Back in 2008 my wife and I bought a small farm in Oklahoma and as we settled in we immediately felt like we needed a good farm dog. At that time I researched a lot of different breeds but rejected many of them because of negative traits. We wanted a dog that would work around the farm but that was also a good family dog, one that would not be so focused on work that it would drive us crazy when there was no work to do. My research kept coming back to dog breeds in the Collie family, the question I kept asking at that time was “do Collies make good farm dogs”? The answer to that question which I found through much research is below.
A Collie can be a great farm dog but much depends on the breed of Collie selected. Some Collie breeds have lost their working instincts and others are very high-strung.
In this article I will explain the abilities of the different Collie breeds as it related to farm work and will provide the information needed to select a good working Collie for your farm.
Collies Started as Farm Dogs
Collies originated in Scotland where they were used to herd sheep and for other farm jobs. These Scottish farms were not all that different from the average American small family farm today in the kinds of jobs they had for a farm dog. Herding is the obvious job for these dogs but these old Scottish Highland Collies did far more than that, they were expected to:
- Bark when strangers approached
- Kill or run off vermin and predators
- Play with and protect children
- Protect and direct all stock, cows, sheep, horses, pigs and fowl.
The Highland Clearances (1750 – 1860) forced many of these small Scottish farmers off of their land causing them to immigrate to England and America in droves, many of them bringing their Collie dogs with them.
You can learn more about the history of the Collie by reading the article I wrote here.
Some of these immigrant Collies went to work on farms in their new homes, these formed the foundation of working Scotch Collies in America. In England these new arrivals caught the eye of dog show men who began to keep and breed the Collie for the goal of winning ribbons. These show Collies started to get more elegant and graceful with longer, fuller coats and narrower heads with longer noses. Most of these show Collies never saw a farm or a sheep in their lives.
Although this dog show breeders may have improved the Collie’s looks, all of this breeding with no thought to intelligence or working ability did not improve their usefulness on farms. Within about 20 years from the start of breeding Collies for dog shows people started complaining that the Collie was losing its instincts for farm work.
Go back to the days of [the old collies from the 1870s and 1880s]. Nearly all the puppies from these dogs proved to be good workers, in fact, I would say not less than fifty per cent of the puppies in those days proved to be intelligent and had the working instinct. As time went on we found them less susceptible to training, in trying to follow the fashion of long heads, and breeding to the winners, our puppies grew less intelligent, until at the present time we find that we do well to get one in ten worth the trouble of training”Dogdom Magazine, August 1908.
This fancy, show type of Collie is today called a Rough Collie, it is the type of dog many people think of when they hear “Collie”, the type of dog that portrayed Lassie on television and at the movies. The Rough Collie has lost much of its original working instinct from over 140 years of selective breeding for looks alone. Some Rough Collies are admirable farm dogs, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The Rough Collie is just one branch of the Collie family, there are others that have their original working instincts intact.
The Border Collie was developed along the English/Scottish border around the turn of the twentieth century specifically for winning in sheepdog trials (sheep herding competitions) which were just becoming popular at that time. The same efficiency and speed at herding that made them successful in trials made them excellent at managing large flocks of sheep. The Border Collie really caught on with farmers during the twentieth century and they spread around the world during this time.
Although the Border Collie is undeniably a great farm dog there are some negative points that made me think twice about getting a Border Collie for my small farm. The Border Collie originated during a time when farms were getting larger and more efficient in order to stay profitable. As such there was no room for deadwood, the working dogs they kept around and bred were those that would work from sunup till sundown without rest. The result is a dog breed that is rather high-strung and nervous. Which is great if you have several thousand sheep that need to be managed and watched all day long but just plain annoying if you have a small family farm and you need a dog who can happily lay at your feet when there is no work to do.
I heard similar complaints about some other hard working members of the Collie family such as the Australian Shepherd and the McNab Shepherd. It seems that the twentieth century’s drive to make farms more profitable and efficient made many of our working farm Collies neurotic.
Throughout all the changes to show Collies and to farms in the last century some of the original working Scotch Collies survived on small farms in North America. These were almost completely wiped out until a few people went looking for them in the 1990s, found a few and started breeding and distributing them again. Today the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association registers and tracks pedigrees for the last of the old working Collies who are finding new homes on small family farms all over North America and even in Europe.
The Scotch Collies have the instincts required to perform well on small farms. They are naturals at herding, protecting, and hunting vermin but also playing with kids and just lying at your feet when there is nothing else needing to be done.
While there are several Collie breeds that make good farm dogs being smart and natural herders, hunters and watch dogs. The thing that really sets the Scotch Collie apart from the others is what people call the “off-switch”, the ability to sit around and not be anxious when there is no work to do. And yet they are also ready for action at a minute’s notice if some work is called for.
After looking around and doing lots of research I ended up buying a Scotch Collie for my farm and I was not disappointed. They are really amazingly smart dogs and are very attuned to human actions and emotions. If you are working on the farm they will observe what you are doing and attempt to help. Likewise if you are feeling sad or upset they will notice that too and try to make you feel better. These characteristics work great on the family farm but also make them great service and therapy dogs in the city.
To learn more about the Scotch Collie and their suitability to farm work check out the article at this link.
What to Look For in a Farm Collie
Every farm and family has unique requirements for a dog. So think hard about what your unique needs are and talk to breeders about what their dogs are like to make sure it is a good fit. Puppies are more often then not, like their parents when they are grown so find out about the following traits and how those line up with your farm’s needs.
- Watch dog, do they bark at strangers or greet them?
- Herding, do they herd and if so what is the style of herding (headers or heelers)?
- Protecting, do they protect children and smaller animals?
- Fowl, how are they around chickens, ducks, turkeys or other fowl?
- Hunting, will they actively hunt and kill vermin like rats and gophers? What about chasing off coyotes, foxes and other predators?
- Family, are they good family dogs too? Do they have an off switch and will they play well with children?
The answers to these questions will go far in helping you choose the right Collie from the right breeder.
If you are looking for a pup from working Collies for your farm you might try the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association page which lists available litters here. You might also enjoy this article I wrote about farm collies.