Monday, June 6, 2022

Nae king! Nae quin! Nai laird! Nai master! We willnae be fooled again!

 Brandywine Farm is currently occupied by a brawling, rolling, apparently drunken mob of Wee Free Men.

Welcome to the Nac Mac Feegle, Clay-Over-Limestone Clan.

Rob Anybody is the Big Man.  No one knows why.

Nearly Big Angus. He's nearly big. Unlike his brother William the Gonnagle, his white blaze meets his collar over his head.

It is not, as far as we can determine, true that Big Yan consumed an entire brother. But Big Yan is big. He identifies as a Saint Bernard Puppy.

Daft Wullie is not noticeably more daft than his brothers, but he is certainly Wullie.

William the Gonnagle has had something to say since he was about ten days old. He keeps saying it.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Zuckerberg, You Ignorant Slut

 It's time to get the old blogging gang back together.

Like, well, practically everyone, I have fallen for the tempting grift of "less friction."

Going into blogger, writing and editing a worthwhile post, formatting it, monitoring and moderating comments (because oh my Dog, the spam, the spam, and also the weirdos, the weirdos), visiting other blogs of interest, maybe needing yet another account to comment there if I am so moved, signing in, remembering passwords -- all of them are points of friction and annoyance. Yahoo Groups took over the listserv game a couple decades ago, got everyone in one place, and then, a few years back, just POOFED away years and years of conversations and files and whole online communities. Just gone.

And The Zuck made it ever eeeeasier to interact. Schedule events. Conduct business. Sell your shit. 

Until Zuckworld had sucked all the air out of the rest of God's internet while, you know, also sucking the tit of Putin's fascist trolls, that sweet sweet Kremlin troll money.

It's all great until you find that your now-predominant means of communication and commerce is capriciously cut off by a bloody-minded literalist imbecile algorithm that cannot detect irony or hyperbolic metaphor, and flags a pleasant conversation among consenting friends about interesting science, or a real pretty vintage kitchen set, as "inciting violence."

That literally confuses a straightforward statement that hunting Mike Pence with a noose is a, you know, bad thing, with advocating Pence-hunting.

Meanwhile, same day, classic Holocaust denial on a news story public comment thread -- eh, it's fine. Didn't hit any of the secret no-no words.

The automation is about as competent at grokking the hoo-mans as the Zuck itself.

Story time.

It's junior high speech class. The teacher is Mr. Stanton. Mr. Stanton is kinda a dick, but by no means the worst asshole teaching at Roehm Junior High, mainly only because of the stiff competition. The thing to know is that in 1979, the dicks and assholes babysitting the hormonal adolescents at Roehm Junior High school were empowered to beat the students who annoyed them. Literally take them into the hallway and hit them in the ass with a wooden paddle. "Swats." Some liked to brandish their beating paddles as threats, and the legendary ones had paddles with holes drilled into them for, allegedly, extra pain. The good teachers did not employ beatings or threats of beatings .But any of them were allowed to. Good times! The students who regularly received beatings for being little shits considered it a badge of honor, so the deterrence power of beatings was pretty openly understood to be zilch.

So we kids learning public speaking had to choose a topic, some political or social issue, take a side, and research, prepare, and deliver a "speech to convince." Nobody could take the same side of the same topic as anyone else, but we could take different sides. Mr. Stanton polled us alphabetically for our topics, with students lower in the alphabet getting dibs.

I announced my topic and position. Topic doesn't matter, I'm not entirely sure I remember what it was.

A few students later, one of the boys calls dibs on the opposing side of the issue. 

I remember who it was, but won't embarrass him here. A popular kid who wasn't particularly my buddy, but definitely not one of the legions of junior high shithead bullies.

When he called dibs for a speech opposing my position, the kids started invoking a favorite Saturday Night Live sketch. We gonna have a Point/Counterpoint!

My classmate snapped out in a fair Dan Akroyd twang Heather, you ignorant slut. And we all roared.

You know, the way people do, when bantering, and invoking in-group memes, references that show that we all get the joke.

Stanton, that dick, did not get the joke.

We tried to explain the joke.

He did not want to get the joke.

I especially was anxious that he understand that this was a good joke that did not offend me and that my classmate was not bullying me. Plenty of nasty little shits doing that and never, ever being punished for it, but this was not that. And I particularly did not want my classmate to sustain a beating in the hallway because of me


Random hallway beating it was.

Seriously, fuck that guy.


That's Zuckerworld, and also The House That Jack Built.

Hallway assault? Didn't see it. Vile, obscene provocation from the back row? Better not respond, you're gonna be the one that gets it. The useless little shits don't fear the random punishment, because they aren't doing anything worthwhile in the space, the beating just raised their status among the other useless little shits, and punishment isn't linked to conduct or its harm anyway, so they can just watch the kid who made an innocent SNL reference get whaled on for giggles.

So I am diversifying my communication channels. More blog entries, either here on blogger or possibly moved to a different platform at some point. Back to a stand-alone website for the training and farm businesses.

And I encourage everyone else who has got sumthin' to say to do the same. Unzuck yourself, despite the friction and some expense.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Wideo Wednesday: Rules about Rules

English shepherds love rules.

The love being your goon and enforcing your rules -- whether or not you have asked them to do so -- and they love inventing rules of their own and then making it so.

While border collies move and control stock out of an obsession with geometry in four dimensions, ES dogs crack kneecaps in the service of How Things Are To Be.

You have to be very careful that your ES doesn't go all "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" on you. There are certain things we do with livestock that we don't let the dogs see, or perhaps don't let immature dogs see, and others that we are careful to introduce in a very deliberate and controlled manner, so that nobody gets the wrong idea or promotes herself to a job above her paygrade.

As every stockdog and livestock guardian trainer knows, adolescence is fraught with peril even when a pup comes from genetics that are totally appropriate to the job she is doing. Pure stockdog trainers would never leave a teen pup unsupervised or only lightly supervised  around stock or poultry the way we have done with six of our own dogs and dozens of young fosters.

But ES are not pure stockdogs by nature; they have a strong guardian impulse as well, deriving from the notion that the animals are ours* rather than the true LGD's conviction that he is theirs. Raising an ES puppy on a diversified farm involves some of the same risks that raising a guardian pup does; the pup will have some unsupervised time with the stock in the ordinary course of things, and teenagers can make bad decisions about fun. Once bad decisions yield satisfying results, they can escalate and become habit. There's a fine balance between too much and too little management of a developing pup.

Sammie has decided that the chickens belong in the coop.

I'm not sure where she got this idea; it has been a mild winter with very little snow, so the chooks have been free-ranging almost every day of her life. But there it is, she is much happier if they stay in the coop; barring that ideal state of stasis, they should definitely not range far away from the safety of the barnyard.

That's not how any of this works.

Frustrating her impulse for World Poultry Domination, the barnyard is partly bordered by cattle panel fences that chickens can easily slip through, but puppies over five months of age cannot.

She generally lets them be except when Perfesser Chaos or I are working in the barn or barnyard, or when she is with me as I return from the south pasture, where I have been doing a lot of maintenance work this year.

When we tested the litter for raw, incipient stock sense at the tender age of seven weeks, using tiny, ridiculous, dog-broke ducks, some of the pups already showed real power and balance. The Peanut's sister Bess was gobsmackingly precocious -- not exactly conscious of her power, but displaying it anyway. She turned the very flocky ducks by just turning her head at the proper moment. Whut did I just see?!?

My little nut wanted to play with the duckies. Sproing sproing pounce. She was a silly puppy being silly.  Duckies are fun!

No worries. I've raised both precocious pups and slow-maturing ones from her family line. I was sure that it would come.

And it has.

When we approach the barnyard from the pasture and her boxy little mind decides poultry must be safe in the box, she begins to work them, showing balance and intelligence. When hens pile up in a corner, she stays off of them, gives them space to escape, but only towards the pop-door of safety. Gradually they flow in there; she has them pretty well trained that this is the best course of action.

This is what it looks like when everybody goes along quiet-like and I don't stop her on her quest for World Poultry Containment:

I have good roosters and territorial dim-bulb guinea cocks who are always the last outside. The roos take their hen-protecting jobs very seriously. That leaves them exposed as single, non-compliant chickens instead of a flock that can be managed with 4-D geometry, so they get chased. I am pretty sure that they run and squawk to distract the puppy from the hens as well, as I have seen a couple of them do once when the fox came shopping in the poultry yard. (Difference is, they then turned around and beat the fox like an old rug. This is why I have a few more roosters than I had been planning to keep. That kind of heroics earns a sinecure.)

Not chased with any intent to catch, but chased out of balance, with excessive excitement on both ends.

And that's where her big sister Verity comes in.

Verity is not at all sure about this new rule. She does not remember Momma announcing such a rule. Daddy opens the pop door every morning and lets the chickens out, so that carries the strong implication that there is no such rule.And there is definitely a rule about getting too excited chasing poultry; she and her brother Finch got their adolescent asses kicked one time on the matter of squishing a dumb turkey and pulling out feathers, and that was all it took for both of them to remember.

So Verity enforces the rule about sparking poultry. Very subtly when she can, with precisely-calibrated shoulder blocks, distraction, redirection.

More forcefully when she must -- in the form of wrestling play, but escalating to serious discipline as necessary.

It's not yet clear to me to what extent this is entirely about Respect the Rules and to what extent it may contain elements of Respect Mah Authoritah. V. is a soft, sensitive dog who feels pressure very acutely and does not attempt to social-climb; she is also a young adult English shepherd bitch looking at her more brash up-and-coming younger sister and thinking about her future.

Momma Chuck seems to be taking a very deliberate paws-off approach to this whole thing. Same with Grandma Rosie and, mostly, Uncle Cole. But if you watch the personified negative space that is Chuck, you may perceive the neutral calm that she radiates. That is itself an opinion and an influence.

I'm being a little bit more involved day-to-day. I generally tell Sammie that'll do when I see her starting to haze the birds towards the coop; the videos are to show what happens if I am not there to provide guidance. She needs to learn that they are actually allowed to play outside, and that only a few places are off-limits to them. Cooping them when there's a predator threat is obviously right on. But I also appreciate that she is practicing self-control and learning balance of the literally flightiest of livestock, and that's a useful thing for her to be developing. So I don't squash it reflexively every time. She calls off well even when things get very exciting, and that's a very good skill to work on during her adolescence, one that generalizes to so many situation where safety is at stake.

And I'm so pleased with V.'s sense of the meta-rules, and her willingness to educate her sister, that I will gently encourage her when she's unsure whether she's supposed to take action, especially when she literally looks to me for guidance. V. takes a very light touch, something that can be hard to provide amidst a family of harder characters.


I shot this as we returned from checking the south pasture growth (me) and trying to flush bunnies from the brush piles there (them), so energies were high. The hen drama as they are rousted from the lilac bush by the house has more to do with the thumping V. is giving Peanut than any overkill by Peanut. Cole participates here.

Notice that the birds have the option of just slipping through the cattle panels and stock fence to avoid the puppy prefect, but they just resign themselves and head for the pop door.

If you have trouble telling very similar-looking dogs apart here, these are their field marks:

Chuck: Two completely white front legs, minimal white collar.
Verity: Two completely white front legs, lots of full white collar, legs up to here, rather pointy
Sam Peanut: One white front leg, one mostly black, a small white neck splash, no collar
Cole: Exact same markings as Sammie. Go figure. Stumpy little shit.

* "We" are the humans, the pack dogs, and sometimes other privileged animals, such as our farm cats. "Ours" is the stock that belongs -- "we" care for it and protect it, but also push it around and control it. "Them" is a range of beings ranging from the mail carrier who we welcome and the hummingbirds that the humans feed all the way up to threats that are neutralized, the human miscreant at the window and the fox running off with a mouthful of feathers, the raccoons that Cole habitually murders, even the mice in the house -- not "prey" exactly, the neutral way that a cottontail is, but "intruder" to be removed or repelled.

New livestock and new dog fosters have a brief period during which the humans have to establish that they are "ours" and not "them," especially with the young dogs who don't know the drill. I'm currently teaching peanut that the new piglets are ours. She's unfamiliar with the species, but is starting to grok them after an initial bad reaction to a surprise pig-scream from an unseen monster in a barrel at the breeder's farm.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Fear Must Remain Secondary

Motivated bold puppy is motivated and bold.
Handler shit-eating grin is genuine.
Chicken hat is awesome. Nobody slags on the chicken hat.
Photo credit Michelle Silka-Eaton.

For nearly three decades, I have given every wannabe SAR handler who starts with a pup, and every puppy-owning client, the same explicit, unambiguous warning that I got when I was training Lilly.

Your bold, friendly, people-loving puppy who has no environmental sensitivities will one day lose her damned mind.

At one or more points during adolescence she will go through a developmental stage called the secondary fear imprint period. This is natural. It is normal. All puppies* experience this. For some puppies, it's a week of woofing at balloons and lawn gnomes and done. For others it's full-on panic at seeing a stranger on the street, and it may pulse in and out of her consciousness for over a month.

For SAR puppies, it almost always plays out this way:

Puppy who is advancing well in her work, ranging out independently and finding boldly, starting to do longer big-dog training tasks, and trusting herself and her marvelous nose will happen to approach a search subject (or possibly an incidental person in her search area) in such a way that she sees the person when she cannot smell the person. The person may be sitting very still, in camouflage, in shadow, or just appear from an unusual angle.  The important thing is, puppy believes in her nose, and her nose is saying that there is no person there. Q.E.D. it is a monster.

Cogitate on the truth that in a dog's cognitive world, a thing that looks like a thing but does not smell like that thing is a monster.

Puppy barks, hackles, cowers, runs back to Momma. She may machine-gun bark. She's not gonna go anywhere near that enchanted stump, that vaguely human-shaped smell-less illusion.

And the handler who has been told about this exact scenario, nine times out of ten, loses her shit and forgets what to do, forgets that she was even told that this would happen, fixates on what the puppy is doing and not on what the puppy is experiencing. Oh wailie wailie my puppy is vicious and schizy and unstable!


That's when we hope that there's an experienced handler on the task to run the intervention, which is very simple.

Stop it!

Act like a damned grownup!

Show some leadership to your puppy! Not forcefulness. Not anger. Not cooing. Leadership.

Get the puppy downwind of the monster so that her nose can tell her what the reality is.

That's why I was stoked when I happened to get the first footage I've ever captured of a pup doing that thing they all do.

The setup of this task is simple. I wanted to use the wide-open agricultural field for young Sammie to practice ranging. There's a swale that gives enough cover for a person, and I'd sent Perfesser Chaos to hide in it somewhere. I thought I might catch some nice footage of her hitting the scent cone and working it. The wind had been shifty all day, even more erratic than usual for our part of the world.

I am walking west towards the swale while Peanut ranges. Initially the wind is coming from the north-northwest. You can see her hit the scent at about 0:32 and move directly into it, not casting across a scent cone. The topography is making the scent move directly towards her rather than disperse into a cone. At about 0:45 the wind shifts to north-northeast. At 0:49 she runs up a little bit, entirely out of the scent, and simultaneously sees PC at the bottom of the swale -- hatted, camouflaged, with a lumpy pack next to him, outline distorted by sharp shadows. (We don't do bright sun and sharp shadows in Pittsburgh. Has Sam ever seen one of us in sunglasses, even?)

A moment ago I smelled my Daddy and now there is a monster! Monster musta eated Daddy!

The background on Sam-Peanut-Horrible-Brandywine --

She's in training to be a fourth-generation search and rescue dog. Her genetic selection has been for boldness, friendliness, resilience, and a balance between cooperation and independent action, and she has displayed all of these from the time she could toddle. Her upbringing has supported those genetics. She is just turning seven months old at the time of the video.

The owner of her sire gave all the owners of the litter this heads-up -- bold, friendly, calm, chill, self-possessed Sid had experienced an acute, short-lived, and absolutely hellacious secondary fear imprint period when he was about six months old, from which he recovered fully without any lingering aftereffects or rebound episodes. So we were all watching for these transient emotional changes and prepared to understand and respond to them.

This is the kind of intel that one gets when one's dog comes from a community of breeders who pay attention, understand what they are seeing, care, and communicate. Don't expect that insight from onlinedoodlesdotcom or the retail rescue that ships wormy pitahoulas to a highway rest stop near you twice a month.

So Sammie is standing at the top of a rise in a standoff with a monster.

She considers running back to Momma, but Sammie is a brave puppy. She's a scared puppy, but constitutionally brave, and learning from her dog family about guarding the farm and livestock from raccoons and chupacabra. It would be perfectly okay for her to run back to Momma. Most puppies in this scenario -- yes, even your Rottweiler pup -- do exactly that. But she can see that I am coming, and chooses to hold off the the threat from her high vantage point. She's a bit of a Momma's girl, but that heavy attachment has more to do with FOMO than with insecurity, and she showed that to me in the moment.

It would not be okay for Sammy to flee back to the refuge of the van (across a country road from this field) or just hightail it for the hills in a panic, and this is one of a hundred reasons why dogs with weak nerves, those who are fearful as a baseline, are not suitable candidates for search and rescue training. There is no training patch that can cover that kind of temperament and make the dog safe and effective at work in a complex world where wind shifts are the least of the challenges. If the puppy enters her secondary fear imprint period with fear and flight already her baseline, any untoward events are going to be orders of magnitude more traumatic, possibly permanently scarring, however mild the trigger appears to be. The shy puppy's brain is already primed to uniformly process new as bad, and to hold on to any lesson that supports that view of the world. A pup with a weak attachment to her handler, or a handler who she fears, or a handler who is weak and fearful himself, might also flee, because the handler has not been a reliable source of authoritative safety in the past.✚

So Sam holds off the scary monster from her high position while her handler approaches, and then the wind shifts again, and just like that it's Daddy! It is a human and it is my human Daddy down there in the swale! I am so embarrassed! I am so relieved! I have found Daddy and saved him from monsters! Woo hoo!

I have observed wannabe handlers remain distressed and upset over their puppy's "aggressive" episode during what should be a collective burst of joy and relief. It's important to model good humor and happiness for the puppy. She's feeling sheepish about her mistake and has a lot of explosive emotional energy to dispel, and it should be dispelled in lap-rolling and love and play and laughter.

What to do if the wind hadn't shifted?

Ideally, if the puppy has some of her wits about her, the handler invites the puppy to walk with her and circles downwind of the monster without coming in any closer. When the puppy hits the human scent, she recovers exactly as Sam has done on her own here.

If the pup has become so overwrought that a faceful of human scent does not overcome her fear-fire-foe-flood mindset, or if some obstacle prevents the team from getting downwind, the handler should ask the subject to call the puppy in a calm, happy voice. Just talk to her.

Dogs believe their noses first, their ears second, their eyes last of everything.

If you are the monster, don't suddenly stand up and fordogssake do not move towards the puppy, but sometimes slowly removing a hat or the hood of a camo jacket or straightening up can change the picture for the tyke.✝

This may be a good time to reflect on the importance of using intelligent, fully-briefed, fully-committed helpers to hide for our SAR dogs, people who need not be experts, but who enjoy dogs and are capable of following instructions, even instructions shouted at 50' over the sound of a barking puppy.

What do handlers who have never been briefed and don't understand developmental periods and canine sensory processing do?

I've watched them attempt to force a puppy to march straight at the scentless monster.

This does not go well.

Don't do that.

Similarly, attempting to "lure" a puppy who is in a state of terror towards the terrifying thing is a disastrous shitshow. It's a good way to convince a puppy that you are a born idiot and inherently untrustworthy. The thing has to first stop being terrifying and resolve into something familiar and comprehensible, and then, if the puppy has decent resilience, you won't need any damned bribe.Nothing beyond the monster-turned-human's friendly invitation to contact and fun, all is forgiven, it was just a mistake, aren't we all silly, let's be silly here together as befits a puppy and a human.

I'm not a pollyanna, but I also tend to the point of view that Nature conserves most traits for a functional reason, and if we can understand that function we can work with it instead of at odds with Nature.

The secondary fear imprint period in canine cognitive development is there because throughout evolution, pups who go through this experience at this time were more likely to survive. It's a potential brake on the coming heedlessness of social adolescence. A few scary experiences fueled by endogenous emotions teach appropriate skepticism; recovery from the well-managed scary experiences and a resolution of the conflict that the puppy feels becomes an emotional skill, a resource for managing risk and her own emotions later in life. The apparent crisis really is an opportunity for emotional growth.

Peanut has processed her experience, and next time she sees and does not smell, she will have knowledge that is deeper and more unshakable because of the emotional charge that gaining it required of her.


* Except Mel. Mel is always the exception to every rule. She didn't have a primary fear imprint period, or a secondary fear imprint period, because she didn't know what fear was. She wasn't courageous, except morally courageous, she was fearless, confident in not only her own invulnerability, but in the power of her aegis to spread over everyone in her orbit.

It's funny how much you can learn about the mold from the one who shattered it when she was born.

✚ If you have acquired an adolescent or just pre-adolescent puppy for SAR, no matter the pup's genetic temperament and upbringing, work for several months on building up a strong attachment and relationship with the handler in safe circumstances where the chance of untoward surprises is as minimal as possible. Nobody wants to spend the next two weeks setting live traps for a teenage puppy with gazelle-speed who has gone feral because away from here felt safer than with that guy.

✝ Do not have your subject use a ghillie suit when hiding for puppies or adolescents. Those things make ya look like Swamp Thing to everyone. That's the point. Expect even well-seasoned adult dogs to react strongly the first time they encounter a subject or anyone else who is wearing a ghillie suit, even if they can smell them perfectly well. Don't spring the ghillie-suited subject on a team the first time without briefing the handler. Seriously, that is a dick move.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

What's That?

It's fun to mess with Our Friend Nancy. She's Minnesota Nice, a retired middle school teacher, and in the eighth grade I would have been the end of her. Douglas and I nearly were in Billings in 2009, because the only thing worse than Douglas and me unsupervised is attempting to supervise Douglas and me.

One of the things that vexes Nancy is when we call our quite feminine Brandywine Charlotte by her preferred name.

Why the hell shouldn't a girl dog answer to Chuck?

Anyway, Nancy probably shouldn't have let on that this bugs her. I mean, she has a decade of experience with me.

Chuck Chuck Chuck Chuck Chuck Chuckeeeeee.

Forget the rules, Olds. It's a new day. The gender binary is being relegated to something more like a fuzzy suggestion. A kind Millennial explained to me why it's polite for an obvious cis human to declare preferred pronouns in certain social and professional contexts and oh, that makes sense, got it. Cis is a vocabulary word. Absolutely no one is hurt by any of this change, and many people are helped a great deal. Even our understanding of biological sex is getting all shook up, that is, biologists are sharing the things they've long known with the lay world . I've personally watched a mature hen stop laying, grow spurs and hackle feathers, and start crowing. No one in the flock batted an ... well, chickens do not have eyelashes, but still.  Turkeys can reproduce parthenogenically and it was not someone taking the piss out of me.

So you can see where we had to go when Chuck partnered with the similarly name-neutral Sydney to make a pile of seven little creatures who will be empowered to self-define.

But I'm still a GenXer, demography's middle child, so my cultural reference for people squirming over someone else's ambiguity in both gender and biological sex is a recurring SNL skit from 1990*, when I was young and impressionable.

Here are the It's Pat babies, in all their unique individual glory.

Sam is the tiniest Pat, half the size of the largest puppies. Smol but fierce.
Also known as Peanut.
The only Pat with a face blaze. Additional ambiguity: seal or black? Can't quite tell yet.

Robin is a big, vigorous, adventurous dark sable who will be the image of Daddy Sidney..
Robin so closely resembles Kim that I have to flip puppies over to tell them apart.
Their white chest markings are slightly different.

Is Riley black and tan with minor white, or tricolor?
The ambiguity in what should be a clear binary is killing me, let me tell ya.

Kim looks like Robin, Robin looks like Kim, you got that, right?
 It's like that with siblings sometimes.

Billy is seal and was the first Pat to make a big deal out of finding the newspapers to wee.
 Remember, everypuppy squats.

Jamie is the firstborn, and can be distinguished among the seal puppies by a white nose smutch.
The firstborn thing doesn't matter because inheritance laws have changed.

Val is seal. You can tell Val from Billy by the shape of their chest markings, but it's otherwise hard.
 Val is short for Vaaaaaal.

* Also a feature-length film that garnered a coveted 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, of which we will not speak.

Pat portraits are by Mary Cvetan. If you would like to schedule a photo shoot for your animal(s) in the Greater Pittsburgh, PA area, contact her directly.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Historians Bypass the Museum

This week I've been head-desking over one of the latest self-justifications of decorative dog-fanciers, their claim that they are "preservation breeders." Been a lot of argle-bargle about the important public service the ribbon-hoarders perform by perpetuating "pure" breeds of "heritage" dogs in the run-up to "National Purebred Dog Day," designated for May Day, because that's apparently not a calendar date that freights any meaning already, so why not?

Aside from describing the role that highly-inbred animals from artificially closed gene pools play as a model for tragic human genetic diseases as a god-damned feature -- like "oh yeah, we've been breeding these year-old bitch puppies to their own daddies for eight generations running because science and help humanity and not in any way to make sure that their ears stand up or flop over or whatever they are supposed to do in exactly the way that makes them crush the competition at the pageants" -- aside from that, the gormless website promoting this advanced codswallop describes the objects of their fancy hobby this way:

I'll just let yinz roll that around for a while. Really take it in. That designation was not presented as a pejorative, as snark, as criticism or satire. They said that about their own, um, let's call them dogs. I've screencapped it in case someone realizes what they've just said and takes it down. We are meant to admire these people for keeping and perpetuating museum pieces with a pulse.

Let's consider the external justifications for the "preservation," at some considerable expense and time and trouble, of inbred outlier populations of domestic animals and plants. Because there are some.

One good reason is preservation of specific, identified traits that might not be what a preponderance of users (farmers, pastoralists, working-animal handlers, pet owners, gardeners, orchardists, etc.) currently need or want, but that people in outlier circumstances do currently need, and/or that changing circumstances may require in the future.

Simple example, an apple cultivar that is resistant to a plant virus that is not currently a major problem in most apple-growing regions, but that in ten years may start sweeping orchards and wiping out crops because of an introduced insect vector, or, oh yeah, we broke the goddamned planet and now what?

We need the eccentric heritage orchardist who has preserved fifty varieties of eighteenth-century apples to unhoist our petards. And we have no way of knowing which bit of genetics is going to be crucial tomorrow, so save all the useful things.

And meanwhile, buy and eat them apples, so that eccentric apple guy can make a living or at least keep up his hobby.

Other circumstances can be social and economic changes that create demand for old genetics in and of themselves. People who reject the miserable lives of industrial pigs and want to eat pork from animals who lived on pasture as if they were real animals have an interest in livestock conservators who have maintained rare genetic lines of pigs that thrive on pasture -- whether those are inbred, "pure" lines of old breeds and landraces, or populations that mix those lines and breeds and continue to select for the traits that make a pasture pig happy, healthy, and productive.

But here's the rub when conserving the functional genetics of domestic animals and plants.

Use it or lose it.

With some plants, one can literally maintain germ plasm virtually unchanged via low-tech traditional cloning. A scion from a hundred-year-old apple tree, grafted onto suitable rootstock, will have functionally identical properties to the parent plant. So as long as the parent plant is alive, a century of neglect can be undone in a few years by a suitably educated and skilled conservator.

With some other plants and all animals, there is no "preservation." Genes gotta recombine to make babbies. In order to prevent genetic loss, the steward must make sound selection decisions every generation.

She must ask herself "What am I conserving?" and ensure that those traits are the ones she selects on. One cannot select for everything equally. There has to be a list of priorities. There has to be compromise on the frills.

Even with a uniformly smart, informed, diligent community of conservators, there will be drift over time. Hidden traits that the environment does not challenge -- say, resistance to an animal disease that was once widely troublesome but is now controlled by vaccination -- will fade away, unbeknownst to the conservators. The selection environment will change subtlely or dramatically, and the animals will change with it. And in isolated populations -- whether formally locked down in closed studbooks, geographically isolated, or just mostly closed to outside genetics, there will be genetic drift, the island effect. Some genes will be lost, some will come to predominate, and heterozygosity will decrease. Decreases in overall heterozygosity will inevitably decrease the overall fitness of the individuals in the population (of animals, not always with plants).

By decreasing overall fitness, I mean, the animals will start suffering from punkish immune systems, enzootic cancers at a young age, infertility, high infant mortality, and birth defects. Not to mention, though one should, specific genetic disorders associated with specific defective alleles widespread (or universal) in the population. In short, they live tenuously and die easy.

Part of conservation is always ensuring that there is enough gene transfer in to mitigate the deleterious effects of both drift and selection. It's not enough to try to slow down genetic loss by avoiding new genetic bottlenecks and selecting for basic biological fitness before distinct traits or fancy points; that can be, at most, a holding action until people get their shit together and rocket forward all the way to the mid-20th century.

Which is why the term and concept "purebred" is shear nineteenth-century hokum, the Feeji Mermaid of genetic selection. An idea that needs to die before it kills again.

So what of the new line that purebred dog fanciers are "preservationists" on par with museum curators, only their exhibits posses the bug feature of "a pulse?"

Is there a case to be made for maintaining many genetically isolated populations of morphologically diverse dogs? In other words, is there any overall, independent, externally-referenced, big-picture utility to producing great Danes and Dandie Dinmont terriers? In other words, should anyone other than the die-hard fancy hobbyist care?

Might we need the unique genetics of the Dane or the Dandie for some purpose in the future? (With "need" broadly defined to embrace many human desires and priorities, and "unique" granted for the purpose of discussion.)

Maybe? Let's be conservative and assume yes, without asking for evidence. Lots of people do weirder things, have weird hobbies and priorities, without having to justify them to the larger culture. We should as a culture care about maintaining diverse populations of domestic dogs, and not consider it purely a vanity project for weird hobbyists.

Then what happened to four core considerations of genetic conservation:

• Prevent genetic loss from new bottlenecks

• Maintain biological fitness through controlled genetic infusions

• Select in every generation for relevant, useful, traits

• Use it or lose it

The fancy breeding of "purebred" dogs violates all of these considerations in a congruence of stupid that may be unique in the animal world.

Popular (show-winning) sires, inbreed and purge practices, panic-discards of animals who carry identified deleterious recessives, and ever-narrower criteria for "type" (the confusion of extreme specificity for high standards) continue to bottleneck fancy populations. If anything, the diversity loss is accelerating with the advent of genetic testing for identified deleterious recessives. Instead of using the results of a DNA test for a deleterious allele to breed carriers more intelligently, the carrier, the whole damned dog, gets tossed out of the gene pool by those who feel shame over contamination.

DNA parentage verification gives self-styled museum curators a new tool to accelerate breed death. Some breeds have limped along for this long only because of the mongrel in the woodpile in past decades -- uncontrolled, sometimes unintentional, infusions of desperately-needed novel genetics. The kennel clubs' closed studbooks remain closed and, now, effectively policed. Fanciers clutch their pearls over the appearance of a novel color that may or may not indicate crossbreeding on the down-low some generations back, while wondering why their specials bitch won't conceive, their BIS dog is shooting blanks, and the typey sister of the above just barely managed to squeeze out two live, if fragile, puppies on the third attempt, and damn, one of them has a white spot where it's not allowed per the new "standard," so that one is going to be spayed. An inbreeding coefficient of .8 is just linebreeding for good type, right?  If fancy-dog breeders did literally nothing else wrong, they'd still be killing the breeds they profess to love via the enforcement of the Victorian closed studbook in the name of "purity."

Selection, each generation, is primarily for those traits that advance the owner's success at her hobby, which is entering dog pageants, but the justification for what they imagine to be "preservation" is couched in romantic stories about the historical function of the breed. Our museum exhibit is meant to represent boar hunting or bullbaiting or the lapwarmer of royalty. Sometimes the progenitors of the contemporary animal actually once did those things, sometimes, often, it's just so much fantasy hokum. Sometimes the ancestors' job is no more -- and often we have reason to be thankful for that -- and sometimes there are dogs still, or once again, performing that job, whether they are another branch of the same lineage (even, sometimes, sharing a breed name if not a recent genetic history or much resemblance) or an entirely different lineage.

But, we sez to the "preservation" breeder, your dog does not herd sheep, battle boars, guard the estate with lethal force, draft sledges, patrol the mountain pass, retrieve a hundred ducks a day from icy water ...

But he could if I wanted him to.

Yeah, no. That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.

To whit, Great Danes do not hunt boars anywhere in the world of which I am aware, but curs and bandogs and other kinds of badass dogs do, and are selected rather harshly for their ability to do so. The hyena-backed show shepherd doesn't patrol with the soldier, but his working-bred distant cousin -- whether called a "German shepherd" or a "Malinois" -- does. I am aware of no Scottie that goes to ground after ill-natured burrowing prey, but plenty of muttly Jack Russells do it.

Barn hunt doesn't qualify, guys. If a pet golden retriever wins the same merit badge, it's not a breed selection test for a professional ratting terrier. Your carting title is cute, but it does not make your Bernese mountain dog a working draft animal. A working draft animal shouldn't drop dead from cardiomyopathy on a brisk unburdened walk at the age of four.

While looking different from the functional ancestors -- being much larger, much smaller, much fluffier, much shorter in the leg or longer in the back, possessing a convex face and painfully dwarfed body, a banana-back, a needle-nose and vestigial-appearing eyes -- is not the only measure of divergence from the functional ancestors that we could apply to a fancy breed, it is a pretty easily appreciated neon sign. A sign that nothing has been "preserved" over prior decades except folklore and self-deception, and even those have been bred up larger.

To be sure, a dog can look just like a functional ancestor and fail the test of actual function. Because the drive and instinct and heart and desire, the difficulties and opinions of a motivated being, were bred out in the successful quest for a compliant show dog who would sit quietly in a crate in a hired handler's Winnebago until his performance in the circle-jerk was required. Or because the bones and heart are no longer strong, the spine does not flex and surge, the cancer comes at six and the job takes seven years to master; the spirit is sometimes willing while the flesh is weak, and that's the worst. The worst.

But a visually obvious transformation (and usually exaggeration) of body hardly ever belies the persistence of the brain and drive and heart and desire. One cannot select for "everything," and hard selection that changes the appearance of the body according to fad and fashion is wedded to null selection for the traits of function.

The trait is not used. It is lost. Nothing historically used or useful has been preserved, conserved, stewarded or adapted to new demands. There may be diversity in the sense of alleles that don't exist, or exist widely, in the larger canine population, but are prevalent or universal in these isolated gene pools -- alleles for tiny eyes, color dilution, short limbs, a coat that can grow 3' long if kept wrapped in tissue and off the dirty floor, giant or miniature stature, dime-sized round spots and ears that drag the ground. Alleles for kidney stones or seizures or various flavors of vision defects, flabby hearts, constricted airways, Hapsburg-bleedouts, predictable cancer-bombs or explosions of unreasoned rage. Those useful genetic models for medical tragedy that are a feature to the brain trust behind "National Purebred Dog Day."

So, I bet you already know, although I breed a "rare" kind of dog, I am not a "preservation" breeder. Like most English shepherd breeders who put any thought at all into the matter, I identify with many (not all) of the goals and values of livestock conservation breeders, and am informed by the science behind that conservation and the practical techniques used to perform it. I want to practice the right kind of selection, keep the gene pool large and diverse, value healthy variation even when I am not enamored of the specific variant, welcome new genetics into the pool.

I try to be skeptical and rigorous about how much, and how, our muttly, practical farm collies have been conserved from the diverse genetic foundation of their humble and ubiquitous ancestors on colonial American farms, and before that, mostly British crofters. I try not to be too impressed by photographs of Victorian-era dogs who look exactly like modern ES, right down to their tolerant or bemused or dutiful expressions as they stand beside owners who clearly worked hard and valued them very much -- other than to smirk a little about how it is that the "look" has actually been "preserved" unaltered for centuries without any formal systems in place to attempt to do that.

But when I read some seemingly fanciful account of some Ohio farm dog's sagacity in 1911 and see the exact same quality of mind in one of my own canine partners, watch them perform some task or reach some insight that Official Dog proclaims Not Possible, empiricism wins over skepticism, and I just say fuckit and go with my lyin' eyes. And cultivate an attitude of humble gratitude for what prior generations passed down to me, a determination to convey it forward in my turn.

Why conserve traditional multipurpose farm shepherds? It only makes sense if your values drive you to want to conserve traditional small agriculture and pastoral practices; if you think agriculture practice and policy reached its apex with the odious Earl Butz, you won't give a good god-damn. Enjoy your antibiotic chicken and e.coli-beef.  Well, it might make sense if you acknowledge that there are "modern" jobs for which those traits once selected on the homestead especially suit a practical collie-dog. Those will fade out, though, once the selection environment ceases to be at least partly the small diversified farm. We have to keep going back to that well. Preserving the well and drinking the water are the same task.

As I contemplated the little beans who compose our fifth litter of English shepherds, and my reasons for making more like this, I thought a lot about that history, the mandate to be realistic, and skeptical, and rigorous about the past that we are bringing forward into the future, not as museum objects, but as full participants in a worthwhile community. These babies would each be, not an exhibit, but a historian.

The historians I envy are not the worthy Hank Commagers and Barbara Tuchmans, but the fictional ones who move between past and present, who participate in both worlds as acting beings, who become of both times through technology in much the way these tiny creatures piled among my feet do automatically through their persistent, lovingly-conserved genetics.

Also, Connie Willis is just a god-damned spectacular writer, and merits the homage. If you haven't read her Oxford time-travel novels yet, you need to go do that.*

So, introducing The Historians. May they take the past bestowed on them by their genes and carry it forward into a future that is humane and sustainable and scaled for Nature, and for human beings and their best friends and partners.

The girls:

You can call her Catherine, that's okay too. Her devotion may make you mistake her for a Saint, and who is to say that it is really a mistake?

Kivrin field marks: I am black. My blaze does not meet my wide collar.
Her instinct is to do the right thing, even though it's impossible. It all turns out better than you could have ever expected.

Verity field marks: I am seal. My narrow blaze meets my broken collar over the top of my head.
She'll sacrifice everything to take care of you, even if you are impossible to love. You will become good as a result.

Merope field marks: I am seal. My wide blaze meets my broken collar over the top of my head.

The boys:

Is he American Mike or British Michael? This historian contains both personae. He'll do big things because the circumstances demand it.

Mike field marks: I am tricolor like my Daddy.
Will never, ever, abandon his charges. If only everyone could be watched over by a Dunworthy.

Dunworthy field marks: I am black. I have a mostly dark face and look a lot like Badri, but I still have a little spit-splash of white on my forehead. This will probably disappear shortly. I have a black on my left front leg where Badri does not.

Despite a rather formal veneer, Finch lives to serve, and finds surprising and spectacular ways to do so.

I am sable like my Ebil Gramma Rosie
Colin does not respect walls, boundaries, quarantines prohibitions or impediments of any kind. He's got stuff to do, mostly involving saving your ass. Best get out of his way, he's gonna do it. You are welcome.

I am seal. I have a wide blaze and a neck spot instead of a collar, and I am built like a bear cub, like my great-uncle Moe.

Badri will get you there and bring you back. You want Badri on your team.

Badri field marks: I am black.  I have a no blaze. I look a lot like Dunworthy, but my left arm is all white.


* To Say Nothing of the Dog for lighthearted farce, mostly, a silly fun romp. Blackout and All Clear (must read in that order and together) for existential suspense. The Doomsday Book for when you are up for having your heart probed and prodded and then deftly ripped from your thorax by the author's crochet hook. I'm not crying, you're crying.