Faults are in the eye of the beholder, it seems to me. If your dog (or bitch) has no faults, I feel confident he or she is the first of a kind! I'd like to talk a little bit about how people describe stockdogs, what it could mean and what I think is sometimes between the lines. The content of this post is not meant to reflect any particular person or dog except me :)
Everyone prefers different strengths in a dog. Some like a dog with a "lot of forward" or "plenty of power."
Lucy lifting at Island Crossing
So what does that mean? Does it mean the dog can effortlessly move any kind of sheep, regardless of how tough those sheep are? Well what about wild Barbs or Katahdins? Will the dog who excels on Meeker range sheep be the same dog who does terrific on East coast Cheviots, West coast fine wool range lambs and dog-broke farm flock hair sheep? Is there such a thing as "too much" forward?
Well, I am a sheepdogging novice and in my eyes there is such a thing as too much forward - a dog who runs through the bit. Also too much forward for me is a dog who terrifies sheep and the sheep can not settle. I always wonder when people say they have a dog with "plenty of forward" does it mean the dog is quietly confident, or does it mean the dog moves sheep at MACH2 through the course without regard for the handler? When the dog is so intent on moving sheep that he or she can not work with the handler unless the handler is a singularly top hand, is that the right dog for most people?
Lucy on the fetch at Island Crossing
Some people like a dog who is fearless. Does fearless mean the same thing as "grippy"? Well, it can - depending on the dog and the hand. Again, fearless can mean quietly powerful and unafraid to walk into anything. Or it can mean tense, fast and will always move the sheep, but does the dog have to grip to do so? I wonder how fearless a grippy dog is. So many dogs grip out of uncertainty, lack of confidence, frustration, tension. How do we tell the difference? Experience and honesty.
One thing I really like in a dog is biddability and good listening. This should surprise no one who knows how much I love Lucy. However, I often hear biddable used to describe dogs who are, in fact, weak or frightened of sheep. If the dog listens too well because he is afraid to get into trouble, or worse, afraid to be on contact with sheep and so the handler need not compete with instinct, that can be a fault. Is my dog weak? She can be. However, 95 times or more out of 100 we will get the job done. Will she find the odd sheep she struggles to move at trial? Yes. Have I ever seen her fail to move something as a farm dog doing chores? Absolutely not.
So what about a dog who has a "lot" of eye? This could mean a dog who is straight as an arrow when it comes to lines and uses a method with a lot of eye. Or it can mean a dog who is sticky, clappy, falls into flanks or can't move freely behind its sheep. Then there is the "loose eyed" dog. Does a dog have to have a great deal of eye to get the job done? No. Is moderate eye helpful? Yep.
Lucy crossdriving at Island Crossing
Then there is the "natural outrunner." This is a thing of beauty to witness when it is accurate. Nothing nicer than seeing a naturally good outrunner grow into maturity. But is this a young dog who is actually too wide and will run fences by 3 years old? It could be either, or both.
The natural outrunner is often also described as having naturally square flanks. Is this a dog who stays off contact and just gets wider and wider if the sheep lean on them a little, or if the dog doesn't understand what the handler wants? Does the dog flank square in neutral positions, but naturally negative flank when pressure is increased slightly? These are important questions.
Then there is the dog with "plenty of feel." A dog with natural feel who can rate a variety of different stocks well and a dog who is liked by a wide variety of stock is a great thing. I love seeing a dog who can treat a wide variety of sheep with keenness and sensitivity in equal balance to produce a good working relationship with stock. But can "plenty of feel" sometimes mean a dog who is weak? Yes. If a dog has too much feel certainly that dog can end up being weak, concerned about pushing too hard on sheep, and certainly can be a dog the sheep stop easily.
Setting up to shed at Island Crossing
So what is my perfect dog? My perfect dog would have quiet power on a variety of stock without being frantic or difficult to control. The dog should be willing and happy to listen, but able to (and ALLOWED to... separate soapbox) make decisions on his or her own. Moderate eye, enough feel to be sensible without being weak. Stamina is also incredibly important - both physical and mental stamina to the task and unlimited willingness to try a task even when it is frustrating. The dog should be compact and athletic. I'd like a dog who can work all day, but be just as happy to relax in the house as needed. It is worthwhile to note I mention very little about conformation: that is because I do believe in form following function. If the dog can do everything I've mentioned here, it will be sound of body and mind.
So how do I get such a dog? First, choosing carefully. Second, taking the time to develop a meaningful relationship with the dog. I really do think this matters, and I know some will argue me about it. I'm not interested in arguing, but I am entitled to my opinion.
How is such a dog made? Well breeding is a big part of it, or so it seems. A trend I see in breeding is people breeding to a dog with "opposite faults." This means breed a weak dog to a very strong dog, or a loose-eyed dog to a dog with a lot of eye, a dog who, a dog who is a little too good to a dog who is a little too bad. I sometimes wonder at the wisdom here. It seems to me genetics is a lot more like painting stripes than mixing paint. I feel like I see individual traits of each parent come out in pups, rather than muted/combined versions of these traits that are new and unique to the pup. If we have a can of red paint and a can of white paint, we could paint red and white stripes along the walls, or we can mix the cans together and paint everything swirls of pink. It seems to me a I see a whole lot more striped dogs than pink dogs ;) While that can, and does, happen, it just seems more common that a pup will express a unique combination of traits similar to each parent. Again, my experience here is limited, but I have been paying close attention and trying hard to learn. This is where I am today. I wonder if it makes sense to double up on strengths in more moderate dogs? I don't know the right answer.
So why am I concerned? Well, with Lucy's puppies on the way, all of these things are worrisome to me. Ultimately, I hope to produce some quality sheepdogs but also dogs with a generally excellent temperament who are healthy, sound, well-built and good family pets. It will be interesting to see how they turn out - perhaps they will prove me wrong! Luckily it will take a few years to know, and by then this post will be ancient history.
I would be interested in your comments and feedback about how people describe dogs, or a description of your perfect dog.