27 November, 2010

A Dog Without Faults...

All photos in this post by T. Graham, edited by D. Pagel

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.


Anonymous said...

We never used our dogs for trials etc, only for bringing in the cow to milk or putting Whitneys cattle back in the fence that never received a good mend, only the patch work we did to keep them out of Bob's mom's garden. Both Deuce and Duke watched what we did and soon " time to get Polly meant going out to bring her to the milking stall and Bob would take the milk bucket out and find her there waiting for her grain. They both knew exactly how to get the cattle back in and let us know the fence needed work without commands, they just knew. They both knew how to treat small children and we made sure all children were good with them. They were dogs without faults in my book. They know what you want and they do it and are allowed to think for themselves. They were farm dogs that did a farm dogs chores and were the best possible family pets.

Erin O said...

My perfect dog is a calm, confident, biddable, and tries hard; pretty much moderate in all attributes and exhibiting few extremes. Personally I would err on the side of slightly too strong or forward. This is the type of dog that suits me, the way I handle and the type of stock I want to move. I want a dog that has a rock solid temperament, not sight or sound sensitive or over reactive. Personally I don't care if he is a good "pet" in my home or for my family.
Every attribute in it's extreme form is probably negative, I think you got to this point a few times in your post. Yes, there are more striped dogs rather than pink dogs. Either a gene is expressed or it is not, it is never "blended". Selection should be for improvement on both bitch and dog, the pups should theoretically be better examples of the breed then their parents were.

Monique said...

@ Erin -
Sounds like we look for a lot of the same. And yes, if I had to choose between a little too much and not quite enough, I'll choose a little too much like you.

Kudos to you on genotype and phenotype - I was trying not to geek-out too badly LOL

Janet said...

I don't think biddability is another word for being weak; I think quite the opposite actually! I think my Scotty is very biddable. He's also very friendly, loving, perfect in the house, gets along well with all people and other animals, lets me groom him and trim his toenails without complaint. He wins beauty pageants, walks in parades and rides in the car without problems. With all of these "soft skills" he has which I think demonstrate his biddability, I doubt anyone will say he is a weak dog when it comes to stock. And, on the field, I think he is extremely biddable as well. If he weren't then I doubt Diane would have ever matched him and I up together and I doubt that he and I would ever be able to get around a course.

I do think Scotty is the perfect dog... for me :). This is why I was so excited when Jude came along. Jude's sire comes from the simlar lines as Scott. It also helped to learn that Jude's dame was a sweet, snuggle bug with great sheep skills and respectable lines as well. I think the two lines are quite complementary to one another - they are both proven & healthy lines. Sure, each side has their faults and I doubt that mixing the two will dilute the faults and exemplify the qualities - just imagine if we could do that!

I haven't done this long enough to know what to look for when buying a puppy, let alone a grown dog. I rely on other people I trust to guide me still. I will say when reputable sheepdog folks met Jude at 13-18 weeks of age (not knowing his lines at all), they were impressed with his outgoing, friendly nature and inquisitiveness, even telling me "that's going to be a very nice dog." How do they know this?

While I think my Scott is the perfect dog, I was informed that even if I cloned him, I might not end up with another Scott. Genetically speaking, dogs are all pink; 1/2 of Jude's DNA is Sleat, and 1/2 of his DNA is Jack. It is how his genes are expressed that dictates how he looks, how he fights cancers, how tough his paw pads are.. and lest we forget that touch of blue thrown in, in the form of genetic mutations.

When it comes to future sheepdogs that I intend to own/trial with, I think it's super important that the dog be easy to live with and friendly to minimze stress on me and ultimately on the dog. For example, take my Mattie - she is so concerned about other dogs and strangers that it overwhelms her and she'll never be able to get over that, even when on stock. She has taught me the value of a secure, happy, easy-to-live-with dog. Also, I've taken care of dogs that are not good in the house too and that is really no fun at all.

Second, I value a dog that has lots of power but who also knows how to guage that power to the situation. Scott has this ability which is why he can work all types of sheep with success. I think the ability to rate the sheep and guage the power needed matures as the dog matures. But, that maturation rate is different in every dog. I think the handler has lot to do with a dog's power too as it's clear that some handlers have taken away their dogs power by constant drilling and correction over-kill.

Third, I want a dog who is right in the head. One that can think, troubleshoot and is willing to try things. A dog that is fearless and doesn't keep a chip on their shoulder. I want a dog that understands a correction and a reward. I do have to say that Scott is pretty sensitive to correction and he does keep chips on his shoulder - these are his greatest faults IMO.

Loretta Mueller said...

FWIW...I started out with tougher dogs so maybe that is why I like the kinds I do :)I like a dog with a lot of push, I want to be able to dial a dog down than ask them up. I don't like grippy or tense however. I just like a dog that likes to push their stock.

I want a moderate amount of eye, one that gives them a good amount of feel, makes them stylish, but not an eye that is clappy or sticky. Not interested in that one bit. Zip is a bit more free moving than Klink is for the most part. I have to make sure Klink's eye doesn't drag her into the sheep...but if I keep her free, I don't have any issues with that at all. Zip I work on her holding lines...just the differences in the dogs.

Natural outrunner...or natural driver...I guess, I don't really care, I have Zip, who is a very nice outrunner, not too wide, but will find sheep come hell or highwater...300 yards or 700 yards, doesn't matter, she has always known this, and is a lovely outrunner...but was a bit harder to teach to drive (although I am sure it was made harder by my ignorance!). Klink will drive sheep forever, and it was harder to get a nice outrun on her but she is now nice...I like both dogs..so I guess that doesn't matter a ton to me...

I want a team player, a dog that WANTS to work with me, wants to try and doesn't get sulky or hard headed when I am trying to communicate with them on something. I don't like sulky...I would take hard headed before sulky...I REALLY dislike sulky...

I need grip, CONTROLLED grip...but I need it. I deal with rams and also with ewes that can be very protective of their lambs...so I need a dog that can stay calm under pressure BUT, when needed will grip cleanly and then give the stock time to move off of them...picking fights with sheep just to grip is not something I want. But I don't want to have to really work on a dog having the courage to grip either.

I like a dog that can settle when off stock...no busy bodies, constantly moving, constantly trying to work everything and anything...I like an affectionate dog, but not a groveling dog...super needy dogs are not my cup of tea.

So pushy is good, in my world anyway :) If you would have asked me if pushy was good back when I first started, um NO :)

Monique said...

LOL. Pushy is good. So obsessed about moving and controlling sheep that the sheep can not be kept safe is not good (yes, some sheepdog people have *disarmed* their dogs).

Loretta Mueller said...

No...for sure not...luckily I haven't encountered such a dog...and I hope I never do :) A dog that wants to seriously injure sheep is worthless in my book...

Unknown said...

There is no such thing as a perfect dog...each dogs has the strengths and weakness and it is what you can live with...however if I could have a perfect dog, I would like another Tess with Roo's push, with Nan's speed, Lucy's sweetness and Taff's attitude. Tess has the heart and desire and would lay down her life for me.

Tess was the perfect dog for me to go to Open with...Lucy is yours.

Calm, collected, power, biddablie, abilty to move and rate and pace, balance, natural outrunner, line driver, has proper grip, go forward, medium eye, good temperement and raw talent. Ability to do the job on their own if needed. (meaning if the sheep are in the brush etc and you can't see them, the dog can do the job and do it right) and a good thinker/problem solver. Non quitter also. Team player. Non sulky or too soft. (I don't mean sensitive)

I have more but am too tired to think of it right now.

Other items, eyes and hips good, free of genetic issues.

Color- any
Coat- any
Ears- prefer two

And if my dogs could put a list for a perfect handler...

ha, ha!!

livin life said...

First, I love "working my mind" so thank you for a very thoughtful post. I'm not that paticular on looks...although I don't lean towards a white head or split head. Not that is would matter at the end of the day.....just a leaning. Also, after working in knee deep mud yesterday for 4 hours...the smoothie was the most user friendly when it came to clean up :) Perfect dog: well I have seen "power houses" that could not be handled....and I have seen "weak dogs" kick my butt! And to be very honest...I am not sure I have had enough dogs go through these hands to tell you what is perfect for me. Right now, I have three very different dogs....and, yes frustrated at time, I am enjoying what each brings and the puzzle of having a partnership with each of them. So I guess where I will go with this is a quote posted on FB from a top hand in the UK......." A good and successful dog doesn't just come from breeding it comes from our ability to nurture it and train it..get the most out of it." Those words are tatooed on the inside of my eyelids....and are whispered each time I go to work my dogs. nurutre/train=relationship/partnership

Loretta Mueller said...

Smoothies ROCK :) Mud is much better with smoothies!LOL

Janet said...

I mentioned your white, red, pink scenario to my husband, who is a geneticist (lucky me) and I guess I was mistaken in what I wrote about genetics (imagine that!).

Each physical and behavioral trait in our dog is an expression of a combination of many genes working together. That's what I didn't realize.

I got my hubby to admit that it's a total crapshoot when breeding dogs, or having kids for that matter with regard to what you're going to end up with.

Monique said...

Janet you and Jerrill are cracking me up. My analogy was intentionally overly simplistic because so many people stop reading when they see sciency-icky-poo. :)

Every individual carries a set of genes collected from the combination of his parents and passed down through ancestors, but of course we all realize that every gene carried is not expressed (not even every part of every gene, and genes are not simple off-on, and of course they "compete" with one another too). Expression varies widely. It just seems if people are looking for moderate traits, attempting to get them by blending 2 extremes is less likely to produce moderate than putting 2 moderates together?

Jerrill is a smart man: both for agreeing with his wife and realizing that this is a bit like playing the lottery.