546 WEARING THE WRONG JACKET - Coats In Pastoral Breeds

WEARING THE WRONG JACKET - Coat Colours In Pastoral Breeds
by   David Hancock

Colour Prejudice in the Pastures and the Show Ring

   In 1877, a dealer in sheep and dogs, James Whitburn, was about to leave for New Zealand with a cargo of breeding sheep and rough-coated herding dogs, when he received a letter of warning. It was from his cousin John Logan of Lanarkshire and it contained these words: "Above all I urge you to beware of white collies. I have heard they do not inspire respect from sheep, but this is not the reason for the wisdom I offer you. I have found them recalcitrant, difficult to train and of a stubborn difficult nature. Two I have known, bred near Penicuik, have a reputation for savagery to their shepherds." The 'difficult to train' allegation in these words of warning could of course have been rooted in deafness in solid white dogs, a recurring problem in all-white dogs in some breeds. But usually blind prejudice beats fears of deafness every time.    

Colour Prejudice in the Breeds
White-coated dogs are paradoxically both preferred and discriminated against in the world of the show dog, with glamorous breeds like the Samoyed and the Maremma Sheepdog being prized because of their magnificent white coats whereas a white coat in breeds like the Boxer and the German Shepherd Dog is not desired. The nearly all-white Rough Collie is favoured in America but not here. I see many mainly white working sheepdogs but I doubt if a show ring Border Collie would get far in this hue. Contrastingly, in the two Hungarian herding breeds, the Pumi and the Mudi, colour is regarded more casually. The Pumi can be any solid colour; the Mudi can be black and white or those two colours blended. Coat colour matters hugely for some breed fanciers; breeders don't always declare a 'wrong colour whelp' cropping up in their kennel. This does not help any study of coat colour genetics.
Breeders of Kyi-Leos, Canaan Dogs, Akitas, Pomeranians, Chow-chows, Pekingese and Polish Lowland Sheepdogs often have strong views on white coats in their breed. White is the natural colour for Pomeranians; the original bigger white variety, rather like the Japanese Spitz and Volpino of today, was a most beautiful dog - now lost to us through human whim.  Colour prejudice in pedigree dogs is widespread yet admits to no rhyme or reason, with the parallel desire and distaste for all-white shepherd dogs aptly illustrating this conflict. I wonder how many outstanding dogs have been lost to us down the years just because of colour prejudice in breeds. Working breeds were handed on to us because of their quality not their coat colour.

Unwise Exclusion

  For a fancier to opt for a colour other than white in his preferred breed is an exercise in personal choice. But for an approved breed standard to exclude or frown on white as a colour is somewhat dictatorial and can so easily consign an otherwise excellent white pup to oblivion. Where is the logic in white being encouraged in the Maremma, the Hungarian and the Slovak Kuvasz, the Komondor, the Greek Sheepdog, the Tatra  Mountain Dog, the Owtcharkas and the Algerian sheepdog but discouraged in some other pastoral breeds? Again and again, you can read the tired old theories about the white dog merging better with the sheep or the shepherd being able to see the white dog better at night or sheep not being able to tell a non-white dog from a wolf. Such theorists conveniently overlook the fact that most sheep are not white and that most flock-guarding breeds are not white either, like the Caucasian, the Anatolian, the Karst, the Croatian, the Estrela Mountain Dog, the Tibetan Mastiff, the Vikhan, the Powinder, the Bhotia, the Bangara, the Bisben, the Cao Rafeiro do Alentejo and the Appenzeller mountain dog, some of these actually being wolf-colour. The breed standards reveal the irrational prejudice. In rural Hungary, there used to be so-called 'white villages' where only white pastoral dogs were tolerated; irrational prejudices know no bounds!.

Breed Standard Restrictions

 In the Bearded Collie, white should not appear above the hocks on the outside of the hindlegs. In the Border Collie, white should never predominate. In the Bouvier des Flandres white predominating is highly undesirable. In the Rough and Smooth Collies mainly or wholly white is not recognised. In the Estrela Mountain Dog white markings are tolerated but are considered undesirable. In the German Shepherd Dog whites or even near-whites are highly undesirable. In the Old English Sheepdog, white patches in the main colour are discouraged. In the Shetland Sheepdog patches of white on the body are regarded as highly undesirable. In the Cardigan Corgi, white should not predominate.
In each of these breeds, quite rightly, the working origin is revered by the breed-devotees. Yet in the pastures, shepherds have never discriminated against a good working dog on the grounds that it was the wrong colour. There are many mainly white working sheepdogs but I have seen none in Border Collie classes at conformation dog shows. Once again, the armchair experts home in, e.g., the Border Collie is a "strong-eyed" dog and the strong-eye has a much greater effect on the sheep it is trying to control if it is set in black rather than white. Why then do such outstandingly strong-eyed but white-headed dogs as Wilson's Cap (the founder of all modern working dogs), Tim Longton's Roy, Squires's Jaff, McTeir's Ben, the Scottish champion Spot and British Supreme champion in 1975 and 1979, Zac, reign supreme?  Are we breeding for the best or solely for colour-favouritism?

Irrational Exclusion
Writing in The Beardie Times in the Autumn issue of 1986, James Logan pointed out that: “White in Beardies is caused by the White Spotting gene series…White Beardies are perfectly healthy and are in fact very often the largest, best constructed and most vigorous puppies in the litter…There is therefore no reason whatsoever to cull white puppies…The only disadvantage of white Beardies is that, with the current standard, they are unlikely to succeed in the show ring…” What a commentary on a breed’s word picture – likely to cause the premature death of perfectly sound whelps entirely on grounds of colour! That really is blind prejudice! Can you truly imagine a shepherd turning down a large, well-constructed, vigorous pup from proven breeding just because it was white? James Logan pointed out in his article that he had no trouble selling his white pups to working homes. 

Fifty years ago, I was visiting a remote farm in northern Norway when I became highly impressed by a white spitz herding dog. The farmer called it his ‘buhund’ (cowdog) and had chosen it from a litter of six, two creams, two reds, a black and this white one. It turned out to be a quite brilliant herder, on sheep as well as cows. It had a black nose and black eye rims. It was pure white, without any other markings. It was superbly constructed and moved with great drive. This outstanding working dog is always in my mind when I see the Norwegian Buhund classes at dog shows. I see wheaten, black and light-red dogs there, some with small white chest and head markings, but never a solid white dog. The impressive herding dog I saw in northern Norway all those years ago had such a local reputation that it was almost certainly bred from; farmers don't get excited about colours in their working dogs. This dog was worth breeding from; it had style, substance, speed. stamina, eagerness to work and was extremely handsome; it was not an albino but would probably be unwanted today. Albinophobia should never lead us into overlooking gifted dogs in any breed. 

Burns (1952) suggested that the true albino may be blue-eyed, but Little (1957) indicated that this was incorrect. Robinson (1990) reported that: "The homozygous merle is white or almost white, with patches of coloured hair on the head. Some individuals develop into fine dogs, but the majority suffer from one or more defects. These include blue iris colour, deafness in one or both ears, and reduction in size of the eye, even to the point that one or both eyes may be absent. In general, it is advisable that white merle animals should not be bred." Whitney (1947) writes that: "Inbreeding blues (i.e. blue merle collies) for several generations often so dilutes the color as to result in a white with very little blue present and the blue in these cases will again appear last on the ears of such an animal. This has led white breeders to seek type through the inbreeding of blues, but the results have never been satisfactory..." 

Colours with White
Genetically, all Rough Collies could be considered as white, with a dominant coloured  ‘shawl’ of sable, blue merle, or black (tricolour) overcoat. In the sable and white, the sable ranges from a soft honey colour to a deep mahogany. Tricoloured dogs have a black body jacket, white collars and legs, with tan markings about the face, especially above the eyes. Blue merles are silvery-blue or grey with small black patches, a white collar, white legs and tan cheek markings. Tricoloured and blue dogs can also feature tan markings on the leg. The white factor is carried as a single recessive gene. One gene from each parent is required to produce a mainly white coat. White Collies are not often seen at shows the world over; they are usually 80% white, with coloured heads and the same colour in body patches of blue, sable or tricolour. Offspring inheriting only one white gene are known as ‘white-factored’, with the now classic ‘Lassie’ facings being almost expected. Shepherds will tell you that in the dark they like to know the direction their dog is facing as indicated by his collar and tip of tail. But the pastures contain talented dogs not chosen for colour or cosmetic appeal.       

None of us want to breed albinos, perpetuate congenital deafness or dilute the desired colours in our favoured breeds. We all like to see good pigmentation and strong colours in our dogs. There is no harm in preferring certain colours in pedigree breeds, especially where the coat-colour establishes 'type', as in red Irish Setters, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, Golden Retrievers, yellow Labradors, West Highland Whites, Kerry Blues, Wheaten Terriers, Vizslas, Weimaraners, Dalmatians, Sussex Spaniels and Blenheim Cavaliers. But soundly-bred otherwise good all-white dogs should never be put down just because of irrational human whim or show ring decree. Their blood may be genetically important and surely even out of plain good sense there is no bad colour for a good dog. I still remember the strikingly-handsome, beautifully-tempered solid-white, still-young German Shepherd bitch brought into the vet's surgery where I worked as a teenaged kennel-boy over fifty years ago. It was destroyed on the instructions of its owner (whom it seemed to adore) - just because it was white.

Value of Colour Diversity
 Some pastoral breeds, like the Finnish Lapphund, the Kelpie, the Hungarian Mudi and the Australian Shepherd, feature a wide range of coat colours; others like the GSD, the Border Collie and the Rough and Smooth Collies have favoured coat colours, with almost standard colours dominating the winning dogs. The GSD is now unlikely to win in the ring unless it’s black and tan, but its gene pool is far wider. The goat-haired or beardie types have far less dramatic coat colours than say a red merle Border Collie or merle Shelties, Corgis or Scottish collies. Merle is not actively sought in a number of breeds, partly from fears about blindness or eye weaknesses. I understand that collie breeds carry both m and M colour gene-component, with merle resulting from the Mm combination. An Mm to Mm mating is to be avoided. The range of coat colours available to Bearded Collie breeders look rather miserable when compared to the Dutch equivalent, the Schapendoes, a breed in which all colours are acceptable, with the blue/black-and-white coats quite striking. It harms genetic diversity when some colours are banned despite featuring in the breed’s gene pool or when they are ignored by judges out of a contemporary whim in a breed. The absurd situation in Mastiffs in which pied progeny, even when DNA-certified as being purebred, are refused registration by kennel clubs must never be allowed to develop in the pastoral breeds. A really good dog can never wear the wrong coat!

Associations with Colour

 In her chapter on the origins of the dog in Serpell’s The Domestic Dog (Cambridge University Press) of 1995, Juliet Clutton-Brock points out that coat colour can be closely associated with temperament. She stated that small dogs with a single-coloured pale coat may have proved more manageable than large wolf-like animals, arguing that the earliest dogs were tawny-yellow in colour, as in the dingo, which never had the ‘wild pelage’ of the wolf. She refers to other traits bringing an effect: drop-ears reducing hearing, a tightly-curled tail reducing the dog’s ability to communicate, a heavy coat reducing its speed and hair over the eyes impairing its vision. The length and texture of a dog’s coat can affect its ability to control its body temperature, to communicate with other dogs through reduced ‘sniff-denial’ and its ability to clean itself. Some pastoral breeds have been, in modern times, given a coat length not previously seen in that breed and not always conducive to working ease, just out of cosmetic appeal. But to breed so as to avoid colours present in the gene pool is the worst kind of prejudice, leading to many pups in the 'wrong' jacket being destroyed at birth - this is not just inhumane but foolish breeding, denying a rich heritage full play.