Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Was the Smithfield Collie, Exactly?

The "Smithfield collie" or "Smithfield dog" is often cited as the main progenitor of the Australian cattle dog, but I've found it surprisingly difficult to nail down exactly what sort of dog this was. I've had the same experience researching the "English white terrier", a breed often cited as foundation stock for the English bull terrier, Boston terrier, jack russell terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, dalmatian, fox terrier...and not really mentioned anywhere else. Was it a failed attempt at a prick-eared fox terrier for the show ring? Was it a working dog so pervasive and so game that it was used to develop practically all of the modern working terrier breeds? Was it developed through crosses with the fox terrier, Jack Russell terrier, and various bull-and-terrier breeds, or was it foundation stock for these same breeds? This article says both, not sure how that works out exactly.

Likewise, the history of the Smithfield collie seems to go around in circles, with the dogs either developed from, or used in the development of, various herding breeds. Australian cattle dog history describes them as big, heavy, hairy dogs brought over from Europe by settlers to Australia. There is a modern breed commonly found in Tasmania called the Smithfield that is claimed to be the same as the original Smithfields.

I often see the Smithfield described as basically an Old English Sheepdog, which were developed from Bearded Collies, which were developed from Polish Lowland Sheepdogs in the 1500's, which were developed from Pulis. It seems that by the 1800's there were basically two types of herding dogs in the British Isles; the hairy ones and the not-hairy ones. The hairy ones became the bearded collie and Old English sheepdog. The not-hairy ones became the border collie, rough collie, smooth collie, English shepherd, old Scotch collie, Welsh farm dog, etc.

This article claims the big hairy Smithfields didn't work very well for driving cattle in the wilds of Australia, so Thomas Hall developed his line of Hall's Heelers by crossing the native dingoes with Northumberland Blue Merle Collies. These may have been the not-hairy herding dogs of the British Isles, though this article says there were a blend of the hairy ones and the not-hairy ones with some terrier mixed in. Wikipedia cites a book passage from 1790 describing a type of fierce and frequently tailless cattle dog used in the North of England called a cur. The Northumberland dogs may have been this type.

I'm still trying to get my hands on a copy of A Dog Called Blue by Noreen Clark, which is regarded as the definitive history of the Australian cattle dog thanks to a whole ton of research via primary sources. Apparently she found little evidence that the dalmatian was used to develop the breed due to mentions of it only popping up decades after the fact, but believes bull terrier was there in the mix. Maybe she has a little more information about the precise role the Smithfield dogs played in the development of the Australian cattle dog.

At the very least, all of my sources so far can agree on two things. First, that the Smithfield dogs were of a hairy-faced herding type that eventually became the Old English sheepdog and bearded collie. Second, that these dogs did not work very well for the early Australian cattlemen. Whether or not these were the dogs crossed with dingoes to create Hall's Heelers, the original cattle dogs, seems to be a point of contention.

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