A common refrain in the blogosphere is that dog shows are bad for dogs.
They cause people to select for esoteric traits and bred from just a few “elite” sires.
Show dogs all look the same because they are so inbred, and this is so bad for dogs.
Then I hear the exact same people extol the virtues of working trials.
Working trials are totally different from dog shows because they select for behavior and working conformation.
The dogs can’t be inbred because working-bred dogs vary so much in appearance.
Such is the common refrain.
And it’s bogus.
Absolutely totally bogus.
In reality, trials aren’t really about work.
They are about competitions.
They are about winning.
I know next to nothing about actual herding trials, but I do know that they are competitions that are based upon a series of esoteric rules.
The border collie is a trial dog. It evolved in its current form to be run in sheepdog trials.
Where I grew up, the most common stock dogs were English and Australian shepherds. We don’t have vast acreages here and thousands of sheep.
We do have lots of small farms, and a loose-eyed dog that has a definite off-switch is a far more practical animal to have on these operations.
Border collies are very useful in the West and in Scotland and Northern England, where there are really big holdings that have lots of sheep on them.
America is generally not a big sheep producer.
The border collies we have here are not primarily kept for their economic utility.
They are kept for trials.
The claim often repeated is that because working border collie registry (The American Border Collie Association) is much better than the show registry, simply because it maintains a working registry. And in theory, it is open.
But if you look at border collie pedigrees, you see the most-used sire effect.
Border collies are not glorified mongrels as some of these people often proclaim.
They are actually purebred dogs that are subject to a very similar selective pressures that show dogs experience.
For example, in the 1970’s, there was a dog named Wiston Cap that was a great trial dog. And everyone wanted a piece of him.
Wiston Cap appears in virtually every border collie pedigree.
And border collies have hip dysplasia and eye problems– exactly like any other purebred dog.
The border collie is a breed, not a landrace. Its standard is behavioral, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t subject to the same problems that show dogs experience. (Please let that sink in before typing nasty comments on this post.)
That’s actually not too different from what one sees in working strain golden retrievers. The big thing right now is talk about how the golden retriever is so at the mercy of the most-used sire effect.
The common claim is that it is just show dogs that experienced this bottlenecking around just a few sires.
In reality, the field-line dogs have experienced an even similar bottleneck. The most common dog to find in a field-line golden pedigree in North America is Holway Barty. I’ve also noted that in European working line goldens, the Holways seem to dominate the gene pool.
Both working goldens and border collies vary in appearance. It doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing genetic diversity issues.
It simply means that selection for an elite in trials has led to a very similar bottlenecking that we have seen in dog shows.
It matters not that the dogs vary in appearance.
They are less genetically diverse and subject to the problems of compromised genetic diversity.
For anyone to complain about the closed registry system in the AKC and other registries and ignore the problems in working dog registries is quite intellectually dishonest.
Or perhaps it’s just ignorance.
If it’s ignorance, I can forgive it.
But if it is romantic bullshit that drives this mythology, then the working dog advocates are no better than the worst of the show dog people.
And not only that, they ignore the truly ethical people in the dog show world, who really want reform and want to do better.
I am done doing anti-AKC posts.
They are mindless.
And unless you are willing to take on the whole rot that is within dogs, they are nothing more than hypocritical bromides.
Which should be laughed at.
The only way to breed for genetic diversity is to breed for genetic diversity and to think of the entire gene pool of the breed when selecting breeding stock. It would require a collaborative effort across many breeders, but it can be done.
We should not delude ourselves that working dog registries are inherently better because they breed for “work” (trials).
Each registry must be judged according to the same standard.
If you can’t do that with any intellectual honesty, then you cannot criticize anything the AKC does.
If you do, you are a hypocrite.
And the dog world could use a few more intellectually honest people.
My friend Christopher Landauer is a border collie breeder.
He has committed the sin of breeding a show border collie to a trial dog.
In theory, the American Border Collie Association allows for an open registry, but it is not customary to breed these two types of dog together.
Indeed, it is quite heretical.
And within the cliques that mindlessly defend working dog registries, Landauer is defamed.
“His dogs have never seen a sheep.”
“He’s a Republican– ewwww!” (That’s my favorite attack on him. As if politics had anything to do with it!)
The truth is he has the goods. He’s a very good researcher.
The registry may be open, but it’s just not customary to breed show border collies to working ones.
If you do for the case of genetic diversity, you will be attacked.
And he has been.
To be honest with you, from what I’ve seen of Kennel Club critics, they are just as prone to exalting people to the status of mandarin as anyone in an established breed club.
If you want to really learn about border collies, I really suggest you take a look at these two posts:
I was once one of those people who mindlessly promoted working dog registries and trials as a way of making things better for dogs.
The truth is only through a careful consideration of the long-term health of gene pools can things be made truly better for dogs.
Just because dogs vary in appearance does not mean they vary all that much in terms of genes. Variances between breeds, in case you didn’t know, are actually determined by very small genetic differences.
Looks don’t actually tell us that much about genes. That is why one should always be skeptical of taxonomy when it’s based on nothing more than morphology (like Ron Nowak’s theory on the red wolf’s position within the genus Canis).
Just a few days ago, my good friend Arlie Hubbard posted this article about African butterfly fish on my facebook wall. African butterfly fish were believed to be a single species that lives in both the Niger and Congo Basins. They look relatively similar throughout their range, but when their mitochondrial genome was analyzed, the variance between populations was very great– 15 percent, which is as much as one would see in an entire family of fish. Butterfly fish from the Congo Basin may not be able to interbreed with the ones from the Niger Basin. Thus, we actually have two species of butterfly fish.
Appearances told us that they were the same species.
But our eyes can lie to us.
Our eyes cannot see the exact differences in the genetic material.
We need to stop trusting our eyes.
Our eyes can make big deals out of differences. A wild wolf from the arctic looks very different from a chihuahua, but genetically, they are quite similar.
When we assume that border collies and working retrievers are not having problems with genetic diversity because they have a wide range of phenotypes, we are making the same error.
Genetic diversity is something all persons concerned with animal husbandry should be concerned about. Granted, if you are breeding animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, one shouldn’t be as concerned. And there are definite advantages to breeding in and in to fix traits.
But if you’re wanting to save endangered species and produce dogs that have decent, long, healthy lives, we have to think in the macro-sense. We have to carefully consider how gene pools are being concentrated. We have to be willing to allow some diversity in type and behavior, just so we can keep these breeds and types viable.
Please note that I’m not saying border collies and working golden retrievers are the worst cases out there, but I am saying that that it just because they are bred for working purposes does not make them immune to these problems.
And the value of a dog should not solely be based upon its prowess in trials or shows.
That’s a very dangerous position, and one that can really reduce genetic diversity.
The goal should be to increase the ability of the average dog within a population, not to breed an elite. We should have lots of very good dogs, not a few superior dogs that everyone wants to breed from.
But to get people to think like this requires an almost entire inversion of the dynamics of dog culture, which was pretty much developed the late eighteenth century and fully crystallized in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
This century requires a new paradigm for how we relate to dogs.
And to get there we all have to be intellectually honest.