652 CONSERVING THE SHEPHERDS' DOGS
CONSERVING THE SHEPHERDS' DOGS
All over the world there are enthusiasts at work, pioneering their particular breed or type of dog. Most work with established breeds, ideally in pursuit of enhancement. Some work towards kennel club recognition for their favoured type; others are seeking variations on breeds already recognised, some are seeking to avoid the inbred or exaggerated features of accepted breeds and many just promote superlative heeling or herding dogs and don't give a damn about kennel clubs. They are mostly nonconformists and often deserve our admiration. As Emerson put it a hundred and fifty years ago: 'Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.' The slavish adherence to a closed gene pool is not always wise and it takes a nonconformist, as Emerson hinted, to be prepared to stand alone. The recognition of a breed usually relies on vigorous promotion by a group of enthusiasts rather than vision from a kennel club. Such enthusiasts have to be careful to respect type in their chosen breed, not alter its appearance to suit their concept.
The fanciers of Shiloh Shepherds, white GSDs and Saarloos Wolfdogs are only doing what our distant ancestors did, seeking an unexaggerated, soundly-constructed, virile breed and not just marching in step with the others. I mourn the loss of the impressive GSDs of my youth, displaying a level topline and a hindquarter that would not disgrace a Foxhound. Half a century ago, some GSD breeders decided to lengthen the back, despite the evidence from America and experience from service dog users. Breeding for excessive angulation in the breed too has combined to produce poor movement, cow hocks, spinal problems and disc-size difficulties. Once, when working in London thirty years ago, I walked behind a Met police-GSD and its handler, for the best part of a mile. The hind movement of the dog was simply appalling. The dog reflected the faulty thinking in the breed at that time, time for a nonconformist, a kicker against consensus, to step forward!
Perpetuation of Type
At a time when breed health, breed purity and instructions to show ring judges are all receiving much merited attention, there is one extremely important aspect of pedigree dog breeding and showing which still needs emphasizing. It would be sad if we lost breeds to perpetual and prolonged inbreeding, more than regrettable if we lost breeds to rogue genes and monstrous if judges rewarded exhibits displaying harmful exaggerations. But sad, regrettable and monstrous too if our precious breeds are bred to the wrong template; the show ring has changed a number of breeds, not for the better; fashion, fad and pressure from influential kennels can impose a changed type on a breed. Gradual changes, viewed initially as slight exaggerations, develop into bigger ones, reactions to docking in breeds not previously docked and ‘the fashion of the day’ can all contribute to the classic fundamental type in a distinctive breed being reshaped. This reshaping can be whimsical in origin, untraditional in effect, even harmful in its manifestation, but as time passes, can become acceptable. Time to send for breed architects, experts on safe structures, canine morphologists. The shape of a breed, its physical form or morphology, should result from its functional design, be protected by its breed standard, guarded by its breed clubs and treasured across the generations of breed devotees as its unique identity. But all too often breed points become breed exaggerations as close breeding overplays its hand.
Responsibility of Judges
Exhibiting dogs can be a rewarding pastime, but the fashions involved should not provide an arena for self-promotion. Dogs should not be discomforted in the ring and breed characteristics should be valued and exemplified, not subsumed into a common practice. The show ring has one huge, huge disadvantage, whatever the ruling fashion: it cannot reveal the dog's capability. We must be vigilant if we are not to lose character, determination, working prowess, instinctive behaviour, individuality, courage, intelligence and fortitude. A handsome dog without character has cosmetic appeal and is likely to win in the show ring but for me it has no breeding potential. I would place character ahead of any other virtues. Style is for showing off; fashion is blind copying.
It is worth remembering the extraordinary racehorse in America that triumphed over serious defects by sheer determination. 'Seabiscuit' achieved 33 race wins, 13 track records at 8 tracks over six distances, including a world record over half a mile and a track record over twice that distance. But he was a stunted colt, with asymmetrical knees and permanently damaged legs. Even a ruptured suspensory ligament, spelling early euthanasia for other horses did not halt his career. Interestingly his jockey had been abandoned at a racecourse as a child and was blind in one eye. The genes for character and determination are those that provided us with the breeding stock from which we now plan to produce perfection of form.
Far too many breeds of pastoral and working dog are now fashioned by show criteria but we would be more than stupid if we bred solely for looks, especially the ‘fashion of the day’. The working dog fraternity might claim that that what's been happening for a century in the show dog world, a world in which a dog that is useless can still have high value. Commendably, the KC has a Show Border Collie Herding Test to test the natural herding qualities they were originally bred for; where is such a test for other native pastoral breeds? In the show ring appearance rules, understandably; but who wants, even as a companion dog, one that has no brains and no character? Not being an exhibitor I can choose my next pup on how I think its character might develop. But I must admit that I hope the pup I choose will become a handsome adult. But those purebred dog breeders who rely on the pet market for valuable income need characters, pups with substance. Fashions come and go; but favouring style over substance in companion dogs makes no sense at all and threatens the whole future of dogs, especially in our increasingly busy, evermore urban world.
For the pedigree dog to flourish it’s important for both the dog and the purchasing public to be protected. There is a misunderstanding amongst the general public over the use of the word 'pedigree' when used to describe a dog's breeding. Strictly speaking it means having a recorded line of descent, especially one showing pure breeding. But the possession of a pedigree (a piece of paper) has come to mean, for many people, a sign of excellence, a denotation of quality. This is undeserved and the public is being misled. First of all, the pedigree form or registration certificate, which comes from the dog being registered with the Kennel Club, is, when it is correct, just a birth certificate. I say, when it is correct, because its compilation relies on just one factor: the honesty of the breeder.
The American Kennel Club has introduced random DNA-testing, after being shocked to discover the level of falsified pedigrees on their register. I know of cases in more than one breed here where the breeder providing a particular stud dog, on request, has not used this dog, but a kennel-mate, to service the bitch. And the subsequent written pedigree has shown that the requested stud dog performed the service not the real sire. The pedigree form or record of breeding was knowingly and intentionally falsified. It is not wise to rely entirely on breeder honesty. Significantly, there is nothing on the pedigree form but a list of ancestors, no indication of genetic health, no record of the quality of the ancestors listed and no legally-binding declaration stating that, in the event of the facts provided being shown to be inaccurate, the breeder signing the form is actionable in a civil court and accountable to the KC over any future stock registrations. In 1913, it was understandable for the pedigree form to be merely a certified record of breeding. But in 2013, surely we have progressed in our information technology? Yet, the pedigree form still only contains lists of ancestors. We know however that certain dogs in certain breeds are carriers of inheritable conditions. Disreputable breeders conceal this, but how is the general public seeking a pure bred pup to discover such a risk? The pedigree form needs expanding – to cover genetic health, not just be a birth certificate. I do wish that our KC would stop posing as the first base for all things canine - dogs in general, and concentrate on setting an example to the whole dog-owning world through the exemplary stewardship of pedigree dogs and the show world. That is certainly the view too of the Canine Alliance, now questioning the effectiveness of the KC in attempting to speak for all canines and their welfare, so much better handled by the admirable Dogs’ Trust. There are signs that the championship show world is beginning to crumble, with the KC declining to acknowledge these signs. They need to concentrate on what their founding fathers intended them to do – ensuring that merit in the show ring is rewarded.
Honouring the Work of the Shepherds
Overseas, show dogs are routinely graded in order of merit, from 'excellent' downwards and their grading can be easily seen on a fuller registration certificate. Why not here? If the merit of functional dogs is to be decided in the show ring, let’s get it right. Winning dogs get bred from; unworthy winners produce reduced value in a breed. Once away from the pastures or their place of work, these dogs are especially vulnerable – to human greed, vanity and the ugly desire to win – often with the title of champion not truly earned and even if the breed as a whole is undermined. No humble shepherd is there any more, to breed them honestly, for working value, for physical soundness and, perhaps most important of all, for their spiritual happiness when exercising a strong innate desire to work, to be useful, to feel valued.
All over the populated world, there are still dogs used to assist farmers with cattle, sheep, goats and even yaks, with no breed title to distinguish them. Further afield, I have seen cattle dogs with the Masai in Kenya looking a little like Smooth Collies. The Bedouin use a sheepdog quite like a Border Collie to control their big flocks. When serving with Ghurkas I have picked their brains, especially the Gurungs, about pastoral dogs in Nepal. They referred to dogs by their employment, not by a title or size or coat colour, although certain regions clearly made use of dogs only found there.
Have breeds become too important? In some breeds, breed type is valued more than soundness. Primitive shepherds never created breeds – they had to rely on performance. Breed purity is now a handicap for the domestic dog. We really must start to focus on purpose – what each breed was developed to do - not just what they have been bred to look like. We are ignoring what peasant-breeders learned the hard way. It is not a human right for us to use dogs in any way that we choose. They are subject creatures vulnerable to our whims and fancies. This bestows a heavy responsibility on dog-owners and especially on dog-breeders in this more enlightened century. We would be failing each breed if we didn’t respect its need to be healthy, sound and much more like its distant ancestors than some of the comparatively new moulds inflicted upon a number of famous old breeds and on some more recently-developed ones. Favouring a breed means favouring a better future for it.
We are at last beginning to see the importance of genetic health; we have finally accepted the need for better-informed, more knowledgeable judges so that the best breeding stock is identified. We are starting to accept that indirect cruelty is caused by the wilful exaggeration of physical points, often from the intentional misinterpretation of a Breed Standard by misguided faddists and, after over a century of breeding for appearance, we are learning to value physical and mental soundness in our precious breeds of dogs. Producing breeds of dog meets human desires; producing soundness in dogs meets their needs. Surely in the 21st century we can at last start thinking of their needs ahead of inflicting our selfish indulgences on them. There has to be a strong moral element to pedigree dog breeding and, where the pastoral and working breeds are concerned, enormous respect for the lowly shepherds who bequeathed these quite remarkable animals to our committed care. These dogs have enriched our lives; now we must enrich theirs.