The fascinating story behind how the kelpie got its name

Muster Dogs season two has kicked off and we are here for it. Whether you are on team Border Collie or kelpie, we are sure these working dogs have charmed their way into your hearts as much as they have ours.

But causing more discussion around the barbecue than Border Collie vs kelpie debate, is whether or not the kelpie has dingo in its heritage, leaving a true blue Aussie pawprint on the breed.

To find out whether this is true or just a campfire lore, we spoke to Professor Claire Wade from Sydney University who is an expert in dog genetics.

Professor Wade was involved in research that looked into about 300 kelpies to see whether there was in fact a kelpie-dingo connection.

Professor Claire Wade with Peppa and Cash. Photo: Vanessa Saines/University of Sydney.

“Like everyone, I had heard the rumours that kelpies included dingo in their heritage to increase their resilience in our harsh landscapes, but as a scientist I didn’t want to just believe what I was told,” she explained.

The kelpie is in fact from Scotland, so it was no surprise people thought mixing the breed with the dingo helped it adapt to the Australian conditions, but what else made people draw the connection?

“The yellow or cream kelpie to the average person looks quite similar to the dingo and the ears also look quite similar,” Professor Wade said.

The study looked at the gene coding for ears and coat colour and found no shared history. “In fact, the yellow coat in kelpies is essentially the same as the yellow coat in a labrador.

“Sure people have tried it (cross breeding them), but if think about it logically when kelpies were brought to Australia they were brought as livestock herding dogs, so would you take these dogs, imported with great difficulty, and cross them with sheep killers and expect their progeny to be good?”

Where did the kelpie get its name?

The kelpie is in fact a collie, a short or smooth collie. So how did Australia end up naming the breed kelpie?

According to the Working Kelpie Council of Australia, three pairs of working collies were brought to Australia from Scotland by three early landholders. One of Australia’s foundation females – born from black and tan collies – ended up being owned by Jack Gleeson who swapped a horse for the pup he trained on a station in Victoria.

“The rumour was they got the dogs cheap because they had weird ears but they had good herding bloodlines,” Professor Wade explains.

“In Scotland pricked ears are not an advantage because they can get frostbite, but in Australia the ears help to dissipate the heat.”

Mr Gleeson named his female “Kelpie”. In Scottish mythology a kelpie is a dangerous sea creature that can appear in the shape of a horse. 

“So a kelpie is Celtic sea monster but I think at the time, kelpie was a well-known race horse in Australia.”

A kelpie is from Celtic mythology. Pictured are “The Kelpies” sculpture in Scotland, standing at 30 metres tall.

City vs country kelpies

The divide between city and country kelpies is a thing! It dates back to the early days of the breed coming to Australia and is loosely defined by a difference in coat colour. The working dogs commonly (but not always) have the black and tan markings, whereas show dogs are single coloured.

Professor Wade said the study also revealed a big difference between the two bloodlines was their toughness in their paws – the working kelpies need to handle running across paddocks and the prickles that come with that.

We learnt earlier about a man called Jack Gleeson. Later, after he moved to New South Wales, this female had a litter and one of them, named Kelpie after her mother, put on an exceptional performance at the first sheep dog trial at the Forbes Show – so good it’s how the breed got its name.

According to the Working Kelpie Council, at first, dogs of this bloodline were proudly known as “Kelpie’s pups”, but by the turn of the century, dogs with ‘Kelpie-like’ appearance were described as kelpies regardless of origin.

Working dog trainer Frank Finger from Season One of Muster Dogs. Photo: ABC

Fun facts

  • In the 1860s and 70s, Queen Victoria had smooth collies (kelpies) and owned 88 in her lifetime. This made them a popular breed.
  • Another history-making kelpie in Australia, a black dog called “Coil” won the Sydney sheepdog trials in 1898 with a perfect score on the first day, but overnight broke his leg. Despite the injury he competed the next day and achieved another perfect score.
  • A newspaper in 1903 published a story how one of Coil’s daughters inherited his herding abilities and could herd a chick into a tin!
  • Gleeson’s Kelpie and Coil made the black and tan, and pure black, coat colours popular, but cream (a recessive gene), blue, fawn and red colours have always been there. These other colours are favoured much more now.
  • The record price paid for an Australian working kelpie is $49,000.
  • The Border Collie got its name from its homeland on the Welsh-Scottish-England borders. However, it’s believed the breed arrived in England from Viking and Roman invasions more than one thousand years ago!
Queen Victoria with her favourite Collie, Sharp. She wrote in her journal, “I was photographed alone with my faithful Sharp.” Photo: www.royal.uk

Stacey Davidson

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