The English Shepherd’s True Origins – England

Some English Shepherd fanciers make the statement that theirs is a purely American breed created from the Scotch Collie, however history shows that this breed existed long before the American breed by this name and that it’s true origins are not the Scotch Collie at all but in the original sheep dogs of England. There is no doubt that many dogs of Scotch Collie ancestry have been registered into the English Shepherd breed in the past 70 years, still the dominant ancestor of today’s English Shepherd is the English Shepherd’s dog, not the Scotch Shepherd’s dog as borne out by the following historical descriptions and illustrations. As you look at the following notice that:

  1. The term “Collie” originally applied only to the Scottish Shepherd’s dog, not the English.
  2. Most of these descriptions were written before the Scotch Collie became widely popular as a pet in Britain and America and before the breeding of these dogs for show purposes (mid 1870s).

The Illustrated Natural History  By John George Wood, 1865

The Scotch Sheep-dog, more familiarly called the Colley, is not unlike the English Sheep-dog in character, though it rather differs from that animal in form. It is sharp of nose, bright and mild of eye, and most sagacious of aspect. Its body is heavily covered with long and woolly hair, which stands boldly out from its body, and forms a most effectual screen against the heat of the blazing sun, or the cold, sleety blasts of the winter winds. The tail is exceedingly bushy, and curves upwards towards the end, so as to carry the long hairs free from the ground. The colour of the fur is always dark, and is sometimes variegated with a very little white. The most approved tint is black and tan; but it sometimes happens that the entire coat is of one of these colours, and in that case the Dog is not so highly valued. The ” dew-claws ” of the English and Scotch Sheep-dogs are generally double, and are not attached to the bone, as is the case with the other claws.

English Shepherds Dog - 1809
from Memoirs of British Quadrupeds by William Bingley, Samuel Howitt 1809

The farmer’s dictionary – 1854

DOG. A genus of animals (Canis), including innumerable varieties. The farmer requires a good rat and vermin dog, of which the varieties of terrier are the best ; a house-dog, as the Newfoundland, bull-dog, or mastiff; and herd-dogs, as the sheepdog, the Scotch sheep-dog, or the Spanish shepherd’s dog. The last is said to be the most manageable and trusty, as it is the strongest, being nearly as large as a Newfoundland; but the instinct of the Scotch animal cannot be readily surpassed. Hunting and coursing dogs are merely useful for pleasure, but of these the pointer is an animal of rare instinct, and can be taught to equal the best sheepdogs in caring for flocks.

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 English Sheep Dog, 1846
from The Dog by William Youatt, 1846

Dog stories and dog lore – 1887

“The name collie,” said Mr. Graham, “properly belongs to the Scotch shepherd dog; there are several varieties of the shepherd dog, English, French, Scotch, Hungarian, and others, but the most intelligent and useful of them all is the one we are now considering. As our time at the dog-show is limited, we will drop the others and confine ourselves to the collie, or Scotch variety.

Manual of British rural sports – 1856

The most useful and sagacious of all Is the Scotch colly, well represented In the annexed engraving. He is more hairy, and with a sharper and more fox-like nose than the English sheep-dog, or than the drover’s dog, both of which resemble the setter or Newfoundland dog more than the Scotch shepherd’s dog; but in the south almost every district has its own breed, and they vary In size and appearance.

"the English sheep-dog... resembles the... Newfoundland dog more than the Scotch shepherd’s dog", illustration from Facts and Phases of Animal Life, 1883

The relations of mind and brain By Henry Calderwood – 1884

The highest results of training are seen in the Scotch Collie, which by almost common consent is allowed to be the most intelligent of dogs. Stonehenge says, “The sagacity and perseverance of this dog are wonderful, and the instances in which he has succeeded in saving sheep and lambs under perilous circumstances are beyond all description” (The Dog in Health and Disease, p. 120). “Idstone,” already quoted, allows decidedly the precedence to the Scotch collie over the English sheep-dog, and gives as the chief explanation the general superiority of the Scotch shepherd over the English. (The Dog, with simple Directions for his Treatment, and Notices of the best Dogs of the day, and their Breeders or Exhibitors, by “Idstone,” p. 24.)

Glencreggan; or, A highland home in Cantire By Cuthbert Bede – 1861

The Scotch shepherd’s dog is no more like the English sheep-dog than Monmouth is to Macedon, and is as much its superior in value, intelligence, and beauty as a high-born Scottish lassie is to a Hottentot Venus.

A Natural History of British and Foreign Quadrupeds by James Hamilton Fennell, 1841

The English Sheep-dog, or Southern Sheep-dog.

This breed seems to have originated in a cross of the colley with the mastiff. While the former is the Scottish and Welsh sheep-dog, the present animal is the original or true English one, although the colley is now in general use on the extensive downs of Wiltshire, and in some other parts of this country. Our old English authors term it the shepherd’s mastiff; and this perhaps will account for some modern writers having improperly termed it the ban-dog, whereas that name belongs to the true English mastiff alone.

The English sheep-dog is larger and less shaggy than the colley. In some individuals the ears are quite erect, and others have the tail very short,—the latter peculiarity being apparently inherited from parents whose tails have been cut.

from A Natural History of British and Foreign Quadrupeds by James Hamilton Fennell, 1841
from A Natural History of British and Foreign Quadrupeds by James Hamilton Fennell, 1841

The Dogs of the British Islands By John Henry Walsh, 1872

The English Sheep Dog, whether rough or smooth, is to be found of various colours. It is a common thing to see them grizzle, black, red, brindled, or (for the most part) white; and we have also observed a dull rust colour, patched with black, in the smooth dog. This variety has frequently what are called “china” or “walled eyes.” As the shepherd’s dog under the old excise laws was only exempt from tax when the tail was cut off, it was formerly always removed, and in process of time many mothers produced litters—or parts of a litter—wholly without tails, and an instance of this has occurred in our own experience.

The Scotch Colley, or Highland sheep dog, is, in our opinion, a far more graceful animal, and in sense and intelligence equals any breed of dogs in the world. The rough or shaggy-coated colley is the most choice description; for his impenetrable warm thick coat is a good protection to him when his duty calls him to face the storms and mists and snows of the wild mountains, especially when the stragglers of his flock have been covered by the snowdrifts, and he goes in search of them with his master. He has a fine foxliko muzzle; full, expressive, but rather crafty eyes ; small ears, dropping forward; and the mask of his face is smooth. From the base of the skull the whole of the neck and the entire body are protected by a deep, warm, long coat of various colours—sometimes black with tan points; sometimes sandy, or of various mixed greys, some of which are singularly beautiful and picturesque. There is generally a very fine white line down the forehead, not amounting to a blaze, as in the spaniels. His legs (especially the hind legs, from the hocks) are bare, that is, not feathered; and for many years authorities on the dog have described the colley as having one, or even two, dew claws on each hind leg—which is, indeed, generally the case. His neck is long, and rather arched ; his shoulders are set well back, and are very powerful. The elbow is well let down ; the fore arm is short; the ankles or pasterns are long, and rather small for his size; and the feet are round, arched, and have excellent thick hard soles. The chest is deep, but rather narrow: he is broad over his back; his loins arc well arched ; the hips are wide ; his thighs are muscular, and he is inclined to go rather wide behind. The tail is very bushy and large, and carried up when he is in motion ; and when he is controlling his excitement it is turned over his back.

from Lessons Derived from the Animal World, 1847
from Lessons Derived from the Animal World, 1847

The English Sheep Dog, The Dog By Thomas Pearce, George Earl – 1872

The English Sheep Dog, is, as a rule, a very different and inferior animal to his Scotch fellow-labourer, and can hardly be described as of any particular class, especially when his labours include, as they do in many of our village homesteads, the guardianship or conduct of cattle, as well as flocks, or they are kept by the numerous drovers who wait at markets and fairs, to take home the new purchases for all comers.

The drover generally selects a smooth, or short-coated dog, larger than the Colley, and with a turn of speed. He also requires a dog full of activity and courage, which shall stand his friend in case of danger from the strange cattle which he is always encountering, and not unfreqttently has to fetch from their pastures, or to separate from herds. For this purpose his dog serves him well; and a drover of my acquaintance tell me that his favourite helpmate—a black, short-tailed one of the breed—has more than a dozen times drawn off the attack of a bull or ox which meant to do him a mischief.

Under the old laws, a dog was exempt from tax when the tail was cut off, and many old herdsmen and shepherds persist in this practice still, but siuce the five-shilling tax has been levied the younger and more enlightened have allowed their dogs to retain this useful and ornamental appendage.

I was frequently assured that a breed of the rough Sheep Dog existed born, like Manx cats, without tails, but I disbelieved the story; however, I had ocular proof of the fact not many years ago. I had, and still possess, a breed of black-tan Setters, and I have always some difficulty in obtaining fostermothers. As I breed most of my litters in February or March, I always select shaggy or long-coated nurses. One of these happened to be a rough, short-tailed Sheep Dog, which, the old man, an itinerant dog-dealer, assured me, was born -with the stump of a tail she then retained. When she whelped, to my surprise, all except one of the litter were born tailless, and I was converted to the belief which for many years I had hesitated to accept.

The English Sheep Dog, being required for an enclosed country, and for a slower and tamer breed of sheep than the Scotch flocks consist of, is a heavier, slower, and more sedate animal than the Colley. Even on the wide-spread Wiltshire Downs the same description of dog prevails—bought or exchanged at the first fair for a few shillings, ready broken by the shepherd, who seldom seems to have a cordial understanding with, or affection for, his dog. At the large sheep-fairs it is the usual thing to see these dogs bartered or bought, the deal being completed in a few words; and after some hasty ejaculations, and an uncouth gesticulation or two, the new purchase is handed over to the purchaser, with a collar twisted out of a green hazel and a few feet of old cord.

Bewick’s engraving of the Sheep Dog represents a Colley, though his tail is not well carried; and I am strengthened in the opinion that he intended to represent this breed by the fact that he introduces in his back-ground a kilted Highland shepherd, followed by his dog with a tail well carried.
His drawing of the “Cur Dog” gives a faithful portrait of the ordinary English cattle-dog, with his bobtail, as he is to be seen at the present time, of various colours, but generally black or brindled, with more or less white about his body, half-pricked ears, and a sharp muzzle.

"Bewick's... drawing of the 'Cur Dog' gives a faithful portrait of the ordinary English cattle-dog" The Dog By Thomas Pearce, George Earl, 1872

I think it likely that the Colley had been generally adopted by shepherds at Newcastle (the scene of the artist’s labours), and that he was to be seen at the heels of most of the shepherds Bewick encountered, purely or semi-purely bred, if such an expression may be permitted ; but farther south the Sheep Dog was a mixture of many breeds. His parentage was the result of accident nine times out of ten, unless some intelligent shepherd, possessed of a superior dog, carefully mated it with some neighbour’s which rivalled it in sagacity. That some men who could not write their names had arrived at some notion of the kind before the time of Darwin, I am quite sure, though without brains enough to explain their actions to the world.

And, although Sheep Dogs are to be found of all colours (excepting liver-colour, or liver in connection with other colours, which seems confined entirely to sporting dogs), and the arrival of a litter of all colours is a very common occurrence, and, it must be remembered, at once proclaims indiscriminate breeding, there is one class of Sheep Dog which I can recollect in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hants, Dorset, and other counties, for many years, and which I always regard as the typical English Sheep Dog. I mean the blue, grizzled, roughhaired, large-limbed, surly, small-eared and small-eyed, leggy, bob-tailed dog, which, to all appearance, would obey no lighter instrument of punishment than an iron-shod crook, listen to no voice unless seasoned with a strong provincial twang, and coil himself upon none other than that inevitable drab blanket-coat into whose sleeves no shepherd was ever known to put his arms.

I have said that the English Sheep Dog is slower and heavier than the Colley. I must add that he is not so sprightly as his northern cousin, nor, on the whole, so sagacious. He partakes (as do all the dogs, especially pastoral dogs) more or less of the character of his teacher. The English shepherd is surly, silent, and for the most part ignorant, and he has an especial dislike to strangers. He does not, as the Staffordshire collier is reported, “‘eave arf a brick ” at an unknown face or figure—which, by the way, is rather a libel, for a better set of rough diamonds I never lived amongst—but he will scarcely give you a civil answer, whilst his dog growls in concert as he walks round your leg, with all his hackles up, and an ominous display of lip and fang. His manner of speaking to his dog, wife, or child partakes of the same sullen manner and reserve—but, as a rule, except in his cups, he seldom strikes a dog, and then only under great provocation. The feats his companion performs are the result of his own marvellous sagacity, daily unvarying practice, and thorough acquaintance with his duty. He will, though such dogs are rare, run over the back of the flock to head them in a lane, jump the hedge to present his grim features at a gap ahead, or drive them as his master walks, in front. He will keep them from a defined piece of pasture, or, as his master sets the evening fold, confine them to the old boundary. These last are the ordinary duties of the Sheep Dog; the first may be looked upon as an exceptional refinement, which would raise a dog five shillings or so in the estimation of his master. But now and then he gives proofs of devotion and intelligence far surpassing the hounds of instinct.

I remember a case in point. The dog belonged to a shepherd whom all our large agriculturists coveted, but never could keep after his year’s service had expired, because of his drunken habits, or, rather, his fits of drunkenness. No man’s sheep throve so well, no one reared so many lambs, or, in a general way, was more devoted to his flock. He had that natural gift of attracting animals to him, and attaching them to him also, which can neither be imparted nor acquired, and his dogs were the best for miles around. At last, having lost the confidence of the leading farmers, he might have got a place with some little two or three hundred acre farmer, but such preferment he despised; so he turned drover, and he and his dog, ” Quick,” a blue grizzle, bought as a puppy at Salisbury Market, for a pint of beer and the promise of a shilling, as he informed me, set off together.

One autumn evening he was leaving Weyhill Fair, with a flock of something like three hundred sheep, and walking for some point about twenty-five miles to the west, when it came on to blow just as the sun was going down, and before they had got seven miles on the road he was wet through, and it was nearly dark. “I couldn’t see the flock, but as I walked in front I could hear ‘ Quick’ bark now and then,” he told me, ” and I warrant they were all right, and just on the left hand there was a little public-house. I thought”—I give it in his own words—” there would be no harm in having one glass of beer “—(one glass in the vernacular means one gallon). “I suppose,” he continued, ” that I must have tied the dog to the signpost, but I don’t remember it, and I stayed about an hour”.—(this is the vernacular for three hours at least)—”and I found from the landlord that I could turn in the sheep for the night, and get a shakedown mysel£ It was raining worse than ever when I came out, and the first thing I saw was the old dog. Well, that put me out of temper, for I thought he had let the sheep run back, as they will, so I Bung out to him to go after them, and turned in to have another glass till he came back. I came out in a quarter of an hour, and there he was, wagging his stump of a tail, and not gone. I thought as I sat in the chimney-corner, I heard him bark ; and I made no more to-do, but threw the crook at him, as I generally did, and, by bad luck, broke his fore-leg. When the poor thing began to cry out, the landlord began to abuse me ; and when they brought the light, there were the sheep all lying under the hedge, as quiet as could be. They declared I shouldn’t go on, nor the dog either; but I did, and old ‘Quick’ hopped after me. I don’t remember nothing else but trying to find the field to put the sheep in; but just before the light broke I was woke by the policeman throwing his bull’s-eye on me. He told me he heard the dog barking, and that when he came to within fifty yards there was the dog lying on my breast, calling for help like a Christian. I was sober then, and I made two rough splints and a bandage, and did ‘ Quick’s’ leg up in. my rough way ; and I’ve never struck a dog since, nor drank anything either, and I never will; and I’ve bought two cottages out of my savings.”

” What became of the old dog”

“Oh, I kept him till he died, though for six months he was stone-blind. That’s his grandson by the fold, keeping ‘ my’ sheep off the young clover.”

Amongst the useful and ornamental dogs, I must class the Scotch Colley; and occasionally the English Sheep Dog is a good looking animal, but this is of rare occurrence.

[see also English Shepherds and Scotch Collies in 1861 ]

Related Images:


  1. Andy,

    I found something interesting for a blog post. I’ve found another possible ancestor of the English shepherd.

    If you could send me an e-mail at retrieverman1(at) yahoo (dot) com, I’ll flesh it out for you.

    It’s not what I would have expected, but it just hit me last night.

  2. I do love this information from people who seem to rally know what they’re talking about. However, I am having trouble researching where “Colly”, pronounced Coh-lee, came from, as that was the name the Scotch Collie originally went by.

  3. My mother & I use to breed & show Collies for many years. CobbyCove Kennels. I love this article & will save it if you don’t mind? Thanks for teaching me new things, very interesting!

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. What Did Pre-Dog Show Scotch Collies Look Like? | Old Time Farm Shepherd, Celebrating Farm Collies Past & Present
  2. English Shepherds and Scotch Collies in 1861 | Old Time Farm Shepherd, Celebrating Farm Collies Past & Present
  3. Where is the Old English Sheepdog? | Old Time Farm Shepherd, Celebrating Farm Collies Past & Present
  4. History of the English Shepherd in America | Old Time Farm Shepherd, Celebrating Farm Collies Past & Present
  5. The Collie Spectrum: Understanding the Scotch Landrace | Old Time Farm Shepherd .org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.