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The Old-Time Scotch Collie: your grandfather's farm dog comes home.


When my wife and I bought our old farm house two years ago, we had no idea where it would lead us. We had lived on acreage in Arizona for most of our married lives so we didn't think this little farm in Oklahoma would be much different. Boy were we wrong!

Pastures, we learned, either had to be grazed or mowed, otherwise they grew into impenetrable jungle in a matter of weeks. Chickens had to be locked up tight or they became easy pickings for opossum and raccoons, and snakes loved our eggs. A few sheep took care of our pasture problem pretty effectively, but sheep need to be moved around to different pastures occasionally, and they need to be inspected periodically for parasites. This inspired us to look for a dog that could help with the sheep.

It appeared at first that we had a pretty tall order to fill, we needed a dog that could herd, hunt vermin, play well with the kids, protect the property and yet not hurt the chickens. It just so happens that our problems were much the same as those faced by farmers 100 years ago when the majority of farms were small family operations, and we solved our problem with a breed of dog that was popular on farms 100 years ago, the Old-Time Scotch Collie. There was a time when no decent farm was complete without a Scotch Collie, it served multiple purposes from pest control to baby sitting to helping with the livestock. If you ever needed another you could often get one free from a neighboring farm, as many farmers had them and produced them occasionally. The Scotch Collie was arguably the most popular farm dog in America in 1910, just read this item from the St. Louis Post Dispatch of 1911.

"Harry B. Hawes proposes, very sensibly, we think, that the Board of Agriculture establish state kennels to breed Scotch collies for free distribution, just as the state distributes game fish, pheasants and Hungarian partridges... To use Mr. Hawes's description: "On the farm the collie almost takes the place of a man. He is the night watchman, the playfellow for the children, the companion of the farmer, and on stock farms can take the place of a boy in handling cattle, sheep and hogs." (1)

The Scotch Collie was so widely considered a must-have around the family farm that they were offered for sale by seed suppliers and stock farms. Burpee sold a lot of collies even by today's standards through their seed and poultry catalog, by avoiding the show ring and focusing on breeding intelligent working dogs they earned a good reputation with farmers and ranchers around the country. (2)

The publication Southern Planter had this to say in July 1903: "The true farmer's dog is a Collie. He is, when properly bred and trained, worth a half dozen 'hands' in handling sheep and stock generally."

The farmer's Scotch Collie dog was so much more than just a herding dog, it was an all around family farm dog whose usefulness derived primarily from five key characteristics.

1. Herding: This ability still exists today in many breeds derived from the old Scotch Collie like the Border Collie and Australian Shepherd.

2. Hunting: Not only allowing the farmer some diversion in the days before radio but also useful in keeping down farm pests like gophers, rats and opossums, not to mention putting food on the table.

3. Guardian: Keeping away stray dogs and unwelcome visitors, this aspect also involves looking after smaller stock. Keeping hawks and foxes away from the chickens, looking after lambs, calves and children.

4. Biddable: Defined as "meekly ready to accept and follow instructions; docile and obedient" this aspect is important to all the others because lots of dogs will hunt for example, but how many are so eager to please that they will stop chasing the rabbit on your command?

5. Almost human intelligence: Now I imagine lots of readers rolling their eyes when they read this but it's true that the old Scotch Collie did in fact possess "super canine" intelligence. The stories you read about these dogs in books like Lassie Come Home or Lad: A Dog, although fiction, are based on real collie behavior. Take for example Bobby of Silverton, Oregon who, when lost in Iowa, traveled 3,000 miles on foot to return home. (3) Or Shep of Fort Benton, Montana who, upon his master's death, waited faithfully for five years at the train depot from which his master's body traveled east. (4)


So what happened to the dog that was as indispensable around the farm as the pitchfork? The Scotch Collie's fate is tied in with that of the small family farm, as family farms withered and died in the mid 20th century there was less need for an all around farm dog. At the same time breeders, by emphasizing looks and breed standards over performance, largely bred the usefulness right out of the Scotch Collie. These AKC registered, "looks" over performance bred dogs became today's Rough Collies. A collie breeder wrote the following in Dogdom Magazine in August 1908.

"Go back to the days of [the old collies from the 1870s and 1880s]. Nearly all the puppies from these dogs proved to be good workers, in fact, I would say not less than 50 percent of the puppies in those days proved to be intelligent and had the working instinct. As time went on we found them less susceptible to training, in trying to follow the fashion of long heads, and breeding to the winners, our puppies grew less intelligent, until at the present time we find that we do well to get one in 10 worth the trouble of training."

By the 1980s the old-time Scotch Collie had almost become extinct without anyone even noticing. They had been taken for granted because they had been so common, once people began noticing that they were disappearing it was almost too late. One person who noticed and did something about it was J. Richard McDuffie. He wrote an article lamenting the loss of the old Scotch Collie in Full Cry Magazine, which elicited hundreds of responses, mostly from people looking for a dog themselves. He had this to say about these dogs.

"The country was full of Old Time Farm Shepherds or Farm Collie dogs when I was a boy. Some called them Shepherds, others Collies, but they were the same dogs. They served as family pet, guard dog, stock dog and hunting dog. After World War II people turned to specialist breeds and just neglected the old farm dogs that excelled at many things. I was always interested in the old farm dogs but like most people took them for granted." (5)

McDuffie eventually located a farm in Tennessee that had maintained a pure strain of these old Scotch Collies, bought the last litter produced by an old bitch and began breeding and selling them. The descendants of the four dogs McDuffie purchased are now all over the country, working on small farms, hunting squirrels, serving as loyal friends and companions and pretty much doing what the Scotch Collies of old were doing 100 years ago.

Other isolated populations of dogs have been located too. For instance in 2009 Jessica Hennings bred a litter of Scotch Collies from her male who came from the deep-woods of British Columbia and a female that was found in a public market in Peru. The resulting pups display the old time looks and temperament that has become so hard to find in modern collies.

It appears that the old Scotch Collie has dodged a bullet, they narrowly escaped extinction and avoided the fate of the St. John's Water Dog which quietly met extinction at about the same time and under similar circumstances. They now have a club of people looking after their well-being and keeping track of pedigrees, the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association. Despite the efforts made, the old Scotch Collie is not out of the woods yet; populations are still dangerously low and the amount of genetic material available for breeding is also a concern. Many of the remaining dogs have been inbred for the past decade or so to keep the breed alive but this puts the breed in danger too as it may result in disease or fertility problems.

My wife and I now have two great Old-Time Scotch Collie dogs to watch our homestead. They kill rats and gophers as good as any cat, herd and protect the sheep and chickens, chase off stray dogs, bark when strangers come up the drive and are loyal, obedient, intelligent companions to our family. In short everything we were looking for and a little bit more. My only hope is that in another hundred years they are still around to help small farmers and rural dwellers as they were in my grandfather's time and thankfully in mine, too.

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Old-Time Scotch Collie vs. Rough Collie What is the difference?

* Less dense, shorter and more manageable coat, very low maintenance

* Shorter, less pointed muzzle

* Broader head

* More pronounced stop

* More of the instincts that made him so popular 100 years ago

(1) The Cornell Veterinarian by New York State Veterinary College, 1911, considering-the-breeding-of-collies/

(2) W.A. Burpee's Farm Annual for 1891, burpees-farm-annual-for-1891/



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Title Annotation:The homestead dog
Author:Ward, Andy
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Apr 22, 2011
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