, guarding the child,  who was eating the cake. Few other dog breeds were so consistently the subject of these kinds of legends.

Through breeding collies, humans had a major hand in creating animals so in tune with our own.  To the people of the time, a collies’ wisdom was about way more than just a novelty or demonstration of admirable sacrificial selflessness: the collie was economically indispensable because of its gift for controlling sheep. Sheep were, of course,  big business during the Industrial Revolution. Their wool fed the mills that were springing up everywhere, and without sheepdogs, human labor sources would have been severely strained. Hogg claimed that one shepherd and a dog could do the work of twenty shepherds without dogs. In 1859, an American writer, Eliot G. Storke, rated the sheepdog as more valuable than any other: “on a stock farm [he] will save fifty times his cost and keeping every year.”

“Two Collies” from an 1870 painting.

The origin of the word “collie” is not definitely known, but it probably comes from a word for black (or coal), perhaps because collies herded black-faced sheep. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, in Scotland and England, almost any dog that was good at herding and guarding sheep  would be called a collie. His looks didn’t matter. The working collies Queen Victoria brought back from Scotland as pets in 1860 varied greatly in appearance – in fact, one resembled a Labrador Retriever. The Globe Encyclopedia of universal information (1876-1879), defined the collie as “a Scottish shepherd’s dog” and added that it was “an ornamental as well as a useful dog . . . much sought after in London as a pet.”

It was right about then that collies were acquiring pedigrees, and one branch of those pedigreed dogs was the Rough Collie (Lassie’s variety), which, along with the Smooth Collie, were called simply Collie with a capital C by the American Kennel Club. The Collie was created for uniform and pleasing looks as well as herding ability. Old Cockie, born in 1867, is considered the first true-to-type Collie and, according to some, by 1886, the breed was “fixed” – complete with its fluffy ruff, extravagantly feathered tail, and long narrow head, which from then until now has been the subject of controversy: has it diminished the dog’s IQ?

Today Border Collies, Collies’ close relatives, rank above all other breeds  in intelligence according to the  ability to learn and obey commands, while Collies don’t appear in the top ten. However, Collies are far from stupid (by those standards set by humans, that is), ranking 16th of 79. (Number 79 is the Afghan Hound– don’t tell them!)

“Halbury Jean” b. 1924, often referred to as “the mother of the U.S.Collie”.

Of course, we’re the ones ranking intelligence, and our criteria is uncertain: such ranking always reflects our notion of what canine intelligence is. Is there not a tendency to give a high rank to those dogs bred to act in ways we judge to be intelligent? For instance, a dog-created IQ test might be based on the ability to outwit prey rather than follow human commands to herd it. But there’s no doubt that we’ve created a breed capable of learning with an uncommon alacrity:  witness, for example, the plethora of YouTube clips of collies who’ve learned to discern verbal cues of more than a hundred objects.

The American Collie Club, formed in 1886, set standards for the breed; Collies have been on the registered breed list for the American Kennel Club since the nineteenth century. Other breeds descended from the original collies include the Shetland Sheep Dog and Border Collie, who, ironically, looks more like its progenitor and more often plays its role as a working herder of sheep than the Capital-C Collie. It was not until 1995 that Border Collies became an A.K.C registered breed. The reason? Border Collie fanciers wanted to breed dogs for performance rather than to physical standards. Today, some fanciers of Collies, Border Collies, and other herding breeds pay to train themselves and their dogs to herd sheep for no purpose other than recreation. Dog clubs and the American Kennel Club sponsor herding-instinct testing and herding competitions in which both pet dogs and working dogs participate.

Lassie on set, 1965

The Collie, of course, could not have maintained its mythic status without being canonized (canine-ized?) by writers. Albert Payson Terhune’s best-selling Lad: A Dog, the first of his many books about collies, helped to popularize the breed. He himself raised Collies on his estate at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. The famous Lassie, who inspired the movie Lassie Come Home (1943) and the television series (1954-1973), was the main character in the Eric Knight’s novel of the same name. Pal, the original dog who played her, was a male, as were all the other Lassies (descendants of his). (Males’ coats are thicker and looked better on screen).

According to the American Kennel Club, the Collie was the third most popular dog from 1947-1949, largely because of Lassie. Its popularity has decreased, but it still has several footholds in the USA’s top 50 breeds–in 2008, it ranked 38th, while its relative, the Shetland Sheepdog was 20th, and The Border Collie was 45th.



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