Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Real Dogs? or Pretty Dogs?

How many times have you seen the proud owner or the puffed breeder parade their favored muse and proclaim "My dog was bred to course hares" or "hunt badgers" or "flush birds" and you look at the primped and preened speciman and think "That??!"

Well guess what? You're probably right. Most of todays purebreds were not bred to do anything, other than look upbeat and pretty when they're led around a show ring. In fact, in many cases it's quite likely the sturdy little terrier with the ferocious bark couldn't even fit down a badger hole if he wanted to.

Livestock Judging Handbook by Julius E. Nordby, M.S,Agr (University of Idaho), W. Malcolm Beeson, Ph.D (Purdue University) and David L. Fourt, M.S.Agr (University of Idaho).

In a further consideration of utility type in draft horses it is of value to note carefully what Wayne Dinsmore, Secretary, The Horse and Mule Association of America, has recently found concerning type in the farm horse. This discussion is the result of a carefully conducted and extensive survey among farmers of twelve midwestern states, in which their choice is expressed with respect to the qualities that should prevail in the ideal farm work horse.
To get these facts and other information about horse and mule breeding, a trained horseman was sent on a trip which took him to [these twelve midwestern states]. ..[T]he route traversed was usually a mile or more away from paved highways, and the farmers interviewed were not selected, but 'run of the mine' farmers, taken as they came.
...[T]the farmer was asked: 'Have you a horse (or mule) that just suits you?' Where the answer was in the affirmative, the horse or mule was led out and ...accurately measured.

So this is the definitive test. Take those that best do the work (function), document their size and shape, and derive the standard (form).

Is there any better method for determining what a dog "bred to ...(fill in the blank)..." should look like?

Some people still think so. The terrier men at terrierman.com think so. And these sled dog racers think this old technique has value too - "Bones You Should Know and Love."

So the only remaining question is, are there enough dogs left doing the work to get a good sampling? For some jobs, there probably are. For others, the only thing to do is set the record straight.

"That dog was bred to prance around the showring looking upbeat and pretty."


  1. The purist vs. the populist arguments are many in almost every hobby and discipline. We have the same discussions in the off road Jeep culture about popular SUVs that simply don't cut mustard off road. And for the prices they charge who would ever take them off road? It's for that reason that I've never seen one $80,000 Mercedes SUV off road, and not too many Landrovers and Rangerovers (usually kids with daddy's car, stuck at the head of the trail. Not because the car is useless, but because the driver is).

    The culture is one of customization and tinkering and in many ways excess too. For instance, I see plenty of mudding tires here in Colorado where they are particularly useless given that we don't have much mud at all. It's just that they LOOK so tough and imposing.

    You might say the same things about "working" dogs. There are people who really work with dogs, but they don't seem to give much of a rats ass about the politics. They breed their own or know enough people who do. Then there are the wannabes. The people who take lesson as religion and theory as dogma.

    Their own lack of confidence and accomplishment is masked by their ability to talk a good game to impress the small cadre of elite handlers and their over-zealous preaching of the rules and "ethics" and PC BS.

    I'm more of a free market kind of guy and if there aren't too many real working terriers left, it's because there isn't a demand for them. I mean, who calls a terrier man to solve a vermin problem any more? Not too many people.

    Sheep production numbers have not spiked in this country, in fact they have declined, yet the adoption of the Border Collie has skyrocketed. This boom is not being fueled by demand for working dogs.

    Despite the working people claiming that the future of their livelihood is on the line, I have a hard time believing that they got along just fine when there was a self sustaining community of working dogs before the breed was popular, yet now they will somehow be comfused between the working lines and the show lines and the agility lines and the pet lines.

    Nothing has changed substantially to limit the ability of working people to breed working dogs, yet with all these new pet homes somehow the working people think that their breed will be ruined.

    Given that no Border Collies are going from pet homes back into working homes, you could cut off the 95% of the breed that is not working and call it something else and the remaining 5% should still be able to perpetuate ad infinitum.

    It's an interesting bit of moth balling to want to preserve a working model of dog, but I think you're ultimately doomed to fail because the demand just isn't there.

    It's just like classic cars. Sure, there's nostalgia and plenty of hobbyists who want to keep the past alive, but even in that group there are more people who keep the shell but upgrade the comforts. Take the good, tone down or ditch the bad, and make allowances for certain anachronisms that make it possible.

    You know, for all the ethics BS floating around, I wonder what the implications are of breeding "real" dogs that don't have "real" homes to go to.

    Dogs that lost all purpose when their raison d'etre faded into obscurity (bully dogs for one) are a case study. Most are now only bred for nostalgia and looks as the criteria for their testing doesn't exist.

    For dogs like Border Collies, I propose that certain lines will be bred for athletic and intellectual activities that are more popular than traditional herding (or it's sport component sheep trialing) and more apt to adapt to the future. It might not be the good ol' days of herding on the highlands, but it's certainly superior than defaulting to "conformation" to some platonic ideal.

  2. Christopher, your comments are certainly interesting. I have to confess though, as I watched the National Dog Show this Thanksgiving afternoon, I couldn't help feeling sad to see the poor Plott hound now being pranced around the ring like a gussied up Barbie doll.

    If people want every dog breed to be a Golden Retriever with diffent coats and colors, that's great. I'm a free market person myself :-).

    But they call it "improvement", and get all upset when someone tries to create a new breed of pet dog instead of just redesigning an existing model that may or may not have a suitable foundation for the purpose.

  3. You won't find too much sympathy from me for conformation culture, especially the religious aspect of a breed standard and the poisonous idea that you must always breed to "improve" the breed.

    Improvement universally means whittling down the gene pool and inbreeding. Call it "fixing type" all you want, it's still genetic suicide.

    And the people who do it are not ignorant of the damage they do. The most disgusting display I have witnessed so far is a woman runs a nice website and breeds often enough, she's even instrumental in a health database for other breeders. Yet after she bred closely and produced a litter that was devastated by puppy wasting disease (TNS), one of the few surviving pups (a carrier or clear) was still being shown in conformation.

    That sends a horrible message. We don't really care about disease as long as it doesn't kill the dog before it can get a championship or if it's not easy to spot in the young dogs in the ring. So what if we're producing animals that are so homozygous that they are essentially carrying around half the DNA information they could be.

    Do you really want to put up a monumental failure of breeding ethics forward as new breeding stock?

    I'm not deeply experienced in show culture, but I am informed. Just like I took up stock work a year+ ago, I have also gone to several dog shows, preparing and showing one of my dogs, winning ribbons and all that. Both are part of an effort to inform myself about the breed in areas I have not done before and to get a real sense of where the zealots are speaking from when they preach.

    Despite dog shows being a farce, the comedy is not the tragedy. The tragedy is when people do irreversible harm to the breed by practicing dangerous breeding ethics. Flocking after popular sires, inbreeding, and over specialization.

    To me, it's how you breed, not what you breed. The major criticisms against designer dogs is the poor breeders who jump on the band wagon an puppy mill out dogs.

    The sin there is not creating hybrids, it's poor breeding ethics. And it's just as easy to have poor breeding ethics breeding "pure" as it is to breed hybrids.

    It's also just as easy to ruin a breed with the best of intentions "improving" all the way into the ground.