What is a Farm Collie?

It has become clearer, from the first year of discussions on farmcollie, that there is not universal agreement about what is a farm collie. I think we all agree that a farm collie is descended from the working collie landrace of the British Isles. Beyond that, there are many different concepts of farm collie, and most of them don't require that the dog be of a particular breed in the modern sense of "breed".


Here is a rundown of the various usages of "farm collie," taken pretty directly from the email messages on the farmcollie list. It is not clear whether we are moving toward consensus on one usage of the term "farm collie". It is not clear that it is important or necessary to have only one usage (though my sorry brain would appreciate such simplicity) but it is important and necessary to realize that there are so many different concepts and usages.

For some of these uses there are alternative names or phrases that are or could be used instead of "farm collie". Some of these are longer or less convenient for some reason, but it might be well to try to use them in place of "farm collie" where possible, in the interest of communication. If you want to keep using "farm collie", at least recognize that it may mean something else to the person you are talking to, and try to clarify what you mean by the term.

Farm Collie 1

The term "farm collie" has been used simply as an indicator of place of residence: any dog of (primarily) collie descent that lives/lived on a farm. In contemporary usage this might include dogs of any modern collie breed or collie cross or mix.
Farm Collie 2
"Farm collie" has been used as an indicator of actual function: a dog of (primarily) collie descent that did or does work on a farm--with livestock or perhaps as a watch dog. In contemporary usage this might include dogs of any modern collie breed or collie cross or mix.
Farm Collie 3
"Farm collie" has been used as an indicator of character and potential function: a dog of (primarily) collie descent that has the character described by John Holmes (The Farmer's Dog) as a good Scotch Collie character, which in and of itself makes the dog suitable for some farm/livestock work. John Holmes gives this character description specifically for the Scotch Collie which he notes was the progenitor of the show Collie.
There are several other types of Collie quite distinct from the Border Collie in that they are 'loose-eyed' workers. Most of these are native to Scotland and include the old-fashioined Scotch Collie from which the modern show Collie is descended.Now practically extinct, I have clear recollections of several of these dogs in my youth and believe that, in my early efforts to walk, I was assisted by one. They were all easy-going, level headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there was nothing better to do. Personally I think it is a great pity that this type has been practically exterminated by the increasing popularity of 'strong-eyed' dogs. For all-round farm work they were often far more use..." Revised edition 1984, page 60.
Erika DuBois uses this description of character to describe the kind of dog that used to be common in rural Nova Scotia and was called farm collie or scotch collie. This description is also used in some English Shepherd literature to describe the desired English Shepherd character.

Suggested alternatives: Holmesian collie

Farm Collie 4
"Farm collie" has been used to point to the North American population of dogs of collie descent from which the Australian Shepherd and English Shepherd breeds were developed. In this context, probably would not be a breed in the modern sense, would have been highly variable in physical type and mental character and working ability/style, probably with some locally fixed types. Both Australian Shepherd and English Shepherd literature sometimes calls these breeds "farm collies" or "farm shepherds". See Linda Rorem's article "Whatever Happened to Old Shep?" and my "Old Farm Collie" which is an attempt at a brief summary, based on Linda Rorem's historical research and articles.

Following Erika DuBois and Linda Rorem's usage, I would suggest we not use the simple "farm collie" for this, but instead use the name "old farm collie". Maybe "N.A. old farm collie" would be more specific although I don't recall seeing "farm collie" used in Holmes or other British writings for the working collie--is it more of a North American designation?

Suggested alternatives:old farm collie, North American old farm collie

Farm Collie 5
"Farm collie" has also been used to point to the population of dogs from which all collie breeds were developed--the population also pointed to by the name "old working collie of the British isles". In this context, probably would not be a breed in the modern sense, would have been highly variable in physical type and mental character and working ability/style. Could think of this as a landrace over the entire British isles, but to my mind more likely a cluster of more local breeding populations of somewhat fixed types due to difficulty of travel and differences in agricultural. (Just think of the language differences over the geographical area!)

Again to follow the usage of some experts, Linda Rorem and Carole Presberg use "old working collie" to indicate the landrace or breed of the British Isles from which the Border Collie and all other collie breeds descended.

Suggested alternatives:old working collie

Farm Collie 6
"Farm collie" has been used by people familiar with the show Collie breed to signify an old kind of show Collie which fell from favor in the show ring long ago, but was used on, and bred on, farms long after no longer bred on purpose for show. There is a set of illustrations in the Collie Club of America breed book (The New Collie ) of what are called "head faults" and one of the illustrations is labelled "Farm Shepherd head fault". Under this illustration is the caption "The head presents a 'common' appearance. Too much 'stop' and a short, blunt muzzle." Show Collie people sometimes see a Collie and call it a farm collie or farm shepherd based on its resemblance to the "Farm Shepherd head fault" illustration. (British and European show Collies may have heads proportioned more like this "Farm Shepherd" drawing, but they also tend to have an absolutely enormous coat--much bigger than the hugest American show coat.)

In the U.S. and Canada, the term "Scotch Collie" used to be commonly used for the Collie. In fact Scotch Collie was the United Kennel Club official name for the breed until the 1980s. Since this term is no longer used by show people in North America for the show Collie, perhaps it would work as a general term for the more old fashioned looking Collies--or maybe not.

There is a small group looking to reestablish the old style(s) of Collie, based in part on photos and paintings of the Victorian era, and using the name Classic Victorian Collie Club. Therefore "Victorian" might also be an alternative label for the distinctly old-fashioned Collie which is not of current show preference.

Suggested alternatives:scotch collie, Victorian collie

Farm Collie 7
Saying that a dog looks like a farm collie might simply imply that the dog doesn't look like the (current) interpretation of show standard for any of the collie breeds (Collie, Aussie, Shetland Sheepdog) and is not obviously one of the other nonshow breeds such as English Shepherd or Border Collie, either.
There may also be individual variations depending on what a person has experience with. For instance, someone who grew up with a particular dog that they thought of as a farm collie (for whatever reason) may associate particular features of that dog with "farm collie".

The terms "collie" and "shepherd" are sometimes used synonymously, both now and in historical documentation. But sometimes "collie" and "shepherd", and therefore "farm collie" and "farm shepherd", are used to indicate or imply differences in physical (or mental) type.

And there is both overlap and contradiction between these various uses of "farm collie". Note that some of the usages have primarily to do with looks, some have to do with history, some with function or potential function. A dog could qualify as a farm collie according to how some people use the term, based solely on looks. Others would say that a dog of collie descent, no matter what it looks like, is not a farm collie unless it has or is likely to have certain kinds of working abilities.

Even Holmes' description of the Scotch Collie character is open to different emphasis. In the context, Holmes was clearly contrasting this type of dog with some aspects of trial-bred Border Collie. Some may use the Holmsian description to emphasize the feature of Holmsian collies of not bothering stock on their own and being of a lower octane in intensity as well as activity needs than (generally speaking) the Border Collie as a breed. Others may emphasize the idea of all round farm usefullness rather than specialized sheep herding instinct and specifically qualities of the trial-bred Border Collie versus abilities needed on a real farm or ranch.

There is also the differences in needed work on smaller farms versus large ranches. The person interested in a dog that will fit into a small farm environment with a lot of "down time" may be more concerned that the dog not be too intense or highly active, and may not need specifically a herding dog but more of a general helper. The person needing a working dog for their livelihood on a large farm or ranch with a lot of stock work to be done, would find lack of herding instinct a serious problem, and not so likely to notice any negative effects of high drive and high activity level.

So it gets very confusing. People can have long conversations using the same term, farm collie, thinking they are talking about the same thing, and suddenly be shocked to discover they mean something very different. Conversely, people can assume that they are talking about different things, because they are using two different terms, then suddenly realize that they really mean the same thing by those terms.

Common Ground

After dwelling on the many differences in our farm collie/shepherd ideas, we often need to remind ourselves of the core ideas we all share. Those of us on farmcollie list have more in common than not. We are all drawn to the Scotch Collie as described by Erika du Bois and John Holmes.

Whether a survivor of the original North American farm collie landrace, or a member of a modern breed, or a mixture or cross of these, the farm collie/shepherd is descendent of the old working collie of the British Isles and has the physical stamp of that genetic group. They are generalists rather than specialists, and naturally, with daily guidance but not necessarily a great deal of formal training, they are suited to helping with many of the jobs on a small or moderate sized farm. They can fill the roles of herding or stock dog; watchdog; guardian of the home place, livestock or family; predator or rodent control; gundog; tracker and more. Through daily participation in the farm chores they readily learn to use their abilities appropriately for the circumstances. They are "easy-going, level headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there is nothing better to do." While they will certainly require some training to be trustworthy and useful around stock, given the proper start they are relatively easy to teach to leave stock alone when there is no work to be done. When they are "accustomed to assist with everything," as Hogg said of the house-colley, they learn the routines of the place and develop a desire and ability to help keep the order. They seem naturally prepared to be gentle with young animals and children, though this too requires careful fostering. Above all they are wonderful companions.

This is the kind of dog that may fairly be called a farm collie or farm shepherd, whatever its breed name. And we are all concerned to ensure that this dog, the farm collie or farm shepherd, has a secure place in the world of the future.

If you are interested in farm collies or farm shepherds, come join us on the farmcollie list. Better yet, if you have such a dog, we want to hear all about it!


Farm Collie Restoration Efforts

What is an Old Farm Collie?

Friends of the Old Farm Collie.

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This file was last updated on 29 January 2001.