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– Some Background on the Coolie/Koolie

by Linda Rorem  



One of Australia’s oldest working dogs has been little-known outside its homeland, but is beginning to gain more attention.  There are slightly different versions of its name – German Coolie, Australian Koolie – but the names apply to the same agile, tough, versatile sheep and cattle dog.  Long bred solely for stock-working ability, the Coolie or Koolie varies in details of appearance, as has always been the case with working-bred dogs.  Ears may be prick or may be folded over to varying degrees.  Many are fairly smooth-coated, but medium-long coats also occur.   Depending on the area of Australia where they are bred, they may tend to be larger or smaller, rangier or stockier, to fit local conditions.   The color most often associated with them is merle, blue or red, often with blue or china-white eyes, but colors include solid black or solid chocolate brown/red, with white and/or tan markings.  They are adaptable and biddable, comfortable working both close-in and at a further distance, will gather or drive as needed,  and generally work upright with a flexible amount of eye rather than crouching or fixing on their stock with a sticky eye. 


The most likely explanation for the unusual coolie/koolie name is that it is a variant spelling and pronunciation of collie.  By the  mid-19th century, the collie had become so well known as a sheepdog that the word “collie” was often used as a synonym for sheepdog.  Thus references can be found  to French collies, Italian collies, Russian collies, Norwegian collies (from the description, a Buhund or Elkhound), even an Arabian collie.  And of course, German collies.  Even when it was the Scottish collie that was being referred to, the earlier spelling could take on various forms – collie, colley, coaly, coley, coly, cullie, coulie, coolie.  In 1827 in The World in Miniature; England, Scotland and Ireland, Vol IV, W. H. Pyne writes, “‘On the Cheviot hills, the Lammermoors, and the heights of Tweedale,’ says Mr. Gray, ‘one of these shepherds with his coolly (dog) will take care of from thirty to a hundred score of sheep.’”   


Coolie was a term long used in Australia for collie-type dogs, and didn’t necessarily relate to dogs of German origin.  A notice in 1836 the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser informed readers that “The Scotch shepherds per Florentia have brought out a number of dogs of the Coolie breed, well adapted for sheep dogs.”  



1802 Shepherd’s Dogs and Curs

by Sydenham Edwards






  English Shepherd’s Dog  (1847)                                                     Shepherd’s Dog.  Colly.  (1858)  



In 1839, a reward of five pounds was offered via the Sydney Gazette for the apprehension of James McIntyre, an emigrant who “absconded from his hired Service, at Belubula, where he was in charge of a Flock of Sheep,” and not only skipped out on his three-year employment contract but took with him “ two black Scotch Cooley Dogs.”  In Brisbane in 1859, “Scotch coolie dogs” were performing in a trained animal act with Klaer’s Lilliputian Hippodrome.  An “Imported pure-bred Scotch coolie dog” was listed for sale in late December and through January 1879 in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Newspaper notices and ads refer to “Scotch coolies” as well as German ones.  The English writer Morley Roberts, who had worked in rural Australia for three years beginning in 1877, noted in his 1891 travel memoirs, “There the men working with sheep delight in having well-bred animals and devote immense care and patience to their education.  Their dogs are always collies – called by the way in the bush coolies – they come very often from good imported strains, and are frequently exceedingly handsome and clever.”


Spellings such as coolie and cooley turn up in Canada and the U.S. as well.  An article in a Canadian journal in 1888 referenced “Scotch coolies.”   In 1906 a Pennsylvania subscriber to the “Hunter-Trader-Trapper” magazine wrote of hunting with his “bunty-tailed [bobtail] Scotch coolie,” named Cooley.  The resemblance of the word used for the working collie-type dogs to the word “coolie” used for immigrant workers, a word of Hindi origin (translated into German as “kuli”), is coincidental.  One 1842 Sydney newspaper entry relates a joke having to do with the misunderstanding of a Scotsman when hearing about the need to bring in more coolie workers, and it is explained “For the benefit of such of our readers as may not be cognizant of the fact, a Colie, or Coolie, is the term used in Scotland for a Shepherd's dog.”         


There are numerous references in Australia to the importation of collies and “coolies” from Britain, as well as other strains of British working dogs such as the Smithfield dog.  Dogs for handling livestock were brought to Australia from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and some were brought from Germany too.   Note was made in 1826 of an importation of sheep handled by William Hampden Dutton involving 9 Saxon rams, 172 Saxon ewes, 29 lambs, 500 additional sheep of the same kind which were expected to be shipped within the month, and a German master shepherd, three German and two English under-shepherds, two wolf dogs (guardian dogs) and two sheep dogs.  There were other large importations of sheep from Germany being made in this period, and it is probable that shepherds and dogs came with some of those as well.   Later on, in 1851 a notice appeared in the April 22nd edition of the Melbourne Argus:


FRIDAY, 2nd MAY, 1851.





Will sell by auction, at


close by Liardet's,


at one o'clock,


Imported ex ANTONIE from Hamburgh.

11 Pure Saxon Merino Rams,

Imported ex DOCKENHUDEN.

And 3 Pure Bred Saxon Merino Rams,

Imported ex SENATOR.



2 German Sheep Dogs and 1 Bitch, of the finest

German Breed.

The Auctioneer begs to call the attention of

Breeders to the above Rams, as some of them

are of the very highest class to be obtained in Germany.


In the 1850s in particular there was a strong demand for German immigrant farmworkers, especially shepherds, although very little is said about dogs.  A notice of a German sheepdog being sold at auction was printed in the Hobart Mercury on Aug. 20, 1861, in a listing that continued on through October 26. 


A sheepdog of 1864 by German artist Robert Kretschmer


No physical descriptions were given of these early German sheepdog imports.  The sheepdogs brought to Australia from various countries, and subsequently bred from, included individuals of various colors and coat types.  Merles featured strongly among the British dogs.  The smooth collie of Northern England and Scotland was often merle colored, and the color was particularly associated with Welsh sheepdogs.  Robert Kaleski, in an article on Cattle Dogs in the August 1903 issue of the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, describes the “Welsh heeler or merle, erroneously known as the German collie,” as a “blue-gray dog about the size and build of a smooth-haired collie, generally with wall eyes.”  The British background predominated in the dogs that came to be associated with the “German collie” name, but the working dogs from different backgrounds had much in common and were readily interbred to suit the needs of stockmen.  It was also during this period that the original collie was being turned into a show dog, and the formerly common merle color was being eclipsed by the fashionable sable to the extent that merles became uncommon in the dogs that show breeders were presenting to the public as “the Collie.”  At some point along the way, the German strain in the blend of the working “coolie” dog provided a more distinctive name.



Sheepdogs Resting in a Mountain Landscape, by George Horler, 1875 (blue merle in back)



In the history of dog breeding, it is not uncommon for color to be associated with a breed.   Because merle cannot be bred “pure” due to the detrimental effects on health that can result when a pup gets a merle gene from each parent (the merle itself is a dog which gets a gene for merle from the merle parent and a gene for non-merle from the non-merle parent), solid-colored dogs continued to be bred in the German collie as well, even though the more eye-catching merle color came to be closely associated with the breed.  Dogs with merle coloring frequently have one or both eyes blue, china-white, or marbled, although the collie breeds also have a blue or china-white eye that is inherited separately from the merle gene.


By the late 1850s,  notices were appearing in newspaper “For sale” and “Lost and Found” entries for German collies and German coolies, and by the 1870s the notices were more numerous.  In the later 19th and early 20th century, German collie was the most common form of the name in newspapers in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart and Perth.  When descriptions were provided in the ads and notices, many gave the color as grey, others were black and white; black, tan and white; brown; and one was white.  A couple were bobtailed.  Several of the ads mentioned the dog as having one or both eyes white, or “wall eyes,” including dogs that didn’t appear to be merle.   Blue-eyed “German collies” were known in New Zealand as well. 


A blue merle sheepdog in Germany, 1900

(from The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture, Von Stephanitz)


At the sheepdog trial held in conjunction with the 25th annual spring stock show of the South Tasmanian Agricultural and Pastoral Society, the first prize was won by the German collie, Maid, worked by Mr. Harwick of Oatlands and owned by S. B. Barwick.  The reporter related that she was “A very fine specimen of a sheepdog, and secured within two of the total maximum number of points.”  Maid and the second-place dog were “exceptionally tractable, each securing the maximum number of points awarded for this class of work,” in contrast to several of the other contestants who were “rather unruly, and showed a disposition to add to their labors by unnecessarily chasing the sheep about.  Judged on the whole, however, the work was very creditable, and in several instances the sheep were smartly yarded.”  In June 1900, Maid came second at the trial held at the Campbell Town Show of the Midland Agricultural Association.


In the “Kennel” column in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 14, 1900, the columnist wrote about the very popular sheepdog, the black or blue prick-eared barb (a strain with an origin in common with the Kelpie, which eventually became part of the Kelpie breed), named after a notable dog called Barb who had been named after a black racehorse, The Barb.  The columnist went on to mention the merle dog with a wall eye, known as a smooth sheepdog, that was common in Wales, Lancashire and Westmoreland, and how that dog would be called in New South Wales and perhaps all over Australia, “German coalys.”  He was puzzled about the name, and asked whether some reader might provide some information.  


The next week, he related that someone had come forward, and that according to Charles Gould of Sydney, “this dog is named after a blue dog imported from Germany early in the sixties by Mr. C. W. Bucknell of Minigver [Mungyer] station, Gwydir district, New South Wales.  With him were associated a lot of sheep and cattle matrons, hence the variety.  They were never supposed to have the prick ears of the barb, and all the Germans were blue, with marble eyes.  The German sheepdog proper, however, is little like the one known as such in this country.  One of the oldest authorities wrote of him, ‘The German collie is of a small and variable breed, resembling greatly the Spitz (Pomeranian) in appearance, but without any definite points.’”  


By 1901, German collies were being shown at dog shows in the Adelaide area and continued to appear in dog show classes until 1911.  After that, they disappeared from the show ring and continued on solely as working dogs. In the meantime, in 1904 German sheepdogs were imported that were said to be “the first two German sheepdogs which have arrived in Australia.”  They were described as resembling the Kelpie and being wolf color.  Long forgotten were the German sheepdogs that arrived with the Saxon Merino rams on the Antonie or the Dockenhuden or the Senator in 1851.  These wolf-colored 1904 imports were, of course, modern German Shepherd Dogs.  It was the modern German Shepherd Dog, which he influenced so strongly, to which Capt. Max Von Stephanitz referred in his book, The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture, when he talked of German shepherd dogs being imported into Australia.  He did not write that there had been earlier importations of a German merle breed called the “Tiger.”  He referred in his book to tiger-spotted dogs, but the references are to color, not a breed, and he also used terms like dappled and flaked to refer to merles.  Although Von Stephanitz wrote that “the colouring of the dog has no significance whatever for service; our shepherd dog accordingly is not bred for colour,” he expressed a dislike of the merle color, and before long it was gone from the registered German Shepherd Dog.  The German Shepherd Dog was no longer to include merles, or small variable dogs resembling the Pomeranian, or dogs whose bodies and muzzles were covered with a wooly, tousled coat, the old German “sheep poodle,” some of which had been brought to America in the early-to-mid 19th century.  But the “variable” German herding dogs continued to be bred by working shepherds, farmers and cattlemen.  Traits such as shaggy-faced coats, bobtails, long coats, and merle colors survived in the dogs that did much of the day-to-day herding in Germany, and in recent years a working-oriented organization, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Zucht Altdeutscher Hütehunde (AAH), has been formed to register these Old German Shepherd dogs. 




A blue merle smooth collie, 1900


In Australia, the German coolie, partly descended from the old German herding dogs which were blended with the more numerous dogs of British origin, continued to be bred solely as a stockdog, doing its work far from the more-publicized world of the organized dog fancy.  No doubt some of these dogs were among the working dogs that went to America from Australia in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, when sheep from Australia were being imported into the American west.  There they likely played a part in the formation of the Australian Shepherd, another breed that similarly came to have an association with the merle color.  And in a situation similar to that of the Australian Shepherd, which has some Australian ancestry which contributed to its name but was developed in the United States, the German collie, now known by the early outback name, is an Australian breed. 


The Coolie or Koolie, continuing on with its focus on stock work, is now being registered in working-oriented organizations, including the International German Coolie Society and Registry, Koolie Club of Australia, and Working Koolie Association of Australia.  There may be some variation in the details of the name, but there is agreement on the good working qualities, intelligence and soundness that have made it a dog of note in the working world of the Australian stockdog.  







photos courtesy of Ruth Anne Stevens      





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