Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Battling What Doesn't Work in the World of Dogs

Where to start?  

There is no beginning, so let us simply start a long time ago.

And, for want of any other breed, let us start with sheep dogs as they, at least, are as old as the Bible.

And so, to pick a date and a breed, let us start with sheep dogs in 1848.

* * *

In 1848, Queen Victoria was introduced to working Collies at Balmoral Castle. She became captivated by these intelligent dogs and brought a few back with her to London, where they became the rage -- hitting center stage just as the first dog shows were starting to take off in the U.K.

With the rise of organized dog shows between 1860 and 1890, a show standard was written up for the Collie by John Henry Walsh (aka "Stonehenge"), a man who himself did not own or work Collies, but who felt himself expert enough in nearly every breed of dog to write a standard by which they could be judged by appearance alone.

Needless to say, dogs were soon being bred to this "standard," which assigned large numbers of points to head shape and size, coat length, and coat color.

A Collies ability to actually work sheep or take commands was not allotted a single point.

A Border Collie rides herd on sheep in a chute.

In 1893, the fate of the Collie took another bad turn when the very young Czar Nicholas II sent 15 Borzois to the aged Queen Victoria. Intended as a diplomatic gift to curry favor with an aged dog collector who also happened to be his wife's grandmother, the Borzois more than left their mark, as allegedly they were crossed with Queen Victoria's Collies, thereby helping to create the strange-looking, impossibly narrow-headed dog we now know as "the Lassie" Rough-coated Collie we see today.

By the 1920s, these non-working and narrow-headed Collies appeared to be a different breed from the working Collies found in rural parts of Scotland, Wales and the rest of the British Isles.

While the show dogs were increasingly homogeneous, the working dogs were of varied sizes and colors. Some had short coats and prick ears, others had longer coats and folded ears. The dogs themselves ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, and they came in a wide variety of colors from brown or red, to black and white, from dappled Merle to various hues of gun metal gray. In fact, almost the only thing all these dogs had in common was an obsessive devotion to work -- a devotion created and maintained by breeding worker-to-worker for generations.

"Big one, little one, handsome one, ugly ones, long-coated, short-coated: nobody gave a damn. How's his outrun? Can he read sheep? Can he move a rank old cow?"
. . . . - Don McCaig, Dog Wars

Needless to say, these were not the kind of questions being asked by the folks at The Kennel Club shows!

As a result of divergent selection criteria -- working ability versus conformation -- the smart, working, heterogeneous collies that had been so admired by Queen Victoria in 1848, were systematically selected out of The Kennel Club gene pool in favor of more homogeneous conformation stock.

Could these pretty show dogs herd a cat across a living room? Perhaps, but no one had much illusion that they would be of any real use on a mountain side with 500 head of semi-wild sheep to pen before an approaching storm. Shepherds looked elsewhere for their working dogs.

But what did that matter? How many people really had sheep to pen? Never mind that the sheep and the hill created the Collie. How could a dog be harmed if it still looked good? A non-working Collie could be bred to a non-working Collie, and it would still chase a stick. What else was needed?

In fact, by The Kennel Club's light, what mattered was not the dog, but the name. And so, in 1924, when the International Sheep Dog Society brought working Collies to Hyde Park for a sheepdog trial, The Kennel Club objected. How could these feral-looking dogs be called Collies, they demanded!? They had no resemblance at all to the dogs in The Kennel Club ring!

"Fine," the ISDS replied, and promptly began calling their working dogs by a new name: "Border Collies," to differentiate them from their non-working Kennel Club cousins.

A bored border collie at a dog show started by a man that never owned a dog.

Much the same story played out with working Fox Terriers at about this same period of time (complete with Queen Victoria in a supporting role).

Here too a breed of working dog, was quickly wrecked by Kennel Club breeders focused on pure conformation standards within a closed-registry system.

And here too, the true working dog continued to live on in the countryside under a different name -- the Jack Russell Terrier.

Move forward 100 years, and the tale plays out anew, as the Kennel Club bureaucracy circles back to try to round up two popular working dog breeds that somehow (how?) slipped out of sight and off their roles.

"The Border Collie? The Jack Russell Terrier? Oh, we must have them."

Never mind that these dogs had already been pulled onto the Kennel Club roles. By now the Kennel Clun dogs were ruined beyond recognition and operating under a different name. Time to try again!

It is here, at the start of the Second Battle for the Border Collie that Virginia sheep man and writer Donald McCaig begins his tale in The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club.

In its simplestform, McCaig's book is a battle between what works and what doesn't.

On one side you have the American Kennel Club -- a 19th Century organization driven by 19th Century genetic theories and an almost Kremlin-like bureaucracy in New York City. These people have the strange notion that all canine breeds can best be judged at a glance while trotting a dog around a ring on a thin string leash.

On the other side, you have a small collection of not-too-sophisticated farmers and sheep dog trialers; the very people who made the working collie what it is. These folks may not own a tuxedo or ball dress, but by God they know two true things; 1) that the show ring has never made a working dog, and; 2) that the mettle of a Border Collie can only be determined on the hill while working cattle, sheep or goats.

The fact that McCaig is a partisan in this war does not mean he has not written a fair book.

In fact, he is more than fair.

While he mentions some of the breeds ruined by the Kennel Club's love affair with closed registries and show ring standards, he does not catalogue them (or their ills) to the extent he could.

Nor does McCaig open up both barrels in order to blast the AKC for their sordid history as puppy mill profiteers.

Instead, McCaig's book focuses on the straight-forward history of the "Border Collie War" of the 1990s, leavening historical chronology with short divergent tales of his own working dogs, Silk, Moose and Harry.

McCaig does a pretty fair job of puncturing the American Kennel Club lie that they "only register dogs," and that it is individual breeders -- not AKC policies -- that are responsible for the general decline in pure-breed quality and performance.

In fact, McCaig notes, the Kennel Club does far more than register dogs. It also mandates that all AKC breed be in a closed registry which almost guarantees mounting levels of inbreeding.

The AKC also prohibits performance tests as a requirement of winning a championship, and they will not allow a club to ban puppy mill or pet store registrations which are a large part of the AKC's bread-and-butter business plan.

The staff of the AKC have forced the rewriting of show standards (as they did with the Labrador Retriever), and they will not allow a breed club to mandate a health check as a condition of registration, even if the breed has a serious, pervasive, debilitating, gene-based health care issue such as deafness, cataracts or dysplasia.

In fact, as McCaig makes clear, the AKC is really not interested in power-sharing with a strong breed club. If a strong breed club already exists outside the AKC, they are not willing to do much to woo its support in order to have them join the AKC.

It's much easier -- and safer -- to simply create a new club from whole cloth; a simple matter of finding a few dozen people who are anxious to "get in on the ground floor" with a new AKC breed.

These new AKC converts are likely to already believe that dog shows are the beginning-and-end-all in the world of dogs.

What does it matter that geneticists have said that the AKC's breeding scheme is unsound and bad for working dogs? They will be careful and breed smart.

So what if the AKC is a major engine driving the puppy mill and pet shop trade of dogs? If the AKC was not pocketing the cash, someone else would.

And who really needs working dogs any more anyway? Sheep herding with dogs is an anachronism, and fox hunting has been banned in the U.K. The modern world is all about fly-ball, agility, and Frisbee. If the dogs have a little less obsession and drive, they will still be fine for that.

And, so the AKC charges ahead and does what it wants.

When the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club (founded in 1954) turned down AKC overtures because the AKC would not allow their Club to deny membership and registration to puppy millers and breeders that sold their dogs to pet shops, the AKC simply created its own Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club to compete.

When the Border Collie folks said they would greenlight admission only if there was a performance standard, the AKC would have none of it.

When the Jack Russell Terrier folks opposed a too-limited conformation standard and maintenance of the breed in a closed registry system with no limits on coefficients of inbreeding, the AKC simply rounded up a collection of breeders who cared more about blue ribbons and green cash than the future of this working dog.

McCaig gives a nod to these other dog battles, of course, but his concern is the Border Collie.

McCaig details an AKC in which both officials and staff are secretive, arrogant and clannish. They think nothing of omitting facts, telling lies, and stretching the truth. When asked to explain their intentions, they become a collection of Know Nothings, and when asked to sit down to see if common ground can be found, they express outrage that -- after 100 years of wrecking dogs -- the entire world is not willing to roll over and give them the benefit of the doubt on their say-so alone.

After all, they will tell you, they are the experts on dogs. What, you don't believe it? Well, just ask any of their all-breed judges who claim they can judge the value of a sheep-working dog at 40 feet, never mind that they themselves have never seen a sheep.

Ask any one of the terrier judges who have never dug four feet to a fox, or carried a shovel out of their own backyard.

You want to to know about whippets and greyhounds? Well the AKC has experts on chasing plastic bags on a string. Who would know more about running dogs than people with experience like that?

Though McCaig's book is brutal in its accounting, his tone is generally dispassionate and he sticks to the facts.

In fact, I would argue that McCaig's book is actually generous to the American Kennel Club.

Recognizing that the organization is behaving irrationally -- spending money to lose money, winking at puppy mills, capriciously changing breed standards, and ignoring the wishes of both breed clubs and dog owners alike, he wonders what is going on. How could people, whom he generously supposes are neither evil nor stupid, be so terribly misguided?

He dismisses the notion that it's all about money. He says it is not -- in discussions with the AKC they never mention money, and they seem offended that anyone would suggest theirs is a business (never mind the Madison Avenue offices, high salaries, black-tie galas, and plethora of cross-promotional activities with dog food companies, veterinarians, and dog toy manufacturers).

McCaig generously suggests that the AKC is guided by something else -- a vision that can best be described as religious in nature, since it seems to operate both independent of fact and based on faith alone.

And what is that faith? McCaig writes:

"Throughout the fight, I kept stumbling over a simple truth without quite seeing it: dog fanciers and their creature, the AKC, really do believe that what is most valuable about any dog can be judged in the show ring, that the show ring is the sole legitimate purpose and reward for all dog breeding. They even believe, against all evidence, that the show ring 'improves' breeds."

And, to give credit, McCaig cuts them a little slack about their belief system. He even tries to identify in -- at least a little bit.

"The AKC's faith in the show ring is no more implausible than the fourth-century creed I recite every Sunday in the Williamsville Presbyterian Church."

McCaig goes on to note that while AKCdog show folks really do believe a dog is all about looks, the AKC staff is motivated by something else in their eternal quest to pull ever-more breeds into the AKC show ring.

"When staffers argued with traditionalists that they should abandon their venerable snobberies and recognize every breed they could, the staffers were just doing what staffers have done since the time of the pharaohs; increase their importance by swelling their organization."

And so, in the end, McCaig tries to humanize the AKC. He does not forgive them their lies, their pettifoggery,or for what they have done to the Border Collie and other working breeds, but he does try to see the world through their eyes.

Unfortunately, it's still not a pretty picture.

One big issue seems to be that the staff of the AKC feels that their power in the world of dogs is slipping from their fingers.

The United Kennel Club already registers more breeds, and other for-profit dog registries are popping up left and right.

The American Press Corps (from Time magazine to ABC's 20/20) have informed everyone that AKC dogs are more likely to have specific genetic defects than run-of-the-mill pound puppies.

And with their recent disastrous attempt to form an alliance with Petland, everyone now knows that a huge portion of the AKC's bottom line comes from the registration fees pocketed from the sale of "misery puppies" cranked out by commercial puppy mill breeders.

Slowly, the glow is coming off the rose. So what to do?

Well of course, your double down your efforts and continue doing the same thing! Isn't that so often the way?

So how does it all end?

When the smoke and fog of war lifted, it turned out that both sides had lost the Border Collie War.

The Border Collie had lost because they were now just one more dog within the American Kennel Club where they were to be judged on looks alone rather on the brains, obsessive drive, and bidability that make them truly unique in the world of dogs.

The American Kennel Club lost because they not only activated a permanent (and growing) base of opposition outside of the AKC, but also because the public was apparently not deceived by their shennaningans. Ten years after the Border Collie were first drawn into the AKC, that organization registers only 2,000 border collies annually; only a tenth of the dogs the American Border Collie Association registers.

And while McCaig notes that the AKC has twice the number of herding trial events as the American Border Collie Association, the AKC events are poorly attended because "ordinary citizens seem to understand what's real and what's not."

At least for now, it seems, common sense has won out.

The same can be said in the battle for the Jack Russell. Not only is the AKC version of the dog not as popular as the AKC had hoped it would be, but it is no longer even called a Jack Russell Terrier. Meanwhile, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America continues to prosper and thrive as the largest Jack Russell Terrier registry in the world. It's focus: to preserve and protect the Jack Russell as "first and foremost" a hunting dog.

And so, as George Santayana might have predicted, the world of working dogs has come full circle.

The AKC once again has drawn into its folds a type of working collie (and a type of working terrier too), and put them on the fast track to ruin in a closed registry system with a pure-conformation standard.

Within 50 years, these new AKC dogs will be as as close to their working cousins as chalk is to cheese, and 100 years from now, if the AKC is still around, the whole process will probably start all over again.

Nonetheless, I suspect the working Border Collie and the working Jack Russell Terrier will continue to endure.

Bottom Line:  Buy and read Don McCaig's book about the battle for the Border Collie. It's a good book, and an important book. And, truth be told, there are damn few of those.

A Proposed New AKC Class: "Working Dogs Ruined by the Show Ring"

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