The Collie shares the same heritage as the rest of the sheepdogs of the British Isles. It traces back to the herding mastiffs of the invading Roman armies under Julius Caesar, perhaps with a touch of Viking spitz added later on.
For centuries, the Collie, or Scotch Collie, more or less resembled the modern Border Collie. These all-purpose farm dogs came in different varieties suited to different purposes. Shaggy-coated Collies, well insulated from the inhospitable climate, were ideally suited to tending the flocks on the hills of Scotland. Smooth Collies also existed, even in those days. However, they were more likely to be found driving sheep and cattle to market.
The split between the Scotch Collie and the Border Collie began as early as the Industrial Revolution. Farmers expanded their sheep flocks considerably to supply mutton and wool to the hungry cities, putting more effort into breeding specialized, highly efficient sheepdogs. At the same time, keeping pedigreed dogs became fashionable among the upper classes. The divide between show and working bloodlines began.
Still, the two collies were essentially the same breed until Queen Victoria visited Scotland around 1860. On her trip, she fell in love with the humble Scotch Collie. The royal patronage created a boom in the breed’s popularity. However, while the working sheepdog was bred for speed, savvy, and responsiveness, the Collie of the aristocracy was bred almost exclusively for looks. Selective breeding proliferated taller, fluffier dogs, while a cross with a Borzoi introduced a long, slender, refined head. A particularly successful dog, Old Cockie, was born in 1867. His good looks and sable coat, relatively uncommon at the time, became the goal of every breeder. In just a few short years, there was no mistaking the show Collie for the working Border Collie.
The first Collie shown in the United States appeared at the second-ever Westminster Kennel Club show in 1877. The following year, two Collies appeared at Westminster, both from Queen Victoria’s royal kennel. Royal patronage again did its work of popularizing the breed, this time among the American upper classes. On Long Island and all along the Hudson, nearly every prestigious estate could boast of a kennel of fine Collies, as the wealthy imported them for whatever price was asked. Even J.P. Morgan was an early promoter of the breed in the United States.
The importations continued until about 1920, when Americans became great breeders of show Collies in their own right. Many famous kennels were established in the 1920s and 1930s, while the breed became even larger and more refined in American hands. One of the great breeders of this era was Albert Payson Terhune, who not only bred dogs that are still found in pedigrees today, but also made the intelligence and nobility of the Collie famous through his numerous books and stories.
But the Collie still had not reached the very pinnacle of its fame. Lassie first appeared on the silver screen in 1943, launching the Collie to the dizziest heights worldwide. For the next 30 years or so, Lassie regularly appeared in movies, television shows, radio broadcasts, and children’s books. Every child wanted his or her own Lassie. Now the Collie was not just the dog of the rich, but the dog of the American family.
Not surprisingly, the situation was ripe for unprincipled breeders. Puppy mills obligingly stocked pet stores with Collie puppies, giving no consideration to the health or temperament of their animals.
Fortunately, the Collie, while still a favorite, has experienced more moderate popularity in recent years. Currently, the breed ranks 37th in AKC registration statistics. Interestingly, these numbers include the smooth-coated variety of Collie, which breeders report is becoming more common in some areas. Smooth Collies have existed since the earliest history of the breed, but all modern Smooth Collie bloodlines trace back to a tricolored dog named Trefoil, born in 1973.
A new development in the Collie breed is a renewed interest in getting back to the dog’s herding roots. Despite over 150 years of breeding almost exclusively for conformation, breeders and trainers have discovered that the herding instinct still lies dormant in some dogs, particularly in the smooth variety.
The gentle Collie is first and foremost the finest of pets and therapy dogs. Not driven by working instincts to the same degree as other herding breeds, this dog loves nothing better than to be the companion and protector of humankind. For this reason, he also makes a worthy assistance dog for the disabled.
Collies bred for work are more suited to small acreages than to big ranches. They make good watchdogs, but they can also herd small flocks of sheep or poultry, making them an excellent choice for hobby farms. They can also make a good showing in competitive herding.
Does Lassie sound like an exaggerated ideal? Guess again. The Collie is the epitome of a family dog—gentle, loving, and docile. He can be quite content accompanying adults in their daily activities, but he is at his best in the company of children. His sweet demeanor makes him the most trustworthy of canine companions, his active nature makes him an enjoyable playmate, and his protective instincts make him a dependable guardian. In short, once his puppy instinct to herd by nipping is trained out of him, the Collie is the ideal children’s dog. While his loyalty prevents him from attaching himself readily to adult strangers, he will generally take quickly to the younger set on the first meeting. One thing he cannot do, however, is adapt himself to being left home alone for extended periods of time.
The legendary intelligence of the Collie is not a myth, either. Many a Collie, even in these modern days, has proven his ability to detect something amiss in a situation and respond by protecting those he loves. Also, his ability to think like a human and to anticipate his master’s desires without a word spoken is considered uncanny by owners.
The Collie loves nothing better than to please. This, combined with his instinct to keep his living quarters tidy, makes him exceptionally easy to housebreak. More advanced training can be tackled with ease, as well, if due regard is paid to his sensitivity. The Collie will break down under harsh treatment, even if “harsh” is merely a loud tone of voice. A more dominant dog will still back down under a mild verbal reprimand. Also, don’t bore the smart Collie with needless repetition. He thrives on challenges, not drills.
There are differences in temperament between the Rough Collie and the Smooth Collie. The Rough Collie is more dignified and reserved, often preferring to watch rather than to take part in new situations. The Smooth Collie may respond to the novel with more fear at first, but after warming up is more likely to become an active participant.
Smooth Collies are more likely to display herding instinct than Rough Collies, but there are examples of Rough Collies becoming effective herding dogs on small flocks. Training can be a challenge, however, since even a Collie with herding instinct will tend to rely heavily on the handler for direction and encouragement. Starting a Collie on docile, dog-broken sheep is of paramount importance, as he will probably back down if confronted by a stubborn animal. Once used to being in control of the situation, he tends to work close to the flock, using his physical presence to keep the animals together instead of staring them into submission like a Border Collie. For extra emphasis, a Collie may also bark and nip.
Choose a Collie from a reputable breeder—poor-quality puppies are still bred on a regular basis. These dogs tend to be compulsive barkers and are rather high-strung. If frightened, they may bite, which makes them very unreliable around children.
While Collies do not suffer from a particularly large number of health problems, many of the health problems they are prone to are serious and widely distributed throughout the breed. The most common are:
- Multi-drug resistance, which can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medication.
- Collie nose, which is fading and ulcerating of the nose caused by the autoimmune disease lupus; not to be confused with sunburn due to lack of pigment.
- Nodular granulomatous episclerokeratitis, an autoimmune disease that causes cells in the eye to proliferate and that can damage the cornea; usually seen in Collies with Collie nose.
- Collie eye anomaly, a genetic defect that prevents the eye from developing properly.
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that causes skin lesions and sometimes muscle swelling.
- Gray Collie syndrome, a fatal genetic defect that affects bone marrow, resulting in cyclic drops in blood cell numbers; affected puppies are born light gray (not to be confused with blue merle) with light-colored noses.
Fortunately, some Collie problems are easy to avoid. Sunburn is common in Collies, particularly on their noses. Most dogs will benefit from a canine version of sunscreen when outdoors. Also, do not shave Rough Collies in summer. This leaves them prone to sunburn and insect bites on their bodies. To help them beat the heat, keep them inside with the air conditioner.
Like many large dogs, Collies are prone to bloat. Keep their digestive systems comfortable by feeding them two or three smaller meals a day instead of one large meal. Avoiding activity and excitement within an hour of meals helps, as well.
Finally, do not breed two merle dogs together. The resulting puppies may be born white, blind, and deaf.
- Suitability for families with children.
- Tidy habits.
- Minimal grooming needs (Smooth Collie).
- Cold tolerance (particularly Rough Collie).
- Prevalence of irresponsible breeders.
- Need for constant human companionship.
- Heavy shedding (both varieties).
- Extensive grooming needs (Rough Collie).
- Poor heat tolerance (Rough Collie).
- Serious immune problems.