People sometimes ask me why I love Rough Collies so much. You can indirectly blame the fictional Lassie and its portrayer, Pal.
By the time I was born, the TV show Lassie was nearing the end of its run. It began way back in 1954 and it ended its network run in 1971, just two years after I was born. It would go for two more seasons in syndication. But other than reruns, the famous Rough Collie was about to leave the airwaves.
Lassie still shows up from time to time in reruns, although it appears now that it’s currently available for streaming on Paramount+.
A Rough Collie is one of two types of Collies. The rough part refers to the coat. Lassie sported a flowing long-haired coat. That’s the rough. There’s a Smooth Collie that is short-haired. They all have the same types of marking and colors; it’s just the length of the coat that varies.
But when most people who know what a Collie is hear the name of the breed, they either think of a Border Collie, which is a smaller, different breed, or the Rough Collie like Lassie.
A little confession about ‘Lassie’
I never was a fan of the Lassie TV series. I’m a total sap when it comes to dogs. In every episode of the series, there was some threat posed to the dog. The threat often involved her family members or a friend as well, but the dog was also normally threatened in some way. I just don’t care to see a dog in peril.
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life.” A fan favorite, it focuses on a little boy who controls an entire town because he has super powers and can make anything or anyone he doesn’t like disappear. Early in the episode, from a bedroom window, he watches a dog barking outside. He says it’s “that Collie dog” that he doesn’t like. He wishes it away “into the cornfield,” which we come to understand means destruction. I fast-forward through that part of the episode if I watch it at all.
So I didn’t come to love Rough Collies because of the Lassie TV series. For me, it was having a Rough Collie to grow up with.
The reason I did, however, is because of the show itself.
My parents grew up with dogs in their lives and wanted me to love animals as well. My mom has always loved German Shepherds. But she’s never owned one. She considered getting a German Shepherd for me, but worried that it might bite a child if the child irritated it just enough. So she thought about other breeds. She’d watched Lassie over the years and was familiar with the Rough Collie’s reputation as being wonderful with children.
So that’s what led her to the breed, and that’s how my first dog became a Rough Collie. She was a great dog, the best dog a child could hope to grow up with.
Pal lived a long life
Pal, born June 4, 1940, starred in the first Lassie movie, Lassie Come Home, would then appear in a half-dozen more. That led to appearances at shows around the country. When it came time to pitch Lassie as a television series, Pal appeared as the title character in two pilots.
But by the time the TV series began, Pal was already 14 years old. The average life expectancy for a Rough Collie is 14 to 16 years. So his son, Pal Jr., took over that title role.
One of my favorite stories about Pal Sr. involves the Lassie set. In the book Lassie: A Dog’s Life, by Ace Collins, star Tommy Rettig recalled Pal Sr. would came to work with his son every day. They set up a bed for him behind the set. When Pal Jr. was on the set performing whatever tricks a scene required, Rettig said Pal Sr., who they nicknamed “The Old Man,” would get up and perform the same tricks before quietly returning to his bed.
Collies definitely have a strong sense of duty. It’s one of many things I love about them.
Another story that always gets to me is when Pal Sr. died on June 16, 1958. He managed to live to be 18 years old, a major accomplishment for that breed.
Rudd Weatherwax, the man who owned and trained multiple generations of Lassie actors, slipped in and out of a deep depression when Pal Sr. died.
“It hit him very hard when Pal died. He buried him in a special place on the ranch and would often visit the grave,” Rudd’s son, Robert, told Collins. “Dad would never again watch an MGM Lassie movie. He just couldn’t bear to see Pal. He didn’t want to have to be reminded of just how much he loved that dog.”
Any dog lover can certainly relate to that.
I’m just grateful that there was a Pal Sr. and a Rudd Weatherwax. Without them, I might never have grown up with a Collie, and I probably wouldn’t have my fourth one now.