If I Were Going to Obtain a Farm Dog by Guy Ormiston

Vero Shaw's Sheep Dogs

Written around 2002 and published here with the kind permission of Guy Ormiston

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. Fortunately, and with moderate success, in the 1980’s some revival of this ancient working breed was attempted from scarce remnants. Gratefully those efforts kept this special canine type from completely disappearing.

From an historical perspective, any rummaging through the long-ago chronicles of the British Isles will tell us, during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland (along with other western European countries) was ravaged by political and religious turmoil. Consequently many Scots fled to America and to other lands in search of less tyranny and repression. Some Scotch families stopped off for a generation or two in Ireland, before making the more dramatic leap across the Atlantic, in due course becoming known as Scotch-Irish. In any event, a large number of immigrants from bit Scotland and Ireland (to include English and Welsh colonizers) were tenant farmers in their homeland and made the logical transition to pursue agricultural vocations in the new promised land across the waters. Thus they brought with them on their bold venture, their European farm collies, anticipating the utilitarian canines would continue to be of assistance with agrarian pursuits in the New World.

Englishman Vero Shaw’s book published circa 1879 states this pre-industrial European farm collie was called on different occasions, the Sheep-Dog, the Scotch Collie, the Working Collie and simply the Collie. On the Oklahoma-Kansas border in the 1940’s this writer knew them by all those appellations to include Farm Shepherd. Since the name Scotch Collie gives credibility and comfort to my own Scottish bloodlines, I prefer that designation personally. However, the name Farm Collie (or farmcollie) has been chosen by at least two newly formed breed clubs, thus I will recognize that label but without prejudice use the other appellation occasionally and shall not be concerned as long as everyone recognizes the Scotch Collie was the dominant ancestor of American working farm collies. I will also use the description lode time Farm Collie, if just to inject some romance and emphasis on the direct historical connection I feel between this present day breed and the Dark Ages.

Shaw goes on to state in his book, “We can only say that second to the dogs used in the chase – as we must suppose man to have hunted wild animals for food before he advanced so far on the road to civilization as to keep flocks and herds – the Sheep-dog must have been one of the earliest to come under man’s dominion and form part of his home stock.” To shore up the contention that sheep dogs assisted early man – according to research by well known canine authority Maxwell Riddle, sheep were domesticated some 10,000 years ago (Stone Age) and according to Riddle ancient shepherds most likely started using sheep dogs shortly thereafter. Given the longevity of the breed, and acknowledging it has remained a working breed up to and including the early 21st century, the traits and characteristics of the modern working Farm Collie are quite obviously deeply rooted, but as you will see not necessarily restricted to herding functions.

Other researchers have traced the family tree of the old working collies of Scotland to early middle ages. In view of this long-established bond with antiquity I must respectfully take exception with any opinions which imply present day breed characteristics did not become clearly defined until 19th century dog shows began. We know the Greyhound likeness was carved on Egyptian tombs 4000 years ago. The Corgi can be traced 3000 years in the past. Hungarian Shepherds trace their sheep dogs back more than 1000 years. The genesis of most working dogs in undeniably primeval in origin. It;s true the lowly shepherd’s dogge garnered little historical recognition in comparison to the wonderful stag hounds of the medieval hunt or the brave Mastiff bull fighters of the Roman arenas, but to allege that the Scotch Collie, likely the oldest of all present day working breeds, existed only 200 years in its current type, is quite a leap and obviously misleading. This writer has viewed a wood-print circa 1650 which is reputed to be a working collie of that period. For several hundred years, probably thousands, the ancient farmstead collies undeniably evolved based on survival of the fittest, a method which is brutally efficient in maintaining competence within a working breed of canines. The inherited habits of centuries gone by predispose our renaissance Farm Collie to accomplish nearly anything – in the way of herding or attending stock.

The great genetic antiquity of the Scotch Collie caused them to be somewhat bulletproof when it came to mental or physical evolution, thus, according to old engravings and writings, they remained virtually unchanged for at least several hundred years – if not much, much longer! Then, during the 1860’s or thereabout in their British homeland, the Scotch Collie family tree developed two new branches. One, the Border Collie, evolved as a skilled herder of sheep and eventually excelled in the new Sheepdog trials. Some researchers have uncovered nineteenth century collie crosses with the Gordon Setter and other birddogs, which may have contributed to the well-known “eye” of trial-type Border Collies. Queen Victoria has been credited with influencing development of the other new branch, the bench show appendage. With the Queen’s assist, a dog breed from Russia, the Borzoi, was apparently crossed on the old Scotch Collie to achieve the desired show type collies in England. The objective was to bring more elegance, grace and beauty to the collie appearance. This Borzoi cross is said to be the progenitor of the present AKC collie. The “trunk and roots” however of the old Scotch Collie of antiquity carried on independent of birddog or Borzoi influence and remained steadfastly unchanged, not being much influenced nor denying occasional crosses with hounds and curs in pioneer America. Acknowledging it was more a type than a breed, while emigrating to the United States and Canada, and until its near disappearance in the late 20th century, the working/mental traits and the rugged physical appearance of this most ancient variety of British dog survived intact. Our above-mentioned canine expert Maxwell Riddle, goes on to say in his 1974 comments,

Even today, if one goes into the farming areas of America, older people are likely to ask: ‘What has become of the old fashioned farm shepherd dog?’ These were not purebreds. But they belonged to an ancestral type just the same… they had prick or semi-prick ears, fairly long outer coats, and soft, dense undercoats. They had a neck ruff and a curving tail with a thick brush.

I agree with Riddle. The old Farm Collies were not purebreds in the sense of pedigrees documented by a registry, but a type nonetheless, closer to being a breed than some so-called breeds – at least, as he says, “…an ancestral type.” A dictionary definition of a breed states, “A distinctive race or kind.” So defined, a convincing “breed” argument could be made since these similar working dogs were once found in rural settings all over the United States and Canada, all descended in some part from the collie of Scotland – unified in purpose and general appearance. In view of admirers who consider them a breed, the old Farm Collies are substantially different (in mental and physical characteristics) fromQueen Victoria’s collie and most derivatives of AKC show strains. Devotees also claim a marked difference between the American working Farm Collie and its distant cousins the Border Collie and the Kelpie, and even a subtle difference from closer kin like the English Shepherd or the Australian Shepherd. Not to be discounted, in the renaissance of this ancient breed, some vestige of the old Scotch Collie has been found within some AKC collies and within a limited number of English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds, and those few have served wonderfully as seedbeds in crosses with Farm Collies. Even some calm-acting Border Collies have been used in contemporary crosses, to compliment the Farm Collie abilities. In moderation such crosses may continue to be beneficial to help lift the old collie back to its former station of high regard on farms, ranches and estates.

The Farm Collie of rural America has been a working-functioning breed evolving over centuries for use in rural settings. The differences between the Farm Collie and other working breeds, which are also derivatives of the most primitive Scotch Collie, may be slight, yet measurably distinct in the minds of believers. Over the tide of time, to be truthful, the individual grade collie dogs not suitable for farm work were extirpated. Those which suited the farmer and his work, lived on and were allowed to beget the next generation. Through the famine and desolation of hard times, another mouth to feed in the way of a non-productive canine, simply was not tolerated. Thus a kind of evolution was in place, not unlike Mother Nature’s “survival of the fittest,” and resulted in Americanized working farm collies – genetically befit to handle rigors of farm life.

In the interest of understanding the unique traits of the almost extinct Scotch Collie please carefully consider the following. The best of working collies as I first knew them in the 1940’s were:

  1. Excellent companions as one went about chores on the place, serving both as guardian and helpmate. Ordinarily they did not roam, kill poultry or harass livestock.
  2. Exhibitors of caring instincts for livestock on the homestead. Dogs, other than Farm Collies, may stalk livestock in an adversarial relationship such as cat and mouse or wolf and prey. Olde tyme Farm Collies tended to their charges, often affectionately.
  3. Receptive to a sense of order. The Farm Collie knew where the livestock of the homestead were supposed to be. If the livestock escaped, the collie put them back…if it was time to milk the goats the collie would fetch them to the barn…if a young child of his family approached danger, the collie intervened.
  4. Indeed, one-family dogs that bonded with their human family unit and became protector of each family member, especially children. They could recognize the vulnerability of human young, as well as livestock babies.
  5. Selective protectors of the home. This dog could distinguish between regular approved guests and strangers. Strangers were likely held at bay until entry was authorized by a member of the household.
  6. Marvelous hunting dogs, when set on varmints. Many were tree dogs on squirrel, raccoon or opossum and would ferret out snakes and rodents.
  7. Exhibitors of an aura – a true working Farm Collie had a distinctive character or quality, which surrounds it like an ambiance. This aura could be likened to the majesty of a lion, the pride of a great thoroughbred stallion, the bearing of a Winston Churchill. These descriptions may fall short, but the observant fancier could recognize it when they saw it. All the good Farm Collies of Scotch Collie descent exude this regal aura.

A reminiscence entered here dating back to my childhood may help illustrate a bit more what the value of a Farm Collie was to a group of lads in the mid-1940’s. We boys liked to ride horses, which we did at every opportunity. Back then a lot of the farms kept ten or twelve milk cows and sold the milk for added income. The Dave Grose, Sr. family outside Newkirk, Oklahoma kept such a herd. Their horses ran with the milk cows in about an eighty acre pasture as I recall. When I visited my boyhood friend, Donny Grose, among other things we always wanted to catch up the horses. The only problem was, one mean cow! You didn’t have to worry about the bull, just that old black and white cow. I can remember her today; she had only one horn, the other lost in some mishap, but the remnant horn was long, and sharp as the devil’s pitchfork! If you entered the pasture, she would get you. The Grose family had Ole Smokey, a sable and white collie of the olde type so common on the farms of the 1940’s. If we boys wanted to catch up the horses (which amounted to cornering them against the pasture fence), we had to take Ole Smokey, for he would keep the old mean cow off of us. We were safe as a squirrel in a den tree if Smokey was with us. He would also accompany us for a swim in the pond, tree a mess of squirrel and could catch rabbits in a plowed field. Smokey would also round up any stragglers at milking time or pin down a chicken if you pointed it out. Ole Smokey, a versatile companion indeed, for a bunch of carefree country lads.

Mention of appearance and color is made here only to point out there are at present no tight breed standard for the Scotch Collie. Max Riddle’s liberal description above could suffice, i.e. “They had prick or semi-prick ears, fairly long outer coats, and soft dense undercoats. They had a neck ruff and a curving tail with a thick brush.” I would add, the Scotch Collie’s head is usually broad with a prominent stop between the rather blunt-like muzzle and forehead. Although Mr. Riddle did not mention color, those Farm Collies of Scotch Collie-type I was personally familiar with in the 1940’s were either sable and white or tricolor (black, white and tan), which I believe are the ancestral colors for the breed in the United States. Some argument could be made for the color of black and tan which is not unknown in the Scotch Collie, but is more prominent in the English Shepherd breed, or black with a white ruff, which belongs more appropriately with the Border Collie. The merle color is intrinsic to the Australian Shepherd, another derivative of the Scotch Collie. Either red tick or blue tick is the coat color of the Australian Cattle Dog (the heeler), an even more distant relative. Proponents of the old collie claim the Scotch Collie differs in natural disposition from these four cousins just mentioned. This writer sees the Scotch Collie as not necessarily better than any other breed, but the master of all he surveys and an all-around champ of the homestead as herder, guardian, babysitter and varmint dog – and most compatible with my personal vision of what a farm dog should be! I would venture you can confirm many claims for the Scotch Collie’s abilities by questioning any farmer over sixty years of age, if he/she remembers the Farm Collies of the past century. Most lily he/she will relate some stories of the collie’s intelligence which will almost surpass belief, true as they might be. The breed numbers of the old time Scotch Collie-type are still dangerously low, but should keep increasing as the burgeoning human population continues to seek sanctuary in the rural areas of our country. If I were going to obtain a work-based farm dog, as a helpmate securing family safety and doing homestead chores, the old time Scotch Collie really deserves its job back.

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  1. This is one of my absolute favorite images! 🙂 BTW You do a very nice job on your web site, Andy!

  2. Our family is in the process of relocating to Perth, Scotland and will be taking ownership of several thousand acres, containing mixed livestock of sheep and horses. Family consists of 4 adults and 7 children, all coming from a ranch/ farming background. This breed would seem very suitable for our needs of a four legged extension of our family for guard, herding , and companionnship.

    Are you aware of any breeders of Scottish Collies in that area of the UK?

    Thanks for yout time.

  3. Guy Ormiston’s article is dead on! My experience growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s on a New York State dairy farm match his article and I say there is no match as a family dog to the English Shepherd of that day. Among current common breeds, the Golden Retriever probably comes closest but takes much more time and effort to turn into a real “dog”.

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