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Lassie Come Home

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278 – November/December 2019

By Lee Connor
Driving home the other evening, our car headlights illuminated a man walking a most glamourous looking dog. Marc slowed down and I gazed out of the window. It was a Rough Collie but, for Britain, one of a most unusual color.
The dog was pure white with tricolor markings on its head. It was quite stunning.
Sadly, this isn’t a color recognized in the UK and I would have loved to have engaged with the gentleman walking it to find out its breeding and exactly where it had come from. However, a keen wind that threatened rain was blowing in off the sea and the man (and his dog) both looked in a hurry to return to the shelter of home.
Like a lot of Britain’s native breeds, the Rough Collie seems to have suffered a dip in popularity lately and seeing one (even of the more ‘normal’ colors) is always a head-turning event.
They are truly a magnificent looking dog.
And, to match their fine looks, they have a long and illustrious history. Their story is replete with incident and romance; one that conjures up images of north country farmers, patient sheep and smock-wearing, bearded shepherds.
It’s also impossible to think of the Rough Collie without also thinking of the names of its early breeders; men that championed its cause in those far-off early days of the Fancy. Names like Mr. A. H. Megson, Mr. J. Bissel, Mr. Tom Stretch, Rev. Hamilton and several others who bought and sold Rough Collies for hundreds and, occasionally, thousands of pounds in the years of the great ‘collie boom’. These names are well-known to Collie lovers and they laid the foundations of the breed we all know and love today.
The story of the breed (one worthy of a Disney retelling) sees a rough but handsome working sheepdog taken from the wet and wild hillsides of Scotland and gradually transformed into a remarkably beautiful show dog that is then loved and adored by ordinary families in ordinary homes all over the country; and this love & appreciation is then replicated right across the globe.
The history of the Rough Collie is almost as old as the history of dogs shows. The first-ever dog show was held in Newcastle in June, 1859, but this show was only for Pointers and Setters. The next show, held in Birmingham in November of the same year, was again only for ‘Sporting Dogs’. However, in 1860, at Birmingham, there was a show for Sporting and Non-Sporting dogs. And, for the first time ever, there was a class for ‘Sheepdogs’.
The entry was very small, but it is from this date that the history of the show collie begins. In 1863 there were six entries in one class provided at this show but, after that date, there was notable progress, both in breeding and exhibiting. In 1871, seventeen collies were entered in the one class provided. Two of those exhibits at that year’s show became famous and appear in the pedigrees of all present-day Rough Collies. The first prize winner was ‘Old Mec’ and the second winner was ‘Old Cockie’.
Old Cockie was undoubtedly the better dog of the two, despite being placed second in the awards at his first show–so it would appear very little has changed in the world of show dogs! He quickly made up for this injustice by becoming ‘Best Collie’ at the Birmingham Show for three years running. He was a ‘Sable and White’ and was the first recorded Collie of this color. He has earned the remarkable accolade of being the ‘fountain head’ from which the staggeringly popular sable and white color first sprang.
Breeding now developed rapidly. Perfecting the Rough Collie commanded the attention of a great number of breeders.
It was around 1882 when Mr. Megson, famed for years as the owner of the greatest Collies of his day, first became interested in the breed. He was in the fortunate position of being able to pay record prices for the dogs he wanted and almost every first-class Collie was owned by him at some point in their career. Rarely, however, did he ever breed any of his own winners. A few of his numerous purchases are ‘Metchley Wonder’ – £530, ‘Caractacus’ – £350, ‘Southport Perfection’ – £1000, ‘Edgbaston Marvel’ – £500; culminating in the purchase of ‘Ch. Ormskirk Emerald’ for the then unheard-of price of £1,500.
Indeed, it was often joked that ‘Collie farming’ was far more profitable than agriculture, and when one looks at the prices paid for some of these dogs, that statement is quite believable!
Three years af-ter Mr. Megson had entered the ranks, Mr. Tom Stretch led his first Collie into the ring, and in a very brief space of time the ‘Ormskirk’ prefix was known to admirers of the breed the world over.
Mr. Hugo Ainscough joined the illustrious band of Collie breeders in 1886. It wasn’t long before the ‘Parbolds’ were holding the top spots in the prize lists. Once again, many of this gentleman’s dogs’ names can be found in the background of today’s winners, the greatest being ‘Ch. Parbold Picollo,’ (another sable and white with a wealth of coat) whose influence on the breed was to be especially strong.
By the 1900s the question was being asked, ‘have Collies had their day?’ Registrations had fallen to just 795 in 1913.
However, by then there was a huge surge of interest in the breed coming from the wealthy classes of America, and many English breeders and kennels were only too happy to oblige. In Robert Leighton’s, New Book of The Dog (1907) he writes about what the American dog-buying public demanded; ‘Sable and white are the favorite combination of color, a fancy which was shared some years ago by the American buyers who would have nothing else. Black, tan and white are becoming more popular in England, and while there is now a good market for these in the United States, the sable and white remains the favorite of the American buyers and breeders.’
Herbert Compton (1902) also documents the exportation of two champion winning Collies to the U.S., writing somewhat lamentably.
‘Other ‘thousand-pounders’ were Ch. Sefton Hero and Ch. Christopher (bred by Rev. Hamilton) both sold for four figures to America – where all good dogs go!’
Ch. Squire of Tytton, a glamorous ‘golden sable with profuse coat’, was sold to America for £1,250. Another top winning dog, Ch. Wishaw Leader, this time a tricolor with an ‘enormous coat and beautiful flowing white mane’, soon joined him across the pond.
In fact, many of the finest Rough Collies left England’s shores to grace the American kennels of such connoisseurs as Mr. Pierpont Morgan and Mr. Samuel Untermyer.
?Iinterestingly, those early American fanciers seemed quite keen to put their own special mark on the breed – especially as regards to color.
Mr. Henry Jarrett, in ‘The American Book of the Dog’ ventured this prediction;
‘It is probable we shall soon have a strain of white Collies, several having been bred in England, and the Cheshunt Kennels (Philadelphia) having reared two white puppies. They are pretty, but do not look like workers, and for this reason will never become popular.’
A Mrs. Hall-Walker, however, disagreed and could see no reason why this color could not be perpetuated and improved upon with careful breeding.
She considered them, ‘much better tempered than the ordinary sable Collie and they do not appear to be nervous. If in a litter there are some of both colors, I find the white ones most affectionate.’
She goes on to say, ‘It is no easy matter to breed really good white Collies, as they usually lack coat. I have to thank that well known Collie fancier, Mr. Stretch, for selling me a white bitch out of one of his sable litters by ‘Ormskirk Idealist’. I feel sure if our Collie fanciers would only take up this color, it would soon become popular. I would advocate separate classes for Rough haired Collies at the leading shows.’
Interestingly, at many of the early Collie shows and at Crufts, classes were often given for whites but were never filled. Queen Victoria and many other members of the Victorian/Edwardian Royal family were ardent fans of the white rough Collie. However, when the breed standard was revised in 1910, the white Collie was deemed ‘unacceptable’.
A rumour crops up quite regularly that they came about through the Borzoi cross, that was introduced to lengthen the head.
There was also once black and tan Collies (which were said to be the produce of a cross with the Gordon Setter) but these soon went extinct.
Another color in Collies that has always had its votaries is the blue merle. For me, as a fan of the silver-dappled dachshund, this is my favorite Collie color.
A good blue merle Rough Collie is a dog of almost unrivalled beauty in my opinion. So, it is incredible to learn that the merle, just like the black and tan, was almost lost in the very early days of the breed.
The blue merle is one of the oldest colors of the working sheepdog and they are still commonly encountered on farms throughout the country. It is possibly for the reason that they were considered ‘common’, that many merle puppies were unwanted and often drowned at birth. Because of this prejudice, the blue merle teetered on the edge of extinction and was only saved by a few stalwarts, who, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, set about resuscitating this stunning color.
The appearance of ‘Ch. Blue Ruin’ was a game changer for the blue merle. In 1888 she won the Collie Club Trophy for Best of Breed and became the first blue merle ever to reach the top in open competition with the other colors.
Two years after this outstanding achievement America claimed her!
Although the Rough Collie’s time in the spotlight (in her home country at least) was far behind it, she was due a resurgence of popularity and this came about when a Collie was chosen by Hollywood as the star of the sentimental Lassie films. Starring alongside the likes of Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, the films were huge hits. There were seven of these films, appearing from 1943 to 1951, not to mention a long running TV series and, in 2005, in the show business journal, ‘Variety’, Lassie was named as one of the ‘100 Icons of the Century’ – the only animal on the list.
Although today the breed is essentially a companion and show dog it is heartening to see that the Collie Club of America (on its beautifully constructed and informative website) still champions the working qualities and challenges the brain power of this incredibly intelligent breed; this is done through obedience, herding and agility tests as well as its ‘Shining Star Collie Ambassador’ award given to the Collie who has done a good deed for his family or community.
Proving yet again that you can have (in the pedigree dog world at least) both brains and beauty!

Click here to read the complete article
278 – November/December 2019

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