That “Lassie” Blaze

Everyone knows that Erik Knight’s fictional canine, Lassie, was a Collie. Few people know that in his book, Mr. Knight drew the character as a tri color Collie. A tri color, for those who don’t know, is a dog colored very much like a Doberman or a Rottie, but with white markings to any varying degree on the feet, legs, chest, neck, tail tip, and occasionally on the face.

When MGM studios decided to make a movie from the best selling book, they could not find a tri color Collie trained for movie work, so instead, they cast a sable and white Collie. As it happened, that particular sable and white Collie sported a white blaze on his face. In 1942, such a face blaze was not unusual on a sable and white Collie, and many of them sported such a marking.

Three things happened during that decade which had an affect on the future of the dogs which would portray the Lassie character, on the Collie breed as a whole, and on the Sheltie breed as a whole, as well. One of those things was that the movie became a big hit, and spawned a number of sequels (and ultimately a television series). Another was that Collie breeders of the day, frustrated by the fact that a white face blaze is typically accompanied by often unattractive white haws (inner eyelids), had already begun to move away from using white blazed dogs in their breeding programs. The third was that the popularity of the Lassie movies proved somewhat distasteful for fanciers of the breed, as Hollywood was generally considered anything but a respectable entity in those days, and it’s touting of a Collie which was not up to show or breeding standards (the dog was somewhat cow hocked, had large light eyes, and several clear head faults) was considered nothing short of an insult to the breed.

By the 1950’s, the Collie breed was fairly well established as a dog without a face blaze, and dedicated breeders were proudly declaring that trait to display the most obvious distinction between their high quality dogs and the “Hollywood hyped” pet. The public, on the other hand, was far more influenced by the quickly growing television industry than anyone — including the Collie breeders of the day — could have imagined. They clamored for whatever soap, soup, breakfast cereal, or stage singer regularly flashed into their living rooms through the amazing little box we’ve all come to know as television. Thus they additionally clamored for a Collie “just like the one on TV” — face blaze and all.

The Collie breed, which had always enjoyed great popularity in this country since it’s introduction in the late 1800’s, certainly was not hurt by the addition or longevity of the famous icon. During the heyday of Lassie, families were reminded on a weekly basis of the dogs they grew up with in the pre Hollywood years, and of those they had been reading about in Albert Payson Terhune’s wonderful books since the 1920’s. Yet while the popularity of Lassie helped in maintaining the popularity of the Collie, the public’s quest for the “Lassie blaze” did a lot for the popularity of the Sheltie, as well. While Collies sporting a white blaze on the face had become somewhat of an anomaly, Shelties with a white face blaze were not at all uncommon. Anyone who wanted the “whole look” of a “little Lassie” need only look as far as their nearest Shetland Sheepdog breeder to get it. And look they did. Not only did the Sheltie become one of the most sought after breeds in the country during the Lassie television years, but many breeders of the day are still here to report a good number of potential puppy buyers coming to them in search of “one of those little Lassie dogs that has the white on the face”.

For the Hollywood folks intent on producing new generations of dogs having the same appearance as their original “Lassie” star, the blaze quite literally became their nemesis. In order to have a commodity, they were obligated to produce it. Yet producing a trait which has been all but bred out of the breed, even if one parent possesses it, is a challenge to say the least. Not only that, but as any Collie breeder well knows, a puppy with a blaze on his face is very often an adult with no blaze on his face, as that particular marking is one that will not only change as a puppy matures, but will often disappear completely. The lasting blaze would eventually be produced on a puppy which carried all of the other necessary aesthetics — a full white collar and full white front legs (white rear feet and tail tip appearing on virtually all Collies), and the sex to be male (the reasoning behind that one being somewhat dubious – no irony intended). When that happened, that puppy, regardless of temperament, personality, and certainly breed quality, was quickly dubbed “the next Lassie”. Anyone wondering “why” the dogs Hollywood continued to choose in portraying the Collie never reached the level of conformation quality that any knowledgeable breeder would select can find their answer in the simple necessity of that blaze. So even tho purebred dogs of other breeds selected to appear in television and movies are not only very often top quality specimens, but even breed champions, the most famous representative of the Collie would continue to be one capable of winning dog shows only in fictional portrayals on the big and small screen.

Today the Lassie icon is, for the most part, a fond childhood memory for an aging group of baby-boomers. Our modern day Shelties still often sport the face blaze, but just as often do not. Collies with a blaze are beginning to become accepted once more, and there are once again a fair number of top specimens with varying degrees of white on their faces. Both breeds enjoy a level of popularity with which most breeders feel comfortable, and not overwhelmed by fictional portrayals or celebrity mania. Some people still love the face blaze because they grew up with the romanticized image, and others like it as reminiscent of the early dogs. Still others just enjoy it as one of the many looks that define an endearing Collie or Sheltie expression.

Whether you love, hate, tolerate, or don’t think much about the face blaze, it’s interesting to note the effect it’s had on Collies and Shelties in the past, as well as on the perceptions of the public at a time when a little box flashing images into our living rooms was a brand new idea.

So how do you feel about a Collie or Sheltie having a blaze on the face?

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7 thoughts on “That “Lassie” Blaze

  1. I remember seeing one of the Lassie trainers on The Tonight Show about twenty years ago. He was saying they often had to produce more than a hundred puppies just to get one with the blaze! I like some bf the blazes, but the really wide ones that take over the whole face detract from the expression. In my opinion anyway. The Shetland Sheepdogs in the picture have pretty blazes, I think.

  2. Great article! We collie breeders have always been somewhat embarrassed by Lassie, while at the same time embracing the concept. We’d go to see him at an appearance because he was a collie, but quietly wish he was a better example. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that sometimes those blazes are crooked. When they’re really wide or crooked, they really ruin the expression. I don’t mind a blaze if it is straight and not too wide. When there’s a deep, two angled head and big round eyes, though, the blaze just makes it all look even worse.

  3. I just wanted to mention that the Disney people did a movie with a Sheltie and the dog was a beautiful champion show dog. It was a made for TV film on The Wonderful World Of Color that used to be on every week. It’s too bad Disney does not release those films, but I guess they’re pretty short when you take the commercials out. Still I know the Sheltie people would buy it if they could get a DVD. It was called The Little Sheepdog Of Catalina Island or something like that.

  4. You do see more collies with blazes in the past twenty years or so. I think all the sable merle breeding has a lot to do with it. It’s still very hard to finish a sable or tri with a blaze unless you’re a big name kennel or handler. The white breeders alway bred for them, so much so that many people think it’s a sign the dog is white factored! Great blog!

  5. David is so right!!!! It does seem to be more difficult to finish a quality, or should say an excellent, collie with a blaze!!!! Keeping one that you know is a really good one has to be a choice that a Breeder makes for the future of his or her family of collies! Just remember…..a good one….is a good one….whether it makes it in the whelping box or the show ring! Always keep the best! I might add…..I have never owned a sable merle, but do own a lovely mahogany red sable (from two of the same color) girl with a blaze…..and she is a champion to boot!

  6. I feel a small blaze is attractive a large one affects the expression. Really we need to concentrate on the overall dog since the fad and fashion does not always bring us health. It seems almost all the collies are breeding to the same studs making a small gene pool and missing atrributes like nuts and teeth.

    • Interesting perspective on Collie stud dogs, and something I haven’t seen at all. Perhaps this is within a particular area of the country? What I see overall is a full shift from the breed founders determination to always use the best stud dog suited to bring improvements to the particular bitch while maintaining strong type and soundness to a sort of “generic” stud dog, i.e., anything with a “Ch” in front of it’s name will do. If a particular stud dog consistantly produces monorchidism or criptorchidism, or missing teeth, I would have to think that the dog must possess such outstanding virtues that breeders are using him with the determination to address those concerns in future generations.

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