Collies

The Collie Today

The collie of today is not a victim of fashion and modern whims as readily as many other breeds. The rough Collie and the Smooth collie do not represent radical and rapid changes that are dictated by the show ring. The differences between Collies of half a century ago and now as seen in photographs reflect more changing fashions in grooming than vast physical changes.

The biggest evolution occurred between the 1880’s and the 1920’s and there are dogs from the latter era that would be show-able today. Collies are of the same physical type as many of the basic prototype dogs including the feral dogs in various parts of the earth. They are light for their height, have more muscle for their frame than most modern breeds and so do not often, very much like the sight hounds, suffer from hip displaysia as many other breeds of the same size do.

Long lean heads are common in feral dogs and the sight hounds as well as Coyotes and various wolves. Breeders have cleaned these heads out, but the longness and leanness are not canine abborations. Longer harsh coats also exist in primeval and wild dogs.

Collies never have suffered from the show ring demands for extremes. It is not a breed that can be shown at its peak all year around so at least the rough variety cannot be used to attain top dog in the herding group or top dog all breeds so has escaped the attention of those using a breed to further their own aspirations of glory.

The Collie figured in this game only for a short time during the dawn of the breed with wealthy self-made scions of industry in the Americas spending vast amounts to buy top dogs from the old world but with the crash of the stock market and the slow realization that money cannot replace talent in the creation of great dogs, that experiment ended and the breed returned to its democratic roots and back into the hands of true fanciers.

Those who wish to support dog shows for whatever reason by sponsoring or owning a top dog, would never choose a Collie. They are out of coat for half of the year.   If you want to be the the owner of a top dog in the herding group-don’t select a Collie. You have a short time to make an impact.  This way, for the last century or so the Collie has not been as subject to the demands of the show ring as so many other breeds. Only those who love the breed work with it.

Collies are bright talented dogs. Again, they have been left pretty much as they began. Since Collies are independent, they can and do work in obedience but are not the first choice of those wishing to use a dog to easily further personal dreams of top success in that field.  Most Collies do not take to the constant mindless repetitions and behaviour conditioning needed to get 200 scores in today’s competition. Some people, working WITH the dogs have certainly achieved great success and can compete with anyone, but the average trainer wants the fastest easiest results so smart dogs that expect to be a partner not a tool are not usually the first choice. Thus, only those who appreciate the breed stick with them and the breed character has remained intact.

This means also, that after over 100 years of never doing this work, it is possible to take Collies, rough and smooth, and put them on sheep and have them perform farm chores as if they were born of parents who have done this all their lives. It is amazing to watch all those generations peel away and a collie realize its destiny in a few minutes of instinct testing. It is humbling to have as a partner, a show champion, who makes it possible to keep sheep on a small holding just as was done two centuries ago.

Of course, this is a breed that will not likely be adopted by those wanting top arena scores or quick titles or for resale started dogs. Collies still have the old style farm dog manner and tend to work independently with various kinds of stock and to fulfill a generalist role on the farm. They have never been modified to compete in current trialing systems.  Modern training methods and competitions lend themselves to other breeds which have selected for attaining top scores in the modern world of competitive herding leaving the true fancier to work with the real working dog of the ancient agricultural experience.

That is not to say that Collies cannot compete today, they can and do, but as in obedience, they will not be intimidated, conditioned or bullied into anything. They need to be accepted as a partner and the handler/owner needs to be at least as intelligent as the dog, which is sometimes a challenge.

Much as not changed over the years. For instance, the great coats one sees in the rough Collie ring are much the same as the great coats in families of collies half a century ago. The art of making them look their best has progressed but the average owner can easily maintain a proper harsh coat with a pin brush and a few minutes a week. It sheds water and snow. The dog remains a working farm dog descendant that is adaptable to life with urban people, is medium large, sheds heavily once a year (both coats) and is a living artifact of rural life, a number of generations in human time, ago.

When Buying A Collie
Look For

  1. A breeder should be interested in all aspects of the breed, and may only show but has puppies used by their people in a variety of ways. Pet puppies and performance dogs should be as much a source of pride as are the show dogs.
  2. Someone who is interested and knowledgeable about all breed issues that the prospective fancier has researched. Never ever accept any Collie that has not had its eyes read. Ask for certification. You may not need a CERF number, but the dog must be read by a certified individual.
  3. Be aware of all the health issues, read, ask questions, do your homework, do not be in a hurry. A month or two of delay in the life of your relationship with your dog is but a blink in time and it could save a lifetime of heartache.
  4. Do not buy a puppy and count on a money-back guarantee unless you know what that means. Some agreements mean that you have to give the dog back to get the refund. People who love their Collie will not give a sick animal back to the breeder for a cash refund. Some producers of puppies count on that.
  5. Always remember that a problem can turn up in a family of dogs unexpectedly and it is not a sign of dishonesty or carelessness on the part of the breeder and the breeder will feel obligated to clean the problem up and support the animal’s family if they are sincere.  We can’t always chart the future of our human families either. Anyone with any experience in animal breeding knows that it is not a question of IF a problem comes up, many will, one is dealing with genes and varying environments and the interactions of these things as well as spontaneous mutations and no amount of testing or pedigree study can cover every eventuality. It is then, not IF a problem comes up but WHEN it does and the most important indicator of a breeder’s worth is what will they do then.  A puppy buyer needs honesty and support, and the breeder needs to address the situation in the dog family. Blaming others, writing off the puppy owner and the puppy, quitting after producing the issue, or denying the problem are not options. Be very sure of the character and the sincerity of the breeder
  6. Be aware that the experience of the breeder in all aspects of dogs will assist the fancier cope with training and other aspects of dog ownership. Enthusiastic new breeders may be excellent choices, but the life-span of most breeders is about 5 years in the sport, many years short of the dog’s expected life-span. Be sure of the person you deal with.
  7. Research, research, wait, shop around, wait, research, ask others, visit dog shows, dog sporting events, visit the vets, research, ask for references and good luck!

Health Issues

Even a quick study of pedigrees of a few generations will lead to a realization that the amount of genetic material that makes up a living creature is immense. In the Collie breed, records have been kept, in many cases, right back to the middle 1800’s and a current Collie can contain an unlimited possible selection of genes. There are possible lethal genes that may have never seen the light of day from ancestors who are not even recorded. Added to this are the spontaneous mutations that can happen from the interaction of living things with their environments.

That is the magic and the curse of life on Earth. Changes in genetics have made for adaptation that have allowed living things to exist in changing environments. Many of the options in genetic possibilities are negative, but some permit an organism to gain a new toe hold and do better and so are assets. From one celled organisms to the glorious diversity of life on the planet, genetic mutations have aided survival.

When one breeds domestic animals, those mutations still operate. The environments of the animals also change and some things that may not have been an issue once do become a problem . With domestic animals, as well, it is important to humans that all of the offspring of a selected breeding do well. Domestic dogs are expected to have litters where all of the puppies survive, all are perfect and all live long lives filling the need that they were produced for.

The difference between wild and domestic populations is that in the wild an animal has be to both very healthy, very lucky and only has to live long enough to reproduce. An unproductive old age is not necessarily needed or desirable. The vast majority of animals are selected out and only a few carry on. In wild populations, this selection is rigorous and unforgiving and even then, luck plays a great part in an animal’s success. In domestic dogs, a long life is the ideal. In domestic dogs many individuals in a litter are expected to reproduce in some cases. The mechanism that kept animals in the wild ticking over for millions of years, is reversed in domestic ones.

Line and in breeding in the wild cannot be avoided. It is beyond reason to think that wolves gather around a fire of an evening, pull out their pedigrees and plan where they will find unrelated mates. It would be mind-boggling to think that these wolves would not be mated to relatives over the long term. Certainly, in villages and human communities before mass transit and mass literacy allowed more mingling and record would have had a chance in the wild. No wolf with a problem would make it. Excellent genes, however, would be compounded and bad ones selected out. In the wild, lots of individuals fall by the wayside but the species tends to survive. Breeders of domestic animals must be as stringent with their selection processes if good quality is to be maintained and only the best used to carry on.

Collie Health

The Collie Club of America lists Collie eye problems, Bloat, Epilepsy, the Grey Collie and Drug Sensitivity (MDRI) as health issues for the breed. Along with these, heart issues, skin allergies, thyroid problems, “Collie Nose” and sometimes Hip Displaysia are seen.

Collie Eye

Both Collie Eye Anomaly and Progressive Retinal Atrophy are recessive diseases. The problem is not seen in carrier parents but pop up when two parents carry the gene and some of the puppies are affected.

CEA

For a complete discussion of this, please go the the Collie Club of America site. The short story is a dog is either “normal” or “affected”. An affected dog can have normal sight or end up losing its sight. The puppies can be read as early at 5 weeks and ALL COLLIES MUST BE READ by a qualified Canine Ophthalmologist. NEVER buy a puppy with unread eyes. A puppy with a mild reading will be fine for any purpose and its grade is stable. CEA became established in the breed because it is a recessive, many or most dogs in lots of families have mild readings so would not present with a problem and it wasn’t until a critical mass developed and diagnostic systems were established that it was recognized and could be addressed. At present, a new genetic test can be done so the problem will likely be eliminated in the future. This is specifically a Collie issue although some related breeds have a low incidence of it.

PRA

This is another recessive disease and it is progressive and is unrelated to CEA.  Dogs that have PRA will likely go blind in their lifetimes. In Collies, PRA is detectable early in life, and great strides in eliminating this devastating problem have been made through test breeding. DNA testing should be available soon as well. PRA appears in other breeds as well. Again, all dogs MUST BE EYE CHECKED!

Drug Sensitivity

Abnormality in the MDR1 gene causes causes dogs to react to certain drugs used in treating them. This abnormality probably existed as it wasn’t selected against because the range of medications used in modern times didn’t exist a generation or two ago. A DNA test will determine the Collie’s status. Breeders are selecting dogs who read normal when they can and in time the breed will largely be clear. Individual dogs can be tested to aid in deciding medication options during its lifetime. The cost is reasonable and the test can be done by the owner. It occurs in other breeds as well as the Collie .

Bloat

This is a devastating issue that kills the dog that has it if not promptly treated and is not just specifically in the Collie. It occurs in large deep bodied breeds. Some families appear to have it more than others, and the causes and prevention are problems that are as yet unanswered. The kind of dog food feed and how often the dog is fed, exercise too soon after feeding, too much water after letting the dog go dry, age, lack of exercise, feeding frequency are all stated as possible predictors. Some first aid techniques can be used but the dog with bloat must get to the vet right away or it will die. Some dogs will also not only bloat but the stomach twists on itself (torsion) and if the dog survives surgery it can have its stomach tacked so that it won’t flip again. This, however, doesn’t not prevent a future bloat. Please refer to additional sources.

Epilepsy

This occurs in many breeds. Early onset epilepsy before 5 years may have a genetic origin and/or may be initiated by environmental issues such as inoculations, toxins, injury, hormonal changes or disease. If a dog starts to seizure a complete exam with blood work should be done. Some dogs have infrequent mild seizures but others can have frequent or life-threatening episodes. Some dogs respond well to available drugs but the underlying causes must be addressed if known. Good veterinary care is necessary. After about 5 years, the causes are likely to be environmental but again, good medical support is required. Please refer to additional sources.

Grey Collie Syndrome

This is a largely Collie issue and is not referring to the blue merle colour. It is carried as a recessive and shows up in some families. It is a blood supply disease and is very obvious. A normal appearing puppy in a litter with a “grey” puppy can carry the defective gene but will be normal itself.

Hip Displaysia

Here is structure problem that affects most medium to large breeds. For some reason the head of the femur doesn’t fit into the socket properly, perhaps the muscles don’t hold the head in well enough so the socket doesn’t form properly around it, and it appears that it is a multi-factored problem that is not addressed solely by using X-rayed normal stock.

Collies usually don’t have it although some do. The breed is lighter for its height and is well-muscled and usually they are slow growing. Do not feed your puppy excessively-fat puppies are cute but it may lead to problems, and do make certain the food is not too rich. Do not exercise a lot until the dog is mature. A year of moderation may well result in a lifetime of problem-free living.

Thyroid Issues

These are present in dogs in general-people too-can run in families and is easy to test for and the medication is inexpensive. The problem is the causes are difficult to pin down and the symptoms are varied. Environmental insults may play a big role in disease in the face of thyroid issues.  Ask any prospective breeder about thyroid and do not buy a puppy from parents who are being treated for this problem.

Skin issues in Collies may or may not be related to Thyroid. Work is being done on the genetic causes of devastating skin problems that plague some Collies.

Heart Abnormalities

These are problems that affect many breeds. Often they are genetic or appear to be. Many breeders in all breeds are now checking all of their puppies. There is good availability of Heart Clinics with Canine Cardiologists who can test adults or puppies. Dogs with heart problems should not be bred. Ask your breeder if the parents are tested.

Now What? Get a Goldfish?

Any breeder with experience, honesty and knowledge knows that it is not IF they encounter a problem but WHEN. You must insist on an honest discussion, a mutually satisfactory guarantee of the support you expect should you run into a problem. The puppy must be supported with good care, and you must make yourself aware of issues such as feeding, immunization and general care. Keeping abreast of issues for your dog via the internet is easy and is as vital as it would be in any other area such as your in own health or interests. Well-bred dogs, from carefully selected parents should provide their family with a lifetime of good health and become a valued member of the family.

History of the Collie

The Collie is the dog that accompanied the Scottish farmers throughout the history of these peoples before Culloden and the Jacobite Rebellion.  It is not a dog that slept under the banquet halls of the aristocracy or lived in kennels to hunt at the pleasure of royalty. This was an all purpose dog that helped on the farm, probably assisted in hunting, made the keeping of small herds of cattle and native sheep easier and served as watch dog.  Few records would have been kept and various districts probably had their own bloodlines or variations on the basic type.  All across the Old World people devised and developed dogs to suit their agricultural purposes and the Collie was one of them.

Beginning in the early 1700’s large numbers of Scots began to emigrate to North America.  By the time the battle of Culloden had happened, the landowners had begun to fill Scotland with breeds of sheep that would fill the mills with wool and the mouths of the burgeoning populations needed in English cities to do the work of the new industrial age with mutton.  The landowners also began to exploit the natural resources of the Scottish lands.  The farmers on these lands proved to be inconveniences and disposable. By the middle of the 1700’s landowners began to brutally “clear” the farmers from their crofts and require them to move to the coast to fish or harvest from the sea if they could.  This was  known as “The Clearances”.

Great deprivations were suffered, there were famines, and further, increasingly more massive, emigrations.  Many thousands of people died.  It must be noted that Lord Selkirk, well-known in Canadian history, populated his “model communities” in Atlantic Canada and later in Manitoba, with Scots who he seemed to treat in his mind much the way he selected certain livestock to set up his planned settlements.  His attitude is quite striking and chilling in his lack of consideration for the needs and concerns of these immigrants.  When his papers are read it is apparent that he thought of them as so many units at his disposal.  Of course if a project failed he could replace them with any number of new recruits who had no other options.  The Scottish people suffered this kind of treatment throughout this period.

The Clearances lasted in waves until the middle of the 1800’s and the population of the Scots on their historic lands fell taking with them the language and traditions of the people.  There are vastly more people of Scottish ancestry surviving outside of Scotland than there are in the land of their origins.  The dog then, the Collie, suffered along with its people.  The lifestyle and culture were under siege and like the other breeds of livestock and the people themselves, they faced extinction.  Then came the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Victorian age signaled a change in attitude.  In the late 1800’s some “crofters” were given the right to move back on the land.  Things Scottish became romanticized.  Prints of the time show shepherds in kilts herding sheep, unfortunately with border collies at their side sometimes instead of the traditional dog, but a tide had turned.  Scottish life, traditions and the dogs they used as well as the livestock they developed became chic.  The Collie became a symbol of this renaissance  and was added to the pack of dogs surrounding the royal English household of Queen Victoria and thus was picked up by wealthy American financiers and robber barons, who seemed to hope that some royal magic would rub off and give them cultural legitimacy and style.

In North America, after the economic Crash of 1929 ended the excesses of dog buying,  the collie became a fixture on farms, doing many of the same chores its fore bearers had.  Breeders regularly sold “pet” puppies to local farmers and many people can remember the Collie their family or grandparents had.  In many cases, a farm dog may have been the brother or sister of a dog that made history in the pedigrees of the modern Collie.  One non-show kennel was instrumental in the establishment of the breed on this continent and their dogs were used as stock dogs at a major American stockyard.  These dogs were of wonderful type.  Gone was the connection to the British royal family and the Collie moved on as a general farm dog as it had been originally.

Another spike in popularity occurred when Eric Knight’s novel, Lassie Come Home, was turned into a movie and then into a weekly television show.  The magic of the breed, known by so many already, was romanticized and everyone wanted a Collie.  Luckily the breed survived and slipped back into its role of a general practitioner  with the cleverness and independence to serve as a chore dog on farms, and an animal who is able and willing to partner its group of humans in any venture they may choose to do in either rural or urban surroundings.

The question is, what is this dog, the Collie?  It is not a ‘failed border collie”, bred from crosses with the Russian wolfhounds that Queen Victoria also had.  It was not a breed used to manage the immense commercial herds of sheep that displaced the Scottish people during the Clearances.  That “honour” belongs to the border collie and the shepherds brought into manage those foreign herds.

It appears to be composed of the remnants of the all purpose farm dogs used by the Scots on their small holdings.  These dogs would be related to the Welsh and Irish Collies that exist in small numbers today.  Canine survivors of the mass purges of the Clearances would have been bred to other farm and herding dogs, including border collies, and later hunting dogs on estates. By the middle of the 1800’s there are glimpses of the breed reappearing in much its present form and with its farm dog instincts still intact.  Of course, the foundation dogs do include members of some dogs used to fill in the blanks, some of them clearly border collies or other dogs who proved useful, but even in reconstructing an archaeological artifact of the physical kind, some of the gaps have to be filled in with materials other than the original.

By the early 1900’s there were Collies that could look at home in modern dogs shows.  They might not have finished, but with modern grooming, feeding and health practices these dogs would no doubt  approach, even more closely, current type than they already appear to do in the old photos.  By the 1920’s some wonderful dogs of fully modern type were in the mainstream.  That the breed so rapidly attained current type and has maintained it easily for so long, would suggest that it is well established and was not created in a couple of generations at the end of the 1800’s.

DNA testing will eventually be able to trace much of what went on and help us to understand better what happened.  One thing is certain though, the Collie is a unique breed, related to others in its purpose and sometimes by blood in the interbreedings that rural folks used  in order to get what they wanted in their animals. This breed also speaks to the spirit of a people, the perseverance of a way of life and is a celebration of the survival of tradition.

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