The Grammarphobia Blog

A dogged question

Q: I’m reading Origins of the Specious and enjoying it, but I have a question prompted by this line on page 39: “Lassie is a dog who could direct her own movie.” Lassie was a female character played by a male animal. Do we use “her” or “his”? This is a question that is dogging me.

A: The question occurred to Stewart and me, too, when we were writing the book.

The female character was portrayed by many male dogs over the years. You might say the actors were in drag! But we decided to go for the feminine pronoun, since the character was feminine.

All those Lassie movies, TV shows, novels, comics, toys, etc. began with a female rough-coated collie in a 1938 short story by Eric Knight in the Saturday Evening Post.

Knight later expanded the story into a novel, Lassie Come Home (1940), and MGM turned it into a move in 1943.

Pal, the first dog to play Lassie, sired a long line of male collies that succeeded him in the role. In fact, fans have protested when unrelated collies appeared as Lassie.

Why a male dog in a female role? In checking various Lassie sites on the Web, I find these two explanations most often mentioned:

Male collies tend to have thicker coats, so they’re more photogenic during the summer when dogs shed. Also, male dogs are generally larger, which lets them play opposite growing child actors for longer.

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