Everyone tends to think of the collie family as being the ultimate herding dogs. This is how they are popularly known and how they are classified with breed clubs.
However, the American experience with the collie family is that these dogs are more or less generalist in usage, and they were commonly used for hunting and improving hunting stock. My grandpa had a hunting dog that was half foxhound and half collie that could track a deer like no other, and my memories of my dad’s wild farm collie would rather tree cats or raccoons than waste his time chasing cows.
That’s really because Americans began turning the collie to their own purposes almost as soon as they arrived on these shores.
Oliver Hartley describes the collie’s use in the US in his Hunting Dogs (1909):
The Scotch collie dog will make the best friend of all the dogs in the canine race, writes a collie admirer. Of all useful animals God gave to man what can excel the dog, at least with the stockmen; 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.
At one year old they are able to perform full duty herding sheep, cattle and other stock, attending them all day when necessary, keeping them together and where they belong and driving off all strange intruders. They learn to know their master’s animals from others in a very short time, and a well-trained dog will gather them home and put each into its right stall. They have a dainty carriage and fine style, profuse silky hair of various colors.
Others incline to the conviction that practical purposes have been lost sight of in breeding, and that appearances have been sought to such an extent that the present day pure bred collies lack some of the attributes of intelligence and hardihood that made the collie famous. In view of this fact it is quite likely that for general purposes and certainly for hunting purposes, a dash of alien blood is advantageous.
The crossed collie, or the well-known shepherd dog, so common to the farm, are very often used with success in all forms of night hunting. There are some who go so far as to maintain that the shepherd or a cross of shepherd and fox hound are ideal for coon, rabbit and squirrel hunting.
The use of these dogs as sheep herders has deteriorated in this country, although they are still bred for practical purposes with marked success in parts of England (pg 222-223).
So Hartley was pointing out that Americans were more than willing to turn the specialized herding dogs of the British Isles into dogs that both hunted and herded, and some areas their primary utility was that of the hunting dog.
In another part of the text, Hartley discusses the best way to get a cheap coonhound:
I have learned at considerable expense that the best at most any price is the cheapest. If you want a good, cheap ‘coon dog, get a half pup collie and half fox hound. Never give him a taste of nor let him see a rabbit, teach him a few tricks (to make him pay for his meals), such as jumping over a stick, then a pole, then a fence. This is to teach him to obey every word (pg. 101-102).
Hartley also talks about his two favorite coondogs, one of which was a collie/foxhound cross:
The best pair of ‘coon dogs I ever owned was Sport, a fox hound and collie, half and half, a slow semi-mute trailer, and Simon, a full blood fox terrier, a fast mute trailer. I used a bell on Sport. This and his occasional barks on the trail kept the attention of the ‘coon while Simon cut across lots and invariably took him unawares (pg. 101).
I grew up where most collie-type dogs were used primarily for hunting. People didn’t keep big flocks of sheep, and even the beef cattle were so tame that the farm kids could move them from pasture to pasture.
The idea that someone would encourage a dog to chase stock would be an anathema to most of the people where I grew up. There were always stories of collies that chased cows and wound up shot, so most people trained their dogs to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons and to leave the hoofed mammals alone.
And these collie-types were maintained without any fancy trials imported from Scotland or England. A border collie was a novelty, and I didn’t even see my first dog of that breed until I was about 12 or 13.
But I knew what a farm collie or an English shepherd was.
Those were the native working dogs for the northern tier of West Virginia.
This is actually my big beef with the Donald McCaig set. McCaig et al, which some wag called “the sheeple,” obsess over “working dogs” in America without actually knowing the history of working farm dogs in this country.
McCaig is a border collie novelist and dog trialer. His border collies are treated as working dogs, but they are nothing like the real farm dogs of the Appalachian Mountains he calls home.
No one trialed a farm collie or an English shepherd, but they were useful dogs.
And as I recall them, they weren’t as hyped up as border collies are. They were just good, ol’ dogs with plenty of brains and sense.
McCaig is really a carpetbagger. Born and raised in Montana, McCaig honed his craft in advertising in New York, and then he came to Alleghenies of Highland County, Virginia. It’s a rather desolate area of Virginia, located on the old road that goes from Elkins to Staunton. I don’t recall seeing any sheep when I went through there, but I recall it being full of rhododendrons and mountain laurel.
And lots of nothing.
Old Stonewall Jackson, the traitor to West Virginia, beat up on the union army at the hamlet of McDowell, but there is no mention of a great history of border collie trials in that part of Virginia.
A border collie, like McCaig, is something brought in from outside and then grafted onto the mountainsides as if they have always belonged there.
But they haven’t
Before McCaig and border collies, there were old shepherds and Scotch collies. These were the old farm dogs, not the trial dogs that McCaig has popularized.
The simple fact is Americans are not British, and even if we and our dogs are of Albion’s stock, we have both adapted to this continent and its peculiarities.
To say that the trial border collie is the historic working dog of the Virginia mountains is simply to engage in romantic folly.
It is a folly that no one says anything about. Most of the people who know better aren’t reading McCaig books or this blog, and none of them of them have the audience of a McCaig.
But because McCaig and the trialists have capture the imaginations of too many people, they get to describe for themselves some moral superiority, even though breeding for trials has done exactly the same thing to border collie bloodlines that dog shows have done to AKC dogs.
I write these words for Old Shep, the generalist collie-type hunting dog, lost in the sea of show and trial faddism.