January 1, 2008

On titles and codes of ethics [or, "How can you tell if a dog is worth breeding if he doesn't have a title?" Answer: Watch him work.]

Or "Watch her work," as the case may be.

So I asked, "What's the 'HIC' after his name stand for?"

The nice lady at ringside with the rough collie had just shown me her dog's name in the program. She was delighted to explain what all the letters meant.

"That stands for 'Herding Instinct Certificate.' He's a Champion -- and he can herd, too!"

Oyyyy. I'm all for people enjoying activities with their dogs -- agility, obedience, SAR, and yes, "herding," provided the instructor is a good one and the sheep are comfortable with the routine and treated with consideration. But the truth is that any dog with a pulse can "earn" an HIC. It doesn't have anything to do with "herding," and it doesn't mean your dog has the potential to be "trained to herd." The test involves showing interest in sheep in a tiny pen. That's it. And I apologize for all the ironic air quotes. [Please give them special emphasis in the next paragraph.]

Why is the bar set so low? Because the AKC "Herding Group" consists chiefly of dogs whose last real working ancestors, if indeed they had any, "worked stock" over a century ago. They've been bred for everything but work since, and no, the "instinct" hasn't been "sleeping" -- it's gone. Nevertheless, in the interest of "fairness" -- and entry fees -- the AKC wants to give every "herding dog" a shot at winning a "Herding Championship." In order to facilitate this, the bar isn't just set low, it's set lower than low. Mariana Trench low.

AKC titles in general say far more about owner effort and/or bank account than they do about a dog's merits. Odds are that an obedience title reflects your training skills more than your dog's genius. A conformation title may mean a) you figured out which judges like your dog's lines, and b) you were willing to drive across the country to show your dog under those judges. An AKC "herding" title means your dog was able follow tame sheep down a fence line, and it doesn't matter that it took thirty attempts to win those three qualifying scores.

To the extent that titles demonstrate owner care and interest, I love them. As proof of special merit? Meh. As evidence of stellar temperament or excellent health? Surely you jest.

There isn't a title on earth that guarantees a bombproof temperament. And as far as health goes, many titled AKC dogs are physical disasters: champion bulldogs that can't breathe, champion GSDs that can't move normally.

Here's an excerpt from the Bulldog Club of America's Code of Ethics:
Members who contemplate breeding a litter, or who allow the use of their stud dog for the same purpose shall direct their efforts toward producing dogs of quality, of even temperament, vigorous and free of health problems. They shall be familiar with the bulldog breed and its BCA/AKC approved standard and breed only those specimens which conform to it.
Contradictory, no? Not to pick on the bulldog people, but when puppies must be delivered by C-section, and when bulldogs suffer from the highest rate of hip dysplasia on record at the OFA, and when they must be kept indoors and quiet on warm days on account of their brachycephalic issues, the phrase "vigorous and free of health problems" seems to me to be very much at odds with breeding "only those specimens which conform" to the standard.

In light of all this, what sort of chucklehead would insist that only titles and codes of ethics prove a dog is worthy of breeding? Answer: the sort of chucklehead who writes mandatory spay/neuter laws. Take a look at L.A. County's Spay/Neuter Ordinance:

By spaying or neutering your dog, you are helping solve the problem of pet overpopulation and protecting your dog from potential harm. However, since some dogs cannot be spayed or neutered for certain reasons, this ordinance has exemptions for these cases. These are:

  1. Dogs which are unable to be spayed or neutered without a high likelihood of suffering serious bodily harm or death due to age or infirmity. Written confirmation from a licensed veterinarian is required to qualify for this exception.
  2. Dogs used by law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes.
  3. Service or assistance dogs that assist disabled persons.
  4. Competition dogs. A Competition Dog is a dog which is used to show, to compete or to breed, which is of a breed recognized by and registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC), United Kennel Club (UKC), American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) or other approved breed registries. The dog or owner must also meet ONE of the following requirements:
    1. The dog has competed in at least one dog show or sporting competition sanctioned by a national registry or approved by the department within the last 365 days; or
    2. The dog has earned a conformation, obedience, agility, carting, herding, protection, rally, sporting, working or other title from a purebred dog registry referenced above or other registry or dog sport association approved by the department; or
    3. The owner or custodian of the dog is a member of a department approved purebred dog breed clubs, which maintains and enforces a code of ethics for dog breeding that includes restrictions from breeding dogs with genetic defects and life threatening health problems that commonly threaten the breed.

If you believe your dog meets one of these exemptions, please complete and return an Exemption Application.

Look familiar? You bet. This arrogant nonsense was produced by the same folks who brought you the Puppy Mill Protection Act. When people who don't know anything about dogs write laws, AB 1634 is what happens. Ed Boks, Judy Mancuso and Lloyd Levine apparently believe that a lame, wheezing pair of AKC bulldogs -- or Labs, or Barbie Collies -- are better breeding prospects than the best working stockdogs in North America.

In contrast, some of the people who know most about dogs are perfectly willing to crossbreed. Legendary Australian stockman Scott Lithgow wrote that his ideal cattledog was from 50-75% border collie, 25% "blue Cattle Dog," about 6% Bull Terrier [not the show dog of that name, but a Staffy Bull type] and with a trace of dingo, all depending on "the strengths of the particular strains of dogs used."

Depending on the strengths of the particular strains of dogs used. Whoa, what a concept.

In his book The Malinois Jan Kaldenbach writes:
Cross-breeding Malinois with German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, Boxers and Great Danes has given the Malinois the best characteristics of all the breeds to withstand the stresses and challenges of being a police service dog.
And here's the history of the Red, I mean Irish Setter:
The Irish Setter of the late 1800s was not just a red dog. The AKC registered Irish Setters in a myriad of colors. Frank Forester, a 19th-century sports writer, described the Irish Setter as follows: "The points of the Irish Setter are more bony, angular, and wiry frame, a longer head, a less silky and straigher coat that those of the English. His color ought to be a deep orange-red and white, a common mark is a stripe of white between the eyes and a white ring around the neck, white stockings, and a white tage to the tail."

The Setter that was completely red, however, was preferred in the show ring and that is the direction that the breed took. Between 1874 and 1948, the breed produced 760 conformation champions, but only five field champions.

In the 1940s, Field and Stream magazine put into writing what was already a well-known fact. The Irish Setter was disappearing from the field and an outcross would be necessary to resurrect the breed as a working dog. Sports Afield chimed in with a similar call for an outcross. Ned LaGrange of Pennsylvania spent a small fortune purchasing examples of the last of the working Irish Setters in America and importing dogs from overseas. With the blessing of the Field Dog Stud Book, he began an outcross to red and white field champion English Setters. The National Red Setter Field Trial Club was created to test the dogs and to encourage breeding toward a dog that would successfully compete with the white setters. Thus the modern Red Setter was born and the controversy begun.

Prior to 1975 a relationship existed between the AKC and the Field Dog Stud book in which registration with one body qualified a dog for registration with the other. In 1975 the Irish Setter Club of America petitioned the AKC to deny reciprocal registration, and the AKC granted the request. It is claimed, by critics of the move, that the pressure was placed on the AKC by bench show enthusiasts who were unappreciative of the outcrossing efforts of the National Red Setter Field Trial Club, as well as some AKC field trialers following a series of losses to FDSB red setters. Working Irish Setter kennels today field champion dogs that claim lines from both the FDSB dogs and AKC dogs.
The sanctioning body for sheepdog and cowdog trials in North America, the USBCHA, has never granted titles and never will: the membership would have apoplexy. Which is the reason that North America's finest working stockdogs -- the wisest, most athletic dogs on the planet -- can be seen at USBCHA trials like the one in the YouTube video at the top of this post.

How can you tell if a dog is worth breeding? Watch him work. Watch her work. Do your research on the breed or type and and watch the dog work.

Healthy dogs with great, friendly, rock-solid temperaments -- pedigrees be damned -- should be bred for pet homes. Good working dogs should be bred by working-dog experts and placed in working homes (or experienced, active, pet homes). People who don't know anything about dogs should be strongly discouraged from writing laws affecting them. And if everybody adopts a dog or two, or three, from the local pound: Utopia. "My Utopia," anyway.

[This post was prompted in part by a question from a smart, patient person playing devil's advocate during last year's AB 1634 debate. I still owe her a Starbucks.]


Anonymous said...

great post, I now have it book marked, 'cause ranks up there with "rosettes to ruin" on the terrierman website.

Luisa said...

That's praise indeed -- thanks. And I need to temper my "pedigrees be damned" comment: as far as breeding for health is concerned pedigrees can be very useful. Must write a follow-up post on what I'd look for in a breeder. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughts! I couldn't agree more.

Please do write a follow-up post regarding breeders.