The American Working Farmcollie, also known as the Old Farm Shepherd (Old Shep), was once the most popular dog in the country. As descendants of the old working collies from the British Isles, the farmcollies were versatile dogs, indispensable to farmers in the 19th and early twentieth centuries. During that period, it was this dog that most Americans thought of as a “collie,” although they were quite different from the AKC collies of today. The Farmcollie in this country quite likely also carried the blood of other types of herding and shepherd dogs that were brought here from Europe, but he remained a dog that clearly showed his Scottish heritage.
Like their ancestors, the American Farmcollies excelled at herding, guarding (both livestock and the family), hunting and predator control. Their duties varied from protecting the baby from snakes to moving the bull. Over the years, however, the focus of American life moved from the homestead to the urban areas, and as small farms became swallowed up in larger corporate farms or urban sprawl, the need for this type of all-purpose farmdog had all but disappeared. In its place came myriads of specialized breeds – companion dogs, hunting dogs, guardian dogs and herding dogs.
Many descendants of the old collie landrace were split by look or purpose and registered as new breeds: English Shepherds, Border Collies, or Australian Shepherds. In Great Britain, the Border Collie, Collie, and Shetland Sheepdog continued to develop as other branches of this family. The Welsh Sheepdog or Welsh Collie, similar in some respects to the American farmcollie, still exists in Great Britain. Many individuals of these different breeds today still retain the varied instincts and intelligence of their forebears.
In the 1980s, a few people that remembered the versatile old dogs began a search to see if any of them still existed. This type of dog was on the verge of extinction, but a few individuals still remained. An effort was then launched to locate other descendants of the collie landrace that retained the varied instincts of the old dogs. The primary purpose of the American Working Farmcollie Association is to assist in this effort.
The all-around guardian/herding/hunting dog is like a herding dog in that he will herd on command for his master, but this instinct does not always set in until the dog is more mature, and is often slightly different than that of a “prey drive” herding specialist. When the working character is properly balanced and the dog is properly socialized to his master, the rules and routines of the farm, and the animals that live there, this dog will herd the animals to maintain order on the farm with little or no direction from his owner. For example, if the cows get out while the owner is absent, the dog drives them back in and sits in the gap until the owner returns to fix the fence. This dog also protects the animals from predators and eradicates vermin from the territory.
The AWFA was formed in 1998 by a few people who needed a good all-around small farm dog. These dogs excel in three areas- herding, hunting and guardian. The dog we had in mind keeps order on his own territory without having to be told. Although we are great admirers of trialing dogs, we recognized that something more than a trial was necessary to preserve the type of dog that works in this way.
All-purpose American Working Farmcollies function like bossy older siblings. The farmer tells the geese to “Shoo!” and the dog makes them mind. These dogs are seldom the ones that excel at trials or working strange livestock on strange territory, although some of them may be trained to function in that capacity as well. This necessity to read the farmer’s mind as well as the livestock has resulted in dogs that are exceptional at rating their stock and work them as gently as possible, or with as much force as necessary.
Locating and identifying such all-purpose working farm dogs is the primary purpose of the AWFA. A secondary purpose is to keep working farm instincts in all of the different breeds that descend from the old collie landrace – in all of the gene pools as defined by other registries.
To qualify for permanent registration with the American Working Farmcollie Association, a dog must qualify in two of the three working areas.
Double registration is encouraged; a dog may be registered as an English Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Shetland Sheepdog, Kelpie, AKC Collie, Border Collie, and also be permanently registered with the American Working Farmcollie Association based on his working evaluation. I like to think of AWFA registration as the ‘Good Farmkeeping Seal of Approval’.
Another function of the AWFA is to help people find the working farmdog that they need and provide technical support to help them raise and train their dog to be successful working farm partners. These dogs may be English Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, or mixes of the various breeds. Although this performance concept of breed selection is unusual today, population geneticists tell us that this will help us to maintain genetic health in perpetuity.
Some of us are happy to have dogs that have only two of the three working characters, herding and hunting, for example, and use the American Working Farmcollie Association to record this working ability. This organization is about finding the dog that is right for each of us, not necessarily for someone else. The evaluation process also helps the farmer pin down the balance and motivation behind the traits they value most in their canine farmhand, which aids their search for more like their best dog!
The farmcollie landrace, then and now:
Historical Articles from Country Life in America Thanks to Linda Rorem and Gina Bisco!
Historical photos from the Library of Congress Thanks to Pril Zahorsky for the research, and to Laura Lee for the additional information.
AWFA is administered by a five-member board:
For more information on Registration