Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘working dogs’ Category

working BC pup

Donald McCaig was a great dog writer. His historical fiction was even better, but he was a sort of founding father of a movement that I now find rather problematic.

McCaig was a border collie sheepdog trials person, and he was part of a group of people who were fanatically anti-American Kennel Club. So much did they hate the idea of border collies becoming a standardized breed that the American Border Collie Association will not cross register AKC border collie puppies, and any dog that earned a conformation championship from any registry would become ineligible for registration. 

McCaig was the intellectual father of this fanaticism. He believed that the border collie should remain solely a sheep herding dog, and if it were used for something else, it would cease to be a true border collie.

He raised sheep and ran border collies in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, not far from the West Virginia border.  He thought of himself as a traditional country writer, but as a native to that part of the world, he always seemed like an outsider trying to play country boy.

For example, the traditional sheep herding dog of that part of the world is not the border collie. It is the English shepherd, a loose-eyed herder, that also can tree raccoons and bring in the milk cows. It is the unimproved peasant collie of British Isles,  the one that existed before the Enclosure, where lots of livestock needed to be managed, not just vast folds of sheep. Those vast folds came about when the manors were enclosed and the tenants shipped off to toil in the mills, and the border collie’s existence came about when this sort of dog was needed on the new land.

In the Alleghenies, no one runs vast hordes of sheep over great pastures. The woods have mostly reclaimed the Alleghenies. Bears and coyotes make sheep husbandry harder than before, and with the wool market tied up with Australia and New Zealand’s near monopoly, sheep have been mostly relegated to the few die-hards in the West who fight the battle against wolf depredations and the odd homesteader who keeps a little flock in the back pasture.

So, although McCaig was a successful writer and sheepdog trial enthusiast, he was never the sort of authentic mountain farmer that he hoped he was. If he were, he would have kept a pack of English shepherds and mixed enterprise farm on a little holding.

But leaving behind those problems, McCaig’s idea that the border collie should be maintained solely as a herding dog was at best delusional. The dog itself has traits that would make it well-suited for the 21st century. They are scary smart. They are trainable. They are also beautiful creatures with pleasant temperaments.  These dogs have traits that make them superior sport and working animals.

If this attitude had been applied to the German sheepdogs in 1890s, they would have become just regional dogs of no particular note, but Max von Stephanitz and the other founders of the SV decided to use their nation’s sheepdogs as working animals.

German shepherds are certainly still capable of herding sheep and working as farm dogs, but the 1890s, Germans were finding they had less of a need for a sheepdog. Sheep could be shipped via train now, and private property finally replaced the last vestiges of feudalism. Fences could be used to contain the sheep now.  A tending dog became less of a necessity.

So members of the SV embraced the future. They encouraged members to train their dogs for other disciplines. That move created the most successful working dog ever created, one that is known the world over for its abilities.

And because lots of people ignored the sage counsel that breed be produced solely as a sheepdog, the border collie is seeing great days as a sport and working animal. They dominate agility and flyball. They have done great work as search and rescue dogs. Some have even been used as gun dogs. And yes, many are accomplished show dogs, and those show dogs still have their brains and herding instincts.

But even now, you will see wags harp back with claims that border collies are being ruined because they are being used in these other disciplines.

So honestly, what if they are?

Imagine 10,000 years ago that a group of people had a bunch of dogs that were superb at hunting sheep in the mountains. They had the monopoly on these dogs and the sheep hides and meat they were able to procure.

But one day, they ran into another group of people that had managed to tame some sheep. The attitude of the early Holocene McCaig’s would have said the dogs would have no use if they couldn’t hunt sheep. The Holocene Stephanitzes would have begun working on training the dogs to manage sheep. Those were the people who created the first herding dogs.

This is the problem of this McCaig delusion. I do not wish to pick on the man solely, though, for there are lots of dog people with this delusion. They can only see what once was or what they hope things were, and they cannot embrace the future.

And it is this delusion that I wish we would reject.  We cannot assume that a breed or type of dog can remain employed solely in its original occupation. That assumption is what made the turnspit go extinct and the otterhound roll around in obsolescene  and obscurity.

In the Western world, the most important job for dogs is to be family pets, and there is nothing wrong with breeding good working dogs that can fit into modern society. Indeed, this is the challenge of working dogs in this century.  We must find ways to keep working drives and instincts alive and to produce dogs that are suitable for family life.

And that’s why we need to be critical of ideas that are so accepted without criticism, even if they are ideas that are popular. These were ideas that I accepted without criticism, and they are ideas that I now think need more careful consideration for the future of our breeds.

 

Read Full Post »

erika on the lawn

Update: I am pro-greyhound racing and pro-NGA.  (I wrote a post opposing the Florida amendment last October.) The reason this litter will be AKC registered is that they are not being bred for professional racing. They are being bred for sport and coursing homes. My partner has years of experience working at racing greyhound kennels, and we are very sighthound savvy.  We will not let someone walk away with a driven puppy without fully explaining the issues in raising and civilizing such a creature. The parents are going to be health tested (the Embark samples are in the mail).  I don’t want racing greyhounds to wind up like otterhounds, where there are scarcely any left now that their main reason for existence has been banned. 

Greyhound racing in the United States is on its way out. Florida was the last large state that had lots of tracks going, but in the 2018 general election, Florida voters decided to phase out professional greyhound racing.

In the short run, these dogs are going to filter their way into adoption. The vast majority of them will find homes. And every single one of them will be neutered.

Because only a handful of states will have racing, it is very unlikely that thousands of racing greyhounds will be bred every year. When this generation of adopted out greyhounds dies, the greyhound owning public will not have many options.

Yes, they can buy a show-bred greyhound, go out West and get a coursing dog, or they get a whippet or borzoi.  I suspect that galgos from Spain will be imported over here in very high numbers.

But if they want a sport-bred greyhound that derives from racing lines, they will essentially be out of luck.  However, they won’t be.

Several of us are close enough to forward-thinking racing dog owners to get our hands on intact racing greyhounds that we will be breeding. Erika is scheduled to be bred on her next heat, and we already have the sire picked out. Stay tuned for updates on him.

And we will do what we can to keep the American racing greyhound lines alive the best we can. We already have lots of homes lined up for this coming litter, so the demand for these dogs is quite high. The litter will be AKC-registered, so they can enter the “legit” greyhound population and do AKC-sanctioned events.

We will be helping these lines see a future beyond greyhound racing, and I have to say that I’m proud be part of this project.

So yeah, I’m deep in show dogs now, but we are working on keeping some nice working lines of a breed going into the future.

I’m pretty excited about it.

 

 

Read Full Post »

gsd wolf

So in the early days of this blog, I was wrong about something.  I wish I had never written a word about German shepherd structure and hips,  because I was essentially parroting nonsense that I’d read somewhere without asking for documentation. The rear angulation of the dog is not related to hip dysplasia. There are plenty of dogs with “extra: rears that have OFA excellent hips.

Also, although one can get worked up about “hock walking,” no one is actually intentionally breeding a German shepherd to walk on his hocks. The goal is to produce flowing side movement, where the dog opens up in the rear and shoulder.  Some dogs may walk on their hocks, but if the dog is just going to be a pet, it’s not a major welfare issue. We have some studies on GSD longevity that show that skeletal and spinal issues are a major reason why they die, but those studies do not provide a break down about the dog’s actual conformation or if the dog died of a condition called degenerative myelopathy, which is a genetic condition that results in the dog’s spinal cord degenerating when it is an older dog.

I know there will be people who refuse to believe a single word I’ve written in these two paragraphs, and they will comment away about what an idiot I am for changing my mind. I honestly don’t care. I have looked at the same evidence you have, and I don’t find it convincing.

At the same time, though, people who have written and promoted the position that I once held about German shepherd structure have unintentionally set the breed up for failure in pet homes.

When we go on and on about how terrible the show dogs are, the pet buying public will naturally turn to breeders who have dogs that lack the rear angulation. The vast majority of German shepherds bred without this angulation are those bred for bite-work or for bite=work competitions. These are wonderful dogs.  It was one of these dogs that turned me into a lover of the breed.

But they are not for everyone. These dogs have lots and lots of drive. They are smart. Some have really high defense drive and little social openness. Some poorly-bred ones are sketchy, and yes, some poorly-bred show dogs are sketchy freaks too.

But when the best dogs of this type are very high drive dogs and the worst are potentially dangerous, you are setting the public up for a disaster. People are getting super working dogs that need constant work and training just to feel content in the home, and the owners work 40 or 50 hours a week.  People are also getting dogs that are neurotic and potentially dangerous.

This is not what most people want when they get a German shepherd, but because people like the me from a decade ago would go on and on about the “crippled” show lines, it has become received wisdom that the pet buying public should not buy a dog bred for conformation.

This is problematic, because most people would be better off with a conformation-bred dog. The reason is that dog shows themselves do place several unintentional selection pressures on breeding stock. A show dog is forced to deal with many, many dogs and lots of people walking around. All of these dogs are intact. Some may be in heat.  Further, every show dog must accept fairly extensive grooming (even whippets!, and they must be able to receive an examination from a judge.

A dog that has a poor temperament simply cannot go through these selection pressures, and although there are dogs that have weird temperaments that do succeed in the ring and do get bred, the general average is for a dog that is far more mentally stable than the typical pet dog.

Also, because no one is breeding show German shepherds to break through windshields to get bad guys, no one is breeding for crazy drive and pain tolerance. The show dogs do have a quite a bit more drive and a need for exercise than the typical pet dog, but their needs are much easier for the typical family to meet.

I say this as someone who loves working line GSD and who will happily own another. I say this as someone who deeply cares for this breed.

But I think we have done a poor job by our constant haranguing of the show dogs in this breed. It is not serving the breed, the dogs, or the public well.

And it is also creating divisions between breeders, the people who should be standing together to ensure that every puppy goes into a loving home and that our favorite disciplines and activities for our dogs remain legal.

So I do feel a lot of guilt for what I have written. The best I can do is correct the errors from here on out.

And if you want a pet German shepherd, check out a breeder who specializes in good conformation stock. You’re far more likely to get what you really want than if you deliberately go searching for “straight-backed” dogs on the internet. The really ethical working dog breeders will steer you away from their dogs anyway, but the working dogs aren’t the first place to look for a pet.  I’m sure there are working GSD breeders who are getting tired of the inquiries from people who are just seeking pets.

So all this rhetoric about crippled show dogs has done a very poor service to the breed. I am deeply sorry that I participated in it.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

baby quest

Photo by Casey Biederman of baby Quest. 

When I started down this path of being a dog writer, I bought into this basic framework:

Purebred dogs were okay, but the only legitimate ones were performance-bred ones. Breeding a purebred dog for aesthetics was ultimately going to lead to their downfall as a species. If you didn’t accept that framework, then the dog you should absolutely get is one from a shelter, whether it’s purebred or not.

If you read my early posts, that was the basic ideology. I pretty much disavow those ideas.

I’ve lived with several dogs of true working strain, and I must say the average person has no business owning one. You have to put in your time and effort into exercising that dog.  It doesn’t matter what kind of working dog it is. Dogs that are bred for a purpose will have really strong behaviors that might not make them easy to keep as house pets.

If you want a true working line dog, then you must be willing to commit to it, and if you cannot, please consider getting a different kind of dog.

When I initially started writing about dogs, the No Kill Revolution was in its infancy, and shelters were killing scores upon scores of adoptable dogs. Now, we have connected shelter systems. Different municipalities have agreements with shelters where the demand for dogs is still very high, and as a result, popular purebreds and mixes of those breed generally tend to wind up in loving homes once they are surrendered.

What this has done to animal shelters is that it has created a real problem. The least desirable dogs are a pit bull types or BBMs (bull breed mixes).  I have nothing against these dogs at all, and I always been against BSL. I know there are great dogs of these breeds and mixes that make wonderful pets.

However, the modern world has made it so that these dogs aren’t particularly in demand.  Municipalities have BSL. Homeowners policies say you can’t have one, and yes there are some of these dogs that require lots of dog acumen to manage and keep safely. If you have the dog skills, you can easily find one of these dogs to be exactly what you want, and there certainly are dogs of this type that are superb pets.

But unless you know what lines you’re dealing with (and in the shelter system, you won’t), it can be a dicey choice. This is not to denigrate anyone with a pit bull.  Lots of these dogs are fine as a pets. I just fostered a dog of this type that is wonderful with other dogs and not aggressive in the slightest.

But not every dog of this type is for the typical family, which you can say about a lot of breeds. For example, the Malinois breeders do a pretty good job unselling their breed to the general public, but because pit bulls and pit bull types are deemed undesirable, the opposite has been true with their advocates. Part of it is because the dogs vary so much in what they can be like, and part of it is because of the need to find these dogs good homes is certainly

So yes, you can go to a shelter and rescue a dog, but rescuing a dog is not the only choice people have.

And that’s where I think we should be easier on dog breeders. These are legitimate sources to get an animal that may have some consistency in behavioral and morphological conformation, and they don’t have to be hardcore working bred.  Most people can handle a show-bred dog that has been selected through generations for dogs that are tolerant of strangers and strange dogs and to be a good traveler. That’s why all those old dog books said to get your pet dogs from show breeders. After spending as much time with show dogs as I have in the past year, I think the process is good for selecting for good pet traits, just by accident. It is not universal in all breeds or lines of course, but it clearly is something that should be understood.

Finally, I was a follower. I was a dumb young kid with lots of idealism and lots of demons and general stroppiness that needed to be worked out. I followed what was essentially an authoritarian movement in dogs, led by someone I think who generally lost the whole story. Following his work now, I can see that his ideas don’t help dogs at all now. He says that we should own only true working dogs if they are purebred, which is the only legitimate reason for owning a purebred dog, even if we live in a high rise apartment and cannot handle anything with real drive. Then he tells us to go and rescue a dog, but the shelters have mostly pit bulls and BBMs. Then he tells us that we shouldn’t get one of those because they are all dog aggressive and nasty (which isn’t exactly true). So if you’re the typical family, you are given no real place to get a dog. It’s simply a one-upping cul de sac that ultimately puts people in impossible positions when it comes to getting a dog they can handle and live with.

So it’s funny but I’ve become so much less judgmental. I’ve developed an open mind, and I reject the authoritarianism of the movement I was once part of. And I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Community dog

Source.

He was the kind of dog you get not because you’re looking for him. He was the kind you get when some neighbor up the road had a litter and soon found himself in a tizzy trying to find homes for them. He was the kind brought home on muddy April afternoon to wait leaping and screaming for the farm kids to come home from school, where they would behold their new prize.

Yes, Jocko was that kind of dog. The above paragraph was his childhood autobiography, and like most farm collie-type dogs in the foothills of West Virginia’s Alleghenies, he wandered the land most of the day. He learned not to chase chickens or worry sheep, but he knew how to jump a rabbit or grouse for the shotgun. He knew how to tree a squirrel or a corn-raiding raccoon, and he could put the cows out of the big vegetable patch or the apple orchard.

Every farmer in the little hamlet knew Jocko and new him well. He was the dog you called on when you gut-shot a deer and needed the expertise of a fine tracker to follow its death course through the briers and brush. He was the dog that lined your hound bitches, and though you coursed the crossing, you half-hoped the collie-ish genes would add a bit of sagacity to the mongrel pups.

He would roll in cow-pies with reckless abandon, but he savored the road apples of horses, savoring their sweet stink as he downed them through his collie maw.

When the coyotes howled at night, he gave back his domestic cursing barks. “Dare not tread here, you wild fiends!” the surliness in his voice seemed to say.

When he spied their scat on forest trails, he’d lift high his left hind-leg, piss out a few drops of urine, and then kick up the leaves in territorial disgust.

Every weekday afternoon, he’d mosey to the bus house where the farm children were dropped off. He’d wag and lick their hands softly, and then follow them back to their homes. He knew that his domain ended where the black-top began, a bit he learned through only his collie intuition and nothing else. So though he came to take the children home, he never once wandered into highway where the cats and opossums perished by the score.

For twelve years, this creature served man in his own way. He lived the life of a domestic servant but was still wild and unknown. He was the way dogs were not so long ago, before we turned them into caricatures of what they really are.

In the winter of that twelfth year, his ears and eyes were failing him, and now he felt the weakness that comes from cancer of the spleen.

And they euthanized him beneath the sweeping veil of the old ash tree, itself dying hard from the work of those invasive borers. In a year, a summer storm would make it fall to the ground, but for now, its shadow would the lawn where the old dog was put to rest.

A few old farmers came by to pay their respects. They’d tell his owners about the groundhogs the old boy had killed or how they’d loved the way the dog had walked their little girl home from school. They tell these stories and choke back a few gruff tears.

But so few came to mourn the old dog. The children of the farms had moved on to what they thought were better things. They worked in factories, sailed ships, tried cases, and treated wounds in hospitals. They didn’t work the cattle or feed the chickens as their mothers and father had.

And with their removal to the newer world, the community of farms began to die. Progress can be a cancer in the spleen of a collie, but it can be the uplift to a higher plain of human conscience, one that sees us as united with all the rest of humanity and all the rest of life in a common purpose of survival.

And so we do not keep dogs like Jocko this way anymore. We have leash laws and dog wardens. We keep them in fenced yards.

A few of those transplanted farm people keep a collie or even an English shepherd in the suburbs and dream that this dog would somehow become Jocko. But try as the dog might, it will never be Jocko. It will be a mere facsimile of what was once and will never be again.

Better in some ways. Worse in others. But not ever the same.

Read Full Post »

I will be doing this soon enough, but with a whippet that will be sent after a plastic bag.

The hares being coursed and then cared for in this video are Irish hares, which are a unique subspecies of mountain or blue hare that is endemic to Ireland.

We do not have a hare for coursing in most of the Eastern US, so we’re bag chasers. There are some European brown hares that were introduced to New York State, and those would be the nearest coursing hares to me.

Snowshoe hares live deep in the coverts of mountain laurel and are usually taken with the use of beagles and basset hounds.

Read Full Post »

So Jenna and I tried something very different today. We went up to work with Quest on sheep with  a herding trainer instructor, Tonya Haney of WORK N GSD

We thought Quest might possess the instinct. He tries to herd Poet, the little brindle whippet,  when we play ball with them, and his mother has been on sheep before and does have the instinct.

Keep in mind that Quest had never seen sheep before, and he is of a breed that relatively few people use on livestock. So we honestly had no idea what he would do.

Well, this 8-month-old pup really does have the instinct.

After we saw that he could do it, I gave it a go.

He’s just started on sheep, but it is really amazing to see that he has this instinct to gather up the sheep. The brown one kept breaking off from the other three, and he would put pressure on it to make it flock properly.

We had  a lot of fun trying Quest out on sheep, but I doubt we had as much fun as he did. He really loves to do what his ancestors were bred to do,

Yes, Quest is a show dog. He will very likely have an AKC conformation championship and maybe an actual show career as he matures.

But it would be great to get him some titles on both ends of his name.

So we will be doing this a lot in the future.

Plus, there are few things more beautiful than a well-bred, sound German shepherd trotting around you as it herds sheep.

If you’ve never seen it in person, it is truly a sight to behold. 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: