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Posts Tagged ‘purebred dogs’

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.

 

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slope back

I have to say that much of what I wrote in the early days of this blog came from ignorance. I had never been exposed to serious hobbyist breeders of purebred dogs, and much of what I thought I knew came from reading some books and reading blogs.

Over the past year, I have developed really good friendships with several breeders, including a few I used to have rows with on social media.

I must say that much of what I used to believe is utter rubbish. If you see these blog posts and ask me about them, I will instantly apologize and laugh at my own stupidity.  I suppose that is what happens to all of us, especially if we are capable of being objective and are always striving to keep an open mind.

Recently, a Facebook page shared a graphic that compared purebred dog breeders to used car salesmen. In my past life, I would have shared such a graphic without hesitation, but now I know better.

This page encouraged people to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue, especially if the dog happened to be crossbred.

Having spent enough time dealing with dogs of various types, I’ve come to the controversial view that first time dog owners should avoid rescuing a dog from the shelter. First time dog owners are better off going to a show breeder.

Why?

Well, dog show people are breeding dogs, but they aren’t doing so haphazardly. No dog of any breed can do well as a show dog, even if it has stellar type and movement, if its temperament is terrible. I know breeders who place temperament above all when they make their breeding selections.

And although there are breeders of working strains, especially of the breeds I’m most familiar with (German shepherds and retrievers), who are thinking carefully about their dog breeding decisions,  these working strain dogs are often too much dog for the typical first time dog owner.

So my initial contention that people should always go for the working dog type was unbelievably stupid.

Now, ten years ago, I might have suggested rescuing a dog from the local shelter, but the shelters now don’t have that many dogs that would be great for novices.  The breed rescues and the shelters themselves have done a much better job finding homes for adoptable animals, and in 2017, it is estimated that only 780,000 dogs were euthanized in shelters. That same year, there were an estimated 89.7 million dogs in the entire country.

So the shelters now are filled with lots of dogs, usually pit bull type dogs, that might be great companions for the right owner. That right owner, though, is almost never a novice. Yeah, there are mild ones that easy as a typical Labrador, but there are also really hot ones that need careful management and skilled dog handling and training.

The reason these dogs are now so common in shelters is that virtually every other breed or type now either winds up in a breed rescue or is transported to another part of the country where the shelters can easily adopt them out.  Dog aggressive pit bull-type dogs are not among the desirables for these rescues.

So the pet overpopulation issue that tends to behind the nonsensical mantra of “adopt don’t shop” is now obsolete. You can buy whatever breed you want, guilt free.  A show bred GSD with health clearances and strong selection for a good temperament is not equivalent to a shelter bully breed mix.  The person who can handle the former might get lucky and be able to handle a mild specimen of the latter, but the same person will not be able to handle a particularly hot one.

A purebred dog from a serious hobbyist breeder offers you some consistency and knowledge that the breeding that produced your puppy came was one that was fully thought out. These dogs cost a lot of money, because it took a lot of money to prove these dogs worthy of breeding, through the shows, any working tests, and the health testing.

The people who shame those of us who buy purebred dogs because we’re killing shelter dogs are simply ignorant. They don’t know what is going on with shelters and dog populations right now. They know only what the world was like 20 years ago, when dogs were roaming the streets and mating all over the place. They don’t know that some people might want a dog that has more utility than being a pet, and they don’t know that breed actually does matter when it comes to proper dog management and husbandry.

So the purebred dog and its fanciers, though under attack by various lynch mobs, are ultimately the choice for better future for our species and theirs.

I don’t hate crossbreeds. I don’t hate mutts. I don’t even hate those who cross purebred dogs, and some of those breeders really do care about what they are producing. I don’t think dog people of any stripe should hate on other breeders, because dog breeders must stick together if we are to deal with the various lynch mobs and legislative fiats heading this way.

I only write these words in defense of the purebred dog and its fanciers and to offer encouragement for the public to support serious hobby breeders.

 

 

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If one looks at the basenji, one sees what should be a tough little dog, free of exaggeration in conformation or type. It looks like it had been entirely selected by the processes of natural selection.

Although capable of barking, it very rarely does so, and when it does, it is just a short little woof. In this regard, it is very much like the wolf or the dingo.  The bitches have one heat cycle per year.

It is almost like a wild animal, so one would think that there wouldn’t have been a healthier breed to own.

Unfortunately, all that you have just read is nothing more than an appeal to nature fallacy. All the natural appearances are superficial.

Basenjis in the West are just like any other breed of dog. They have a limited number of foundational sires, and when one gets involved in producing quality dogs for the show ring, the tendency is to use just a few members of the population to produce offspring. With a closed studbook, all sorts of new hereditary problems began to surface.

But unlike other breeds of dog, the basenji started out with a very small population in the West.  Just 18 or 19 dogs founded the original basenji population. That is a pathetically small number on which to found an entire breed.

By the late 1980’s, basenjis were in a lot of trouble. In 1989, Dr. Russell Brown of Virginia Commonwealth University sent a letter to the AKC Board explaining why the basenji needed to have its studbook reopened.

The AKC eventually opened the studbook to allow new blood to be imported from the Congo. This is actually where the brindle coloration that has popped up in the basenji came from.

It is often mentioned that basenjis are quite common in Africa. One must be careful with such assertions, because basenjis have peculiar traits that are actually not that common in the African pariah dog population. This needs to be repeated, for there are assumptions that just about African village dog with prick ears and a curled tail is a basenji.

It ain’t so.

This is not a contrived breed. It’s not like the West Highland white terrier, the golden retriever, and the Norfolk terrier, which have all been separated from their closest relatives on what amounts to little more than superficial reasons.

This is an actual landrace that is native to Central Africa. It may superficially resemble other pariah dogs that are found in other parts of Africa.

But those dogs bark a lot and the bitches have two heat cycles per year. From what I’ve seen, most of these dogs really don’t have the curled tails of the show basenji or even loosely curled tails that one sometimes sees on African basenjis.

Any population of dogs that rarely barks and has but one heat cycle per year is clearly different from other dogs, no matter how one looks at it. These dogs are physically and behaviorally unique.

To rejuvenate the bloodline, African dogs indeed were allowed in. These dogs had the same traits that we associate with dogs of this type, and some of the health problems are indeed being mitigated.

But what the basenji story actually tells us is what happens when we allow just a tiny population of dogs to found a breed and then close off the studbook.

Basenjis were nearly ruined through such an extreme genetic bottleneck. They may yet be redeemed through these African imports. I certainly hope so, for the basenji is such a unique dog that I think it is very much worth preserving.

Its unique characteristics give us insight into what the early dogs might have been like. The inheritance of its barklessness was actually tested by Fuller and Scott, when they crossed basenjis with cocker spaniels. It turned out that barking was a dominant trait, but the number of barks that a basenji/cocker will give is still somewhat lower than that of a pure cocker. That study suggested that the constant barking trait that so characterizes other dogs could have easily been transmitted through the populations of domestic dogs very early on.

And all of these genetic disorders certainly do give us something else to examine.

The African dogs lived very well for thousands of years. They evolved to fit a particular task and a particular climate. But when our dog culture picked them up, things just didn’t turn out that well.

Maybe the future will be better for these African “barkless dogs.” But we have to be very careful about these registries. We don’t need to ensure the genetic viability and general health of all of these dogs. We have to start thinking in such a way for all of these dog breeds.

If we don’t, the potential exists for even more problems like the basenji was facing in the 1980’s. In fact, this potential is almost a certainty if we don’t starting thinking differently.

Dogs are organisms, but our cultural backage winds up having major effects upon them, whether we like it or not. Our inability to understand them as organism with need for sustainable gene pools is a major problem for the long term viability of the domesticated form of C. lupus.

If we could just start thinking this way, maybe we could have a better future for dogs.

But we have to change our dog culture, and that is going to take time.

***

Basenjis are hardly the most extreme case. The Norwegian lundehunds (the polydactyl puffin hunting dogs) are derived from just six dogs that survived a distemper outbreak that happened during the Second World War. All of these dogs have the genetics to develop an extremely debilitating set of digestive disorders called lundehund gastroenteropathy in which digestive bacteria grow out of control, preventing the dogs from deriving nutrients from food.  Some dogs never develop symptoms, but others eat and eat and never get enough nutrients.

Open registries are not the solution for all problems solving dogs. Lots of things have to be done to solve these problems. Opening registries alone will not save them in the end. However, if we don’t open them, we will be doing very little to solve the macro-level problems that are making breed after breed less healthy.

The registry issue is systemic, which means that it is sometimes harder for people to understand. It is also the biggest sacred cow in the fancy– purity for purity’s sake. To even suggest that this problem is the greater systemic problem in dogs is a great heresy.

But not everyone in the fancy is entirely in love with it. I think the number of people who love dogs as dogs in the fancy is much larger than you might assume from reading this blog or others.

Within the fancy itself, there are people who want something better and who are articulating it and pushing for it.

Bit by bit, change will come.

For those of you who want a better future for dogs, please know that you’re not alone. It’s starting to happen.

In the public consciousness, the AKC doesn’t mean what it once it did. When people think AKC, they think of unhealthy purebred dogs. It doesn’t mean golden. It means gilded.

That’s a major branding problem.

It’s one I’m sure the AKC doesn’t want to have.

It’s also why the AKC is losing out market share the paper mill registries. If the AKC is just a paper mill, then why can’t Jim Bob down the road start his own?

In the end, we have no quality control or consumer protection institution for dogs in the United States.

We are lost.

We have to do this research for ourselves, which, thanks to Google, means that it isn’t as hard as it once was.

But I still think we need some kind of body, even at the breed and function-based level, to have some sort of regulating or quality control influence over breeders. I’m not in favor of new laws. I’m in favor of a better system in which dog people regulate themselves.

We need an open registry system, but we don’t need one in which people are inclined to do crazy crosses just for the hell of it.

And that’s my dilemma.

***

In case you were getting ready to dispute me on whether basenjis can bark:

Source.

I wonder whether living around “normal” dogs has any effect on that behavior. I remember reading about some wild-caught wolves that were kept in a kennel with lots of barking domestic dogs. The younger wolves in the pack started barking like dogs.

Barking does have a learned component to it. I knew a Dalmatian that joined a household that included a mongrel beagle. This beagle had a tendency to great everyone with a baying howl.

After about two weeks, the Dalmatian was trying to make that noise– very unsuccessfully.

Maybe some basenjis are learning let loose a few barks here and there  just to fit in.

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The dog on the left is obese. However, in America, we still like to breed our Labs bigger, even if they aren't overweight.

The Lab on the left is obese. However, in America, we like to breed our Labs larger, even if they aren't overweight.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something about pet-line Labradors.

People who market these dogs almost always offer two types.

One of these is the English type, which I have often heard referred to as the “Bentley.” These dogs are particularly sought after because they are derived from European show lines and are quite calm and placid.

In theory, of course.

Many of these dogs don’t live up to the hype of being super calm and some, like some golden retrievers, can be quite surly.

But of particular interest to me is the other way pet quality Labs are marketed: it’s gonna be a big dog!

Although most field and American show line Labs are in the 55-80 pound range and virtually all English Labs fit that definition, most of the Labs I see are in the 90 pounds or more range.

Large size does not have much utility for a working dog, and in the real world, smaller size does have its advantages.

I know of breeders of field line Labs that produce “canoe” Labs that are smaller than normal. The term comes from a possible linkage between these so-called “canoe dogs” that acted as retrievers for the native peoples of the Northeast and Eastern Canada. Speculatively, I have suggested that these dogs are related to the St. John’s water dogs and the Newfoundlands, which means they are possible ancestors of the retrievers. (Here’s a photo of a canoe dog. It looks like small Labrador with prick ears and a bushy tail.) Canoe dogs were about 30 pound or so in weight, and canoe Labradors tend to be in the 30-45 pound range.

The only reason to breed a super large Labrador is to sell puppies.

It’s also great for the ego.

I’m sure the conversations go something like this:

My Lab is bigger than yours.

Does it retrieve or listen to commands?

No. But he’s 130 pounds and built like an Angus bull.

I have looked at the histor of Labradors and other retrievers rather closely, and I can tell you with certainty that the St.John’s water dog, the ancestral Labrador, was never a giant dog.

Now, the other Newfoundland was historically used as a retrievers on estate shoots. In the nineteenth century, virtually all of the dogs in that particular breed were Landseers. They may have played some role in the development of retrievers, although their large size and slowness were always problematic.

However, I don’t think it’s exactly correct to think of these dogs as a model on which we could assume the conformation of the modern Labrador retriever. A big lumbering dog is by definition at a disadvantage as a retriever. It simply cannot swim with the speed necessary to do its work. It is also going to overheat more easily, simply because it is bigger. If one his hunting ducks, a big dog takes up more space on a boat or blind.

But none of this matters in the realm of selling pets.

Get a couple of guys bragging about the size of their dogs, and you soon have a perfect market.

Bigger is better.

It doesn’t matter that large size puts strain on the dog’s heart or make it more prone to various dysplasias as it grows.

Bigger is better.

I’ve noted this tendency exists in golden retrievers, but it is at a much lower level. I hope it stays this way, because goldens can’t stand any further fad breeding and remain viable as a strain.

However, it has happened to virtually all large gentle dogs that are in demand as family pets.

Does anyone seriously believe that St. Bernards always weighed 200 pounds?

If it happened to that breed, why couldn’t this happen to the retrievers?

Virtually all the pet Labs I see are huge.

It’s what people want.

I’m honestly suprised they haven’t made up a cock-and-bull story about the size of these dogs, something like the Roman Rottweilers or reconstructed dire wolf.

But maybe the desire to brag about size is enough to get people to accept such huge dogs.

These big Labs are so common, that people are often surprised when they find out how big their breed standard requires them to be.

It’s almost like you made something up or uttered the phrase “Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever.”

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing giant Labs that they now seem normal.

I hope for the sake of the dogs that we don’t continue to demand an increase in size.

Of course, serious Labrador people are going to breed normally sized dogs.

The pet people can just keep breeding ’em bigger and bigger.

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Source.

In both northern and southern elephant seals, only a few males produce offspring ever year. The bulls lay claim to a stretch of beach and then claim as many cows as possible.

And yes, it really must suck to be a cow elephant seal.  During this time of her life, she continually being herded by males much larger than she is. And never mind the mechanics of their reproduction. She is a large seal, but she is significantly smaller than the male.

If you’re an elephant seal bull, you must be big and nasty if you are to reproduce. Only one in ten males manages to reproduce. That is an astoundingly low number:

Source.

These selective pressures on the elephant seal species have resulted in a favoring of bull seals that are the equivalent of the most-used sire effect in many breeds of purebred dog.

The northern elephant seal nearly went extinct. Its population may have dropped to only 100 individuals. Today, there are 100,000 northern elephant seals, and because of their particular breeding arrangement, very few males pass on their genes every generation.

It is very similar to what has happened in many purebred dogs, and I’m sure that some will suggest that if the northern elephant seals are able to have a healthy population, then it should be okay to breed dogs in this fashion.

The problem with that logic is that we actually don’t know the full consequences of the extreme genetic bottleneck on the northern elephant seal. Because they lack genetic variation, it is possible that an epidemic or even a slight environmental change could prove disastrous for the seals.  In normal populations, genetic diversity means that some animals will have some resistance to potential changes in the environment or infectious disease. However, if all the seals are genetically quite similar, they may all be similarly susceptible to these problems, which means they could all die off.

Again, the fact that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that it can’t.

The other thing is elephant seals are under the pressures of natural selection. Dogs really aren’t. Really defective seals don’t live very long. They wind up in the bellies of orcas or great whites. Truly defective elephant seals don’t reproduce. With dogs, we can continue to select for defect, intentionally or unintentionally. We can select for a whole range of disorders and not even know it until a third the dogs in any given breed have them.  (That is only slight hyperbole.)

One of the delusions we have is that we think we can just selectively breed out disease without actually realizing that we’re dealing with a dynamic genome.  I’m not in favor of breeding dogs with disease. Don’t get me wrong.

But unless we look at the whole system that leads to an accumulation of these diseases, we are doomed to failure. It is quite literally little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic to think we can just cull for this disease or that one and not realize that the problem is much more systemic than peculiar.

Nature has done what it can to save northern elephant seals. Considering how these animals breed, I would certainly have wanted to have started with a larger founding population than 100 to 1,000 individuals.

But we didn’t get that choice.

With dogs, we have that opportunity, but it remains denied to us, simply because we cannot change our thinking.

As I’ve said before, the human ego is probably the most destructive part of the relationship between man and dog.

We are the so-called rational species, and in this relationship, we’re supposed to be the responsible ones.

But for all of our intelligence, we have failed our dogs.

And it’s something we need to think about.

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I don’t know how to say it any better.

This is a ZING!

***

BTW, as per that Washington Post story, Raymond Coppinger is wrong.

There were golden retrievers before the 1st Baron Tweedmouth founded his line.

They just weren’t called that.

They were usually called drowned as soon as they were born.

The 1st Baron Tweedmouth was merely a person who founded a line of them, and that line begat three lines of yellow flat-coated retriever that eventually founded a separate breed.

I know that for literary purposes we say that Lord Tweedmouth founded the golden retriever, but I think we have to be careful in our language. This isn’t exactly what we mean. We actually mean what was written in the previous paragraph.

I think we put a bit too much emphasis on the Guisachan story, and we ignore the years between the last of those and when the breed became distinct from the flat-coat. The golden retriever must be understood as being part of the wavy-coated and flat-coated retriever breeds during this time. They were evolving within that breed’s framework. Ignoring that context makes us fail to understand the breed’s history in very fundamental way.

I don’t think it’s wrong to look at the Guisachan story, but it’s not the totality of the golden retriever’s history. We have to understand the history of retrievers, especially the history of Labrador and flat-coated retrievers, if we are to every really get a grasp on where the golden retriever came from and where it is going.

***

I believe it was the 1st Viscount Harcourt (the owner of the Culham line) who first coined the term “golden retriever” for the dogs some time in the early twentieth century.

It’s really not an ancient term.

It’s also pretty good marketing, if you ask me.

I don’t know how far the breed would have gone if it had been called “Tweedmouth’s retriever.”

And if it had remained within the flat-coated breed, it probably would have experienced the population crash that the flat-coat experienced in the Interwar period.

It probably would have disappeared entirely, for yellow coloration was never in favor in flat-coats or any other breed of retriever.

The golden dogs would have gone the way of the fawn-colored Scottish deerhounds, which no longer exist at all, or maybe  the way of drop-eared Skye terriers, which are a very rare part of an increasingly rare breed.

Separation does have its advantages.

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Source.

These dogs will really be  of great use to man.

They surely can catch any criminal who tries to get away.

Of course, the criminal must be trying to get away by the slowest means possible. Perhaps if the criminal decided to crawl away,  the dog might stand a chance of catching him.

I don’t know how this stance and gait got to be beautiful.

It’s not.

It’s actually quite ugly and disheartening.

When I think of this breed, I think of Rin Tin Tin. Tough, intelligent, always out to serve law and justice. Not afraid to draw a hard line. The Gary Cooper of dogs.

Of course, I must admit that as breed, I’ve never much liked them. It’s nothing personal. Because they also remind me of something else– movies about the Holocaust. I shouldn’t blame the dogs. I should blame the people who used them to guard to guard the death camps. I know it’s guilt by association.

I’m sorry if that’s the image that I get when I think of them.

But after watching these dogs with ataxic gaits try to walk, something else comes to mind: people are morons.

I can’t believe that anyone would think that breeding for such a defect would be beautiful or even functional.

But then I’m outside the fancy that exists for the German shepherd dog.

Perhaps they are seeing something I am not.

Maybe.

I hope they have some justification for breeding for this gait and stance. Something beyond looks.

It is one of the curses of being visual species. Things that look novel are attractive to us.

However, when we start breeding dogs for appearance alone, this is the tendency that winds up wreaking havoc.

If we are going to breed better dogs, we’ve got to get some control over this tendency. Otherwise, the dogs have no future. They will be prisoners to our capricious visual whims.

And that is a scary prospect.

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