I talk a lot about training, education and ethical breeding. When it comes to my dogs and good citizenship, I talk — a lot. But I also listen and watch what’s going on around me, so I love it when a question makes me stop and really dig down into what I believe.
Many times, I find I just hadn’t thought about it. I live by instinct and what feels right, balanced out by research and a desire to improve the way I do everything. Come along with me as I sort out the latest in dog world terminology — “preservation breeding.” A quick search gets you a loose definition: “a commitment to produce dogs of quality, as described by the breed standards.” That was the question asked of me, as I talked about ethical breeding: “Are you a preservation breeder?”
I answered on instinct, “No, no, I am not.” Then, came the good question, “Well, why not?” Well … why not, or why sort of?
In my mind, “preservation” means unchanged. Just a little poking around, however, will get you several takes on the matter.
There is an interesting article by the Institute of Canine Biology about preservation breeding. One of the most important things it talks about is a “sustainable breeding population.” Not just breeding two dogs but maintaining “sustainable populations.” Genetic diversity is a key component of any breeding program.
ICB also talks about inbreeding, or line breeding, as a way to pass down key genetic components that might have been missed in a generation, just because there is a certain amount of random chance in the way genes are passed down.
While both of these items carry a negative connotation in today’s society, they are an important aspect of any breeding program.
The American Kennel Club points out that many breeds have perilously low numbers, because the jobs they were bred for are no longer viable. For many, showing is the only job left.
Which reminds me of another article I read recently. Hackney ponies were created in the 1860s by George Wilson. By the 1880s, they were well established in both Britain and the Americas. They were the thing to drive during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
When vehicles became more common as a means of transportation, however, these bright flashy ponies were deemed no longer able to contribute to society, and their numbers declined rapidly.
Today, they are used mostly for show, and share a stud book with the Hackney horse, not having one of their own. They are a breed I have always admired for their hardiness, but the phrase from the article stuck in my head: “no longer able to contribute to society.”
Than and now
Livestock guardian dogs play a very important role on the farm and support our efforts at environmentally responsible stewardship. They are considered non lethal predator management, allowing us to raise stock without negatively impacting the surrounding wildlife.
The environment they work in here is vastly different from where they were created. Those original dogs, from thousands of years ago, wouldn’t necessarily fit here. Their job and the temperament required to do that job would clash with today’s property lines, roads and farmstand visitors.
As ethical breeders, we have a responsibility to uphold a standard of form and function, staying as true to those original dogs as we can. They are a treasure and a valuable resource worthy of preserving. Many of the breeds these dogs were created from no longer exist today and only small pockets of the culture and environment that shaped them remain as well. If we ruin them, we can’t go back and make them new. They aren’t cookies. You can’t just make a new batch when something goes wrong.
It’s a balance though. We also have a responsibility to make dogs that are useful, who can function in today’s modern farming framework. Dogs that can still work a job and contribute in a way meaningful enough to fulfill that original purpose.
It’s a difficult thing, not to get caught up in the “look” of a standard. It’s a range of attributes focusing mostly on size, weight and color. Temperament is down the list, followed lastly by the ability to do its job.
A purpose bred dog is more my style, I think. Healthy, within range of size and weight as much as possible. But that “ability to do its job” — the part that makes the breed special — that is the part I am interested in preserving the most.
It’s not an easy task. I wrote an article once about my oldest male titled, “Two dogs in one,” and a customer of mine once described them as “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” This existential contradiction is a big part of what makes these dogs special, something I continually have a hard time explaining to someone that has never owned one.
Obedience versus intelligence and handler versus partner are nuances that can be hard to grasp if you don’t experience it yourself. Like so many things, you have to live it to appreciate it.
Breeders have an uphill battle these days. We are doing our best to educate buyers in the hopes that they will make decisions that support the dogs we love. I think that’s where breeder ethics come into play. That appreciation I have for the dogs who work here — that partnership I am lucky enough to be a part of — makes the responsibility to these dogs all the weightier.
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