For Albert Payson Terhune
A report published recently by the American Kennel Club indicates that the collie has slipped to 29th on the list of the most popular canine breeds in the United States. This ranking means that the collie is currently about as well-regarded as the asthmatic pekingese and the genetically unfortunate shar-pei. Since the collie is my favorite dog, I was dismayed but not surprised by this statistic, for nearly everything about the collie, especially its character, is at odds with contemporary values and tastes.
Measured by today’s enlightened understandings, even the collie’s entrance onto the world stage is politically suspect. On a trip to Scotland in 1860, Queen Victoria discovered this noble dog, and, ravished by its intelligence, beauty, and sweet nature, she introduced it into the Royal Kennels. The term “Victorian” is, of course, an affront to modern sensibilities, implying as it does a retrograde belief in such absurd fictions as individual responsibility and definable public standards in education, language, and personal conduct, as well as an amusing confidence in the value of good manners. We have, of course, liberated ourselves from oppressive social hierarchies and moral imperialisms, and as the front page of our newspaper informs us each morning, our unbridled individualism and unrepressed emotional lives bring countless good things into the world each day, including violence in our schools and a steady growth in therapy-related industries.
It is therefore inevitable that a dog with the collie’s aristocratic character cannot possibly be popular in our relentlessly egalitarian age. In fact, there is something subversive in the collie’s inherent nobility; it is better to own a “people dog” these days – one that identifies its owners as “just folks” with no pretentions of being better than anyone else. The stolid Labrador retriever is a good choice for such persons, as is the similarly non-threatening golden retriever. Both breeds are perfectly harmless and easily trained, just like the ideal citizen in a Republic of Absolute Equals.
Ironically, the “elitist” collie is, first and foremost, a blue collar dog, correctly classified as a working breed. Whether herding sheep or children, it dutifully performs its tasks with incredibly gentle forebearance and without the need for praise. Beneath its obvious dignity, the collie possesses something very like wit, and its richly complex character is the sort one might value in a good friend – or a spouse.
There is no denying that the collie appeals to people who are likely to adhere to the traditional view that certain behaviors are superior to others. With all its natural reserve, a collie would never compromise its integrity by appearing on “Oprah,” leaving such vulgar and degrading spectacles to exhibitionist Afghan hounds and celebrity-seeking shih-tzus. A collie would never even watch “The Jerry Springer Show,” abandoning such grotesque, depraved, and ultimately pathetic “entertainments” to prurient poodles, salacious spaniels, and other lesser breeds. Naturally, a collie would not become unduly concerned with the odious details of the “Starr Report”; after all, collies tend sheep – they have nothing to do with swine.
My interest in the collie began when my favorite aunt introduced me to Tippie Boy, and this magnificent dog so impressed me that I began reading books about collies. But I became an evangelist for this peerless breed, and my life was permanently changed, not because of anything I read but because of something that happened one night. Here, then, is my conversion story.
When I was eleven years old, my aunt moved to a house in a pine and hardwood forest in northern New Jersey, and one winter night I decided to take Tippie for a walk on the frozen surface of a nearby lake. I soon regretted my decision, for, as I stood in the middle of the lake, spindrift form a recent blizzard blew spookily into my face, and the moaning wind caused moon-lit trees to cast provocative shadows along the shorline. I listened to the ice groaning beneath my feet, and it was easy to imagine trolls at the bottom of the lake, tossing uneasily in their monstrous slumber. I felt tears coursing down my cheeks, but I was too terrified to move. And then my rescue. Though he was usually a reserved dog, Tippie suddenly began frisking about, barking and cavorting like a puppy. His antics so startled me that I began to laugh, and the spell was broken. Then, with infinite gentleness, the great dog nudged me, and, his leash firmly in my hand, I let Tippie lead me home to firelight and comfort.
That wintry evening marked the end of my casual infatuation with collies. Tippie became my constant companion, and my diligent study of collies led me to other, more complex forms of investigation. A boy does not forget an association like that, nor does the man he became neglect its lessons. When the dark comes on, as it must, we would all benefit from having something more substantial than the moral and spiritual equivalent of a pekingese at the end of our leash, and choosing a dog in accordance with its popularity is about as fatuous as running one’s life – or anything else – in response to public opinion polls.
In a time when image counts more than reality, when celebrity is more important than character, when values seem as permanent as clothing styles, it is good to know that some wonderful things abide. And though they might not be popular in our change-obsessed society, steadfastness, constancy, and loyalty can still be found – in some dogs and in some people.
This happy fact might not interest those who are preoccupied with currently fashionable political correctness “issues” rather than with enduring truths, but I think that Queen Victoria would be pleased.
This article first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, June 13, 1999. Individuals who are interested in reading more of my columns, book reviews, wine reviews, and restaurant reviews should access the paper’s electronic archives at www.arkansasonline.com. Every dog lover on the planet should read Lad of Sunnybank.