This article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer, June/July 1994. Thanks to Linda Rorem for sharing it with us here.
In the December 15, 1911 issue of the magazine Country Life in America a letter appeared under the heading “Who Is Breeding Old-fashioned Collies?” The writer stated:
As long as I can remember I have heard stories of the wonderful sagacity and faithfulness of Scotch collies… Some of those that have lately come to my attention I have investigated, and have invariably learned that the remarkable dog in question was a survivor of the race of old fashioned collies or shepherd dogs. My further inquiries as to where such dogs can be obtained have met with no success. ‘Brought over from Scotland,’ ‘from an old family strain, now practically vanished,’ ‘purchased from a Swedish farmer in Minnesota’ -these are some of the answers to my inquiries… I believe that the old-fashioned collie or shepherd dog was one of the finest dogs that ever came to be the companion and helper of man… I wish I could find out myself where I could get such a dog… sometimes my search has led me to people who simply didn’t know that such a dog ever existed, or who have tried to palm off one of their new, snipe-nosed aristocrats on me.
Like many people before and since, the writer of the letter was concerned about what was happening to the collie. The show version of the breed was receiving a lot of publicity as dog shows became popular in the U.S. Wealthy fanciers such as J.P. Morgan were paying big prices for collies and importing English show winners. But collies and shepherd dogs had been brought to America by settlers from the earliest days and people could see that the collie of the dog shows was not quite the same as the working dog called collie or shepherd which they remembered. It was a confusing situation.
Before the advent of dog shows in England in the mid-nineteenth century, most breeds of dogs were not clearly defined. [author’s note: the reference here is in the context of the modern idea of a narrowly-defined physical “breed standard” in which, for instance, a show Collie may come in only certain colors, has a specific defined size etc.; the original landrace “old fashioned” collie or farm shepherd dog, which was not defined so narrowly, but did have a recognizable, characteristic type both physically and in its working traits, is many centuries old]. Local strains predominated in various area, with much overlap and interbreeding. With the development of dog shows and working trials, different types began to be sorted out into the modern breeds under the names by which they are known today. This process took some time and was accompanied by many arbitrary developments. Dogs that today are considered separate breeds started out as one, the natural variation that occurs within litters eventually leading to divisions as show breeders sought more and more standardization. In many cases, what strains came to be recognized breeds, and at what time, and even in what form, had a lot to do with whether and when a group of people decided to take up that type as their breed. Contrary to common belief, most of the kennel club breeds have no special purity of background; about all that can be said is that earlier or later, written pedigrees began to be kept, a group of people formed an organization to promote what they agreed upon as the “breed type,” and the studbooks were officially closed. Many local breeds, as old and pure as those which became recognized show breeds, continued for a time as working dogs. Some, such as the Welsh Black-and-Tan Sheepdog, lacking the promotion of a breed organization, died out or were absorbed into other breeds. A few, such as the Lancashire Heeler, have only recently been rescued from near extinction and granted kennel club recognition.
The herding dogs of Scotland and northern England were often called collies, but just as often “sheepdogs” or “shepherd’s dogs.” Appearance was very diverse, with various sizes, colors, coat types. By the turn of the century the general trends of breed formation in these dogs were well under way, although not yet complete. The division of the original collie into the show type and the working type was being finalized. Up until the 1890s some collies were still taking part in both bench shows and working trials. But the bench show dogs were being bred for an increasingly refined appearance with a longer, narrower head and heavier coat. The working collie kept more of the original appearance, but the quality of the “eye” was highlighted with the establishment of herding trials, and this trait with its semi-crouching working style was emphasized through selective breeding.
While these developments were taking place, the original type of collie or shepherd dog style remained in considerable numbers as an all-round worker and family dog on farms and ranches. Within the overall category of this “old fashioned collie” were local variants, but the basic type was similar to the dog described by John Holmes in The Farmer’s Dog:
There are several other types of Collie quite distinct from the Border Collie in that they are ‘loose-eyed’ workers. Most of these are native to Scotland and include the old-fashioned Scotch Collie from which the modern show collie is descended. now practically extinct, I have clear recollections of several of these dogs in my youth and believe that, in my early efforts to walk, I was assisted by one. They were all easy-going, level-headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there was nothing better to do. Personally, I think it a great pity that this type has been practically exterminated by the increasing popularity of ‘strong-eyed’ dogs. For all-round farm work they were often far more use than the classically bred [trials type] dog.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that show Collie breeders for a time attempted to monopolize the name “Collie” for the animal they were breeding. It was recognized that there were different breeds of Setters, of Spaniels, of Hounds, but despite the fact that the show breeders clearly were changing the physical appearance, they insisted their animal was the one-and-only true Collie. The working dog, if mentioned at all, often was denigrated as a lesser animal or even as a mongrel. Eventually, of course, it proved impossible for the Collie name to be kept exclusively for the use of the show breed. First the Border Collie and then the Bearded Collie appeared as official names, although the show Collie breeders did succeed in having the Shetland Collie renamed Shetland Sheepdog.
As time went on and the show Rough/Smooth Collie and the trialling Border Collie became more well-known in their modern forms, some attention began to be given to dogs that continued to work as stockdogs on farms and ranches. Clubs were organized, breed standards were drawn up, and dogs of similar type were gathered into registries. In this way, just as had been done with other breeds in earlier times, the English Shepherd and Australian Shepherd were established as registered breeds. Developments in these breeds took individual courses and there were different influences due to locality, but both of these breeds essentially came from that general working collie/shepherd gene pool well-spread across North America.
About this time, the original old-fashioned collie itself began to diminish in numbers. The country was becoming more urbanized. Exotic breeds were imported and became fashionable pets. In North America, the word “collie” came to be identified with the show Collie or “Lassie”-type collie and only recently have Border Collies and Bearded Collies become more well known. (Interestingly enough, in Britain and Australia it is often the Border Collie that is meant when the word “collie” is used alone.)
Back in 1912, there was a strong response to the letter in Country Life in America inquiring where old-fashioned collies might still be found. Many letters appeared from those who admired the old-fashioned type and wrote in praise of it, relating anecdotes illustrating the abilities and character of these dogs. Some writers had such dogs in the past (referring to periods going back as far as the 1880s), and like the original letter writer were looking for another. Others wrote about their present dogs. Some were mentioned as being of “Scotch” origin, one as being of North Wales stock. Some dogs were pedigreed but old-fashioned in appearance. There were also a few letters from fanciers of the bench show dog defending the modern type of collie, some even deriding the old-fashioned type which they had been trying to breed away from. The editor of the magazine’s canine columns had become interested in the quest for the old-fashioned collie and, noting the controversy, suggested that there might be room for both types. Throughout 1912, the letters indicated a building interest in the idea of forming a separate club for the “old-fashioned collies.” But in January 1913 there was a change in the editorial staff of the magazine and a well-known show dog breeder took over the canine columns. Nothing more was said about old-fashioned collies or the formation of a club for them. An opportunity was lost.
The old-fashioned collie seems to have survived in reasonable numbers until the 1950s. There are fewer reminiscences of them after that time. Several ranchers and farmers have indicated to me that this was about the time they last worked with “collies.” Then, when their old dog died, although remembered fondly, it was easier to turn to a Border Collie, now more widely available and being bred systematically for herding ability, or an Australian Shepherd or English Shepherd (this last, however, was also becoming rare). The old-fashioned collie had never been taken up in an organized fashion. Its “natural habitat,” the family farm with its variety of livestock and crops, was diminishing in numbers. There was no club, registry, or organized activities such as shows or trials to provide publicity.
Still, there were memories of these old-fashioned collies. Many stories continued to be told of “Old Shep” or “Laddie.” Pictures of old-fashioned collies can be seen in numerous old family albums. They appear in books – a photo in a bibliography of naturalist John Muir, for instance, shows an old-fashioned, broad-headed collie sitting at Muir’s side.
And people continue to think about the old-fashioned collie and wonder if any can still be found, perhaps some old strain surviving on a remote ranch or farm. They know about Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, English Shepherds, show Collies, but these are breeds with their own identities and characteristics now and not, in and of themselves, the old farm collie that is being sought.
In late 1991, Erika Du Bois of Mabou, Nova Scotia wrote to the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (now the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) inquiring about the possibility of locating old-fashioned collies. She had also written to the Small Farmer’s Journal, describing the old-fashioned collie she obtained when she moved to a family farm in the Cape Breton area. She had noticed that over the years the dog which had once been common in the area had gradually disappeared as changing live-styles and fashions had their effect. In the mid-1980s, Erika became interested in seeking out such dogs, but found them to be extremely rare. Although she has found a few likely individuals, the search continues.