Rough collies: The dogs made famous by Lassie that are hardy, clever, agile, and ‘good for the soul’

With the initiative to rescue sheep and the daring to question its master, the rough collie not only lives up to its heroic reputation, but is always right, discovers Katy Birchall.

When the Beast from the East swept across the UK in early 2018, Wiltshire-based shepherd Jess King had a serious problem: ‘Sheep were buried in the snow and others, in trying to escape the drifts across the fields, had gone up onto a bank and got caught in brambles. They were stuck and it was too steep for me to reach them.’ Luckily, help was on hand in the form of her farm dog, rough collie Tully.

‘As I stood there trying to work out what to do next, Tully climbed up the bank and, with-out any instruction, began to pull each sheep free of the brambles,’ she recalls. ‘He did it for hours, calmly taking the lead in the situation. Tully has always been able to figure anything out — there have been so many times that he has saved the day.’

Although it may be sadly unusual to see a rough collie out herding in the fields, if there’s one thing this level-headed breed is famous for, it’s coming to the rescue — and Tully has proven to be no exception. Now 10 years old, he still works sheep and cattle a few times a week alongside a team of border collies.

‘He’s a fantastic farm dog. He would work all day, every day if he could,’ Ms King says. ‘Not all rough collies have the working instinct any more, but there are still some traditional lines out there. They don’t like a lot of schooling: Tully questions me more than a border collie, but, in the end, he’s always right. Their working style is similar to a Welsh sheepdog; they’re loose-eyed and upright, and use their voice, which is useful for big groups — I’ve moved 4,000 sheep on my own with Tully.’

Full of energy and ready for action, the rough collie. Credit: Ulrike Stein / Shutterstock

Recommended videos for you

Descended from shepherds’ dogs that have been around for centuries, the rough collie hails from the Scottish Highlands where it was valued for its strength, hearing and keen eye-sight as it guarded stock in pasture, its heavy weather-resistant coat withstanding all manner of climates. It wasn’t until dog shows gained prominence in the latter half of the 19th century that much attention was paid to its looks — over time, it became more likely to see a rough collie in the show ring than out working.

Six facts about Rough Collies

  • The rough collie shares its ancestry with the smooth collie, a listed vulnerable breed that had only 44 registrations last year
  • Rough collies have a double coat: a dense, soft undercoat and a long, rough outer coat
  • The three recognised colours of the breed are sable and white, tricolour and blue merle
  • After falling for their charms during a visit to Scotland, Queen Victoria kept rough and smooth collies in her kennels, popularising the breed
  • Despite being a female character, all nine dogs that played Lassie throughout the MGM films and television series were male. Lassie secured a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was the only animal to feature on Variety’s ‘100 Icons of the Century’ in 2005
  • Celebrity fans of the breed have included Elvis Presley and Miley Cyrus

In 1943, Lassie Come Home, the film adaptation of Eric Knight’s novel about a devoted rough collie that faces great dangers to return to its family, was a box-office hit, sparking spin-off movies and a television show that ran until 1973. The breed reaped the rewards of heroic Lassie’s phenomenal success — its Hollywood-worthy beauty and exceptionally faithful character was advertised on a global scale.

However, fashion is fickle and, despite its exalted status as the ‘Lassie dog’, it has seen a worrying decline, with fewer than 500 registrations in 2022. For the dog once considered the ultimate family companion, these low numbers are both puzzling and heartbreaking. As with other native breeds, the rough collie is likely overlooked due to misconceptions about the breed or simply a lack of airtime — but there can be no doubt that this majestic dog deserves to be back in the spotlight.

For keen hill walker Stacy Steven, there is no better dog to accompany her for Munro bagging — the challenge of reaching the summit of Scottish mountains with an elevation of more than 3,000ft, named after Sir Hugh Munro. Her three rough collies, Brodie, Bella and Brooke, have proved up to the task — so far, Brodie has completed 83 Munros; Bella and Brooke have achieved 72 and 52 respectively.

‘You have to be able to trust the dogs you’re walking with — some of the ascents and descents can be tough, with narrow, exposed ridges,’ Ms Steven points out. ‘Rough collies are hardy, clever and agile. They think first and don’t rush ahead — they’re not going to do something stupid or deviate from the path. You don’t want to walk with a dog too governed by their nose, as you might come across stags, mountain hares or livestock — these dogs are obedient, confident and patient. I trust them to listen.’

Rough collie registrations are down. Time to start demanding repeats of old episodes of Lassie?

Ms Steven reveals the sheer joy in climbing with these dogs at her side. ‘As they look out over the hills or lochs, you sense their enjoyment in that much freedom,’ she enthuses. ‘I can see they’re grateful to me for taking them out there — and I’m so grateful to them for being with me. It’s an enriching experience for all of us. Of course, they also like reaching the summit because they get a sandwich.’

She emphasises that the rough collie was originally bred for the outdoors: ‘I have my dogs in rivers, ponds and up to their necks in mud sometimes. It easily brushes out or I give them a quick hose down when we get home. People wrongly assume the coat is difficult to maintain, but I groom my dogs about once a week with a couple of basic combs and brushes to keep them knot-free and tidy.’

If it’s loyalty you’re after, look no further than a rough collie, asserts secretary of the Midland Collie Club Hannah Walder: ‘They want to be with you, they’ll follow you anywhere. Rough collies are incredibly perceptive and knowing. They’re very good with all generations of the family — they understand when they need to be gentle with children and grandparents and when they need to be more enthusiastic.’ Living with seven on her farm on the Cambridgeshire-Hertfordshire border, Mrs Walder notes that walking a pack of rough collies can draw a lot of attention. ‘We can’t go anywhere without being stopped by absolutely everyone,’ she laughs. ‘People want to hug them or take photographs, and some get very emotional — usually, they grew up with a rough collie or had a grandparent who owned one.’

Hannah Walder’s rough collies are happy in any weather. Credit: Hannah Walder

Lassie’s gentle, protective character is an accurate representation, she asserts. ‘One of my collies, Florence, once brought me a baby robin that had fallen out of its nest, completely unharmed. We were able to put it back and, a few days later, we watched it fledge,’ Mrs Walder recalls. ‘If something is wrong, they won’t leave your side. When I broke my leg a few years ago, that same collie, Florence, stayed with me on the sofa throughout the recovery, sleeping with her chin on my cast. She wouldn’t even eat in a different room — she knew I needed to be looked after.’

The devotion of the rough collie extends to all members of the family, as Jim and Morag McCarte of Roughrigg Rough Collies know all too well. ‘I would often find one of our collies, Becky, in bed with our son, Christopher,’ says Mrs McCarte, who has shown the dogs for almost 40 years and currently owns seven. ‘When he was young, Becky would always keep an eye on him. She’d let him get to the field gate before rounding him up and bringing him back to the house.’

Their willingness to please makes them excel in obedience and agility, Mr McCarte adds. ‘They are good all-rounder dogs. They have dignity and beauty and a certain aloofness — they’ll let you know if you’re a friend. Rough collies are good for the soul.’

Veterinary surgeon and keen horsewoman Irene de Best, owner of six rough collies, asserts that, although adaptable, they are very much at home in the countryside. ‘Ours are always out and about, whatever the weather. We have racehorses and they’re great with them,’ she says. ‘Rough collies are gentle, sensitive, intelligent — they learn easily and are active when you want them to be, then calm at home. I could write a whole book about my dogs. They always make me smile.’

It was the sweet-natured temperament of the rough collie that caught the attention of pet portrait artist Kaye Cardell-Oliver: ‘As a family, we’d talked about having a dog for a few years and I’d researched a lot of breeds. Rough collies are beautiful dogs to look at, but they are also kind and playful, and they adore people.’

Now the proud owner of Dolly — named after Dolly Parton — Mrs Cardell-Oliver couldn’t be happier with her choice of family pet: ‘She’s so friendly and chilled. She loves other dogs, she’s brilliant with our two cats and she’s great with children. If we’re on a walk, she doesn’t like any stragglers and will wait to herd them up. If the kids run off in another direction, then she’ll always be there, right behind them.’

The ups and downs of life with chocolate labradors: ‘If one of my chocolates does something naughty, there’s no hiding. They all know it’s mine’

Chocolate labradors are becoming more and more popular — and with good reason, as Katy Birchall explains. Photographs by Millie Pilkington