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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Necessity of Naughty

Nice cavaletti you got there. Be a shame if somethin' were to happen to it.

I had briefly met Maryna's two Arabian geldings when Pip and I arrived to help set up the seminar at her Arizona ranch.

That night, as we took all the dogs for a walk in the desert darkness, both horses tagged along unbidden, a companionable three-species packwalk.

As I followed along in one narrow spot, I was surprised by a firm Vulcan nerve-pinch on my right shoulder.


Who me?

If Majyk could have stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled, he'd have done so.

"What did he do?"

"Grabbed my shoulder. Not hard. I bopped his nose. Punk."

"This may sound weird, but I'm glad. That's the first really extroverted thing he's done."

What I didn't know about little Majyk when he impishly mouthed me was that he was not -- yet -- a normal horse.

You've seen the cable animal pain porn shows, of course. Every other episode, you'll be treated to the sight of a dog who kept growing while his never-changed puppy collar didn't. Embedded collar -- bloody dog-girdling. How do they live when that happens?!

Now make the puppy a foal.

And make the collar a little nylon foal halter.

And turn that foal out into the open range and leave him there for a year while his skull and face grow and grow, and the halter doesn't.

When Maryna agreed to take him on as a rehab case, the bones of his head had grown around the halter. The nylon fiber had been incorporated into his skeleton.  His short life after being rescued from the range had been surgeries and wound irrigation, antibiotic lavage and manipulation. Pain beyond the telling of it.

So the woman whose dogs and horses were flawlessly well-mannered was thrilled when her young horse did something terribly naughty. He was telling us that he wasn't a victim or an object of pity; Majyk had something to say. (Also, he liked me, and soon I adored him. He wasn't quite compact enough to fit into the overhead compartment, but I was tempted.)

✦   ✦   ✦

Most of the time, my criteria for offering a foster dog for adoption is "Has this guy learned enough manners here?"

They come in with all sorts of behavior deficits and flavors of pig-ignorance, and we whip them into shape.

Failed pets who have been cooed over by indulgent, anxious doggie-mommies develop self-control, and as they do they shed insecurity-based rudeness and entitlement and become the good citizens they were meant to be.

Wild, neglected youngsters sprung from the pound learn that there are these things called rules, and that there are previously unimagined privileges that derive from mastering and following them.

There are other things that happen during their time as foster dogs, but some version of learning self-control is usually the biggest part of it.

And then there are the others, the ones who have nothing but self-control, whose approach to everything is "Why try? It could be dangerous. I could fail. I better not."

The Operation New Beginnings dogs had various behavioral needs, depending on how old they were at the time they were all seized from their abuser. In general, the older they were, the less the program was about self-control, and the more it was about self-confidence, trust, and resilience.

Foster puppy Spike came from the same shithole as his relatives, but was removed just prior to the raid and confiscation. He was spared eight months of confinement as criminal evidence, but still had a lot of deficits from his first couple months of life. His first adopters were not prepared to build him up in the no-nonsense way that he needed, and got quite overwrought at his experiments in reactive behavior. So he came to me to foster, appearing to be shy, but really a pup with some genetic boldness and drive who was in conflict with himself. One favorite way of expressing that conflict was by retreating under the table and barking maniacally at whatever person he decided was a "threat."

So Spike needed to learn self-control, but also confidence so that he didn't experience the conflict between his desire to express himself inappropriately and his conviction that doing so was maybe dangerous. Neither idea was reality-based.

On the other end of the severity spectrum in the Linda Kapsa canine shitstorm was Mr. Barry White.

Everything I did with Barry White was aimed at convincing him that the world and the humans in it were safe, and could even be pleasant.

I'd have no more told him "no" than chew off my left thumb.

Our normal rules for foster dogs include no furniture privileges. We can't know whether each dog's new owners will approve of dogs on the sofa, so why set him up for conflict when he is starting his new life? If they do approve, they get to be the heroes who invite him up for a snuggle, and he can tell the cat the heartbreaking story of the mean foster humans who made him lie on a dog bed on the floor.

But one of the first extroverted things that Barry White did once I'd convinced him that the house would not swallow him whole was hop up on the end of the couch while Perfesser Chaos was lying there watching television. He looked shocked with himself and sort of froze in place there.

One slightly disapproving grunt would have sent him skittering out to the foster kennel in horror.

So the couch became part of his rehab program. He liked it up there. It was a soft, comfortable place after a hard, spartan life. He'd hold his position even when horrified by the company of human creatures on the same cushions. Eventually, couch surfing became companionable.

Seven years later, enter Morty.

Morty came into rescue with his littermate, Rick, right around his four-month birthday.

Both boys, and another sibling, and who knows how many others, had been born to a dog and a bitch owned by a dirtbag. I won't dignify him with the label breeder. When the dirtbag couldn't sell the last pups, he gave them to a Craigslist dog-flipper who pretends to be a "rescue." When the dog-flipper couldn't sell adopt them because no one wants to pay money for puppies who run from all humans and pile up in the back of a filthy pen shivering and cowering, she advertised them for free. A nice lady and her boyfriend took them all, and had the good judgement to get two of them to breed rescue immediately.

When I met them to take in the two boys, all three were in a shaking heap on the rear footwell of a sedan. They'd ridden a couple hours that way without moving around or making a peep.

Mull that. Three four-month-old puppies loose in a car and they never moved.

This is convenient in the moment, but Not Good.

I trundled the two I was taking into a crate in my van and drove home. Several hours, with two stops. Not a peep. They plastered against the back wall of the crate and stared out in round-eyed horror.

You've seen the awful pictures of meat dogs in some east Asian market, crammed into wire and wood crates? I'm not going to put one here; you can google it if you have a masochistic bent.

Well, those dogs look more outgoing and relaxed than these pups did.

You know the videos of puppymill raids, the rows and rows of filthy wire hutches full of little fluffy puppy factories that jump at the cage and beg for the attention and touch that they so crave?

Yeah, guess what, those dogs have actually been handled enough that that the prospect of it doesn't send them catatonic. They get picked up by a total stranger, a lot of them shower him with kisses. Years -- whole lifetimes -- of hutch-life have left them with that much dogness.

Not these guys.†

Well, catatonic puppies are easy to manage. On their first day I bathed them both, trimmed their nails, and took them to the vet*, and I may as well have been sprucing up a couple of Gund stuffies. Pancake puppies. Set them on the ground and they try to become part of it.

We had both pups for ten days, while I got an initial handle on their relative characters.

Every morsel of food they got came from my hand. They had to approach me to get it; these were pups who, gated into my office, would run away from the gate when a person entered the adjoining room. They went from crate -- later crates, when I separated them over voluble objections -- to outdoors on a leash for potty breaks, exercise, and some hand-feeding, to a period of liberty in the office, which would usually find them diving back into the refuge of a crate. After a few days we started pack walks in the south pasture, first on long lines, then dragging the lines as they modeled their movement on the other dogs.

Rick was always first. The boys came running because I hadn't tried to kill them yet, and that's the only way they got fed -- not because they were normal English shepherd pups who want to know what they can do for me today, ma'am.

A perfect illustration of the fake it 'til you make it principle. Just remember that Stockholm Syndrome is a temporary tool of desperation for a creature in dire circumstances, not a proper training regimen. Move on as soon as possible.

It's crucial that well-reared pups be separated from their littermates by about 11 weeks, if they are to develop normally and bond primarily to humans. It is mandatory that co-dependent, terrified feral puppies be pried apart. So Rick, the stronger and more resilient of the brothers, moved on to a new foster home, one with confident dogs to show him the ropes and humans who adore him and are committed to converting his "old man eyes" to the open, innocent expression that is proper to a baby.

And Morty didn't come out of the crate without physical compulsion for the next two days. He mourned the latest loss in his life, and he had no interest in the people and animals who populated this space. The fact of his depression was the strongest evidence that dependency on Rick had been holding him back.

Bringing Morty towards normalcy, sifting out insight about who Morty really is vs. the transient presentation of a puppy demonstrating the wages of neglect, is a slow and uneven process. He's young enough that we can still work on him developmentally; the window for socialization is still open a crack, and we can slide it a little further and prune his young synapses into a healthier pattern, one that doesn't rely on flight and evasion, isn't dominated by fear and suspicion. But I think his core temperament is a bit tender, prone to bruising, and requires ample time for rest and cogitation after a new achievement or any time he must stand up to an uncomfortable amount of pressure. He takes many repetitions to learn a new fragment of courage, not because he is a dumb puppy -- he's typical ES bright -- but because we are still building the frame for boldness, self-confidence, and security that a normal puppy has constructed by the time his eyes open.

One month in, Morty has the freedom of the farm while I'm out working, albeit with a trailing drag line just in case. He's got the freedom of the house and dog yard most of the time; he has housebroken himself, conquered the dog door, mastered stairs, cataloged the foibles of the other animals.  He doesn't chew or steal stuff or get into trouble.

And that's why he's not ready for adoption just yet.

Because Morty will now cuddle on the sofa and bed with me, wiggle and give puppy kisses, because we've applied Barry White Rules to furniture access, and his adopters are going to have to be down with that. He'll come roaring in with his stub-tail whirring like a rotor when he's called, even though I no longer reliably carry a pocketful of kibble. He's mostly mastered that bogey of feral dogs, the doorways into and out of the house. He walks nicely on a leash. The typical feral issue with a human approaching him "the last ten feet" is almost gone. He will sleep stretched out in the open, puppy-belly and puppy-junk exposed to the breezes, rather than always huddled in a ball.

This weekend I brought him to a class where boring humans sat at boring tables and talked and moved papers around, and sometimes had to step over him. Where boring humans ate fascinating lunches right there in range. Where nice juicy wires and computer cables were free for the nomming.

And this is what he did for the entire day, less potty breaks:

No, he's not tied to anything.

For the record, that is not okay.

Because Morty is not a precociously well-trained puppy. He's not our Lilly, presiding over sophomore tutorials at five months of age courtesy of great obedience and natural self-assurance. Morty stayed put because he could not for the life of him think of what else to do. The option of raising some hell was not on the table.

My house is not puppy-proofed. There are shoes and gloves and all manner of great stuff in puppy range everywhere. Unmolested. And he's teething now, and clearly in a lot of discomfort sometimes.

He doesn't feel safe enough to be naughty. Not even at home, where his comfort bubble is largest, though there are hopeful signs here.

Naughty means that the little critter knows what is permitted and what is forbidden.

Has figured out that what is forbidden is more fun than what is permitted.

Is aware that there are likely consequences for indulging in the forbidden.

And also knows for sure that those consequences, while possibly unpleasant, are in no way a genuine danger to him.

Foster Mommy might chase him down, grab him by the scruff, and pry what's left of her sammitch out of his mouth, but there is no prospect of her eating him instead.

The adrenaline surge when one is making off with the goods or nomming the leg of the chair or sparking the livestock is a little giddy belly thrill, rather than earnest fuel for a panic terror.

Sure, I'm locked in my crate (aka protective custody) now, but it was so worth it.

Naughty is high spirits, testing boundaries, angling for attention from a mostly innocent dependent critter who trusts his world.

Morty is occasionally testing Charlie's patience lately, and she has lightly thumped him for chomping too hard in play. He has nommed a bit too hard on my arm, as teething babies are wont to do, and responds immediately to a mild, nope, that's me. He is finally brave enough to pick up a toy and carry it around a little bit -- but fetch or tug are just out of the question so far. He's fearless with other animals, and kind of teased Jake the bloodhound about how semi-wild ES puppehs are allowed to run free with a drag line while great big hounddogs aren't. He's flirting with normalcy on a few fronts this way.

But I won't be satisfied that he's ready to go to his permanent home and grow into the dog he's meant to be until I'm chasing him around our circular floor plan while he prances off with my underwear, tiny stub wagging and a gleam in his eye. I want to see him bomb through a bunch of chickens and laugh while they scatter outwards and upwards in a flutter of indignation. He should, once in a great while, bite Charlie in the ass and run off. (This flavor of naughtiness not compatible with Rosie. Don't try this at home, kids. Some beetches will keel you.) He should sass me when his dinner is slow in coming. He should find my irritation a little bit scary, but more funny, because no one in his life is genuinely dangerous.

Come on Morty. Be a little shit.

Who, me?


† Why I don't believe all the hype around Belyaev's "domesticated" foxes. Reports allege that the fox kits will automatically approach a human and make "friendly" gestures after weaning age even if they have never been handled.


And I can show you  several score domestic dog puppies that were never touched, or never touched kindly, as babies, who ran screaming and cowered in terror when facing a human at twelve weeks to demonstrate what actually happens with that kind of neglect.

* If you have a truly feral, unsocialized animal that you've just gotten physical control of, you should do all the things to him right away -- bathe, worm, vaccinate, trim nails, pull blood, shave down, even neuter surgery if feasible. Don't dick around letting him "settle in," much less do things he's gonna hate in dribs and drabs, because all that's going to do is reverse the progress you make in gaining his trust and building him up. He's freaked-out catatonic today and it ain't gonna get worse. In fact, he may not even remember half the ordeal if it happens while he's clocked out.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Snapshots Sunday: Sorting

Before I put the new buck goat in with the does, I needed to sort out some doelings who are too small to breed and transfer them to the getting swole pen with Ameera to babysit. My go-to guy for this kind of thing is Cole.

Goats. They don't get with the program.

There's always mopping up with so many individualistic contrarians.

Eight years and two days ago, my Little Dude was shivering in the shit of a felon's insane puppy-production plant, waiting to be rescued.

So much for that bullshit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bad Apples

Find the good apples in this big crate.
Careful of the yellowjackets.

I think it was early this summer that I started hearing it everywhere: someone in authority, someone who is entrusted with the responsibility to keep other people right, minimizing institutionalized misconduct.

It was just a couple of bad apples.

One bad apple.

This was the act of a few bad apples.

I started getting twitchy whenever I heard it.

Do they not know how that sentence about bad apples ends?!

What does "one bad apple" DO, chief?

Most of the bad apple apologetics were coming from police chiefs/commissioners/public safety directors who were attempting to deflect blame after men in their employ had committed an atrocity. Murdered a citizen, say, and then lied about it until (and even after) the video evidence revealed the crime. Or maybe just beat the shit out of someone or shot a pet dog while raiding the wrong house.  (Ha ha. I kid. Shooting a harmless dog is not the act of a bad apple. Those guys get a medal.) With clear impunity, no expectation of any consequences, all evidence pointing to business as usual.

Because if your institution allows rot at its center, then it has made a decision to nurture it there, grow it in the dark, and let it corrupt every apple in the barrel, while relying on the visible halves of the pretty-looking ones on top to hide the putrescence beneath. Pay no attention to that nauseating smell.

When an institution presents itself as an authority, a responsible entity, with jurisdiction over quality, competence, ethics, professionalism, and just one of the people under its aegis abrogates the professed standards without consequence, then the institution is revealed as a liar, as a system for enabling, as answerable to the wrong set of interests.

If your caucus, church, association, or "ministry" professes to hew to a strict fundamentalist "morality" and your ranks are rife with baby-rapers, whoremongers, wide-stancers, serial divorce, and abortion-on-the-down-low, then we know you.

If your professional association, SAR unit, or certifying agency has one set of standards on paper and maybe for regular dues-paying schlubs and another for friends of the Star Chamber or the commandante for life, the self-dealing outs itself, eventually.

And if your dog breed club says it stands for conserving healthy, functional working dogs, but what it actually does is help just about anybody sell puppies whose parents are none of the above, then what you have is a low-rent marketing firm, not an ethical steward.

So let's talk about them apples.

If you go to the English Shepherd Club's website at the moment I am writing this and click through to "puppies for sale," you'll see 17 litters listed. Click on any listing, and you'll see information about the parents of the pups and contact information for the breeder. Each listing is free; the sellers have to be members of the Club, but they don't pay any more than a member who is not a breeder, and one seller can list any number of litters for sale any year. The ESC litter listings are a primary sales tool for some breeders. I've probably gotten about one buyer from the litter listing from each of the four ES litters I've bred, but some sellers absolutely rely on it.

In order to qualify for the free ad, the seller must be a member of the Club, have signed the toothless and unenforceably vague Code of Ethics, and the parent dogs must meet, if I recall correctly, three criteria -- be each over one year of age, not be first-degree relatives, and in the case of the bitch, not be on her third or more litter from a consecutive heat cycle.

Got that?

If you want to start breeding a dog to his granddaughter the day she turns 12 months old, and breed her two out of three estrus cycles until she's 15 and gives out, that's hunky dory. Every one of those litters is eligible for a free ad.

As to the rest of the things you might want to make breeding decisions about -- the dogs' genetic health, their demonstrated working ability, their temperaments -- meh, that's up to you. Whatever you think. We're not going to have any pesky rules and criteria, set norms and enforce them, or in any way be prescriptive about what we agree are legitimate ways to conserve a working breed.

So just a ferinstance.

ES are pretty healthy dogs, overall. Not many genetic diseases to be concerned about, at least, not that occur above the background rate of all dogs. Conscientious people are looking carefully at certain eye defects, allergies, epilepsy, but there seems to be no cause for panic. The MDR1 mutation occurs in the breed, and that is a thing to know about a dog before breeding him.

Then there's their hips. I'm going to use this one as the ferinstance because there's hard data, and because transparency and due diligence are a bit easier to pin down on this one metric.  Keep in mind that my screaming fantods are not about hips. Hips are just a bellwether for all the ethical indolence on display.

The dysplasia rate is unacceptable.

Worse hips than German shepherds. Than Rottweilers. Worse hips than friggin Labradoodles.

How the hell is that the case with a medium-sized, mesomorphic, non-dwarfed, athletic dog selected for work?

I don't know, but  I do know that if you've got a breed where one-fifth of the radiographs that are not "pre-screened" and quietly shoved in a drawer show malformed, arthritis-prone joints, the ethically and genetically sound response is not to fling one's hands into the air and shout Thank God for pugs and bulldogs and then mildly kind of sort of suggest, in a way that never shames or judges, you know, that best practices just might possibly perhaps include conducting a phenotype test on dogs you intend to breed before you make More Like This*, or maybe whenever you get around to it, and then mayhaps just consider sharing those results as well as culling physically unsound animals from what I am going to generously refer to as "the breeding program," if said sharing doesn't make you feel sad or open you up to questions that are icky and not conducive to a blessed day.

Now, a genetic sophisticate would point out that there are circumstances under which an animal with non-normal hips can be included in an overall breed conservation program, with great care and rigorous selection in the next couple generations, and that, after all, we breed dogs, not hip joints.

Ayuh. Not what we're talking about here. Not in the least, part of incorporating outstanding individuals with one or two major flaws in a conservation or improvement breeding scheme involves identifying the flaw followed by full and open disclosure. Neither chanting la la la I can't heeeeear youuu and never having the dog tested, nor furtively burying the envelope with the bad news while lying to your customer's face meets that standard.

So back to the litter listings.

As of tonight, there are seventeen litters up on the listings.

For only five of them have both parents had hip radiographs taken, evaluated by either PennHIP or OFA, and the results shared by the person selling their puppies.

That's an improvement, or a momentary glitch -- at nearly 30% of the litters listed, the apex of my observations. Recently that number has been lower, at one point two listings out of 18, or 11% of the litters being marketed by the 501(c)3 dedicated to breed conservation.†

(Also, do not assume the set of "breeders who have two dogs with hip scores listed tonight" and "breeders from whom I would consider purchasing a pup in the absence of a grenade launcher pointed at at my left ear" overlap by much, because you would be mistaken in that assumption. That's why the hip example is just one ferinstance. Repeat one more time this is not a rant about bad hips, this is a rant about institutionally promoting feckless breeding practices and used car dealer ethics.)

Remember, it's not 11-29% of the promoted litters that have two parents with great hips, and great hip genetics as shown by their relatives' scores.

It's 11-29% of litters for which the sellers have disclosed any results at all on just the two parents.

So let's talk for a moment about that 71-89% of "guess what you'll get" litters.

Some of them, neither parent has, according the sellers, had any kind of hip phenotype evaluation.

Let us, for the sake of argument, take them at their words. They never bothered to nip down to their veterinarian and drop perhaps $100 for a single radiograph and evaluation by OFA.

Remember, background rate for radiographic dysplasia in the population is a minimum one out of five dogs. In truth, much higher in light of the common practice of screening out the worst-looking films and never sending them in for what the veterinary GP knows will be a failing score.

Why wouldn't you do this? Why wouldn't you check whether your dog was at risk of middle-aged crippling, and at elevated risk of passing that disability on to his offspring?

When I started looking at English shepherds in about 1997 the usual story was, hey, this is a new idea for these old farmers, and they will take a while to get caught up.

This shiny new idea that has actually been around since the 60's has reached voting age since then. There's this thing called the internet, and everydamnone of them uses it. On this internet thing is all the knowledge. Not just cat videos and efficient ways to sell your puppies without paying for ads, but decades of edjimicashun about genetics and health for dogs in general and this breed in particular.

I call bullshit. Farmers are fast as hell to adopt a new idea when it serves their interests.

And while many of these breeders live in rural areas, calling some of them "farmers" is a tenuous stretch.

Grandpa milked fifty cows every morning.  You work at Auto Zone.

I think it's a safe generalization in this breed that pups whose parents have health clearances command a higher price than pups from unknown genetics. The cost of OFA evaluation for both parents would be erased by the enhanced value of their first progeny.

But that's assuming that the results are good.

If the results are bad, and published, the value of the pups decreases, and suddenly there you are in front of WalMart with a cardboard box. Also meanies say mean things to you about making the puppies.

So with, say, about a quarter chance that Shep's hips are gonna suck, isn't it a better gamble to remain in blissful ignorance? Breeder MsFancyPants does PennHIP on all her dogs, and publishes the results, and gets $600 a puppy. But she spayed two bitches with poor scores who never made her any puppy money, and I can still get $400 without any uppity x-rays, especially with the help of this free ad on the internet machine.

Of course, there's always the slight gamble called Have Your Cake and Eat It.

Both OFA and PennHIP will obligingly hide your shame if your dog's radiographs don't look great.

Of course, a disappointing result on a medical test is not grounds for shame. It is what it is. Data. Culpability comes with what you do with that data.

Our Seller is about to behave shamefully, and these institutions know it and are happy to collude. They've stuffed that rotten apple right into the middle of the barrel.

"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
--HD Thoreau

Just radiograph them all. Use the good scores as advertising copy. Shitty score? Say you never did it. Be a lying liar. Nobody at OFA or PennHIP will fink you out.

But, thing is, when a puppy-seller has a two-year-old bitch who is OFA Good, a four-year-old bitch who is OFA Good, and a four-year-old stud who has "no" hip score listed (and of course she is using her own stud because of course), well, who does she think she's fooling?

Oh, we just never got around to doing the x-rays on Banjo.

Of course you didn't. Because that makes perfect sense. We believe you.

Now, in a few cases, someone owns a male that has been hip scored -- because by doing so, he could sell that dog's stud services to more bitch owners and/or for a higher price upon receipt of a favorable score -- and bitches who have not been.

But mostly -- mostly this is telltale trout in the bucket of milk. The visible tip of the iceberg of silence.

So what to do, what to do, if you are the sole institution charged with the genetic and cultural conservation of this population of agricultural assets?

Here's a suggestion: stop enabling the exact people who are destroying it. Stop helping them to screw over their suckers buyers, who I assure you, remember that it was the English Shepherd Club who endorsed the seller who was sooo nice right up until Daisy started limping and you sent him that copy of the radiograph and then he wouldn't return your calls. Stop helping them to screw over Daisy, who gets to live a short, painful life as a cripple, just like her Dad, who sired her at the age of 13 months and couldn't get up from his bed of straw in the barn a year later.

Don't enable that. Require everyone who wants their free ad to have both parents' hips evaluated and provide the documentation. Easy-peasy.

The Club has no special obligation to puppy sellers. Someone who breeds ten litters a year pays the same membership dues as the owner of a single spayed ES from Rescue. I submit that the Club does have a special obligation to potential puppy buyers. It has a positive duty not to mislead a buyer, who is at a disadvantage vis a vis a seller, into thinking that a puppy has been bred and raised with care because it is being sold with the assistance of the Club.

You want free advertising, with the implied endorsement of the Club?

Prove that you are conserving the breed.

Meet some goddamned standards.

Show some respect for the community.

Knock it off with the aw shucks I'm just a simple farmer bullshit.

Earlier this year, a committee member asked me for input into revising the Club's Code of Ethics.

I've ridden in this exact rodeo before, and have limited patience for it. It's demoralizing to put months of work into trying to improve things, only to have all the results shot down because it would be too mean, too snobby,‡ too exclusive to ask anyone to do anydamnthing in order to earn something in return.

Even small things that are of direct benefit to the Club. Why the hell should the Club give free advertising to sellers who refuse to register their breeding stock and litters with the Club registry -- which is the primary tool of breed conservation? These freeloaders are sending money to one or more of the commercial registries, maybe one of the fake puppymill registries, and refusing to pay the small registration fees of the ESCR.

So I whipped out a one-off nuclear critique in about twenty minutes, using the old COE as a template, though it would be more productive to start from scratch.

I believe it was received unfavorably by the Board of Directors. I believe I failed to be shocked.

In any event, there has been no revision to the Code of Ethics, nor any further conditions placed on those who demand free advertising.

But here's what I humbly suggested. My additions are in bold red, deletions are in strikethrough. My commentary on each item for this blog is in green. Spacing and font freakouts are courtesy of the blogger software, which pitches tantrums when you cut and paste text into it.

I, ______________________ , hereby agree to abide by all of the terms in this code to the best of my ability.
  • I will not knowingly misrepresent the characteristics of the breed, nor falsely advertise, or mislead any person regarding the performance of any dogs or puppies for sale including by omitting any information regarding the health of the animals or their relatives, their behavior history, or their ancestry.

    Lies of omission are very popular in this crowd.  "Why didn't you tell me this puppy's sire was dysplastic?" "Well you never asked." True quote. Breeder is an exhibitionist God-botherer, natch.
  • I will provide an honest representation of my animals and all of their progeny to anyone who inquires about my dogs not limited to potential purchasers
    "I'll provide that information if you put down a deposit."
  • I will make every effort to provide each of my dogs and puppies proper socialization, care, nutrition, and exercise

    Do or do not. There is no "try."
  • I will maintain a safe, clean, spacious and sanitary facility for all my dogs and puppies
  • I will only breed dogs with the demonstrated potential to contribute positively to the breed. I will conscientiously plan each litter of puppies, selecting a stud dog and bitch to be mated based on their pedigrees, working ability, temperament, and conformation. I will not breed a litter only to produce puppies for sale.
  • I will register my breeding stock and litters with the ESCR. I will provide buyers with the paperwork to individually register their dogs. I will not charge any buyer an extra fee for registration paperwork.

    Seems pretty straightforward. You want free stuff from the Club, you use the Club's registry and facilitate your buyers doing likewise.
  • I will test all breeding stock for hip dysplasia prior to breeding, and have the results scored by the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals after age two and/or PennHIP and will publish all scores by providing documentation to the ESCR

    Omigawd did she really say that people will have to OFA or PennHIP their dogs and send the results to the registry?! Even if the results say their hips suck?!
    You bet your sweet ass she did.

    Notice that there's no rule against breeding a dysplastic dog here.

    Because yes, the market will sort that out, provided that all sellers are on an equal footing with one another, and all buyers have the relevant information, and "normal" is not the vast majority of listings being OFA-free.
  • If a dog's MDR1 mutation status is not known, I will test for the mutation and provide the documentation of the results to the ESCR prior to breeding.

    I mean, why would a puppy buyer want to know whether eating sheep shit after they are wormed could kill her dog?
  • If I choose to perform any additional testing for heritable disease, I will publish all results by providing documentation to the ESCR.
  • If I choose to do screening for genetic problems I will honestly represent the results of all genetic and phenotypical health these tests and make copies of all pertinent health clearances available to buyers of adult dogs and puppies for sale. I will provide documentation of the results of all genetic and phenotype health tests to the ESCR for all English shepherds tested that are owned or bred by me, whether or not they are to be used for breeding.

    No more using the good stuff as marketing copy and hiding the bad stuff.
  • I will not breed any male or female until they are both physically and mentally mature,two years of age minimum, nor breed any bitch on two consecutive heat cycles, nor breed a bitch eight years of age or older, nor cause any bitch to produce more than four litters

    Stop breeding fucking puppies. No, you are not such a transcendent judge of dogflesh that you can just know that this adolescent is going to turn out just great when he's mature. You are full of shit if you think this; you are in the main exhibit hall of the Dunning-Kruger Museum. More likely, you claim this, but you just don't care as long as you can sell the pups by December 20. The kids all want a trampoline.

    Stop using your female dogs as puppy factories. Brood bitch is NOT a job description.
  • I will show discrimination in the sale of my puppies screen potential puppy-buyers with rigor and discernment and will refuse sales to individuals who are unsuited to provide for the needs of an English shepherd and be concerned with the type of homes in which they are placed. I will make buyers aware of their responsibilities as dog owners
  • I will try to educate potential owners of the potential challenges of the breed in order to foster an understanding of their innate character and prevent training problems

    Frankly, rescue is tired of picking up your mess.
  • I will not sell or donate dogs to commercial dog wholesalers, dealers, brokers, retailers, pet shops, or any other person or organization, for resale give-away to the public including any raffle, auction, or contest, for any cause

    Don't care that your raffle was to help spastic Christian babies persecuted by heathens in sunbaked lands. Raffle a puppy, get kicked out. The ESC has actually been great, very proactive about the pet store rule. They need to apply it to all brokering.
  • I will be a resource for buyers of puppies or older dogs that I have sold for the life of the dog. I will maintain records of the names and contact information of all puppy buyers for fifteen years after their purchase. I will provide all puppy buyers with my up-to-date contact information whenever it changes.
  • I will sell puppies and dogs under a written contract that clearly delineates my responsibilities and rights, and those of the buyer. All potential buyers will be provided with a copy of the contract to review before committing to a purchase.

    No, your "handshake" agreements are not good enough. We've seen you weasel out of them a million times. And no springing a contract that gives everything to you, nothing to the buyer, while the buyer has a cute puppy in her lap and money in her teeth.
  • I will accept return of a puppy or dog that I have bred at any time during the dog's lifetime. I will make every effort to redeem any dog that I have bred should he or she ever be in the custody of a dog pound or animal shelter.

    Again, Rescue is tired of cleaning up your messes. You don't know how much it thrills us to be pouring money and time into some effed-up animal that you sold a year ago, while your latest litter (full siblings of NESR Sir Twitchy McLimpsalot) is listed on the Club website, for sale, sooo kyoot, buy one now for Mother's Day.

    This single provision, relentlessly adhered to, would eliminate 95% of breeder-originated dog problems, whether that problem is genetic disease, crappy buyer screening, overproduction, or just thoughtless breeding.
  • I will permanently identify every puppy or dog I sell with a registered microchip or registered tattoo that includes my contact information as a primary or secondary contact.

    This provision puts teeth into the one above. I forgot to add that this chip or tattoo number must be included in the dog's entry in the ESCR database.
  • I will not deliberately degrade another breeder, their dogs, or their kennel

    In about October of 2008, I had a phone conversation with a breeder who was concerned because some potential puppy buyers had told her they were going to go ahead and buy from a different breeder, one that we both knew to be -- let's say, suboptimal.

    She was distraught because she felt she should warn them, but was afraid of running afoul of this ridiculous clause in the COE.

    That other breeder, who she was afraid of "deliberately degrading," was named Linda Kapsa.

    Oh, and that pup ended up relinquished to National English Shepherd Rescue because of her extreme shyness and reactivity.

    Who could have predicted the levees would fail?

    Fuck this clause. Tell the truth, people. Just tell the damned truth. Did you tell the truth about another breeder only because you are a malicious bitch? Don't care. It was the truth.

  • I will conduct myself at all times in such a manner as a credit to the breed and the Club and will be truthful and transparent in all my dealings with the Club, its members, and members of the public.
    Did I mention, just tell the damned truth.
  • I will comply with all applicable federal, state or provincial and local government laws and regulations concerning the keeping of dogs

By my signature I confirm that I have read, understood, and agree to all aspects of the English Shepherd Club's Code of Ethics. Furthermore, I understand if I choose to violate any part of this agreement I may be suspended from the English Shepherd Club as a listed breeder or member. signature and date As we work together for the betterment of this breed, we are taking part in preserving history. Let us work with each other, not against. Let our goal be to dedicate ourselves for the betterment of the breed not for profit. 

Signature______________________________________________         Date__________________

Yeah, I sure should have done some red-penciling of the blah blah blah in this last paragraph.

So, what do y'all think? Would you have more confidence about buying a puppy if the seller had to meet these modest criteria in order to have that pup promoted to you?

Would you be more or less likely to join a Club that put these conditions on members who are breeders?

What else would you want to see? I wouldn't mind kicking their asses out if they enter their dogs in UKC beauty pageants or make any overtures to the AKC.

When I ranted about the litter listings on Facebook, just to my friends and "friends," lit it up about the puppies having puppies and the unemployed parents and the claims of no hip screening -- either true or untrue -- both damning, the next thing that lit up was my private message inbox. Boiled down, the messages said:

You have to say this in public. I'm so disgusted with the listings. I don't want to be associated with this. Why can't we do better?

(Optional: Insert personal story about dysplastic/shy/reactive/heavily parasitized/rickety pup purchased from breeder found on Club listing years ago, along with subsequent discovery that breeder had lied about a great many things.)

And today, looking over my drafts folder for blog posts, I found an unfinished post about the "caveat emptor" of buying an ES puppy, left behind over three years ago.

It included a quote from an email I received from a stranger looking for advice with her dog's health and emotional problems -- a dog she'd bought based on a listing on the ESC's website.

"Naively I never suspected that an ES might come from disreputable breeders as they are so uncommon and not shown."

And that's the crux of it. A first-time buyer is, almost by definition, naive. How could she be otherwise? A breeder and seller ought to be, by definition, an expert. The relationship is not equal.

If the Club that is incorporated to conserve the breed and serve the community enables experts to swindle naive people, then it is complicit in that swindling. If it treats an activity, breeding working dogs, that ought to be the domain of experts as an appropriate pastime for people who show by their negligence that they are at best ignorant and careless, then it degrades the activity, and degrades the dogs and the people who take it seriously.

The breeders who stand to lose a lot of money if they can't advertise for free at the expense of every other Club member are vocal about keeping that endorsement. Will the ordinary Club members, the puppy buyers seeking guidance, and the breeders who hold themselves to high standards be just as vocal in demanding that breed conservation not be trumped by puppy propagation?

Edit: 10-29-15
There's been some lively discussion of the COE and this post on disparate Facebook threads.
I'd love it if everyone who is comfortable doing so would share their contributions here, where everyone can see it. 
Even more important, share your opinion about the code of ethics and litter listings with the ESC board before their next meeting on November 2, 2015.
If you are --
• A breeder who has high personal standards and does not wish to be associated with those who do not
• An ordinary Club member who is embarrassed by the predominance of indifferently bred puppies-for-profit sold through the litter listings with the support of your dues
• A former ESC member who has left because you were disgusted about these issues, or a former active volunteer who has reduced your involvement for the same reason
• Someone who found a puppy via the litter listings and found that the seller was not what you expected from someone whose dogs are promoted by the breed club
• Someone who consulted the litter listings and was all "What the HELL" when you saw litter after litter that you would not ever consider
• A prospective English shepherd owner who needs help finding a pup from an ethical, competent breeder
• Anyone concerned with the preservation of working breeds, whether or not you own an ES or plan to
Then please let the BoD members know what you think is important in a Code of Ethics and a breeder whose litters are endorsed and promoted on the Club website. 
I don't expect anyone to agree completely with my priorities or my solutions. But I hope that most of us agree that we must do better, and that we can.
The board members' email addresses are all on this page.

* We will not be entertaining any tinfoil-hat theories that canine hip dysplasia -- or, for that matter, a disinclination to work, a shitty, snappy, fearful temperament, the MDR1 mutation, testicular angst, ** missing premolars -- are "not genetic" but completely caused by feeding Kibbles 'n' Bits.

Just because a mode of inheritance is complex doesn't get you off the hook in the due diligence department.

† As of the time I finish writing this, there are 19 listings, still only five for which both parents have hip evaluations. I think maybe the same five as before. And, since I was going through again, I counted six litters in which at least one parent was under two years of age.

‡ I'm a fucking snob and I own it. Use that word as a pejorative towards me, and you'll get a blank stare in return. So? Know what I'm a snob about? I'm a snob about not using your cultivated ignorance as a shield to avoid being accountable for the horrible consequences of the things you freely chose to do for your own selfish gain. I'm also fucking profane and I don't care. I know all the words and I like the ones that I use.

**This is a made-up thing that does not exist. However, it is genetic.