In the 18th century, the collie’s natural home was in the highlands of Scotland, deep in the hills and the mountains, where he had been used for centuries as a sheepdog. It is possible that the Romans brought sheepdogs with them when they invaded Britain and that these dogs then interbred with the local dogs and thus are the ancestors of today’s collies.
Eventually two types of collies developed from these common ancestors - the Rough Collie, the long-haired variety that worked directly with the flocks; and the Smooth Collie, the short-haired variety that was used primarily as a drover dog to drive livestock to market.
Bred for centuries for their working ability rather than the status of their pedigree, their exact origins have been lost. The farmers who relied on these dogs were totally dependent on their pastoral pursuits, so the dogs were bred for strength, endurance, intelligence, devotion and loyalty.
‘It is hardly possible to overrate the marvellous intelligence of a well-taught Sheep-dog; for if the shepherd were deprived of the help of his Dog his office would be almost impracticable. It has been forcibly said by a competent authority that, if the work of the Dog were to be performed by men, their maintenance would more than swallow up the entire profits of the flock.’(1)
Physically these Scotch Sheep-Dogs carried a thick coat, ‘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 winter winds’(2), an active, graceful outline, alert eyes and keen ears. The most common colours of these early dogs were either tri-colour or blue merle. The absence of white markings was a prized characteristic and indicated purity of the stock. By today’s standards, they were a smaller dog with heads on the coarse side, with heavier ears and less coat.(3)
The origin of the word ‘collie’ is also open to speculation. It has been spelled many different ways: Coll, Colley, Coally and Coaly. Coll is the Anglo-Saxon word for black and one theory holds that ‘Collie’ comes from the black-faced Colley sheep and therefore the dogs responsible for their well-being became known as "colley dogs". Another theory suggests that the original working dog was black and therefore was called "Coallies." Whatever the origins, around 1875, the name Collie was firmly in place.
The collie was known as the ‘working man’s dog’ and belonged primarily to the middle class worker whose funds were limited for breeding and exhibiting dogs. As interest in purebreds and pedigrees grew among the Victorian upper class, peasant ‘working’ dogs were looked down upon as "as improperly bred, or worse, not bred at all." Collies however were considered an exception to this elitist attitude: "Because of their exceptional aptitude for following complex verbal and visual commands, [collies] were regarded as a "step up" from other peasant breeds, a professional working class of dog."(4)
The breed was given a royal boost in the late 1800’s when Queen Victoria first saw the Collies when visiting at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She was so impressed with the beauty, intelligence and faithfulness of these sheepdogs that several soon joined her Royal Kennels.
"A writer for Lloyd’s Weekly remarked that the Queen had a particular fondness for Collies, especially one named "Sharp, [who has] all his meals with his mistress, being seldom away from her" - although the dog was notorious for biting servants and visitors."(5)
With her patronage the Collie had an upsurge of acceptance and popularity and it is to the English dog fancy of the late 1800's that the breed owes its development as a popular show dog.
In 1860 the Birmingham National Dog Show Society held classes for different varieties of herding dogs: "Scotch Sheep-dogs". This was only the 3rd formal dog show at which conformation was judged and the first all-breed show. Five collies were benched at this show.(6)
One of the first show collies was a dog named Old Cockie, born in 1868. He was a major influence on the early development of the breed, not only as a show dog but as a sire. He is also the dog that is credited with introducing the sable colour. All show collies trace back to Old Cockie through his grandson, Charlemagne.
Other notable collies of the period were dogs such as Bess, Old Mec, Old Hero, Carlyle, Trefoil, Twig, Tartan, Tricolour, Tramp, Marcus, Scott, Duncan, Hunt’s Lassie and Brackenbury’s Scott. From Trefoil, whelped in 1873, the collie chart progresses right down to the present day dogs.
The early English pioneers in the breed took the ordinary sheepdog and started the development of the breed we know today as the Collie.
In North America, the collie breed was dominated by rich patrons who imported the best from England who eventually became the progenitors of some of the early prestigious kennels. The Collie Club of America In. was organized in 1886 and was the second breed parent club to join the American Kennel Club. In the late 1880’s, J.P. Morgan imported the English sable, Sefton Hero, for which he paid the record price, at the time, of $5,000. Hero went on to become the Winners Dog at the first Collie Club of America show, held in New York in 1894.
Collie history is not made up solely of sheep-herding and show dogs. During the First World War, Britain launched a nationwide recruiting campaign for eligible dogs to answer Germany’s troop of 50,000 dogs trained and ready for combat. (3, p177) Two thousand dogs were volunteered by their owners with the first week of the WWI, "including Airedale terriers, "Scotch Collies", Old English Sheepdogs, and a plethora of mongrels[.] England’s fleet of Scotch Collie sentries was credited with saving troop water supplies from contamination by enemy spies, and at one point in the war Germany attempted (but failed) to bomb the Collie kennels at West Hartlepool."(7)
Popularity as a family dog grew during the early 1900’s not least of all due to the writings of Albert Payson Terhune, whose stories almost invariably starred the heroic feats of one of his collies and although sentimental, were wildly popular. Lad: A Dog was published in 1919 and was followed by a series of books, two more starring Lad as well as others featuring other Terhune collies. "Perhaps the most important thing about Terhune...is that hundreds of families came to own collies because of him. And these big, grave, sweet-tempered animals brought much joy to those who loved them. In a very real sense, Bert Terhune was responsible for this. It is possibly one of the nicest epitaphs a writer could wish for."(8)
The collie’s reputation for bravery, loyalty and intelligence was further enforced when ‘Lassie’ became a household name after the release of the film, "Lassie Come Home" in 1943. Popularity soared through the ‘40’s and ‘50’s when the TV Lassie series idealized the Collie as a family dog. The health of the breed suffered somewhat as indiscriminate breeding took place to capitalize upon the breed’s popularity.
Although today the breed’s popularity has faded a bit from its glory days, collie registrations remain consistently high among CKC and AKC numbers. Their loyalty, intelligence and versatility will ensure their place in hearts and home forever.
(1) Wood's Natural History, Mammalia volume by the Rev. J.G. Woods, circa 1862, as posted at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Pointe/4513/
(3) The Magnificent Collie, by Patricia Roberts Starkweather with John Buddie, Doral Publishing, Inc., Wilsonville, Oregon, 1997. P. 13(4) The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000 year love affair with dogs, Mary Elizabeth Thurston, Andrews & McMeel, Kansas City, USA, 1996. P. 122
(5) ibid. P. 104
(6) The Magnificent Collie. P. 14
(7) The Lost History of the Canine Race. P. 177-178(8) The Master of Sunnybank, Irving Litvig. P. 209