There’s been no better ambassador to the collie breed than Lassie, the beloved dog from the 1940s silver screen who saves the day again and again. Like Lassie, collies are elegant, mid-to-large-size, and originally bred for herding livestock in Scotland hundreds of years ago. Since then, however, their gentle temperament and loyal nature have made them popular family dogs and excellent therapy dogs.
The term “collie” can refer to a whole category of herding dogs, but the American Kennel Club uses “collie” to describe this specific breed. There are two main varieties of collies: The rough collie has a long, sweeping coat (like Lassie), and the smooth collie has a much shorter coat.
Collies are active but not hyper, can be vocal, and are social creatures who are eager to please. You may be wondering: Do collies shed? The answer is yes, and hair on furniture is an inevitable part of owning a collie. But collie-lovers will agree: This is a small price to pay for an empathetic and loving dog.
Interest in collies peaked in the 20th century, and today they’ve declined slightly in popularity. However, there is a strong community of collie breeders, fanciers, and enthusiasts in the U.S., and it shouldn’t be hard to find a reputable collie breeder in or near your state.
Collies are a mid-to-large-sized breed known for their long, slender, wedge-shaped faces and abundant fur. They look just as natural trotting gracefully down the sidewalk as they do running through the heather. Male collies are a bit larger, weighing 60–75 pounds and measuring 24–26 inches at the shoulder, while female collies tend to weigh 50–65 pounds and are typically 22–24 inches tall.
Collies have bright, dark almond-shaped eyes. When alert, about three-fourths of their ears lift up and about a quarter of the ear tips forward, giving them a mildly inquisitive look.
You might be most familiar with the long-haired “Lassie” collie, but there are, in fact, two kinds of collies. The rough collie has a long, flowing coat, giving it that elegant appearance. “This dog was bred with a harsh outer coat to protect them from the elements, and a soft inner coat to protect them and keep them warm,” says Patricia Caldwell, the breed education chairperson at the Collie Club of America. Smooth collies, on the other hand, were bred to help take animals to market and didn’t need the extra-long coat to protect them from the weather out in the hills. The shorter coat was also easier to care for.
Both the rough and the smooth collie sheds seasonally, but Caldwell points out those leery of hair can consider the smooth collie as an alternative. “Proportionally, it’s less hair,” she says. “They’re going to shed the whole coat out, but the hair is shorter.”
Both rough and smooth collies can come in four colors: Sable and white is a golden to mahogany color with white on the chest, feet, and tail. Tri-color collies are mostly black with similar white markings, plus some tan shading. Blue merle are marbled blue-grey, black and white. And last but not least, white collies are mostly white with some sable, tri-color, or blue merle markings.
Collies are known for their gentle, playful, and loyal temperament. “Because they were bred so specifically to be caretakers, they’re wonderful dogs for families,” Caldwell says. The original architects of the breed, she explains, selected dogs who were eager to please and biddable. “Their focus is on people—they love their people.” Speaking from personal experience, Caldwell explains collies will intuitively know how to be gentler with more frail members of your family.
Suzy Royds, a collie breeder with more than 30 years of experience, agrees. “They give you eye contact. They want to bond and please you. They want to be your companion,” Royds says. “They’re super easy to train.” She notes they’re fantastic with children and other pets, and that unless you have an unneutered male, they’re hardly ever aggressive.
While friendly with strangers on walks, they can feel the need to protect the home and can make good guard dogs. “The truth is, they bark,” Royds says. “You know, they’re talkers! And they will try to communicate with you.” With the right training and activity level, the barking can be mitigated. “A bored collie can be a nuisance barker,” Royds adds.
With that in mind, a good home for a collie will have a yard, and either an animal playmate or an owner who is home for long stretches. “They like to run,” Royds says, and enjoy some morning and afternoon exercise. However, they’re not hyper and don’t need the constant working that other working dogs like border collies might need. “On the whole, your collie will lay down and watch you do the dishes,” she says.
If you’re into the great outdoors, your collie will keep up. They enjoy hikes and beach trips and can tolerate cold weather. If you are keeping a collie in hot weather, don’t shave them. That heavy coat is actually protection from the heat, as well.
Royds advocates motivational training techniques for collies, and taking a positive approach. “They want your love,” Royds says. “They are very intuitive, and they read people’s body language.”
One of the most common questions people have about collies is about the hair: Yes, collies shed. “If you love a collie, you need to be prepared to either groom it yourself or take it to the groomer once or twice a month,” Royds says. She suggests weekly brushing, and a bath and a brush-out once a month. “The slicker brush is going to be your best friend!”
If you’re dealing with spayed and neutered dogs, the shedding is seasonal (intact female dogs, for example, will shed about 4 months after coming into heat). Starting around June, they’ll begin to “drop coat,” or shed heavily, at which point you can take them to the groomer to get their loose coat cut out. They’ll begin to put on a new coat again in the fall.
If you’re hesitant about the amount of hair, consider the smooth collie. Caldwell points out that while they also shed, the hair itself is shorter, so you’ll have relatively less hair overall.
“We always say, a little bit of dog hair is not a bad thing. If you have children, you probably have crayon marks,” Caldwell says. “What you get in return is a dog that will be totally devoted to you forever.”
Collies live between 10 and 14 years. While generally healthy, there are a few issues that affect collies. Collies can experience hip dysplasia, a condition in which the hip ball and socket don’t fit together properly, resulting in a deteriorating joint over time. This condition is most common in large dogs, and collies experience it far less than other large breeds.
The other health issue that affects collies is a genetic disorder called Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA). In dogs with this disorder, the blood vessels in the retina are not properly developed. Most collies with CEA do not experience any vision problems, but it can lead to blindness in other cases. Unfortunately, there is no cure for CEA. However, researchers have successfully identified the genetic mutation that causes CEA. This allows breeders to screen and carefully select to avoid CEA, which is why it is best to work with a reputable breeder with documented genetic testing when looking for a collie puppy.
“The collie originated in the Scottish highlands and also northern England,” Caldwell says. “It was used not just to herd the sheep and the livestock, but also to protect the family and the children.” Because of their role in herding, she explains, they were bred for both intelligence and agility. “Later on, during the 19th century, breeders began to work to create a physically sound dog that was not just biddable.”
The collie catapulted to popularity in England after Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) discovered the dogs on a visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She acquired several collies of different colors for her royal kennels, and by the early 1860s, the collie was recognized as a pure breed.
By the early 20th century, the collie caught the interest of fanciers in the United States, including American financier J.P. Morgan, who even started his own collie kennel, importing and breeding dogs from England.
- The impact of Lassie on both the collie breed and cinema history can’t be underestimated. Pal’s progeny has filled the role of Lassie for TV shows and remakes, and the current Lassie is a 10th generation descendant who lives in Santa Clarita, Calif. Lassie is just one of three animals to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- But it’s not just Lassie on the world stage. Several U.S. presidents have also had collies, including Lyndon B. Johnson, whose white collie, Blanco, was given to him as a holiday gift from a 9-year-old girl in Illinois. President Coolidge also had several collies, most famously one named Rob Roy, the first dog to appear in an official First Family photo portrait.
- As elegant as these dogs appear, they also have a playful, silly side. Take a look at this collie singing in her sleep, and this collie trying to fit into a puppy crate!