Lassie is a fictional female Collie that is arguably the most recognizable and famous dog character of all times. There have been nine feature films, several television programs, books, and even a video game made about her. The question “what type of Collie is Lassie” is a good one and the answer has some interesting twists and turns.
Lassie originated in the short stories and a novel by Erik Knight who described her as a Collie. The dog who played Lassie in the movies was a male Rough Collie named Pal and later his progeny. Most people do not know that the character of Lassie was inspired by, not a Rough Collie, but an old fashioned type of Collie owned by Mr. Knight named Toots.
Lassie in the Books
In his 1940 book Lassie Come-Home, Eric Knight described Lassie as a “tricolor collie”, tricolor referring to the black, brown and white color pattern common in Collies. It was implied but not explicitly stated that Lassie was of a type similar to the modern show Collie as she is described as desirable to men who kept fine dogs.
Why, the whole village knew that not even the Duke of Rudling had been able to buy Lassie from Sam Carraclough – the very Duke himself who lived in his great estate a mile beyond the village and who had his kennel full of fine dogs.Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight
Of the modern show Collies there are two types, the Rough Collie with a long coat and the Smooth Collie with a short coat. Lassie is described as having a “rich, deep coat” and so must be a representative of the Rough Collie breed.
He took the brush and cloth from his son and, kneeling on the rug, began working expertly on the dog’s coat, rubbing the rich, deep coat with the cloth, cradling the aristocratic muzzle carefully in one hand, while with the other he worked over the snow white of the collie’s ruff and artistically fluffed out the ‘leggings’ and the ‘apron’ and the ‘petticoats’.Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight
Notice also in the above that Lassie’s nose is described as an “aristocratic muzzle” another clue that she is of the modern show Collie type. The long, “aristocratic” muzzle of the modern Collie was a development of Victorian age show breeders.
Eric Knight was very much a product of his time. In the mid twentieth century when he wrote Lassie Come-Home, the looks of the modern show Collie were considered a thing of great beauty and refinement. Such dogs were highly admired and sought after. At the same time however all the careful breeding for a specific look had produced a negative side effect in the Collie, a noticeable loss of intelligence compared to the old-fashioned Collies. So Lassie was a bit of a paradox combining the brains of the old time Collies with the looks of the modern Collies, more on that later.
Lassie in the Movies
When it came time to make the movie Lassie Come Home (1943) the part was won by a sable colored Collie named Pal who was owned by a professional dog trainer named Rudd Weatherwax. The part was first given to a female Collie and Pal was selected to do stunt work for the film, there are actually two stories about how Pal won the part from her. In the first they went out to film a flooding river where the female Collie could not be made to enter the water. So Pal was asked to fill in, he performed the part so admirably that the director decided that he should play Lassie in the film. The other story is that the female Collie went into heat and started shedding as female collies will do twice a year, so it became apparent that a male Collie was preferable because they never come into heat and therefore rarely blow their coats out.
Pal was a modern type Rough Collie who was deemed unsuitable for the show ring by his breeder because of his large eyes and white blaze on his face. This is a perfect example of the kinds of arbitrary breeding decisions that have produced the modern Collie. Collie breeders of the time did not like Pal’s looks but to their consternation they received many requests for a Collie who looked just like Pal after the success of the movie.
Pal’s owner Rudd Weatherwax had a contract to provide the dog for all Lassie movies until 2004. Pal starred in a total of seven Lassie movies and the pilots to the television program. Pal’s descendants continued his legacy after his retirement in 1954.
The Original Lassie
Even though the book and the movie gave Lassie the looks of a modern Rough Collie, there is more to the story. The author of Lassie Come-Home, Eric Knight had been inspired to write his story by a different kind of Collie. He had owned modern Rough Collies previously but this one dog was different, it was an old fashioned Collie, a type often called a “Scotch Collie”. This dog, which he named Toots, would spend hours waiting at the gate for Eric to come home, this devotion along with intelligence inspired him to create the Lassie character, first in short stories and later in a book.
Lassie showed the same devotion and intelligence that is commonly seen in Scotch Collies. Besides being inspired by Toots, Eric had probably encountered Scotch Collies in his youth growing up in Yorkshire, England. This was an area where working dogs like the Scotch Collie were valued and when Eric was a youth, (born 1897 and moved to the United States in 1912) it was before the Border Collie had taken over and the old fashioned Scotch Collies were likely still commonly used in this part on northern England. Living in Yorkshire at an impressionable age he probably heard stories of the loyalty, devotion and brains off the old fashioned Collies. Given all this there is little wonder that he based his fictional Collie story in Yorkshire.
So the point of all this is that although Lassie was portrayed by a Rough Collie on the big screen and was described as a fancy “aristocratic” Collie in the book, she was inspired by the Scotch Collie. So the real Lassie is as much Scotch Collie as Rough Collie.
Find Out More
If you are interested in the different types of Collie and their history check out this article Where Do Collies Come From?
If you are interested in learning more about the dog that inspired Lassie, read this article that I wrote called 10 Fact About Scotch Collies.
I have known and loved Lassie and her/his story since the 50’s, ironically I am a screenwriter of a film about a Canadian WWII Hero, a Newfoundland Dog, originally named “PAL” and later changed to “SGT GANDER”. Recently I found the information about the original Lassie’s name as being, “PAL” also. Hence I am glad to know that 2 of my favorite dogs were both named “PAL”. Nice article – Thank You
I love collies. But since our last collie, Summer’s Rain, died in 1964 I have seen only two collies. Yes, Border Collies abound, but not my beloved rough collie==who was very intelligent and loyal. What has happened?
Error====my collie, Summer’s Rain died in 2016.
True, Rouge Collies are getting more and more rare. This website is about the progenitor of the Rough Collie, the old fashioned Scotch Collie.