Koolie History

The Koolie is unrecognised by many. But so many people say “Koolies – great working dogs” or “Koolies my grandfather had them” or “once you have a Koolie you’ll never go back.” Koolies (also known as Australian Koolies or German Coolies) have a long history and are one of Australia’s oldest working breeds. Flying under the radar, evolving and working hard on Australia’s farms and stations, out of the limelight of showing and trialling, as a good reliable all round farm dog.

The  Koolie has a perplexing and interesting history. All breeds began from many; the Australian Koolie is no different. History books show that serious importations of working breeds began around the 1800s; many books on the Kelpie, Australian Cattle Dog and Stumpy refer to the influence of the Blue Merle in their own breed’s foundations. The Blue Merle and Smooth Coated Collies were British working dogs with Celtic origins. They are probably ancestors of all common British based working breeds including Koolies and Border Collies. Many of these dogs arrived in Australia when colonization began. The earliest references to working breeds start around the 1820’s.  Obviously some dogs would have arrived earlier but we have seen no records referring to working type dogs any earlier at this stage, probably the first dogs to arrive in Australia would have been hunting dogs or small ratting and mousing dogs from ships. Records show that a Mr. Thomas Simpson Hall from the Hunter Valley imported a pair of smooth coated Collie’s in the 1840’s.

Another breed bought into the country at that time was the German working dogs called Tigers (pronounced Teeger). One of the German Alpine Header breeds that came with settlers into the coastal agricultural areas including South Australia and South West Victoria around the 1840s-1850s.

Dorothia Schultz, a grandmother who’s own grandparents were German settlers tells us, after finding the more extreme heat and dryness difficult to handle their German dogs were bred to local working dogs such as those of British heritage that were the ancestors of the Kelpie. They continued to breed their own lines to their own needs and veered away from what became the Kelpie. By sharing pups amongst extended family members and friends eventually forming their own breed which gradually spread along stock routes with sheep and cattle and from farm to farm all over rural Australia. Even now working dogs are often bought and sold at sheep and cattle sales between farmers, drovers and truck drivers.

One way to track the history of working dogs and particularly Koolies in Australia is to follow the history of the sheep as, when the sheep have travelled so would the dogs. Many sheep came from Britain in the 1800s along with Blue Merles, Border and Bearded Collies, but Merino sheep were also sourced from Saxony and France. Eliza Forlonge visited both of these places collecting Merino sheep to return to Australia. In France there is a dog called the Carea Leone and in Germany the The Tiger or Alpine Header Dog that bare a remarkable resemblance to the Koolie. During the importation of sheep from all these areas and during immigration of farmers and labourers from Europe including the large number of German settlers in South Australia, dogs would have arrived with them.

An early book by German writer Von Stephanitz “The German Shepherd In Word and Picture” released 1925 in which he writes “The Australian grazier were sufficiently impressed with German sheep dogs to import them”, he then names the breed which were imported, as the German Tiger (pronounced with a long “e” not a short “i”) and describes them as “long or short coated, prick eared type of Merle colouring similar to the type already found in Australia called the German Collie.

In South Australia the German settlers dogs were bred for particular traits such as agility, slender stature, non aggressive quiet workers. Dogs that were aggressive workers were seen to stir the stock too much and make the job only harder. The Germans appreciated efficiency and liked dogs that could get the job done quickly with as little fuss as possible. On many properties work was seasonal. A dog that could switch off and stay out of the way of machinery at harvest etc. while other jobs were under way was favoured. This saw a laid back temperament evolve where an off switch is present.

Naming seems to have evolved from being referred to as the “German’s Coolies” as in “hard workers.” Over the years it became German Coolie or Koolie and over recent times Australian Koolie recognising the actual homeland of the breed. There is no such breed in Germany. And as there is no K in the German language we can only assume the “C” spelling is a British ancestry local owners interpretation. To form the club a name and so spelling of Koolie/Coolie was needed to be decided on for the club’s registration and paperwork. After much discussion at the inaugural meeting of the club in 2000 it was decided “K” would be used to help differentiate between Koolies and Collies. Since then the use of Australian Koolie has become common, showing the true origin of the breed in its name. There is no question Australian Koolies and German Coolies are the same breed in a similar way to Queensland Heelers and Australian Cattle Dogs are the same. Members are welcome to use whichever name they prefer themselves. But saying the other name is wrong is incorrect.

One of the questions most often asked is why hasn’t the Koolie breed been recognized before now? The answer is simple; the men and women who bred and worked the Koolie did so to continue an excellent working dog that could adapt to all terrains and weather conditions.

This was a dog that would work until it dropped just for the shear love of working and still be a loyal companion at days end. It is only in recent times that we have felt the need to register our Koolies. As people have moved away from the area and livestock production reduced in many areas in favour of grain growing, the search to find other scarce Koolies for breeding became difficult, so many Koolies were simply bred to other good working dogs. People became concerned that the Koolie may be in danger of being bred out of existence. The register was started so that breeders could be brought together and with purchasers so they could have a central record of their dogs ancestry and easily track which dogs they are related to thereby making informed breeding decisions in the future. This has since been augmented by the commencement of our DNA scheme which not only can verify parentage but will help recognize carriers of unwanted disease genes.

There are no plans to have the Koolie breed recognized for the show ring. Breeders have seen the problems caused to other breeds when breeding is centred around pretty looks, the current fad, the narrow size selection and the closed gene pool this would entail. Koolies are recognized on sporting registers around the country and overseas which sees them able to compete in Kennel Club sports events and the general consensus is that is enough. The best people to manage the future of the Koolie breed is those that know it best and work beside them every day. The Koolie Club of Australia is a way of those people the world over having a voice in the future of the Koolie.

Koolie types are very diverse, they can have pricked ears, semi dropped ears or dropped ears. Pricked ears are most common. Their coat can be smooth, short or medium, there have also been a few Koolies that have had coats as long as a Border Collie’s but this is not common. Most common is a short coat with some under coat. The colours range from Red or Blue Merle, solid Red or Black, sometimes with white or “Irish” trim. There are solids, tricolours and bicolours as well. The one thing that most serious breeders agree upon is the colour must be strong and dark and that white on the body must be minimal. Dilute colours are not encourage due the chance of bringing problems of alopecia and that they can wash out the colour making it difficult to see if the dog is a merle pattern or not. Some Koolies have one or two blue eyes, often eyes with blue chips and even some have green or yellow eyes. Eye colour is often affected by the merle gene that creates the coat pattern. It is not a requirement of the club that eyes are any particular colour, but a personal preference by some people in the past is the blue eyes, or one blue eye. It in no way signifies the purity of the line.

The Koolie size has been known to be as large as a Border Collie to the size of a small Kelpie, bone structure can vary from heavy to fine, the reasons behind such diversity could be in the Koolies very ability to adapt to all terrain’s and situations. The men and women who bred them, did so for what was needed at the time, if you worked truck and transporters you needed a small agile hardy dog that could move quick and work hard. In the paddock on the station or droving you needed a dog that could eat up the distances and have great stamina with a short coat keeping off the burrs. In the high country the dog worked better if the coat was rough and double with a softer water resistant undercoat to keep out the chill of the snow and up north with the semi-wild cattle you required a dog with heavier bones to lend strength needed for this job.

When it comes to sheep you looked for a steady worker that would willingly jump up on the sheep backs in the yards and bring them to you from the fields. The Koolie meets all these requirements and responds to the work with a willingness and devotion that have their owners refusing large offers for their prized partners. Koolies have shown their metal in every form of work from on the land to Obedience, Tracking, Agility and Rescue Service, Koolies have been used as therapy dogs in nursing homes and as animal educators for children at school.

For more information on what is a structurally sound Koolie refer to our documents section and The Koolie Fundamentals. This not a standard but a description of a sound dog able to undertake all of these jobs useful for those breeding or searching for a healthy dog.

Many people including some Australian Shepherd breeders, believe the Koolie is an ancestor of the Australian Shepherd. A theory that is plausible is that these dogs were shipped over to the United States with the importation of cattle and sheep from Australia to the United States from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. In order to move the stock that were being shipped, a stockman used his dogs to do the job. Once there with the dogs the value of this great working dog was recognized by stockmen in the United States and bargaining, trading and purchasing occurred of these dogs. Until recent years quarantine laws made it impossible for dogs to be returned to Australia.

Linda Rorem offers a similar theory for the explanation of the birth of the Australian Shepherd Breed. She references the use and importation of dogs to the United States that were accompanying these flocks, along with later arrivals, which would figure into the background of the Australian Shepherd.

DNA testing has proven that Koolies and Australian Shepherds are related, but not as closely as Koolies and Kelpies who were found to be first cousins. This reinforces these theories, Koolies evolved from breeds here that included the ancestors of the Kelpie. As well that there is a relationship to the Australian Shepherd (along with Border Collie and Australian Cattle Dog), but has not defined how they connect, or whether ancestors. Work is under way to source DNA samples from German Tigers which will hopefully clarify things even more.

Ongoing efforts are being made to research the origins of the Koolie, the club and committee would appreciate any information and particularly photographs that would help us unravel the past.