A slightly different angle

1. About the importance of the breed standard

     Why am I so dedicated to the standard? I believe that the rough collie standard truly points out the essence of our breed. Even without those important words: “…to enable the Collie to fulfil a natural bent for Sheepdog work, its physical structure should be on the lines of strength and activity, free from cloddiness and without any trace of coarseness”, (which should be returned to the standard where those words really belong); even without these words the standard description of a collie is so vivid, transparent and clear, so meaningful that it simply cannot be ignored. The only thing that this standard requires to present a perfect, complete picture is the frame, the natural environment in which a rough collie performed its work. I believe it is very important to take into the consideration the country which the rough collie originates from, to understand what kind of work a rough was made for. Finally, in spite of the fact that collies nowadays do not perform their original tasks, I believe that the very essence of a rough collie way to do its job is something that cannot be lost, outbred, forgotten or erased from its gene pool, no matter how keen we are in trying to believe the opposite. Rough collie is what it essentially is because it performed a sheepdog work in a specific and unique way, characteristic for rough collies only. It had to be so because of the very particular environment where this work was performed - Scottish Highlands. It should never be forgotten that a rough is a collie from the Highlands because all the rest comes out of it.

2. About the Highlands - rough collie’s home

     In my opinion, this is where we have to look for the clue regarding the main purpose of the rough. We have to turn very much back to the past times before dog shows even existed and long before the standard was written on paper. We have to get back to days when sheep were the most important and numerous animals on the British Isles, and when life without sheep could not have been possible for many, many people. For them the working sheep was not possible without dogs. It is not wonder that there are so many various British sheepdog breeds since these dogs were used for many different purposes, meeting very different demands, depending on the environment and needs of their owners. If we consider the meaning of the Celtic word collie – useful, (“the useful dog that circled the small settlements to keep out predators and guard the flocks and herds” – from the book of Iris Combe ‘Rough Collie Records’) the picture gets more meaning.

As for the Highlands, the greatest danger for sheep there were not wolves or bears (as it is very often taken for granted)- they had been long gone from the Highlands and the British Isles, already. The shape of a collie’s head evidently shows that fighting was not its major duty. Collie cannot fight a wolf; it is not supposed to do so. Not just that it is a light dog compared to its size but, also, its jaws are simply not strong enough. It cannot hold (compared to German sheepdog, or Pyrenean and Sarplaninac for instance, whose sheep herding task is basically wolf or even bear fighting for the protection of the flock). It would need a pack of collies to fight only one wolf; in confrontation with a pack of wolves not the whole pack of collies would be able to succeed. Quick bites, lithe turns and brisk movements would not be sufficient to win over organized wolf pack determined to get their dinner.

The main threat for shepherds and their flocks in the Highlands must have been the weather, especially in those days when there was no weather forecast available, because there was no television, not even electricity for that matter. In the spring, even during the summer occasionally, the weather in the Highlands can change extremely fast from a nice sunny day to a snow stormy blizzard with temperatures rapidly dropping to extremely low grades. It is so because of the exposure to the North Sea and cold, strong winds coming form the north. Flocks in their pastures are very vulnerable regarding these weather changes, especially in the time of delivering lambs, lambs can freeze to death if left alone. Besides, flock of animals can easily panic and run in any direction, thus perhaps ending in an abyss or some other undesirable place. Collies have been there, in the first place, to prevent this to happen. Their ears must be semi erected shell shaped to catch sounds in the most efficient manner: the sound of wind coming from high hills and mountain slopes long before it actually sweeps the ground, bleat of a lost sheep in a storm or blizzard, shouting or whistles of its owner giving directions in the storm. Collies are extremely sensitive about sounds, their hearing is better then most of the dogs, they hate noise, loud singing, fireworks, thunders... Even today a lot of collies can feel very uncomfortable with the noise of strong wind blowing and this is not without reason, as we can see. The wind is danger and their senses are warned. It was meant to be, bred to be that way for the purpose. Good hearing makes it possible to act on time, collect the herd and keep it together, or even get it home, to the shelter and safety.

Collie coat, waterproof and warm, protects from rain and bad weather being hard on the top, woolly and thick underneath. Collie colours and markings serve the same purpose, to be more easily seen in bad weather conditions or in the dark, by their owners as well as by the sheep. Collie eye - we all know the stories about collies that could turn away a stubborn ram towards the safe route! So powerful must be the eye of a collie! Collie tail, designed to preserve the balance in quick turns, while moving sheep in desired direction, with the white spot on its tip to shine in the darkest night like a lighthouse...

Imagine the ground collies had to cover daily looking after the sheep - rocks and steep meadows. A dog should be very skilled, nimble mover, therefore not too heavy to be able to cover such grounds, safely and without loosing too much strength, etc. etc…(‘Moderate amount of bones’, says the standard, and this is to be considered very seriously. The change in bone structure changes the dog. The example of this is American collie, which does not look different just because it is tall. Not so long ago, English collies were normally 60 cm or more and it was no wonder to see bitches over 55cm as well. Still, the impression was different because of their lighter bones. The change of American collies comes out from the change of their working tasks. In America, during times collies were working dogs, they did not work sheep only, but also cattle and in flat grounds as well. This change, naturally, resulted in the change of constitution, for flat grounds and cattle work it is desirable to be strong and big, inevitably heavy, it is preferable because it is the different sort of work. Therefore and rightfully, the American collie standard is slightly different today.) On the other hand, this illustrates what serious consequences the ignoring of genuine purpose for which certain breed was created, can have. Ignoring a collie, as a working sheepdog dog and trying to squeeze its purpose into the role of just a companion dog, a children toy, or garden decoration cannot do much good for the breed.

The collie from the Highlands had to do a lot of its work independently, on its own. Its performance had to include thinking, anticipation and decision-making and dedication to their work: “Lassie, come home” is no fiction, as I learned from Eric Knight’s own words and also form Hazel Hunt’s article “The History of the Rough Collie”. She tells about collies that would not waste too much time waiting for their owners, who could have very often got stuck in pubs after successful trading at sheep markets. Collies would wait a while and then go home, not minding the distance. She mentions that it took about a fortnight for a collie to cover the distance between London area where some of the biggest and most important cattle markets were, and Scotland. There was work to be done at home; collie did not have time to waste and there it was going home alone. For such qualities collie rough got the privilege to have its own place in a church. During the Mass on Sundays, while other dogs stayed outside, they had separate places marked by the dogs’ names behind church seats. Provoked by the interest Queen Victoria had shown for these amazing dogs and with the start of dog shows in UK, breeders were refining the looks of collies thus even more enhancing their beauty and dignity, making the breed worth of royal attention. Even though Victorian world is so far away from us today, we should make all efforts to preserve all these remarkable qualities for the sake of our exceptional breed.

3. About today’s collies

     I am afraid the majority of today’s collies are still weak in size and conformation. Most of them are too small and too short. A lot of other problems come out of these faults. Also, I do not prefer the expression we see in majority of, particularly sable dogs today. Too much stop, with the consequence of the desired wedge type head lost and, in most cases, a strange setting for the eyes acquired. Due to the break of head in the stop point the shape of the whole skull changes, eyes are not set obliquely; the position of the eyes is straight, which produces totally different expression. This is something completely out of standard but still widely recognized and admired in today’s collie rings. To me, this is not tolerable. I heard many people say this is sweet. Maybe it would be, if there were chow-chows in question, but not for a collie. I think that the concept of sweet collie expression is somewhat misunderstood. Collie is not a teddy bear and it is not a Barbie doll, either. Teddy bears and Barbie dolls have nothing to do with dignity.

Dignity is an old fashioned concept, its meaning obviously forgotten today. Dignity goes hand in hand with beauty and beauty is not sweet, it is simply beautiful. What is sweet about it is the melting feeling we have in the presence of beauty. It is the excitement and overwhelming sensation one experiences in the presence of beauty that is not easy to explain. What is beauty? The concept of beauty does not include appearances only. Beauty comes from within. Personality and soul reflect in it. In the old times the most important feature, which prevailed when choosing a dog for work, was a collie's face, a collie’s eye (“the mirror of a soul”). Most often the desired face was described as pleasant, with ‘sweet eye’. And it was a must. Nobody wanted a dog with ‘mean eye’, or ‘stupid eye’. Therefore, collies are mainly being referred to as the head breed.

Why is that? It is not that the conformation was less important to old shepherds. Of course it was important, a lot, and we can understand why from what had been said before. Nevertheless, if a collie is expected to actually accomplish all of its work successfully, you should be able to completely rely upon the dog with trust. Dedication, intelligence, honesty, serenity, all this and more can be seen in collie’s eyes. So, it was in the eyes where old shepherds were looking to find the justification of their expectations related to a certain dog. It certainly must have been the crucial quality expected when choosing a dog. It was the final test in a search for a dog that cannot disappoint you. And the face, which is honest and open and intelligent and sincere, is a sweet, dear face. Of course it is very difficult to describe all this in a standard. It is a difficult concept to describe anyway. Perhaps that is why so many interpretations and differences in understanding come out from those few words “a sweet collie expression”, which is a distinctive feature of our breed. In the end, when you put together good conformation, well balanced head, providing the space and position for the eye, which looks at you with interest and attentiveness, then you have the balance and harmony of “the perfect Collie, the most beautiful of the canine race”. (Quotation from the breed standard 1950-1969, please, let us have this in our standard back again!)

As for the evolution over the last decades, I am really concerned about our breed. I see incredible diversity and I wonder are we heading towards developing several new breeds out of rough collie or we have already got this situation and need only to acknowledge it. There have always been discussions and arguments about the topics in standard among breeders and judges. Obviously an agreement, unanimous enough, has not been reached. I myself was present at several occasions where the need to change the standard was expressed and justified by the conclusion that modern collies have changed, therefore standard must be changed as well. This, to me, unreasonable attitude is quite widespread and it must be an enormous confusion for the novice in the breed to watch dogs and judging in the rings today.

The greatest improvement I see in relation to the bone structure and shorter hocks, which improved hindquarters of today’s collies. This is an improvement for the better, related to the function of our breed. This, in many cases, also resulted in better fronts with well laid-back shoulders, which consequently provided space and position for the almost forgotten arched neck of a collie to appear again. It should only be kept in mind to preserve the balance, remembering the word ‘moderate’ when it comes to the amount of bone. Again, we do not need too much.

There are a lot of breeders all over the world, who do a really great job, producing great collies. Of course, outstanding specimens are always in considerable minority compared to the others. What worries me is the average collie which, and this is my impression regarding show rings, has left me with a lot to desire.

Of course, dogs change. Should we change the standard?

CH Beulah’s Nightvictorious (1939)
CH Mywicks Satine of Simbastar (1963)

CH Steadlyn Zong of Zweden (1980)

CH Steadlyn Show Stopper (1988)

4. About tolerance

     Of course, there is no perfect dog, so when it comes to breeding plans, one must be aware of the weak points of both, the dog and the bitch in question. To me, the whole picture is what really counts. Balance is the key word. I prefer to see if the dog in question excels in any of the features that are important to me. I would not tolerate any extremes. For example angulation can be excellent, it can also be good or tolerable, but if a dog were totally straight in front or too open behind I would not tolerate it because it would obviously have an effect on other features concerning conformation, and the dog would be out of balance.

What I would certainly not tolerate is bad character, again anything that is too much. Too easy to excite, too easy to frighten, jumpy at any sound, dogs that do not forgive you, extremely body sensitive, etc. You can deal with most of these faults, but it is difficult, it is a problem and not every pet owner is capable of solving it. Therefore such dogs are not acceptable as pets. Also they are difficult to keep in a kennel because other dogs do not tolerate extreme behaviour either. Still, one must be very careful considering the difference between restrained and frightened dog, irritated and nervous, etc.

5. About picking up a puppy

     How to pick up a puppy from a litter? This is a hard one. First of all it is the question of personal preference. Different persons would prefer different types of dogs. It depends so much on what you are looking for. Personally, I hate to choose for others, when I have to I try to see which puppy would certainly not be suitable for someone, and then I would leave free choice from the rest. That means that “over” something puppy will be kept until I find really right person for it, or it will stay at home as a pet. It is less harm done to the dog in my experience, but it is not easy and not beneficial for a kennel since sometimes such dog stays and a better one leaves home.

Similarly, those who are “over” excelling in a good way usually stay until the last moment or for good. To me it is easier to pick out from my own litters, than to choose from others, which is understandable and does not need too many explanations. I prefer if I could see puppies from the moment they are born, it is true you can pick right then, and most often I really do. I did not take this seriously when I first heard about it, but this statement proved to be true. It is also very important to me to observe the ability of a newborn puppy to survive, its willingness to live. I always value such puppies more then the ones that need too much help. It simply shows the inner ability of puppies to survive, which I consider very important for the breed stamina. I control the weight of our puppies until three kilos and I keep records about this. I find it very useful to compare different litters and the advance of puppies. Therefore it is the part I miss very much when I have to pick from other litters and it can make me very uncertain about my own choice. But in the end, to be honest, choosing a puppy is more or less pure luck mixed with coincidence. In a way it is good, it can be very exciting, especially when it turns out you picked up a world champion.

6. About food

     The basic diet for my dogs is a mixture of raw meat (mostly chicken and beef – Croatian cows are not mad, yet), soaked bread, corn, oats, rice, etc. and cooked vegetables. Regular additions are: yoghurt, fresh cow cheese, eggs, yeast, wheat germs, dried parsley leaves, garlic, vegetable oil and apple vinegar. Every now and then I give raw bones to keep them busy (during rainy days). Nevertheless, I occasionally give my dogs dry food to eat as well, since experience taught me that in some situations dry food can be very useful and handy (for example when you have to survive the war without electricity, read: “no freezer”, or when you want to make it easier for your mother to feed your dogs while you are 3000 km away at a dog show). Anyway, today in this world, dogs have to get used to various kinds of food and to accept it, just as we humans do. When I give dry food I prefer to mix it with meat and their regular food. I always soak until granules are soft and never give it dry.

7. Dogs have to be taken seriously...

      I have been living with dogs, (recently cats, too) most of my life. There are so many important things I have learned from them. As I see it, teaching or training dogs, if you like, is really mostly about training yourself to proper behaviour and proper reactions, it is about anticipating your own reactions in situations, it is in fact about knowing yourself. Dogs just follow. What I want to say is that dogs scan you all the time, they get to know you in no time, also they know you better then you can imagine. They are clever animals; they take advantage of their knowledge and use it. We are the ones who should be learning. It is irrelevant what we aim to do with our dogs, the prerequisites for any involvement with animals are patience, consistency of our human behaviour and the ability to observe, meaning not just look but to see as well. If we look and see we shall be able to understand. If we understand we shall be able to take time and to give time to connect with our animals. Then we shall have the right start point for to do whatever we want to do together. In return, they will do whatever it is we ask for and do it with enthusiasm and joy. Only then we shall know what we need to do, as well. Building up the mutual trust is a must for a successful owner–dog relation. It is our responsibility to understand it and do it.

The other thing is learning. Today there is simply no excuse for ignorance on our, human part. There are so many sources of information everywhere so there can be no excuse whatsoever for ignorance. We must learn permanently to be able to take right steps towards our goals, no matter whether we are pet owners or professional dog trainers, handlers, judges or breeders. Dogs have to be taken seriously, and their dog nature should not be neglected and ignored. We should not use the advantage of their ability to adjust to our ways without trying to give something in return. The least we can do is try to understand them and their dog needs.

I would like to conclude with a quotation from a book, which I think is a must for all people involved with dogs in any way, written by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ “The Hidden Life of Dogs”

Like most people who hunger to know more about the lives of animals, I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a nonhuman creature. I would like to know what the world looks like to a dog, for instance, or sounds like, or smells like. I would like to visit a dog’s mind, to know what he’s thinking and feeling, to have another dog look at me and see not something different but something the same. And to my great surprise, during those afternoons by the den, I felt I came close to achieving that.

What was it like? Partly it was like entering a quiet little village in some faraway country, and partly it was like entering another world, a new dimension. There we were, within fifty feet of my house, yet in a world that had nothing to do with my house, nothing to do with my species, and nothing to do with my life.

To sit idly, not doing, merely experiencing, comes hard to a primate, yet for one I wasn’t among primates. At last, as dogs learn to live among our kind it came to me to live among theirs. In the late afternoon sun we sat in the dust, or lay on our chests resting on our elbows, evenly paced on the hilltop, all looking calmly down among the trees to see what moved there. No birds sang, just insects. Off in the silent, drying woods a tree would now and then drop something – a pod, perhaps, on a leaf – and we would listen to it scratching down. While the shadows grew long we lay calmly feeling the moment, the calmness, the warm light of the red sun – each of us quiet and serene. I’ve been to many places on the earth, to the Arctic, to the African savannah, yet wherever I went, I always travelled in my own bubble of primate energy, primate experience, and so never before or since have I felt as far removed from what seemed familiar as I felt with these dogs, by their den. Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace...

Mull of Kintyre

** A slightly different angle – extracts, originally written for The breeders interview, for Wizard’s Castle collie site in 2004, updated and revised in 2006 and 2009