by   David Hancock

In 1908, there were over 1,200 Rough Collies and 170 Smooth Collies registered with the KC; one hundred years later, in 2008, the figures were: 1,171 Roughs and 43 Smooths, the latter’s very survival being threatened. Twenty years earlier however, over 8,000 Roughs were registered, indicating the fickleness of the pedigree dog world and indeed the public response to the promotion on film of a breed. The ‘Lassie’ films gave enormous exposure to the Rough Collie and unwanted misguided purchases by many. In 2016, only 668 Rough Collies were newly registered with the KC, against a mere 89 Smooths - the latter now being classed as a 'vulnerable' breed, i.e. at risk of being lost to us. The show ring has changed both breeds, with the exhibition entry looking so different from the herding dogs shown in pastoral scenes by artists such as John Emms over a century ago. Working shepherds have no time for cosmetic 'improvements' or indeed the separation of their herding dogs into two distinct breeds - never to be interbred, an unwanted reduction in the gene pool for the two types of coat texture. The exaggerated types are never seen at work in the pastures. But what do the breed experts say about this change of type in their breed? 

    The pedigree dog world itself has not always been kind to the pastoral breeds, with the Rough Collie being a prime example. William Arkwright, the great working gundog expert, writing in The Kennel Gazette, July, 1888, had this to say: “…’fancies’, locust like, appear to have settled on the Collie, and, unless we can exterminate them, they will most assuredly exterminate the Collie. ‘Fanciers’ have recently determined that a Collie shall have an enormous head, an enormous coat, and enormous limbs, and that by these three ‘points’ shall he stand or fall in the judging ring; so they have commenced to graft on to the breed the jaw of an alligator, the coat of an Angora goat, and the clumsy bone of a St Bernard. A ‘cobby’ dog with short neck, straight thick shoulders, hollow back, and small straight tail, but graced with a very long snout and a very heavy jacket, is already common at our shows, and increases and multiplies…First of all, the Collie is intended for use, for definite work, and, as soon as we find ourselves breeding dogs that cannot gallop, jump, ‘rough it’, aye, and think too, we may be certain that, whatever he may have got hold of, it is not a sheepdog…” Sounds harsh but was he right?

   Those breed historians seeking a long and pure origin for the collies of Scotland would be wise to study the words of William Stephens on such dogs in The Kennel Encyclopaedia of 1907: “In the first Volume of the Stud Book, 78 ‘Sheep Dogs and Scotch Collies’ were registered up to the year 1874…Only 18 had pedigrees, and only three of these extended beyond sire and dam. There is no doubt that, some years ago, the Gordon Setter cross was introduced, the consequence of which was the production of black dogs with bright mahogany-tan markings, thin in coat, and possessing a Setter’s ‘Flag’, instead of pale tan markings, dense coat and thick brush.” Stephens went on to point out: “The great fault now met with is unduly exaggerated (Borzoi type of) head which is always accompanied by a stupid and vacant expression – quite unlike the intelligent expression of the true collie.” He would not have admired some of the Collie heads appearing in today’s show rings.

 And, more recently, in her The Popular Collie of 1960, Margaret Osborne wrote:
“Unfortunately, far more recently than this date (i.e. the end of the nineteenth century, DH), infusions of different blood were introduced into the Collie, usually to satisfy a whim for a special point: the cross with the Gordon Setter was made to enrich the tan; with the Irish Setter in a misplaced attempt to enrich the sable; with the Borzoi to increase the length of head. As a result of the Irish Setter cross the words ‘setter red most objectionable’ came to be included in the earlier standards of the breed, and even today we all too often see the horrible results of the Borzoi cross in the receding-skulled, roman-nosed horrors which masquerade under the name of Collie.” It seems that Collie breeders would clandestinely outcross to achieve a change in a previous century, but forbid an outcross to remedy its after-effects in a succeeding century; an outcross to a different shorter-muzzled, broader-headed breed could so easily breed away from such an unwanted feature. 
Critics of the Collie’s head and show-ring alterations have long been at work. In his The Dog of 1933, James Dickie gave the view: ‘About sixty years ago the collie became a fashionable pet, and thereafter two new strains developed, the rough and the smooth show collies. It was then laid down that the head should be long, narrow and sharp, but not domed; since then dogs have been bred entirely without a stop and with extraordinarily narrow heads. The brain-pan, in fact, has been bred out of them, with the natural result that, compared with his working ancestor, the show collie is little better than a congenital idiot. The popularity of show collies is on the wane. The smooth variety was never common, and the rough variety, having been ‘perfected’ and become a fool in the process, is rapidly being superseded by dogs of less size and more brains.’ His prediction about popularity was, 30 years later, somewhat wide of the mark, but the severity of his words, with a forthrightness unlikely to be matched in dog books of today, do illustrate the depth of feeling over the changes in this breed brought about by show ring fanciers. And rightly so!    

The above quotes reveal one consistent element – the reshaping of the Scottish Collies, rough and smooth, was made for cosmetic not functional reasons. Now that breed health, breed purity and instructions to show-ring judges are all receiving much merited attention, there is one extremely important aspect of pedigree dog breeding and showing that deserves attention. It would be sad if we lost breeds to the perpetual pursuit of prettiness backed by prolonged inbreeding, more than regrettable if we lost breeds to rogue genes and monstrous if judges rewarded exhibits displaying harmful exaggerations. But sad, regrettable and monstrous too if our precious breeds are bred to the wrong template; the show ring has changed a number of breeds, not for the better; fashion, fad and pressure from influential kennels can impose a changed type on a breed. Gradual changes, viewed initially as slight exaggerations, develop into bigger ones, reactions to docking in breeds not previously docked and ‘the fashion of the day’ can all contribute to the classic fundamental type in a distinctive breed being reshaped. This reshaping can be whimsical in origin, untraditional in effect, even harmful in its manifestation, but as time passes, can become acceptable. Damage by design causes as much discomfort and distress to dogs as many health problems.

The shape of a breed, its physical form or morphology, should result from its functional design, be protected by its Breed Standard, guarded by its breed clubs and treasured across the generations of breed devotees as its unique identity. But all too often breed points become breed exaggerations as close breeding overplays its hand. In this way, long ears become ground-draggers, short legs become castors, long spines become centipedal, long coats become overcoats, slack eyelids become dustpans and short muzzles become dental and respiratory handicaps. It is easy to argue that the Kennel Club should be overseeing breed-continuation or protecting the morphological integrity of a breed, if only on health grounds. But the first stop is surely the breed clubs; the KC should look over their shoulders and may have failed to do so. But that shouldn’t let breed clubs off the hook. Who allowed the Collie-Borzoi cross?  

In an editorial in the June 1890 issue of The Kennel Gazette the writer stated: ”…turn to sheepdogs: how many collies of the present day, who have won prizes, could clear a high hurdle or scamper over the backs of a flock of sheep to turn it?…the sheepdog is now a companion and not trained for work, many, we are afraid, would hardly be good for a long gallop, or could do more than run a mile or so behind a slow carriage.” In the June 1891 edition of The Kennel Gazette, the Standard and Scale of Points for the breed as drawn up by DJ Thomson Gray, President of the Scottish Collie Club and acknowledged expert on Scottish dogs, was published as being adopted. Under General Appearance, the following words were used: “A lithe, active dog, with no useless timber about him, his deep chest showing strength, his sloping shoulders and well-bent hocks speed, and his ‘bawaint’ face high intelligence. As a whole, he should present an elegant and pleasing outline, quite distinct from any of our other domesticated breeds, and show great strength and activity.” Heavy-feathered legs were considered as a fault. In the KC official breed standard extant in 2012, the breed’s General Appearance had to be: “Appears as a dog of great beauty, standing with impassive dignity, with no part out of proportion to whole.”  The strictures on leg coatings included ‘front legs well feathered, hind limbs above hocks profusely feathered.’ Of these two word pictures for the breed, which is more the likely to perpetuate a working dog with a manageable coat?

   When the Rough Collie was judged to a scale of points, easily the highest number (20 out of 100) was awarded for the coat. This appals me; how can the coat, especially in a working breed, possibly be the dog's most important feature? But it shows how the early exhibitors rated coat above all else. Is it at all surprising therefore that the Collie is susceptible to all the dermatoses that affect the modern dog? The excessively heavy coats of the Rough Collie and the Shetland Sheepdog were not there when these breeds first emerged and cannot be good for either breed. . The Rough Collie is required to have a coat that fits the outline of its body and is very abundant in the frill and mane, with profuse feathering above the hocks and a very profuse tail. I suspect that within my lifetime the Rough Collie's coat has doubled in length, which to me spoils the appearance of a distinctly handsome breed. The coat no longer fits the outline of the body, it drowns it. No dog could work with such a coat in the pastures. No shepherd would wish to own a dog with such a coat. For me this is a beautiful breed being slowly but surely ruined by its sheer weight of coat. No longer does the coat fit the outline of the body, as demanded by the breed blueprint; the physical beauty of this breed is in peril.

  A correspondent called ‘Nestor’ writing The Annual Retrospect: The Breeds in 1892, Collies, published in The Kennel Gazette of January, 1893, gave the view that:

“There has been, in 1892, more than in any previous year, a strong predilection on the part of the more modern judges to award prizes to dogs possessing the longest heads, narrowest skulls, smallest ears, and longest coats, legs, feet, shoulders, chest, and, in fact make and shape generally being either ignored or looked upon as merely of secondary importance…density of coat, and not length, should be aimed at, for to a working dog in snow and slush a long coat is a terrible nuisance, as any practical Collie breeder well knows. True, to a show dog who is deficient in bodily properties, shelly in make, bad in shoulders, and with no quarters, a long coat is invaluable, like charity, covering a multitude of sins.”  The show dogs may have been 'deficient in bodily properties' but the working collies of Scotland were greatly valued by the deer hunters, as authors have testified.

In his book The Scottish Deerhound of 1892, Weston Bell summarised a report from the various deer-stalking estates of that time which covered the use of dogs on them. The extracts he prints are illuminating: "Achanault Deer Forest - No deerhound ever used, Auchnashellach, collie breed - good-nosed tracker. Balmoral Deer Forest - Very seldom do we use the staghounds - only keep them for breeding with the collie. Inverwick Forest - Very few gentlemen use deerhounds now-a-days in the forest--only the half-bred dogs, between the collie and retriever. Fairley Deer Forest - One collie in use now. One formerly. Deerhounds are not used in any deer forest that I know of in the north of Scotland. The best dog I ever saw for tracking a wounded stag was a cross between a retriever and a pure collie. Collie dogs, when trained young, turn out excellent trackers. Inchgrundle - Collie dogs have been chiefly used here for deer-stalking during the last twenty years. We generally find the collie more useful than the staghound." This is a series of statements of admiration for the working collies of Scotland from men who work dogs

The widespread use of the collie and the tributes paid to its prowess is astonishing and many other estates stressed their value and sporting skills: "Braemore Deer Forest - I consider a good collie as far superior to any other kind of dog for a wounded deer. Aviemore Deer Forest - Three collies are at present in use...Properly-trained sheep dogs are the best. Mamore Forest - For tracking deer I think no dog so good as a good collie. Conaglen - We use sheepdogs here--they are more obedient and have more sense than the others. Rothiemurchus Deer Forest - Good tracking collies are the best for deerstalking. Glenartney - Good collies are the best I ever saw." Twenty other estates used collies for deerstalking. Two artistic depictions of deer-stalking show the Collie in the hunting party: James Hardy’s Deerhounds with a Ghillie in a Highland Landscape of 1872, and A Stalking Party by Byron Webb of 1860. Both show how valued the Collie was in such an activity. But such dogs did not feature narrow, elongated, 'stop'-less muzzles - their skulls had room for brains. Perhaps those who introduced the Borzoi cross didn't have enough room for brains in their skulls!