This week’s blog post is about collies! I’m taking a break from writing about Kira (who is doing wonderfully) to write about the collie breed more generally. All of my collies have been rescue dogs and they have come from many different backgrounds and had their own unique personalities, but there are some qualities that are foundational to the breed and that you will find to be true of almost any collie. I’ve noticed that as Kira comes out of her shell, she becomes more “collie like” every day. She now has the happy, bright glint in her eye that is typical of the breed. She moves with a smooth grace, her tail swishing gently back and forth. She is curious and engaged, affectionate and devoted, and when she looks into my eyes it is with a deeply thoughtful gaze. Because these are all very collie-ish traits, I wanted to talk a little bit about the breed generally.
The AKC describes the collie as graceful, devoted, proud, and highly intelligent. A collie gives the immediate impression of being a powerful, but graceful dog. They are animated and expressive, with bright, deeply intelligent eyes. Collies often have a mischievous sparkle in their eyes. When they are happy, they are contagiously happy and it is hard to look at a happy collie and not smile. When they are sad, their deep, dark eyes break your heart. The eyes are a window to the soul. Once you live with a collie you will never, ever wonder again about whether dogs have a soul.
I have owned many breeds. I love the huge heart and utter fearlessness of terriers. I love the sweet loyalty and faithfulness of labs. And I love the soulfulness of collies. They have been called “the thinking man’s dog.” They are highly intelligent and uncannily in tune with what their people are thinking and feeling. Collies are easily trained and can learn just about anything, but they are independent thinkers and insist on maintaining a certain amount of dignity. A collie has a sense of itself and it will resent being made to do foolish things. When a collie resents you, you will know it (see ‘eyes are the window to the soul’ above).
They are an enormously sensitive breed. Collies watch you carefully and at the slightest hint of displeasure they will grow despondent that they have disappointed you. Their ears down, their head and shoulders low, and their eyes cast down…. they are the very picture of dejection as they ponder a world in which you, the chief source of their joy, are unhappy with them. A sad collie is an almost unbearable sight. On the other hand, when you are proud of them, they beam with happiness. Ears perked up, open mouthed smile, and shining eyes – the sight of a happy collie cannot help but lift your spirits. Collies will bask in your affirmation and praise and they are ridiculously pleased to know they have done a job well. The collie descends from a long line of hard working dogs and is responsible, dedicated, and judicious. It is a dog that seems to understand its responsibilities and takes them very seriously.
To watch a collie move is pure beauty. Collies have a truly majestic bearing. They move with lightness and grace, coat flowing, the plume of their tail swishing softly behind. The fluffy ruff around their neck reminds you of the mane of a lion and adds to their regal look. This thick hair, however, has a practical purpose. If a collie got into a fight protecting his flock of sheep, the offending animal lunging at the collie’s throat would come away with nothing but a mouthful of hair. If you have ever tried to work your fingers through to the skin of a collie’s neck, you will know that thick hair forms a highly effective barrier! They are a powerful dog, fast and agile and light on their feet. Don’t let a collie’s elegant appearance fool you – this is an athletic, strong dog; a working dog. Their lush double coat is a result, not of breeding for the show ring, but breeding to withstand the weather of the harsh Scottish highlands.
Collies were bred to be sheep dogs and everything about the breed has evolved to make them suitable for this task alone. The breed originated in Scotland many centuries ago, in a land of high, rocky hills and crags, bogs, moors and steep meadows swept by cold winds from the North Sea. Their thick, weather resistant coat and hardy constitution allowed them to endure the some of the bleakest, harshest weather in Europe. They worked rough terrain during wet, windy summers and howling winter blizzards. They covered miles a day, over craggy hills and boulders, ever alert for dangers and always watchful over their sheep.
Before relatively recently, dogs always had jobs and were never kept simply as companion animals. In Scotland, England, and Ireland sheep were absolutely essential to society and one of the most valuable things a family could own was a good sheep dog. They were bred with great care and valued highly. The very survival of families was inextricably linked to their sheep and their sheep dogs. The dogs often worked alone or at a great distant from humans. They had to be capable of learning and understanding their jobs, be motivated to work on their own, and be absolutely 100% reliable and trustworthy. Collies excelled in all of these areas. There is a story of a collie whose master became distracted drinking in the pub and after waiting a reasonable about of time, the dog set off on its own to walk the many, many miles home. He knew his job was to gather the sheep at nightfall and he faithfully headed home to do it. These were dogs with a work ethic!
The public perception of the collie as fashionable began when Queen Victoria began keeping the breed in the late 1800s. The collie quickly went from “sheep dog” to “royal dog” and their popularity soared. Shortly after, in the United States, collies appeared in a number of popular books – Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad of Sunnybank series and Eric Knight’s Lassie series. The height of the collie’s popularity in the U.S. came with the Lassie TV shows of the 1950s. Everyone wanted a collie to save their child from falling into a well. It is less common to see collies in American homes today and that could be due in part to the decline of American farms and rural communities.
Collies, however, make wonderful urban or suburban family dogs. They don’t have the high energy level and need for a job that border collies are known for. They are a dog with moderate energy and exercise needs. Collies need to live as an integral part of a family and be included in family activities. They take very seriously the job of watching over their families, especially the children in their care. Kids and collies have a natural affinity for each other and can form an almost mystical (dare I say Lassie-like) bond. Collies generally do well with other animals and don’t have the high prey drive of many of the hunting or terrier breeds. Collies are very people oriented and tend to greet everyone with warmth and friendliness. That said, herding breeds are masters at reading and evaluating situations and collies can be watchful and protective when the situation calls for it. They will bark to alert you to intruders of all kinds – human, cat or squirrel! This highly intelligent, deeply intuitive dog is a joy to live with. Once trained, collies are trustworthy and dependable in the house. Not only will they not break the rules, but many herding dogs seem to like to play the role of “sheriff” and they won’t let the other dogs to break the rules either!
One of the biggest concerns that I hear from people about getting a collie is the hair. Yes, they have a lot of hair. Yes, they shed. All I can say is that it is worth it. A little extra vacuuming is a small price to pay to share your home with such an amazing animal. And brushing the luxurious, silky soft coat can be a very Zen like experience! If you own a good vacuum and some lint rollers, it isn’t bad. Collies should be professionally groomed about 4 times a year (you can do it yourself if you are up for the challenge). Regular brushing will keep the coat soft and clean and the outer coat will protect the undercoat from getting dirty.
Now, I know that many of you are asking yourselves: where can I find myself one of these amazing collie dogs??! It turns out that I happen to know some people…. Almost Home Dog Rescue of Ohio specializes in rescuing and rehoming collies and shelties of all ages. Their adoption coordinator is phenomenal and she will help you to find a collie that is the perfect fit for your home and family. The dogs come from all kinds of backgrounds – some are surrendered due to divorce, families moving, or the owner’s death. Some are picked up as strays. Some have spent their lives chained to a dog house and are looking for their first real home. Some, like Kira, have been rescued from puppy mills or have been victims of neglect or abuse. Some require an experienced home and others would thrive in almost any home.
I know that there are responsible breeders of wonderful collies, but I personally know of far too many wonderful dogs in need of great homes to recommend anything other than rescue. I have loved far too many rescues to be swayed by the “I want a puppy so I can bond with it” arguments. I have as deep a bond with my dogs as anyone I know. In fact, I would argue that there is a special kind of bond that happens with a rescued dog. And about that bond, and my own very special rescued collie Kira, I will write again next week!