Monday, February 8, 2016

Brace for Impact

Once upon a time I had a Collie.  An AKC Collie.  Show-bred, by a woman who I respected, and a dog healthy of mind and body.  (This was harder to bring about that the uninitiated might imagine.  I had to wait 3 years for him – and even then I had to settle for a “him”, instead of a “her”, which is what I prefer.)  

I named him Sensei.  He was a wonderful dog.  

Back then, in 1992, I had very specific ideas about what a Collie should look like.  One of those things was the way its ears looked.  I didn’t like prick ears on a Collie.  Ears that stand straight up - think German Shepherd Dog – just don’t work for me on a Collie.  But a great many Collies do not sport the perfect “tulip ear” naturally.  One must intervene in many cases.  So many cases in fact, that the average show Collie has his ears braced long before they indicate what their final posture will be.  

Bracing is done in many different ways, with varying degrees of success.  Some are uncomfortable.  Some are not.  A lot depends on the temperament of the dog.  Some treatments produce an ear with a sharp crease at the “break”, or place where the ear folds.  These dogs tend to look as if their ear had been slammed in a door.  It has a right-angle instead of a smooth curve.  It looks artificial.  It is artificial.  All ear-bracing is artificial.  But if one is going to do it, one should strive for a natural-looking ear.

As you can see in the pictures of various Lassies below, one dog has the slammed-in-a-door look, and the others have the more wobbly, up-one-minute, down-the-next look.  And the one dog has very clearly prick ears (at that moment.)  
Slammed-in-a-door ears.  But not the worst I've seen.

Wibbly-wobbly Lassie ears.
Lassie, looking into a stiff breeze.
Nowadays, I am less fussy about the ear-carriage of Collies.  But - and this is where you need to brace for impact - I have a partiality for a lovely tulip ear – a natural tulip ear.  I am no longer dotty about Lassie-type Collies.  I much prefer the Border Collie.  But I still love a beautifully-turned tulip ear.

Sensie & Sugarfoot.  Sensei's ears were the product of early and careful bracing.  Sugarfoot's are natural.  It is remarkable how similar their ears are.

But… My dog has naturally-tipped ears.  I would not have braced them if they had started going prick.  I would have been temporarily disappointed, but not devastated.  Sometimes one of her ears goes prick for a few moments.  It usually happens when she’s excited.  I will admit that I sometimes feel a twinge of worry.  What if it stays that way?  But it never does.  And if it does, I’ll cope.  Does that make me shallow?  Maybe?  

But I would never condemn someone for wanting to brace their Collie’s, or even their Border Collie’s ears.  (As long as they sought a qualified, experienced person who put the dog’s comfort first, and who would avoid creating a slammed-in-a-door appearance.) 


I am absolutely against breeding Border Collies – or most any dog – simply for the way they look.  Border Collies should be bred for one thing and one thing only… Stock working ability.  If it doesn’t have a very high degree of stock working ability, it should not be bred.  Cute ears are not a factor. 

To explain why, I offer the Dartboard Analogy proposed by Denice Wall:

Imagine something such as a dart board, with a bull’s-eye and several circles that indicate areas farther and farther from the middle target. Let’s say the bull’s-eye circle is red, the next circle is orange, the next yellow, and the very outside circle is white. The actual area within these circles varies depending on the number of dogs in each class at any one time.

Now let’s define the groups of dogs within the different colored circles. Please remember all of these categories in this hypothetical situation represent the genetic potential of these dogs. In other words, this is what's in the gene pool. I'm not talking about what people think the dogs are or don't know whether they are or not due to not having tested them:

Red circle (bull’s eye) = The very best quality of working border collies. A working definition might be dogs that are exceptional enough to save a great deal of time and manpower for a livestock operation.

Orange circle = Useful dogs who save time and manpower for the operation but who are not top quality.

Yellow circle = Dogs who will work a little, but wouldn’t be considered useful workers on a real livestock operation because they would cost time and cause too much trouble to train or use. IOW, someone may want to pretend they're actually helping, but they really aren't and sometimes they're hindering. Although they may show some herding instincts, it's not the right total package for work.

White circle dogs = Not interested or not capable of doing anything with stock except maybe chasing or showing only prey drive. So, not useful or way less than helpful, and sometimes downright dangerous to the stock.

Livestock working ability is comprised of many complex traits. These traits all need to fit together just right and in the right amounts for the dog to be the complete package, and be considered a top worker -- the bull’s-eye. Achieving this package with the consistency needed requires stringent evaluation and selection for working ability every generation. Because of the complexity of reproducing behavioral traits such as these, it’s difficult to get this package that is a top worker, in every pup, or even close, despite crossing the best to the best. This is partly because some dogs, for whatever reason, aren’t good breeders, no matter how good they, themselves, are. So let’s say if only red circle dogs were crossed, only 80% of that number of red circle dogs would be produced in the next generation. (This is a hypothetical number – it may actually be more or less.) Therefore, breeding only red circle dogs will not replace all of the red circle dogs, and the number of red circle dogs will drop each generation if only these crosses are used.

As with other breeds used for other purposes, many a top sire gets bred to a mediocre bitch. Because the working genes were (are?) still highly concentrated in the border collie gene pool, the chances of hitting upon a dog that may not be a top worker herself but is a good breeder, are still pretty good. This type of good breeder would be mostly in the orange circle with a few in the yellow circle, but almost none in the white circle. Breeders of these top working sires may take a stud pup from these crosses to increase their chances of hitting on a good breeder should their top bitches not be, or not cross well with their choice of stud dog. In other words, the top breeders still rely on the peripheral pools of dogs that are not as good workers themselves but are good breeders, to provide some of their next generations of top red circle dogs. As long as the emphasis is on breeding for work and the momentum of most of the breeding is going toward breeding for the bull’s-eye and concentrating only the working genes, the number of red circle dogs will be replaced each generation and maybe even expanded.

Now, suppose the breed becomes popular for dog shows, pets, and dog sports such as agility. Suppose these people do not only buy puppies from the working bred dogs. Now instead of a mostly dead end gene pool -- dogs that will not be bred but only used for dog sports, etc., these dogs with no working ability will be bred as the demand increases. The number of white circle dogs increases. And since people seem to want to claim their “borders” can still herd with the best of them, or the sport dog people need to tap into the working traits for success in their endeavor, they will look to the working circles for breeding to try to get these traits in the pups. Regardless of how it happens, however, now the momentum has changed and the working genes are being diluted, instead of concentrated, in this peripheral gene pool that has formerly been the source of good breeders to help replenish the red circle top workers. As this trend progresses, the good breeders in the peripheral gene pool become rarer, the yellow circle fades more to white, the orange fades more to yellow and the red fades more to orange. Unable to replace themselves without the help of the strong working genes formerly present in the peripheral gene pool, over time, the number of dogs truly in the red circle diminishes until the gene pool is too small. 

Denise Wall


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