In 2014, DreamWorks Animation announced that it was putting Lassie on the comeback trail, but not in the way you might think.
“We realized that Lassie has an authenticity that makes her a merchandising holy grail,” DreamWorks executive Michael Francis crowed to The New York Times. Francis (the man behind Target’s fabulously successful Bull Terrier pitch dog, Bullseye) says that the 76- year-old icon will shepherd in a line of Lassie products — dog food, beds, collars, grooming tools, whatever trinkets market research suggests people will buy.
Oddly, a return to her greatest glory—movies and television—is not part of the plan.
Stories of a boy and his dog, even one who is viewed as a national treasure, just can’t compete with zombie slayers and superheroes. Like a Christmas puppy abandoned as summer vacation approaches, Lassie, movie moguls believe, doesn’t have what it takes to capture the hearts of today’s young people.
Is it possible that Lassie Come Home has lost her way in the modern world?
For Queen and Captain
In many ways, that makes sense. Dogs like her, after all, belong to an earlier era, centuries before the invention of TV, movies, and printing presses, all those machines that made her a household name. Her breed emerged from the primitive shepherds’ helpers who may have arrived as early as the Bronze Age (before 1200 B.C.), to move and protect livestock in the region now known as Britain.
In her superb book, The Collie in America, historian, fancier, and dog-show judge Gayle R. Kaye says that the word collie showed up first in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400: Ran Colle oure dogge. The term appeared often after that, although there is no consensus on its derivation, Kaye notes.
Centuries passed and they became part of the landscape, long-haired or rough Collies guarding flocks in the Scottish Highlands and a short-haired variety working as drovers’ dogs in the harsh lowlands in Northern England.
There they stayed until sometime in the 1860s, when history’s ultimate crazy dog lady, Queen Victoria, took a trip to Scotland and spotted these magnificent dogs. It didn’t take long before there was a “Collie Court” section of her Royal Kennel.
“Scotch-Colleys” debuted in competition two years after the first organized British dog show in 1859. In 1873, Irish sportsman Sewallis E. Shirley registered the first sire, Trefoil, the great-granddaddy of all Collies today.
A queen took Collies from farm to show ring, and a captain of industry, John Pierpont Morgan, brought them to America. Like Victoria, Morgan spotted the dogs working on the Scottish hills and had to have one. He purchased an English champion and started his state-of-the-art Cragston Kennels, on the banks of the Hudson, in 1888. Kaye writes he was the “King of the Collieworld” in the late 1800s. “The first thing anyone heard at any big canine gathering would be, ‘Where are the Morgan Collies?’ ” noted the Collie Folio in 1913 in an obituary of the business titan.
Morgan’s interest propelled the breed to the front of the American stage. But it took a couple of writers—Albert Payson Terhune and Eric Mowbray Knight—to drive the country Collie crazy.
Although Knight’s creation, Lassie, is without a doubt the most famous dog ever, Kaye says that Terhune “did more for popularizing the breed than any other single individual before or since.” Starting with the publication in 1916 of “His Mate” in Redbook Magazine, Terhune gave us scores of lovely stories about his own dogs, Lad, Wolf, and Bruce, among others, and their life at Sunnybank, his home in New Jersey. Sunnybank exists to this day as a memorial park, where fans can visit the gravesites of the dogs they grew to love in Terhune’s books.
Terhune died in 1942, a year before the movie based on Eric Knight’s novel, Lassie Come Home, teamed child actor Roddy McDowell with soon-to-be fourlegged star, Pal, who was turned from a problem pup to the symbol of canine perfection by Hollywood animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax.
Wildly popular in the 1950s and ’60s, Lassie and her lessons of courage, loyalty, and goodness did not fare well as attitudes grew cynical. A 1990s commercial shows Lassie, tired of saving mishap prone Timmy over and over, at a computer keyboard consulting a pet-adoption website. In the last scene, she’s lounging on a couch, and a woman with a French accent says, “Lassie, finish your caviar.” The world, it seems, has become too jaded for this four-footed goody two-shoes.
But don’t try telling that to people lucky enough to share their lives with a “Lassie dog.” “If you have ever known a Collie, then you know what it means to have the kindest, most gentle, most caring soul in your midst,” says Toni Bailey, of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Bailey grew up obsessed with Terhune’s books. “I took every word he wrote to heart and was determined, at age 11, that I would never marry, but rather raise Collies on a place similar to Sunnybank.”
Life didn’t quite follow her script. She married, raised a family, and, for decades, rescued troubled mixed-breeds from the pound. Then in 1998, fate intervened, placing a purebred Collie in the local shelter at the time Bailey was looking for a new canine family member. The dog, Baden, seemed to have stepped out of Terhune’s books. She decided she had to have another Collie.
Her second, James—described by those who knew him as “Clark Gable in fur”—led Bailey into the strange, wonderful world of freestyle, aka doggie dancing.
Collies, she says, are dogdom’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—intelligent, forgiving, biddable, with agile, lithe bodies that can masterthe most intricate steps. “And they do it all with grace and a willing heart.”
That they are stunningly beautiful doesn’t hurt, either.“When they turn and the fur is flying, it wows the crowd,” says Bailey, who, after losing James in August, now dances with her third Collie, Prosper.“I get 10 points just walking out with them.”
Bailey says Collies have the brains to be both partner and choreographer. “Most of the moves my dogs do they have made up themselves.”
In Real Time
Brilliant as they are on the dance floor and in sports, Collies shine brightest when the tasks are harder and the stakes higher. Leslie Rappaport’s Kings Valley Collies Kennel in Oregon has produced generations of AKC conformation and performance champions. For the past two decades, she has been breeding and training Collies to help people with disabilities. The breed, she says, is “endowed with an intrinsic richness of character and a highly developed sense of appropriateness” needed for these difficult jobs.
They also have the ability, as Bailey discovered, to think for themselves, essential in service dogs who sometimes have to disobey human commands.
Rappaport’s website brims with stories of how service Collies opened the world for people with sometimes debilitating mental and physical disabilities —multiple sclerosis, migraines, strokes, car accident injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism.
At least one of Rappaport’s dogs, Ramsey, showed the kind of courage that might seem to have come from a writer’s imagination. In 2004, Ramsey was teamed up with Scott, a man disabled by a stroke. Five years later, while Scott and his partner Jenny were vacationing at Disney World, Jenny took Ramsey for a morning walk. As they stepped into the hotel courtyard, Ramsey started whining and trying to keep her from entering. She ignored his warning, stepped in, and stopped to chat with other guests.
Suddenly, the dog leaped in front of her, just in time to block the fangs of poisonous coral snake that had been lurking in the grass. In minutes, the venom took the life of this brave dog.
Had he not been there, the snake most certainly would have gotten Jenny. Perhaps sacrifice like this this isn’t spectacular enough for today’s movie makers.
Perhaps, as one film critic commented about Lassie’s revival, young audiences would get bored unless the vintage screen icon “turned into a super dog that blows things up.”
But for the people who love them, the real dog—that glorious combination of beauty, intelligence, courage, loyalty, and love—is superhero enough.
Live with one, Rappaport says, “then you see all the Lassie stories are true.” No special effects required.