The Collie Family Tree is Incorrect

an old scotch collie, the root of the collie family tree

I see the “collie family tree”, which was developed some years ago by Linda Rorem, referenced quite frequently on collie related websites [VIEW THE COLLIE FAMILY TREE HERE]. It is very useful in illustrating the relationships between various british sheepdogs but I have to say it has one glaring flaw which blatantly oversimplifies the situation in my opinion.

The flaw is almost at the top of the collie family tree where it says “Old Working Shepherd’s Dog/Collie of Great Britain & Ireland”. All shepherd’s dogs of Great Britain were not the same, Great Britain is a large island and the home of at least three distinct people with unique languages and culture, how could a land so large and varied as to contain three nations develop only one type of shepherd’s dog? Before the mid-nineteenth century it was common for a person to be born live and die without ever leaving his home county, in such a climate distinct regional animal varieties developed and thrived. Reading old sources on British dogs we see that this was definitely the case with the shepherd’s dogs.

“In Scotland and the north of England, as well as in Wales, a great variety of breeds is used for tending sheep, depending greatly on the locality in which they are employed, and on the kind of sheep adopted in it. The Welsh sheep is so wild that he requires a faster dog than even the Highlander of Scotland, while in the lowlands of the latter country a heavier, tamer, and slower sheep is generally introduced. Hence it follows that a different dog is required to adapt itself to these varying circumstances, and it is no wonder that the strains are as numerous as they are.” The dogs of Great Britain – Stonehenge, 1879

“The Scotch shepherd’s dog, or colly. Characters: ears partly erect, head rather pointed, shaggy coat, and thick tail. To this animal large flocks are safely intrusted without any shepherd. He is also capable of managing cattle with great nicety.

The English sheep-dog, is larger. His colour is usually white and black, with half-pricked cars. He is an excellent cattle and farm dog.” The Farmer’s Dictionary – 1854

““The name collie,… properly belongs to the Scotch shepherd dog; there are several varieties of the shepherd dog, English, French, Scotch, Hungarian, and others, … we will drop the others and confine ourselves to the collie, or Scotch variety.” Dog Stories and Dog Lore – 1887

I could go on but my point is well made that the Scotch and English had two different and distinct breeds of sheep dogs. One needs merely to read the various descriptions of these breeds from the period to realize there are distinct differences between them and that these differences were carried on to the modern breeds they founded. English Shepherd’s Dogs largely became today English Shepherd while the Scotch Shepherd’s Dog has become the Rough and Smooth Collies, it is my considered opinion that the Border Collie is likewise a product of the border region and has existed in that area for much longer than anyone now assumes.

Now that I have clarified matters regarding the collie family, allow me to muddy the waters a bit. Before the establishment of defined “breeds” in the mid 1800s and well into the 1900s it was common to cross a dog with whatever was available or seemed suitable, so there was quite a bit of cross breeding between the various types of shepherd dogs within Great Britain which no doubt accounts for their similarities in appearance and behavior, still this crossing was the exception rather than the rule.

America is sometimes referred to as the melting pot in reference to humans and that was also the case with shepherd dogs. Still, despite the inevitable crossing that took place these breeds tended to remain more or less distinct as can be seen from the following American sources.

“The English shepherd dogs vary considerably in appearance from the Scotch. The hair is smoother, and they do not appear so distinct a breed as the other. Both are of medium size, perhaps about fifteen inches high.” Facts for farmers – 1867

“Some person wants to know the difference between the shepherd and the Scotch collie dog and, being a breeder, I think I can give the information. They are distinct breeds of dogs. The collie… gets Its long hair from the sheep dog and its long muzzle from the wolfhound. Its color Is sable and white and black and white and some are pure white. They are not as good hunters as the shepherd dog. The shepherd is… more scrappy than the collie and some of them make good coon dogs. They vary in size and color, some are black, some black and white or black and tan, some with yellow legs, etc. Some of them have straight hair and some are curly.” Hunter-trader-trapper, 1910

No doubt since 1910 a lot more crossing has taken place in the form of Scotch Collies being admitted into the English Shepherd breed with it’s very broad breed standard. Even today old fashioned Scotch Collies are still being accepted into the ranks of registered English Shepherds, take McDuffie’s Old Time Farm Shepherds for example .

I suggest a revised collie family tree that takes into account the regional shepherd dogs and the breeds they produced. I have refrained from including some varieties which I don’t know enough about to comment on like the Kelpie, Australian Cattle Dog, Old English Sheepdog, etc.

collie family tree

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  1. I too suspect that the British Isles in the early 1800s to early 1900s most likely had many “land-races” of collie or shepherd dog, and these many landraces could probably be lumped together in master-categories of Border, Scotch, and English…or maybe put it as ‘slight and strong-eyed sheep dog type (border collie)’ ‘slightly heavier more loose-eyed sheep dog type (scotch)’ and ‘heavier, loose-eyed, nipper, sheep and cattle (english)”

    after all, this same chunk of land has given us how many variations of the terrier?

    I’d also have the ‘smooth and rough’ line branch off to the right not the left, and have a dotted arrow coming in with the Borzoi crossings that went on for a fancier head.

    also in your “before 410” box I’d have a lot more arrows to make it clear of all the intermixing.

  2. Thanks for the good feedback, I will make some of these changes soon. However I personally have my reservations about the Borzoi cross. In all my research I have seen no actual evidence of such a cross, at least not on a wide enough scale that it effected the whole breed, I am planning a post on this website on the subject but haven’t gotten around to it yet. If you know of any good sources on this subject please point me in the right direction, I am open minded. You may find this post interesting

  3. Re: collie family tree. You’re right that my version was meant to show relationships, however, by no means was it intended to indicate that originally there was only one type of shepherd’s dog in Britain. I am familiar with the sources cited and others. There were great variations of shepherd dog type between regions and within regions, as well as commonalities within regions and across regions, e.g., shaggy-faced types occurred in England, Scotland and Wales, blue merles occurred in England, Scotland and Wales, etc., while at times a particular type was more common in a particular area and became associated with that area. (Then, throughout the 19th century, the Scottish collies became particularly influential, going into Wales and further south in England, mixing with the dogs there; further mixing occurred in the farm dogs of the U.S.; and the term “collie” for a working sheepdog became widespread and often used interchangeably with “shepherd’s dog” or “shepherd”.) Two factors are indicated by the single line shown at the top of the chart. One is no more than simplification on a chart, as noted on the chart itself. The other is that the modern breeds did not come down in clean, separate lines from earlier types. I suppose I could make an addition to the note at the top to clarify this, because I certainly do not believe or mean to imply that originally there was “only one type of shepherd’s dog.”

    Good luck with the old Scotch collie. That is the type I like best, although due to circumstances I haven’t been in a position to follow up in any concrete way.

  4. Linda

    Thanks for the comment. My intention was not to cast aspersions on your chart, simply to clarify a matter that was a particular pet peeve of mine. I feel like a lot of people talk as though the diversity we see in collie-type dogs today was a result of breeding in the past 150 years, and your chart could certainly give one that impression, while it is my contention that most of that diversity has come down to us from the regional varieties of herding dogs and I wanted to create my own chart showing the influence of those regional varieties.

  5. I’ve added a note to mine that I hope will help clarify it. As you point out, the diversity has been there all along. Different perspectives bring out different nuances and contribute to providing a more complete picture.

    (p.s. that photo of Dunrovin Ole Shep is one of my favorites)

  6. This is an intriguing discussion and one worth having. Cross breeding across strains and types must have occurred as well as importations of all sorts of working dogs from Belgium, Spain, Southern Germany and France from the late 1600’s to the late 1800’s as agricultural/commercial/ industrial development took off and different breeds of sheep entered the country. There could have been no one distinct pure breed of working sheepdog/ collie among practical farmers.

  7. Wayne

    It is interesting to me that in early sources you can find references to continental European shepherd dogs of all types (German, French, Spanish, etc) yet very few of these landraces survived intact. No doubt in American farm shepherds the blood of all of these types have accumulated.

  8. Shep,
    I feel that in the UK there were different types of shepherd dogs used from a mixture of older types of dogs depending on the type of sheep or cattle being herded. Those Spitz breeds from Scandinavia and Finland must have had some impact. Look at the Karelian Bear Dog from Finland, the Lapponian Herder, the Tiger (Blue Merle) in Germany, the Icelandic Sheepdog, to name just a few,they have been around for many, many years and still are being bred. These dogs have had an influence on the breeding of UK pastoral dogs interbred with local indigenous Celtic stock to create different strains and types of dogs. You can still see their influence today in Collie type breeds. However with the advent of the Old Hemp strain of sheepdogs, many other types of shepherd dogs were made obsolete.

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