Improved Off The Face Of The Earth

A brief history of efforts to save the old time Scotch Collie

It is a curious and sad fact of history that various attempts have been made to save the old fashioned collie from extinction over the past 119 years, but none of them have had long-lasting or serious impact, they all seem to fizzle after a period of time. The dogs we have today come to us as much through chance and dumb luck as they do through the efforts of others to rescue the old-time scotch collie from extinction. Let me outline some of the efforts, successes and failures that have taken place in the name of the old fashioned collie.

In 1892 we have the first recorded instance of someone bemoaning what was happening to the breed and suggesting efforts to save the old type. The English Kennel Gazette had this to say.

There is no reason why beauty should not go hand in hand with utility, but at present unfortunately such is not the case… the old Scotch collie is in danger of being improved off the face of the earth… It will sooner or later have to be recognized that the show bench collie is absolutely distinct from his ancient prototype, and the formation of an old Scotch Collie Club will have to be seriously considered.

We don’t know what, if anything, became of the English Kennel Gazette’s suggestion but we assume very little since nothing is recorded of this effort. It is interesting to note that this article was written just 18 years after collies began to be bred towards the goal of winning dog shows. Also of note here is that there is no mention of a Borzoi cross, one would think the English Kennel Gazette would certainly be in a position to know if this had taken place and this article lamenting the change in the breed would be the place to bring it up.

From this time on complaints about the direction collie breeding was taking increase as do people lamenting the disappearance of the old fashioned collie type. These were mostly just passing comments and idle talk, no real effort or talk of an organized, concerted effort was made until 1911 when a letter to the editor of Country Life in America magazine written by one Otis Barnum asked the question, “Who Is Breeding Old-Fashioned Collies?” In part he wrote

As long as I can remember I have heard stories of the wonderful sagacity and faithfulness of Scotch collies, but somehow, since the advent of the modern, sharp-nosed, show type of collie, these stories have been getting fewer… 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 Country Life in America could do something to save this noble breed from extinction, and I wish I could find out myself where I could get such a dog.

This one letter really got things moving. The editor, R. A. Sturdevant, got behind it, and many more letters were written from people on both sides of the issue, breeders of show collies were outraged, one of them wrote.

I am not clear as to what you mean by the Old-fashioned Collie. If it is that you wish to cultivate the sort that was shown twenty or even less years ago, with thick, coarse heads, light eyes, pendulous ears, and vacant expression, then I am quite sure you will never make any headway and I shall do all I can to show the absurdity of your scheme… Frankly I am opposed to your plan and think it is absurd to make an effort to undo all that we have done (as we think) in the interests of the collie.

Many wrote to express their love of the old collies, some of these talked of organizing.

I know that many collie lovers do not take kindly to the present show type, and I believe that you can handle the organization of a new club and the formation of a new standard very successfully through Country Life In America. The American Kennel Club would not recognize a new breed of Scotch collie, and it would be a delicate matter to bring before dog show clubs. The plan I would suggest is the formation of a club to preserve the original type of Scotch collie. This club should decide on the required standard and offer prizes at shows to be awarded according to this standard.

I enclose some photographs of the old-time black-and-tan collie — the kind we should save from oblivion by forming an “Old-Fashioned Collie Club.” The pups were bred by me in 1894.

It seems there was real momentum behind this grassroots effort and the old time collie would be saved. The letters continued to pour into Country Life in America throughout 1912 and the editor supported the effort and printed many of them. Then in January 1913 Mr. Sturdevant was replaced as “stable & kennel” editor and as far as anybody knows never wrote about the old fashioned collie again and the movement of 1912 to save the old fashioned collie died on the vine when the new editor ceased to print the letters or mention the cause again.

Erika DuBois was the next to mount a large scale search for the old Scotch Collies starting in the late 1980’s, her article “Old Scotch Collie” published in the Small Farmer’s Journal‘s spring 1991 issue was the opening salvo of the farm collie movement. Erika’s search inspired others to look for this now almost extinct breed, numerous writings followed. In 1994 Linda Rorem’s article “What Ever Happened to Old Shep?” appeared in Ranch Dog Trainer. In 1997, Pril Zahorsky wrote “Let’s Bring Back Ol Shep!” published in Countryside. Richard McDuffie’s writings in Full Cry magazine in the early 1990’s highlighted his search for old time Scotch Collies with hunting instincts, and resulted in his discovery of the Allison dogs in Tennessee, the foundation of his “Dunrovin” line.

In the period from around 1995 to 2002 it seemed like the old time Scotch Collie was actually making forward progress for the first time in decades. The Friends of the Old Farm Collienewsletter, published by Linda Rorem from February 1995 until December 1997 stood as a central point to share information on these efforts. The first issue showed that the dogs they were looking for were different from English Shepherds and that setting up some sort of breed club was the ultimate goal.

There also has been some contact with English Shepherd breeders, as this breed appears to be the closest to the old-fashioned collie… At this point, I would like to begin a discussion of possible moves that might be considered in the endeavor to reestablish the Old Farm Collie. 1) To date, as indicated above, few definite leads have developed as to where any old-fashioned collies are being bred… Should we continue on this path for a time yet, before making any further moves? 2) Should we begin to make definite plans for establishing a formal club and consider what will need to be done to accomplish this?

Then in February of 1997 the Farmcollie Discussion List was created, it thrived as the hub of the farm collie movement from its creation until around 2005. On the very first day this list was in existence the following was posted:

You might want to hold off on notifying the collie list until you have a written standard, discription, and goals.  These things give you a certain legitimacy that otherwise is lacking.

This indicates that, at least initially, the intent was to develop a breed club or some other sort of organization. Indeed, in the first days and weeks of the list a primary point of discussion was the development of a breed standard, setting forth goals and establishing a club name.

The Collies: Back to the Future website, developed and maintained by Gina Bisco went online around the same time (1997). It was, and continues to be a wealth of information on old fashioned collies of all types.

Eventually several clubs came together to represent at least a portion of the old Scotch Collies, the Highland Working Collie Association sought to reform the breed as it existed in Highland Scotland, the Victorian Collie Club wanted to preserve collies as they existed around the turn of the last century and the American Working Farmcollie Association (AWFA) which claimed to represent all descendants of the collies of old with working instincts. Guy Ormiston attempted to start a club called New Scotch Collie Alliance to represent the old time Scotch Collie and to get the United Kennel Club (UKC) to recognize the breed, the UKC’s refusal stopped his efforts short.

It is sometimes hard to put your finger on the causes when things start to deteriorate, and so it is difficult to say what happened to the farm collie movement in the mid-2000’s. Starting around 2001 there was a good deal on infighting between factions and groups, much of this squabbling is preserved in the Farmcollie Discussion List archives for anyone interested. Around this same time it seemed like the focus was slowly drifting from the old fashioned Scotch Collie towards the English Shepherd. Most of the clubs formed during this period folded in just a few years, leaving only the AWFA today, whose goal is not saving the old time Scotch Collie, but preserving working instincts in all collie dogs. The Farmcollie List survives to this day, but with a fraction of the traffic it saw in its glory days.

In 2010 the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association was formed with everything the previous attempts were lacking, a working breed description and a registry. Perhaps this time things will go better. People have been trying to save the old Scotch Collie for 119 years, recognizing the need for an organization and registry to represent them but never quite pulling it off. It is hoped that this effort can build on the successes of past endeavors while learning from their mistakes. Please join us in helping to save these dogs from extinction, help us to get the Old-Time Scotch Collie the recognition it deserves.

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  1. I was born in 1941 and grew up with an Old Time Scotch Collie, our Queen of Sheba. I was six years old, recuperating from a case of the mumps. One sunny afternoon my father carried me out to the car and told me we were just going for a ride. Well, to make a long story short, he stopped the car in front of a big, white farmhouse, (This was in Farmington, CT.), got out as the door to the house opened and a girl with long, dark braids came out carrying a puppy, our Sheba. She was crying, but put her in my arms as I jumped out giving me a big smile, and saying she knew I would love and take good care of this very special, beautiful puppy. I grew up with my Sheba and have many wonderful memories of my adventures with her.

    Some years later, when I was grown and able to keep a dog properly, I went back to this farm, hoping I would be able to locate a puppy like my Sheba, but, of course, the farm was gone and the lovely rolling pastures covered with development houses. I was never able to locate a breeder with the integrity to cherish these old lines.

    I am 75 years old and live on 200 acres in southern Vermont. I have a lovely Golden Retriever and two cats, horses gone. How I would love a Scotch collie again. But that is probably just a dream.

    Thank you for this article and for bringing back cherished memories. I hope these dogs will not disappear from the face of the earth.

  2. I am 68 & was raised with the old-type Scottish Collie.His name was Pal.He was the epitomy if what was considered the gold standard of the magnificent Scottish Collie.When I was 5,in true “Lassie”fashion,he saved my younger sister,a toddler then,from drowning in a creek in our back yard.He protected her from toddling to the creek til Mom found them & took her back in the house.If she had made it to the creek,which was overflowing from heavy rains,she would ‘ve been swept away in a raging torrent.How did he do this one might be wondering? He put himself between her & the creek when she made it off the back porch & into the yard.She tried to walk around his hindquarters-he’d back up,blocking her.Then she’d try to walk around Pal the other way & he’d move forward,blocking her.He kept her in place this way til Mom found them.If Pal hadn’t been present, one can imagine the rest of the story.

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