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The White Collie Variety

June 26, 2018

White collies at the White House

genetic hypothesis and historical gossip

Giulia Faessler


The history of the collie narrates surprising adventures, resounding events and unmentionable secrets; it is so varied and unpredictable, to present, at each step, incredible implications, and unexpected developments. It narrates the events of such a diverse range of men and women, who have nothing in common except for their immeasurable love for the collie, to whose evolution, each one  of them  has given a small or large contribution, which has remained in the memory of those who, today, as part of their study, render it away to honour, love and  transport it towards the future.

Recently, a number of collie lovers  have contacted me to ask  me, how come  there were all white collies in the past; that is, with a white head  and body, but with  eyes and pigmented truffle. These collies  lived  for two decades, in the United States during  the period of major diffusion,  starting in 1910, and they were very different from the white collies which are bred today, which we know, always have a coloured head and one or two patches on their white body.

Conventionally, we will call these collies, which are completely white, ”the all-white collie”, and almost all the descriptions of the time describe them as having a complete white coat, with one or two traces of colour on their ears.

It comes spontaneously, at this point to ask oneself if these collies were genetically identical to today’s collies, and if it were not so, to ask ourselves where these beautiful white-headed collies, that we see in numerous photos of the century have ended up.

In order to find an explanation let’s take a step back in time with our imagination, and let’s move ourselves into the China Room in the White House. On the wall of that room, hanging is a famous picture, painted by Howard Chandler in 1924. It  portrays the First Lady, Grace Coolidge, the wife of the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, with her white collie, Rob Roy. The collie, whose original name was Oshkosh, was given to the President by Stephen C. Radford (Island Collies), a white-collie breeder from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

If we were art critics we would stop and observe  the artist’s technique, paying particular attention to the colours used, but, since we do not possess the competence to give lessons in the history of art, we would like to stimulate the reader’s fantasy in order to introduce him to the genetics of the colour of the Collie, tickling his curiosity and his critical sense.

As can be better observed  in the picture that follows ,Rob Roy is again portrayed with the First Lady; this collie’s head and body were completely white, and it was, therefore, very different from those of today.

In truth, Chandler was not the first to portray a collie of this kind. Almost a century before, in 1829, Sir Henry Landseer, the famous English painter of animals, had already painted a white collie in a well-known painting, ”White Collie in a Landscape”.

In this painting too, the collie has both a white head and body, with only one small spot at the base of its tail, while the truffle appears to be vaguely pink. Landseer knew dogs well and he painted them in the reality of their hard work; they do not seem like exhibition dogs, as those portrayed in the paintings of Arthur Elsley about a century and a half later, therefore, we can assume that they were inspired by a real subject.

However, it is evident that the white coat was not a prerogative of the overseas collie, on the contrary, we also find traces at the Court of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who was a great admirer of this dog. In a painting by Charles Burton Barber, 1879, one of her white collie’s, Snowball, is represented, and he also has a white head.

Another white collie also, belonging to Queen Victoria was called Nanny, and had a white coat with tiny spots on its ears. We can see a picture of this dog in a painting from 1885 by Barber, in which it is portrayed with a fox terrier.

In 1887, Her Majesty bought another white collie and gave it the same name as the first one, Snowball. The collie was depicted in a painting by Anthony de Bree. In this painting, the dog seems to have a completely white coat without any spots, apart from some shades of colour on its ears.

It seems that the Queen had also transmitted this passion for collies to her children. In the book,” The Queen’s Dogs ”, it says, in fact, that in 1900 the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), received a collie named “Squire” as a gift. This collie had an almost completely white coat with a little colour on its ears.

However, white collies were not a novelty in Victorian England. Only a few years earlier, the Kennel Club had officially registered the first one; it was a female called “THE LILY” born on the 20th June 1881 from Trevor, a sable–white, and Hasty, a tri-colour, but, evidently, both bearers of the white factor. The Lily had a white coat with scattered sable markings on her face. This is this description of her breeder Charles Wheeler, who does not mention a sable-coloured head, but only sable markings on her face. As all of The Lily’s ascendants were coloured (her four grandparents were, Trefoil, Maude, Carlyle and Glen, all tri-colours, except for the second which was sable), and there is no doubt that her white coat was, or, an improvised mutation, or the consequence of the manifestation in the phenotype of a hidden feature of that kind from who knows how long.

This female was Camp’s great-grandmother. Metchley Wonder, born in March 1886, through whose descent we have the white factor, but not only that up to the present day. This dog, in fact, is an ancestor to all our current collies and to the American ones too. From observing his picture we can understand how crazy it would be to approve certain changes to the standard of which so much is discussed today. Crazy as cutting the branch on which we are sitting!

However, let’s go back to the White House, and leap to 1963, in order to meet up with its 36th tenant, Lyndon B. Johnson, with his white collie called, Bianco, whose official name was, Leader Blair Jamie of Eden.

This collie too, had a white head and body. Once again, there was a completely white collie living at the White House!

Let’s continue to examine Rob Roy’s portrait with his fascinating mistress, Grace.

Some of you, those who are more expert in the matters of works of art, would certainly be able to judge the painting, evaluating the technique, and the colours used by the artist. Let’s try, instead, in our picture, to study one of the most famous, totally-white collie never portrayed, not in order to judge the artist’s ability, but in an effort to obtain information about that totally white coat; in order to try to understand from which extraordinary combination of genes it was generated. We must, therefore reason on the present genes as if they were on the artist’s palette .Which tones would have he used, in order to obtain which results?

Let’s have some fun at making one or two guesses, in order to understand the genetic differences, if present, between the white collie represented on the painting and those bred today.

On the basis of our present knowledge we are able to anticipate a few hypothesis.

Just for a start, that collie might have been an albino.

Various types of albinism exist, all of them due to mutations which influence an enzyme called ‘tyrosinase’, which controls the biosynthesis of the melanin, which is responsible for colouration. Usually, however, albino animals possess a white coat, red eyes, and a pink nose and lips. The dog presented in Christy’s picture, like the numerous photos we have of it, shows, on the other hand, a rather normal pigmentation. It is not the same for the collie that we see in Landseer’s painting, whose truffle is vaguely pinkish.

An interesting theory, but an improbable hypothesis, because it would lead to suppose that at the time sick dogs were being raised. The albino, is, unquestionably a sick dog, and the idea that a sick dog would end up being given to the President of the United States is highly unlikely. Furthermore, in an advertisement of a white collie published in a newspaper in 1916 we read: ’Free from Albinism’, which leads us to think that the  problem was already well-known at the time.

Continuing guessing an hypothesis glancing at that Mr Christy’s imaginary palette, we can imagine that Rob Roy was a double-merle collie. In this case, the double gene merle would have provoked the ‘dilution’ of colour of the coat making it turn white.

However, the double-merles are often deaf and/or blind, or they have visual or hearing defects, and at times they present traces of colour on their coats. If the breeders would have wanted to select only those few that were born intact, there would have been very few white collies around. On the other hand, it is not conceivable that two Presidents of the United States would have been given such dogs as gifts if they had had such serious health problems. Let us bear in mind, that today the coupling between two blue merles is forbidden in many countries, including Great Britain, which is the homeland of the race, because there is a high probability of obtaining blind and/or deaf dogs.

A further rickety theory might make us imagine that the collie could be a double-merle, and, at the same time be a ‘white-collie’. The ‘white-spotting’ gene would have given it its white body, while, the double-gene merle would have discoloured the head. Unfortunately, even in this case, that dog would have probably been sick, always for effect of the double-gene merle. For the same reasons listed above, therefore, we are forced to exclude this hypothesis too.

However, we are not limiting ourselves into taking into consideration only those colours that our painter had on his palette, that is, we are formulating hypotheses only relying on the genes of which today we are certain are present in the collie. Yet, we cannot exclude that at the time there may have been other genes responsible for that white coat of which we know nothing about today. It is possible, therefore, that the painter had colours on his palette that we no longer have today, or that no longer appear on our palettes. In that case, the painter would have immortalised a white collie, whose colouring of the head was regulated by another gene, a gene which is no longer present in the hereditary patrimony of the collie; we are hypothesising that he, the artist, must have had colours available that today’s artists do not possess.

We know that a dog’s white coat could be the cause of single genes, as ‘white-spotting’, ’merle’, ’white’, ‘albino’, or even of their combination. We have already spoken about ‘white-spotting’, of ‘merle’ and of ‘albinism’. The ‘white‘ gene discovered by Robinson in 1990, produces a completely white coat, with dark eyes and truffle as in the white Swiss shepherd dog, however we do not have any proof of its presence in the collie, so we must therefore, turn to the alleles of the series of ‘spotting’ to explain the various extinctions of ‘white‘ in this particular breed. In 1990, Robinson listed four, however, according to Dr. Sue Ann Bowling (Alaska’s Geophysical Institute), a fifth one may exist, which influences the markings of the body. This, however, remains a hypothesis, united to the fact that these alleles are heavily influenced by the presence of modifying genes, and yet, the hypothesis of its existence would explain, in a genetically correct way, the fact that these completely white dogs were not so uncommon in the last two centuries.

In fact, besides the collies having lived in the White House temporarily, or, thanks to some pictorial representations, images of completely white collies are abundant.

Below, we can see a picture of a wonderful puppy, called Pilot Snowball, raised by Mr. Hamilton (Pilot Snowball collies), which belonged to Mrs .J.B. Austin.

To follow, instead, a beautiful puppy by the name of Nu-Sigma-Nu, belonging to Mrs. Helen Bakewell.


In 1914, an advertisement appeared in the magazine Country Life in America, in which two collie puppies with a white head were shown. The photo is not clear, but the caption speaks of ‘Pure White Collie Dogs’ from Bierbrier’s kennels in Allendale. Perhaps the adjective ‘pure’, referred to the word ‘dogs’ rather than being attributed to the word’ white’, however, the photo represents another piece to be included in our puzzle.

The hypothesis of a gene (or allele) originally present in our breed is lost because of the frenzy that, at a certain point most of the breeders were taken over by, and which led them to eliminate all the collies with a white coat and blaming the shepherds for it; this alone should make us think, and understand how important the preservation of the genetic variability of a population of dogs is. All the varieties present, even if not all, inexplicably admitted by various standards, should be protected in order to avoid remaining only a memory to be admired in a painting.

Sometimes, however, the solutions to the problems are easier than we think; if we go and take a look at what has been said and not said, or just whispered, or passed down from the lines of old books, and maybe from gossip that has remained in one’s memory, a simpler picture is formed.

In his book from 1924, ’THE COLLIE IN AMERICA’ Edwin L .Pickhardt (Sterling) affirms without any compromise that the completely white coat of the collie was the result of a crossbreed of the collie with another dog which was white; probably a Samoyede. George D. Dodd (kollorca), who was a breeder and a respected judge, goes even further, and in the CCA Yearbook, 1933, he puts forward the suspicion that Samoyede and Borzoi were used to obtain the much desired all white coat.

In on other CCA YEARBOOK from 1950, we find an article written by James McGlynn (Collalba), one of the fathers of the American White collie, who states that some breeders crossbred the collie with the Samoyede to satisfy the market request and obtain totally white coats.

It is, however in an interview given at Collie Cues, and published in August 1971, that we find the revelation which ought to make us abandon the genetic hypothesis. In this interview, Molly Radford Ward, Steven Radford’s daughter, tells us that her father had begun selecting integral white collies since 1900, but they often had hearing problems. Mrs. Ward also reveals that since 1915 her father’s white collies won a number of dog shows, nonetheless, compared to the other collies of different colours, they had a bigger forehead and a shorter nasal reed.

The revelation made by Mrs. Ward should lead us to definitely abandon the lost gene hypothesis.

Summing up, we can suppose that things went this way; the enormous success obtained at the beginning of the first half of the 2oth century for the white collie, to which President Coolidge white collies contributed quite a bit too, increased the request for this variety and, as James McGlynn said ’The Americans, being more progressive than the British, decided to supply the demand’ in every possible way. The difficulty in obtaining a completely white collie, but healthy, forced a number of breeders to use a shortcut by issuing another breed in order to expand the white of the collie.

This too is only a hypothesis. It is much more exciting to think of the idea of a lost gene (or simply of a further allele of the ‘spotting’ series), which regulated the colour of the head; lost but not totally, and, perhaps hidden in who knows which line of blood waiting to reappear in order to surprise us. It is the hypothesis that best fits to the white collies belonging to Queen Victoria. Many genes, not just those belonging to the collie have disappeared because of man’s stupidity, who has the tendency of opposing everything that he does not understand. Time is not  a problem for nature, it knows how to wait and  will, sooner or later, take its revenge!