Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Defining a "Quality Dog"


What makes a good dog?  That is a very personal question, and entirely up to you.  There are as many good ways to breed dogs as there are opinions - and there are a lot of opinions out there.  Dog breeding methods did not come down from Mount Sinai written in stone; they've evolved over the centuries that these wonderful animals have been with us.  There are more and more people realizing the potential of crossbreeds, which in my opinion is a Good Thing.  Inbreeding has its uses, but when you've had no new blood infused into a population over the last 100 years, you realize that the closed gene pool can't go on forever. 

Right now, a Championship is the goal for many breeders.  Preferably, many wins and many winning offspring of the winners.  Has that time passed?  Watching Pedigree Dogs Exposed (parts 1 and 2), one senses a shift in the bedrock.   Breeding for purity and conformation isn't that old, actually.  For generations, the goal was performance.   Performance today doesn't have quite the same meaning: I don't depend on my dogs' agility or obedience scores to put food on the table.   But it still is a valuable way to assess the dog's trainability, soundness, and willingness to please that are important hallmarks of a good collie.

Showing can be fun, but I am not a conformation person for a few reasons. For one, it's sort of dull - I'd rather put the time and effort into bringing out my dog's intelligence, endurance, and skills in the performance ring. Also, it's objective: in the show ring, the judge might simply not like your dog that much on that particular day, but might like it more the next day. I like obedience because there are rules, and you generally have a good idea of whether or not you qualify. Also, my favorite dogs have tended toward the broader-headed, low-eared "old fashioned" type. Great temperament, sound, sweet, but not welcome in the conformation ring. One of these days, maybe.
I like to be objective.  I like charts, lists, and graphs   I wrote up a schematic several years ago that serves as a shorthand for evaluating a dog objectively, to identify its standout traits shortcomings.  It can be applied to purebred or crossbred dogs, too - there are plenty of performance venues and health tests that are open to all dogs.

The Rainbow of Traits 

Red: Conformation. This is conformation in the show sense - good angulation? Good head? Do you look at the dog and say "Wow, now *that* is a collie!" Earning a championship is one goal, but a dog can be a good example of its breed and not be an AKC Champion. A dog with good conformation has "everything where it should be", he will have endurance and be an excellent mover. 

Orange: Trainability. Does the dog learn quickly? Does he have a sparkle in his eye when he masters a new task? Does he get a kick out of learning? Ideally, a dog should have depth and breadth - able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks to a high level.  One of the most important words used to describe a good collie is "biddable".

Yellow: Temperament: rock-solid. This is a must for collies. Collies are big dogs, they must be safe with children - most of them have a natural love of people, and this is one thing I look for in a young puppy: the one who focuses on, and wants to be with, people as opposed to his littermates. The adult dog should be adaptable, calm, well bonded to his family. A good dog is reliable and predictable in a variety of situations.  Collies should also be protective of those they hold dear.

Green: Instinct. Collies are historically a herding breed, and they should be able to herd.  Surprisingly, many show-bred collies do have a natural herding instinct. The protectiveness also comes in under this, collies should have a strong sense of territory. The "green" is different for every breed: it is also part of conformation.

Blue: Soundness. Hips, eyes, thyroid, elbows, skin - as well as good overall structure. This includes the things you can test for and those you can't. The "testables" include DNA testing for PRA and CEA, Gray Collie syndrome (cyclic neutropenia), and MDR-1. The things you can't test for may be more difficult - you have to do some research. Did any of the relatives have "puppy mange"? Bloat?  Epilepsy?  Hopefully in the future, more tests will be developed. 

Violet: Family. Does the dog come from sound, healthy, good tempered lines? You don't want a dog who is the only healthy one in a litter plagued with PRA or DM. The more you can find out about his relatives, the better. Are the dog's relatives known for being easy whelpers, good mothers? Not just the parents - half siblings, siblings, parents' siblings too - as many as you can dig up.

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