Posts Tagged ‘Scotch collie’

oliver hartley collie

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.




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 Photo of a collie from 1915.

Photo of a collie from 1915.

I discovered a rather interesting story about how the collie became a fancy breed. I had always heard that the collie was mixed with the borzoi to make its narrow muzzle, but I was later presented with evidence that this may not be the case. However, I did find that outside blood did indeed shape the collie into a fancy show breed. It was not what I was expecting. It is also a very interesting case study into what happens to a breed once they become “fancy” or, as their breeders call them– “improved.” I am going to directly quote what I found, for it is quite instructive:

The collie was the most popular pet dog of late Victorian England and a  prime example of a breed reconstructed to meet the figurative needs of fanciers. Collies were originally valued for the qualities they had developed as hardworking Scottish sheepdogs–intelligence, loyalty, and a warm shaggy coat. Once they were firmly established in the Stud Book, however, breeders began to introduce  modifications and improvements, which were tested not against the rigors of the Highland winter, but in the fashionable marketplace. [Emphasis mine] By 1895 there were seven independent clubs devoted to the breed’s welfare, many of which sponsored all-collie shows, as well as strong collie representation in the Kennel Club and regional canine associations. The large number of pedigreed collies seems to have been exacerbated the tendency of fanciers to fabricate subtle points of distinction between animals and artificial models to measure them against.  As a result, fashions changed swiftly and collie standards were among the most volatile; breeders redesigned their animals or restocked their kennels in accordance with the latest show results. Plasticity could even take precedence over pedigree; in order to instill some temporarily admired attribute, breeders were sometimes willing to contaminate the strain. In the early days of showing, collies were often crossed with Gordon setters to achieve then fashionable glossy, black-and-tan coats. For decades experts could detect “traces of the bar sinister”– telltale ears, head, and general heaviness– in many show animals.  Even without crossing (which became less common after the Stud Book gained sway), fashion could undermine the character of the breed. The 1890s saw a craze for exaggerated heads with long, pointy noses. In 1891 a Kennel Gazette reviewer complained that show judges had given away all the prizes “to dogs of the greyhound type whose eyes bore an inane, expressionless look.” Critics alleged that such dogs could hardly display the intelligence characteristic of their breed because there was no room in their heads for brains.

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1989) p. 113-114.

Now, these developments partially explain why the fancy went to the closed stud book system. That certainly could reduce volatility in type, but dogs have such plasticity in their phenotype (because of tandem repeats) that fad breeding can still lead to massive shifts in type.

I’ve seen it in my own breed in just a the past few years. To me, the most of the goldens that are being offered today are nothing like the dogs I remember. The type has shifted from a more moderate and less exaggerated dog into something more heavily built and excessively feathered. The color range has shifted almost entirely. One can no longer find the darkest mahogany color in goldens, unless one really looks hard and doesn’t automatically assume that light builds and dark colors are indicative of cross-breeding with Irish setters.

So in that piece we see that one breed of dog started out with functional behavioral and physical conformation, and after just a few decades of fad breeding, it becomes a very different dog. So much for the fancy preserving dog breeds. The fancy may have that intent, but as an institution, it is very much susceptible to fads and trends, as well as contrived characteristics that are actually detrimental to the health and function of the dogs. What shepherd would want a collie with such a narrow head and very little herding instinct?

Now, I found it interesting that Gordon setters were used to increase the number of black-and-tan dogs in the bloodline. However, black and tan  and solid black were the most common colors of the British herding landrace that became the collie-type dogs. The Gordon setter got its black and tan coloration from an outcross with a black -and-tan collie. One must remember that Queen Victoria’s collies were all black-and- tan, but that particular coloration may not have been universally evident in all show collie populations. So the best way to remedy that problem was to cross-breed with Gordon setters.

I’ve heard of other such outcrosses with show dogs. Many of these have been clandestine, for the modern institutionalized fancy is based upon a closed stud book.system.  For example, I’ve read that Labrador breeders crossed in golden retrievers to reduce houndish characteristics in yellow Labradors, as well as to increase biddability (which was always a perceived problem in yellow Labradors) and lengthen the coat. As well all know, the yellow Labradors were heavily outcrossed to lemon foxhounds to increase the likelihood of producing that color, which was not evident in the St. John’s water dog. It is also well-known that flat-coated retrievers were heavily interbred into Labradors to make them more competitive in early twentieth century field trials. The faulty black-and-tan color in Labradors has always existed within the breed and within the old wavy-coated retriever, which is the ancestor of the flat-coat and the golden, but I’ve come across more than one person who claims that the black and tan color in Labradors is the result of interbreeding with Rottweilers. However, I think it is much more likely that the color is the result of the founder effect from the St. John’s water dog and from the infusion of collie and Gorden setter blood in the old wavy-coated retriever.

So the early fancy had license to crossbreed for phenotype, and the modern fancy has always had rumors about clandestine crossbreeding. My response is actually quite simple: Why can’t we have license to crossbreed for health reasons?

How could this be accomplished? Well, in the early days in which retrievers were separated into show dog breeds, there was a class called “Interbred.” Interbred dogs were a mixture of two different strains that the KC had declared separate breeds. These dogs would be run as “Interbred,” as would their offspring for three generations. After being bred to a specific breed for three generations, the phenotype of  the descendants of this interbred dog would be examined to allow it to be registered as a purebred.

I don’t see why such a system could not be implemented today, but I do worry that fad breeding would run amok in such a system, as it did with the early show collies. That is why breed standards must be evaluated and written with functional conformation in mind. Such a system is entirely absent in the dog fancy right now.

We also need controls on how often a stud dog is used to keep the gene pool more open. Today, virtually all dog breeds (especially mine) are suffering from a compromised gene pool– most of which can be blamed on using just a few stud dogs to produce a high percentage of the offspring.

I would be very happy if we got some of these reforms. It would mean that we’re finally thinking about dogs are organisms and as creatures that have feelings, emotions, and intelligence. I can’t imagine any conservation organization that would try to breed endangered species under such a weird system. Indeed, in the case of the subspecies of cougar called the Florida panther, the Texas cougar was introduced to Florida to increase genetic diversity.

But dog people don’t think like biologists. They think like proper Victorians.

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