The Decline, Fall and Rebirth of the Old-Time Scotch Collie
by Andy Ward
This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Heirloom Gardener
When C. F. Dorian moved from his farm in rural Virginia to Denver, Colorado in 1906 he gave his dog Shep to a neighbor believing he would be better off there. Shep had other ideas. Before too long Shep broke the chain at his new home and returned to his old farm only to find it occupied by another family, he then trailed his master to the train station and took up a lonely vigil waiting for his master’s return. A true and remarkable story of loyalty made all the more remarkable by the fact that many similar stories exist within the same breed. You see, Shep was a Scotch Collie, the original heritage working breed from which many modern collie breeds sprang, a breed that was once well know for its loyalty, devotion and intelligence.
Another example of that famous Scotch Collie intelligence and loyalty is yet another Shep, of Fort Benton, Montana. In 1936 a sheepherder took ill and was brought to the hospital there, followed by his faithful Scotch Collie, Shep. The man’s condition did not improve, and when he died his coffin was loaded on a train and shipped east for burial. Not understand that his master would not be returning, Shep waited at the train station for the next five and a half years for his master’s return. Eventually Shep was struck and killed by a train while waiting. His funeral was attended by over 1,000 people. To commemorate this extraordinary dog the people of Fort benton erected a statue of Shep there in 1994.
Next is the well documented story of Bob, a Scotch Collie of Silverton, Oregon who was lost in Iowa while on a cross country trip in 1923. His owners looked everywhere for him but finally gave up and continued their trip. Six months later a tired and footsore Bob showed up at his home in Oregon. He had walked thousands of miles to return home. Bob became a local hero, was awarded a medal and allowed to roam the streets of Silverton for the rest of his life.
With stories like these it’s no wonder that the Scotch Collie was extremely popular as both a pet and a farm animal in the early 20th century. The breed commanded a great deal of respect not just for faithfulness but also for their abilities around the farm as herders, pest control and watch dog. Nothing tells it better than a few quotes from that time period.
Of all the canine race, the Scotch Colley is the most intelligent. The herder’s help-mate and friend, and gentleman’s pet. He, with wonderful intuition, anticipates your wants to such a degree as to cause the writer to assert that the Colley reasons.
The Poultry Monthly, September 1881
Remember the collie is a dog of many uses. He will guard property as well as catch a chicken or drive sheep. I have pups now that are but seven months old, yet they stayed by my man’s coat in the field after he had gone to town… I have no trouble to teach them to stop cocks when they are fighting. A few times showing will do it. A few catchings of hens, and they will do it. They very soon learn to open doors and gates. All these things show the wonderful adaptability of the collie.
Poultry Topics, July 1907
The Scotch collie dog will make the best friend of all the dogs in the canine race… in affection no other dog can compare with him, he is a dog that every farmer needs. He has almost human intelligence, a pure bred collie can always be depended upon in sunshine or adversity. He can do his work in a manner that should put the average boy to shame. The pure bred Scotch Collies are of a kind and affectionate disposition and they become strongly attached to their master. There can be no friend more honest and enduring than the noble, willing and obedient thoroughbred Scotch Collie. As a devoted friend and faithful companion he has no equal in the canine race, he will guard the household and property day and night. The Scotch Collies are very watchful and always on the alert, while their intelligence is really marvelous.
Hunting Dogs by Oliver Hartley, 1909
Yet in spite of the popularity of the Scotch Collie in the beginning of the 20th century, two things conspired to virtually wipe out this breed before the end of the century. The first was the end of the small family farm, with the advent of mechanized agriculture in the 1930s and the resulting increase in acreage farmed, the old family farm dog lost much of its value to the farmer and was replaced by more specialized herders like the Border Collie. The other thing that happened to the breed was rise in popularity of pedigreed dogs. With Collie breeders putting increased emphasis on conformation, dog shows and pedigrees, the emphasis on intelligence and working ability fell by the wayside. By the 1950s it was getting hard to find a good working Scotch Collie, farmers who bought a fancy, pedigreed Collie from a breeder were often disappointed with the results. Renowned dog breeder and author Guy Ormiston had the following to say about the rapid disappearance of the Scotch Collie.
It’s a truth I can validate… I was there! In the mid-twentieth century, the old original American Farm Collies of Scotch Collie ancestry almost trotted off into the misty fog of obsolescence – along with draft mules, victory gardens and covered bridges. As late as the 1980′s I turned around and these versatile old farm dogs were very nearly totally gone, and seemed to have slipped away rather quickly. Contributing to this exodus, the last widespread generation of American youth (born in the 1920′s) who grew up with the Scotch Collies, had left the farm and were swept up by World War II and the industrial revolution. The next generation of farmers, post-World War II, found themselves so preoccupied with the new fast pace and specialization, their old-style versatile canine helper, the Farm Collie, came to survive only amongst the die-hard rural folks, reluctantly on the fringes. The last of the “old ones” I personally remember were aged dogs in the 1960′s.
Writing in the early 1980s, John Holmes had this to say about the Scotch Collie;
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… 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.
In the 1980s a few people who remembered them began to search out dogs of this type, writing articles, buying advertising and asking if anyone knew where old-time Scotch Collies could still be found. Eventually, after much effort a few dogs were found that matched the looks and temperament of the Scotch Collies of old. Richard McDuffie was one of those who conducted a nationwide search for these dogs, and in 1994 he found a litter in Tennessee and bought them all. He had this to say about the dogs from this litter;
They have almost human intelligence – being able to figure things out and respond appropriately to unusual situations. They are very people oriented but distrustful of strangers. They are territorial and natural protectors of property. They are natural stock dogs (however, I do not allow mine to work any kind of livestock. I break them off all livestock because I hunt them among livestock and I don’t want them being distracted by it.) They are natural heelers but do not have the tight-eyed, crouching style of the Border Collie.
Finding the last remnants of the Scotch Collie was a huge achievement, but the hard work of saving this breed was just starting. Ensuring that they would be around for the next generation to enjoy meant turning this handful of dogs into a healthy, vibrant population. Individual breeders took up the project in different ways, some crossed them withy English Shepherds, some crossed them with Rough Collies and some chose to inbreed generation after generation. Without a centralized organization to represent the breed, there was no unity of purpose, no place to record pedigrees and most importantly nobody beating the drum for the Scotch Collie. Before long, things fell apart. Some 15 years after these dogs were rescued from almost certain oblivion, they were again in trouble.
In 2010 the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association was formed to look out for the well being of the Scotch Collie. Now with a written breed standard and registry, breeders and owners from different parts of the country are getting to know one another and cooperating more, and the organization works to raise awareness of the Scotch Collie. Still, issues exist… The breed has a small genetic footprint, so new blood has to be brought in as the population increases. In some cases, dogs from closely related breeds that show the characteristics of the old Scotch Collie are used, other times Scotch Collies from remote areas are discovered and used in breeding. Through it all, the rare temperament and intelligence that makes this breed unique and valuable has to be maintained, so breeding decisions cannot be made lightly.
The situation is gradually improving for the Scotch Collie today as more and more people are able to own one of these dogs again. Like their forebears, today’s Scotch Collie performs well on small farms herding and protecting livestock, or are equally valued in a suburban setting watching over children and displaying that loyal devotion they were so famous for 100 years ago.
C. F. Dorian, owner of Shep, the dog who was left waiting at the station in Virginia, knew about the loyalty of a Scotch Collie. When Mr. Dorian received a letter from the station master in Virginia informing him of the dog’s actions, he immediately traveled back across the country to get the dog he had left with neighbors when he sold his farm and moved west. He described the situation as follows.
There never was a dog more glad. he jumped and frolicked, despite the fact that he was lean for the want of nourishment. Biting my trouser legs, he dragged me in the direction of the old farm. He would run a short distance toward the farm and then return to me. He could not understand why I would not go home. He is contented here, I believe, and his devotion has made such an impression on me that I have never been away from him since.