America's Farm Dog

Two years ago we got a collie dog from a ranch in central Idaho.  Not a Border Collie, and not a long-nosed Lassie collie.  This was an old style farm collie, which carries the official but somewhat misleading name of English Shepherd.  


The English Shepherd is a true American breed, developed by early settlers and farmers out of lines of various herding dogs brought over from the British Isles.  Breeding was done on the farm with emphasis on ability and function, not form.  For generations these dogs were the most common farm dog in America.  


Instead of specializing in one particular job, English Shepherds specialized in being well-rounded dogs who could herd or gather anything from cows to chicks while bonding with livestock and protecting them from predators.  They were also good at hunting rats, squirrels, and other critters that moved in too close to grain bins.  And being ideal companion dogs, they watched over lots of young farm kids who might get into trouble with Jersey bulls and aggressive mother cows.


Because they were bred for performance instead of appearance, they come in a variety of sizes, colors, and body types.  Some look similar to Border Collies.  Others are as big as German Shepherds.  Most have at least two colors.  Some are lanky, others more stocky.  Nonetheless they are easily recognizable.  This spring I found them represented in two paintings at the Chesterfield homesite.  


This diversity has been a blessing for the breed, as noted by Mary Peaslee, former president of the ES Club.  "It seems that allowing for less standardization maintains type better over time.  Dogs that are more standardized tend to get progressively more exaggerated in some direction as time goes by.  Allowing for diversity seems to balance things out, so that the group as a whole stays quite stable."  Consequently English Shepherds have remained true to their original working form.  And diversity notwithstanding, they are very much a distinct breed with its own special character.


English Shepherds are known for an abiding love and affection toward their people.  They also have a deep commitment to rules and routines, and may maintain order on the farm even in their master's absence.  And although they are independent thinkers they are easily trained.  They stay home.  They seem to watch for patterns and opportunities to help.


For an American breed so well-suited to farm and family life, one might wonder why they went from ubiquitous in the 1950's to so rare today.  The biggest reason had to do with the disappearance of traditional family farms.  Few collies were needed to keep foxes and deer pushed back because henhouses and orchards were no longer part of the countryside.  In this new world of big farms, English Shepherds were out of work.  


With flocks and herds now numbered in the thousands, English Shepherds were replaced by more specialized breeds like Border Collies for moving sheep, Aussies and Heelers for herding cattle, Pyrenees and Akbash for guarding sheep, and Rat Terriers for hunting varmints.  Plus the farm collies were homegrown and not as exotic as modern imported breeds that were marketed more aggressively.  


As Jan Hilborn so insightfully stated, "In the 1950's, tractors finished replacing horses, beautiful hardwood floors were covered by linoleum, wooded kitchen tables gave way to chrome and formica and the all-purpose old-fashioned farm dog became equally unfashionable."


Although farm collies can easily adapt to town life, they are not for everyone.  They are ill-suited for kennels because they need jobs to do and people to give themselves to.  Nor do they do well in homes that don't have time for them.  They are not dogs to ignore.  Without a job they may bark too much, or become aggressive toward strangers, or simply make it their life's work to manage a little yard.  Sometimes they are bossy if they feel rules are being ignored.  Some of them don't like water much.  But as well-rounded dogs they are tough to beat.

Fall 2013