How to find a farm collie or shepherd

It is a deceptively simple question: "Where can I get a farm collie?"

Unfortunately I can't answer that very directly or precisely.  The main problem is that people have a lot of different ideas of what a farm collie is. Each person really does have to figure out what he wants in order to start off in the right direction with a hope of finding it. Depending on what one has in mind, there are several possible directions and sources.

The other big problem is that there is no single "farm collie breed" I can point to--several different breeds might be called farm collies and shepherds. Furthermore, even standardized breeds are far more variable than we tend to assume, especially in terms of behavioral tendencies. So while some breeds may be more likely than others, depending on one's needs any of the collie-related breeds or mixes could turn up just the right individual.

The possible sources of your farm collie or shepherd are quite wide. There are the two family lines believed to be remnants of the original North American Farm Collie/Shepherd landrace: Nova Scotia Old Farm Collies, and Old Time Farm Shepherds. The English Shepherd breed is also very close to the original landrace breed--and is still really a landrace itself, despite having a breed standard (or actually several breed standards). Beyond these three possibilities, any of the modern collie/shepherd breeds, or crosses between collie-related breeds, might turn up suitable individuals depending on ones needs as well as the variations that can be found within the breed. It is hard to find the breeders in any modern breed that are bucking fashion trends and selecting for farm collie characteristics, but they are out there. People on the farmcollie email list have dogs from almost every one of the modern collie/shepherd breeds, and some are breeders who are breeding for farm collie/shepherd qualities, so this is one good place to ask about possible leads for any particular breed of interest.

There is also a very real possibility of finding your perfect farm collie through the various rescue organizations. Though many rescue groups try to assess the temperament and personality of the dogs in order to find the right permanent home for each dog, most would not have the resources to screen dogs for what might be called "farm collie potential". But some rescue dogs are fostered in farm homes or homes with other animals where much relevant information might be learned about them.

So generally these are the sources for farm collies. But as you start looking or thinking about the different possible sources, be sure to be thinking even harder about what you really want or need.

The farm collie or shepherd as companion

Some people are looking for a farm collie that will be primarily a companion. The farm collie has a special attraction for people who remember them as being gentle, nurturing and protective of other animals, especially young creatures. People who have other pets or young children may therefore be looking for a farm collie because of these characteristics even if they do not have a farm. Many dogs from any of the collie-related breeds, registered or not, or mixed, can probably be expected to have this family/child nurturing behavior.

However be careful that other aspects of the dog will not interfere with its suitability as a companion in your own situation. For instance, a very territorial dog may be so protective of his own family that he is not accepting of visitors, even children. Some dogs have so much herding/chase/prey instinct that they might tend to chase and nip running children or other pets. No matter how much nurturing potential a dog may have, genetically, pups will usually play rough and can hurt small children and other animals by accident. They need to be carefully supervised with children and other creatures, and gently taught how to be gentle.

The farm collie as farm helper

Often the farm collie is wanted as a working dog, usually for a small farm. Breed reputation for working ability is no guarantee for any individual pup. A dog for farm work or any kind of work is best selected from a family line that has demonstrated the desired working traits, whether herding, watchdog, guarding, hunting, or all of the above.

Despite that generally valid recommendation, some people have found ideal dogs for their farm from among the modern registered breeds, and related mixes, even from lines that have not lived or worked on a farm for many generations. If you already have a breed preference, you can start looking within that breed, for suitable family lines. Expect more variability in working traits in lines that have not been bred in the farm environment. Remember, choosing a pup from parents whose working traits have been demonstrated involves a lot less risk.

Even so, even if the pup has all the genetic potential to be the working dog you want, once you have the pup you must bring it up right for that potential to be realized.

A note on training. People on farms who have good working dogs--the right dogs for their particular situation--often say that the dog learned to work without any training. This gives the impression that a good dog just happens as long as the genes are right. Not so.

Scrutinize the upbringing of the good farm dog, and you will find a dog that has more training than the average obedience star. These pups start out young doing chores and are constantly being molded in subtle ways as they accompany their owners all day long. And a farm day is looooong. It probably doesn't seem like training to the farmer because he is doing what he always does, everyday, instead of having some particular time set aside to teach particular commands deliberately to the dog. Both the farmer and the environment are constantly molding and shaping the dog as it grows and develops. It is like learning a language by immersion, rather than by sitting in a class room. The point is, the farm dog has a LOT to learn, to be a good farm dog, and this doesn't happen in a vacuum; it happens in the right environment, with the right human influences. The dog does have to have the needed genetic propensities; beyond that, the good farm dog is made, not born.

If you are going to raise a pup to be a farm dog, please read The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes. May it never go out of print.

The farm collie/shepherd as subject of historic preservation

In addition to wanting a companion or farm worker, some people are especially interested in preserving the few remaining families of the original old farm collie/shepherd landrace, as they are a genetically unique historical legacy. Three groups may be of particular interest in this case: the Old Farm Collie of Nova Scotia or the Old-Time Farm Shepherd, and the English Shepherd. Anyone interested in the Nova Scotia Old Farm Collie or Old-Time Farm Shepherd family lines should hasten to contact the people trying to save them. These populations are critically low, and their survival status is therefore uncertain. The English Shepherd breed has a larger population and more family lines, but the population is very small for a registered breed, and it is certainly in need of conservation. The English Shepherd was derived directly from the original North American farm collie landrace via the working farm dogs registered from the 1930s on. The English Shepherd retains the all-purpose working farm dog traits.

Farm collies in puppy mills?

Since one person who joined our group told us about finding her dog in a pen labeled "Farm Collie" at a dog broker's establishment, I feel ever more strongly the need to warn people to be careful to think through their needs and wants. This person could not be happier with her dog, so that particular story has a happy ending; a rare exception. Puppies found through pet stores and dog brokers obviously do not have a happy beginning and far too often do not have a happy end. These are the worst possible places to look for a dog for any purpose and that includes a farm collie. There is no way to know what the parent dogs or family line were like, though you can bet that the parents are in terrible conditions. Poor care and bad environment in the beginning of the pup's life, plus being taken from its nest and separated from its littermates long before it has reached 7 weeks of age, strongly counteracts the development of genetic potential it might have had. A puppy purchased from a pet store or dog dealer cannot be expected to turn out to have farm collie characteristics, no matter what the breed is claimed to be, nor how high the price tag. Being kept in a small cage, it will almost certainly have overcome the natural cleanliness instincts and will be extremely difficult to house train. If despite all this, one feels compelled to buy an individual puppy from any such situation, it is best to think of it as a very expensive rescue pup--expect it to have special needs for socialization, gentle training, love and attention beyond the ordinary, and do not expect it to turn out to be a good representative of its breed.

If you just don't know where to start

Some people who contact me are quite put off by the lack of a single correct answer to the question "where can I find a farm collie". Many people assume "farm collie" is a well defined breed, and just want the name of a breeder. It can be pretty disconcerting to find out things are far more complicated. But most hop right onto our farmcollie list and make themselves at home, willing to roll up their sleeves and figure out where their ideas about farm collies and shepherds fit in with or contrast with everyone elses. So after reading this, if you don't know where to start to find your farm collie, please join us on the farmcollie list. Be patient. Think about things. Learn more about the different kinds of "farm collie". You'll figure it out, just give yourself more time.

Last updated 30 January 2001.