Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whitney on Pip's Ancestors

The army jeep of farm dogs: cheap, compact, low-maintenance, versatile, no-frills. It will not be improved by morphing it into a Lincoln Navigator.

Ah, Leon F. Whitney, prolific bloviator on all things dog (and, disturbingly, other stuff) for much of the 20th century. Love 'im or hate 'im. Mostly I hate 'im. He had a habit of indulging his half-considered prejudices and presenting them to his readers as the epitome of scientifical fact. This is gratifying when his prejudices reinforce one's own, infuriating when they are, you know, just plain wrong.

However, Whitney is one of the few general writers on dogs who acknowledged the corporeal reality of Pip's ancestors in the early-to-mid 20th century. He also had a high opinion of their virtues.

Pity he never bothered to discover that they were a breed -- or breeds -- with pedigrees, a couple-three registries, and thoughtful selection. The English shepherd is virtually unchanged from before Whitney's day, and has a registration history that goes back to the 1930's. The Australian shepherd is closely related, and the gene pools did not definitively diverge until mid-century.

Granted, most ES were not registered in Whitney's day; there are still good family lines of unregistered ES today, maintained by farmers who cannot see the logic in exchanging money for a paper that tells them what they already know.

Here's my latest discovery, from How to Select, Train, and Breed Your Dog, first published in 1950:

American Shepherd

Back in the colonial days, the settlers brought with them many fine dogs, most of them of the collie or shepherd type. Some refuse to call these dogs a breed, yet they have been, as a type, the American dog. As shepherd dogs they are not quite the equal of the marvelous border collie because the latter is the product of the most stringent selection for sheep herding without too much consideration of temperament. The border collies live away from human habitation much of the time and have not been bred for general farm use.

But the American dog has been a constant human companion as well as the farm shepherd and guard dog. Many have been used as hunters. In an illuminating article in Field and Stream, B.B. Titus describes how he used to train these general purpose dogs to hunt raccoons at night and squirrels in the day as well as to herd cows. Many of the dogs were real shepherds.

If you travel anywhere in the U.S.A. you will find, when you get away from the cities, so many more shepherds than any other breed. You'll wonder why they aren't registered in the A.K.C. Can you imagine what would have happened if as many of these dogs were observed by Americans traveling in, let us say, Argentina? Why they would have "given it a breed" long ago, formed a great club, and imported them by the thousand.

We've got the story, the breed -- a marvelous breed it is -- and we have the uses for it. In ability, it stood at the top of American war dogs. It is one of the few breeds bred for general intelligence. No exaggeration is needed.

This is the dog that can be trusted to guard children day or night. He will bark when the horse has colic or one of the cows calves. He can herd the cows home, let his master know if one is missing, and with some power hard to explain, even force a ew whose lamb has died to adopt an orphan. He is often the farm boy's hunting companion, and when "Old Shep" passes on, the family often holds a funeral. You'll find many a wooden slab in a field near a farmhouse with "Old Shep" scrawled on it, and you'll know his family was all choked up at the loss.

Yet, while a so-called sheep-herding dog named the Komondor from Hungary is registered in the A.K.C. the American shepherd hasn't even an official breed name.

Thank doG for small favors. In the same text, Whitney decries the ruination of the cocker spaniel by "a clique of breeders who, with the sanction of the A.K.C., arranged it so that only cockers with huge, woolly clipped coats had a Chinaman's chance of winning. That did it. Down went the breed in popularity because so few persons wanted such a dog."

"What was the real American cocker like? ... The proper cocker didn't know its teeth were made to bite ... The dog hungered for human companionship, was never shy, and did not piddle when surprised or happy."

But, you know, it was a sad thing that fanciers had not "recognized" the "American shepherd" and sought to similarly improve it by 1950.

58 years later, and still dodging fancier bullets.

The Aussie -- that western branch of the farm shepherd/farm collie family tree -- was the subject of a hostile takeover by the AKC in 1993. It was soon joined by other kidnapped gene pools -- the border collie, JRT, Beauceron, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Havanese, Leonberger -- am I forgetting anyone? Only fifteen years later, the massive, fluffy, merle show dogs are utterly unable to work livestock -- and their fanciers sniff dismissively at the increasingly hard-to-find wiry, keen little cattle-workers, who are, you know, probably crossbreds.


  1. And my personal favorite "The Truth About Dogs" c 1959 in which Whitney describes all the genetic problems, etc. with purebred dogs. (This book predates Larry Shook's Puppy Report by 33 years.) - Jan Gribble

  2. Interesting, isn't it - how often brilliant people are also annoying people.

  3. And yet, paradoxically, how seldom the converse is true.

  4. Heather, I have the B.B. Titus article from "Field and Stream" if you want a copy.


  5. Interesting. I remember when Cockers were pretty cool dogs, I'm that old. No more.

    I was at a show a couple of weeks ago and my friend was admiring a CKC Border Collie. Cute dog. I told her the herders call them Barbie Collies. She said "Oh, these dogs herd sheep, quite a few breeders work their dogs."


  6. Hey H2, how about blogging your thoughts on these AVSAB statements? Please don't hold back, I'm looking for a place to send those are susceptible to the Kool-Aid, but can still be saved.

  7. Selma, I understood that the Canadian Pedigree Act allowed only one registry for a breed, and that for the border collie, that registry was the CBCA.

    After reading your comment, I googled around and found that the CKC was offering conformation classes for border collies as of 2007.

    Howzitt, if they do not and legally cannot register them?

    Yes, I'm quite sure that the top priority for all those Clan-Abby Gund plushy dog breeders is "working livestock."

  8. What was written about the American cocker is becoming true fo the golden retriever. If you want to know what golden retriever looked and acted like in the early days, imagine a red-colored flat-coated retriever with or without a wavy coat. This breed is being destroyed through breeding excessive coat and excessive bone (which was always decried by the early breeders). Mr. Winifred Charlesworth, who wrote the first standard for the breed, intentionally refused to breed a cream colored blocky dog, even though he was a good worker, because she knew he would breed coarseness into the breed. She would be having a fit right now if she saw what was being shown today, especially in European lines!

  9. My first dog was a field-line golden retriever -- lithe, athletic, deep-copper-colored with a moderate coat and a sassy attitude. Shannon was born in 1974, before Gerry Ford popularized the breed. Shannon made me a dog trainer, and was everything a golden should be. She'd no more have bitten a person than she'd chew off her own feet.

    I rend my clothing seeing what has become of my beloved goldens. Great Pyrenees? Kuvasz?

    And I can no longer recommend them unreservedly as family dogs. Too many genetically unstable biters, including hands-down the most dangerous dog I ever worked with -- who specialized in nailing kids.

    If you have a Rottweiler who has bitten a person, you most likely have a training and leadership problem. If you have a golden that has done so, you have a genetic mess.


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