The Collie

The Collie: Bright and Brainy With a Gentle Demeanor

Collies may be the best known and loved of all dog breeds in this country. People still read the Collie books written in the 1920s and '30s by Albert Payson Terhune, and everyone knows, loves, and glorifies Lassie of book, movie, and TV fame. With her elegant beauty and near-human intelligence, Lassie is undoubtedly the standard by which most people judge Collies.

Ironically, Collies started out as lowly working dogs, cherished only by the farmers who relied on their hardworking canine companions to tend their flocks of sheep. The original Collies were closer to the size and shape of border Collies, not the large, heavy-coated breed we know today, and were predominantly black. Since they were bred for their herding abilities rather than looks, they varied greatly in appearance.

The dogs that worked the rough terrain of Scotland's hill country and endured its cold, blustery winters had to be hardy and independent, able to work far from their masters. They had to be both quick to respond to commands and able to solve problems on their own, for the lives of the sheep often depended on the response and decisions of the dogs. This intelligence, independence, and responsiveness are the characteristics that continue to make them popular generations after most Collies have ceased to work with sheep and shepherds. Queen Victoria saved the Collies from obscurity on the farm. On a visit to Scotland in 1860, she fell in love with their good looks and gentle personalities and began the first Collie fad. Soon the dogs were being shown and were bred for good looks rather than working ability.

Today the Collie comes in four color combinations: sable and white (ranging from pale gold to deep mahogany); tri-color (black with white markings and tan shadings); blue merle (mottled shades of blue, black, and gray with tan shadings); and white (always with some colored markings; solid white dogs are unsound); and two varieties -- Rough-coated (long hair) and Smooth-coated (short hair).

Every feature of the Collie reflects some function necessary to do its job as an all-around farm dog. He's large enough to command sheep with authority and agile enough to head off a runaway. With heavy coats protecting him from the elements and the inevitable burs, the Rough-coated Collie was suited for working sheep in the countryside. Even his trademark ruff had a purpose; if he were grabbed by marauding dogs, all they would get is a mouthful of hair. The Smooth-coated Collie was better suited to driving sheep to market, a job that required constant, steady movement and subjected him to overheating. With the transition to an urban culture, a few sheep farms that remain have become smaller and more mechanized, putting most sheep dogs out of work. The rugged, independent Collie is no longer necessary on these small farms, and so has given up a working career to become a pampered pet.

But what a pet it is! Many of the features that made the Collie so useful in the hills of Scotland also make them ideal pets. With their dense coats, they can handle any weather. Although they do not enjoy hot weather, they can tolerate it; people who shave their dogs in summer to cool them are making a mistake, for the coat insulates against heat as well as cold, and removing it can make the dog quite uncomfortable. A dog required to guard and guide the flock must be both fearless and gentle, traits that carry over into pets of this breed. Collies raised with children are affectionate and gentle with all children. They also tend to be reserved but good-natured with strangers, a trait bred into them by farmers who frequently loaned their dogs to neighbors to work. Few Collies are used in attack training because it is generally not easy to teach them to bite. They can, however, be imposing adversaries with their large size and forceful barks. Most assailants are not foolish enough to test the determination of an angry dog.

Collies are both intelligent and sensitive, which can make them a joy to train. These traits combined with their independence can cause trouble. (Few Collies can be seen competing in obedience trials, for the routines in the ring are repetitive and boring at the lowest level and trainers often lose interest before getting to the advanced classes.) Owners quickly learn that they must give this dog a reason for doing what he is told to do. He will quickly repay a harsh trainer with complete resistance. Excessive repetition bores him, but since he learns quickly, there is little reason to keep drilling him anyway. He thrives on variety and new challenges, so training and review sessions should be short, snappy, and interesting.

There is no perfect breed, and Collies have their faults just as others do. The thick coat is more than many people can handle. If you can't spare about an hour a week for a thorough brushing, or if you can't bear hair on the furniture, then do yourself and your dog a favor and get a short-haired breed.

Since Collies have been so popular for so long, there are many badly bred dogs available, and it is important to avoid them. A well-bred Collie should be relatively calm and quiet, but alert. Some barking is a normal result of the breed's original herding style, but many Collies today are high-strung and noisy, unwilling to stop barking without being firmly reprimanded. Not all Collies are good with children if not exposed to them from a young age, so don't assume any Collie is safe with very young children.

The breed is also subject to a variety of health problems. As with all large breeds, they are particularly susceptible to bloat, and although the incidence of hip dysplasia is low, prospective buyers should seek puppies from parents free of the crippling joint disease. They can be sensitive to certain drugs, including some types of heartworm preventatives, and may react more strongly than other breeds to inadvertent overdosing of insecticides.

Collies have sensitive skin that can lead to persistent skin infections, and some get a condition known as "Collie nose," a peeling rash on the end of the muzzle, when exposed to sunlight. They are also susceptible to dermatomyositis, an inherited inflammatory disease of skin, muscles, and sometimes blood vessels.

By far the most pervasive problem in Collies is a group of genetic deformities lumped together as "Collie eye syndrome." Almost every Collie today carries one bad gene. In most cases there are no symptoms, but vision problems and even blindness can result. Never buy a Collie puppy that has not been tested for these diseases. If a puppy you wish to buy does have one or more of these, discuss the case thoroughly with a veterinary ophthalmologist before buying it. Never breed an affected dog.

The Collie is also subject to other eye diseases that are not part of "Collie eye syndrome." They may not show up until maturity, so buy your puppy from parents that have tested negative for all eye diseases after the age of two years.

[More on Canine Genetic Diseases]

As with many larger breeds, Collies are not particularly long-lived. Ten years is about average, although some hardy ones live longer. The Collie is built to work long and hard, and to stay healthy it needs daily walks and play sessions. The thick coat makes it difficult to detect if the dog is overweight or underweight, so weight should be monitored carefully. Excess weight can put a terrible strain on the joints as the dog ages.

Although most Collies come from lines that have not been required to work for generations, many still show ability and interest in herding when given the chance. The American Kennel Club sanctions herding tests and trials that include all the breeds in the herding group, and Collies compete in these along with Welsh Corgis, German Shepherds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and the other herding breeds that no longer ply their trade in farm fields. Todays Collies do other work. Their gentleness makes them excellent therapy dogs, and the smooth-coated variety has served as couriers in war, companions for the handicapped, and on search and rescue teams. The American Working Collie Association promotes the use of Collies for herding, carting, and a multitude of other uses. Since the sweet-hearted Collie is such a good companion, it makes sense to include him in everything you do whenever you can.

[More on finding a dog]

[More on Albert Payson Terhune]

Joanna Wright

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