A red setter on point
A commercial breeder of Jack Russell terriers for pet buyers writes to ask a question.She says she is very sincere about breeding for health and that she tries to get her hands on as much information as she can, and tests her dogs "for everything available."She goes on to note that "Temperament is important too... this is what means the most to me."She writes that she saw a TV segment (ABC's Nightline) in which I said that if people want to breed dogs that don't work, that's fine, but at least they should be breeding healthy dogs.But she's a bit puzzled.She always had the impression that I disliked the breeding of "working dogs" for the pet trade.From her end of the stick, however, it has always seemed to her that in this day and age most dogs are not wanted for work, and most dogs are merely companions.She concludes:
"I love the JRT and everything about them. And my passion is to genuinely breed proper dogs and skillfully match them up with families. I try to take what I know and apply it to raising nice family terriers. I just do not believe I should be ashamed for breeding them for pets and breeding them as best I know how. Do you have any thoughts for me on what I can and should be doing better?"A genuine question: What do you need to do to breed a healthy dog? And if a breeder is producing physically healthy dogs, isn't that enough?Here is my answer .... There are two aspects to health:
I will not go into physical health. I have written a lot about that in the past, and there is a search engine on this blog.That said, I have not talked too much about mental health, and it is the brain that is the most important part of the dog, especially the working dog.To begin with, let me say that I want all dogs to be self-actualized.Self-actualized? What do I mean by this?Simple. I want the dog to live up to its full potential, to be in harmony with its place and circumstances, and to to be free of self-loathing, fear, and long-term psychological conflict.Step One on this road is to make sure the dog is properly socialized. How do you do this?Well, look at the word -- there's a hint there.Socialized.No dog can be properly socialized without being in society at least a few hours a day, especially during the first 9 months of its life.What this means is that good breeders do not have 50 breeding dogs in their kennels because they know they cannot properly socialize the progeny of 50-dogs, even if they can feed and water them and keep the kennel clean.Step Two involves respecting the code that is within the breed.This is where so many pet breeders -- and buyers -- fall down.You see, what makes a working dog is not the color of its coat, the lay of its tail, or the shape of its head -- it's the frantic morse-code of stimulus and impulse that is firing off within the dog.A border collie is not a border collie because of the way it looks, but because of that code.This is elementary. It is fundamental. It is basic.The code inside a working collie is different from that inside a working pointer or setter, and it is different from that inside of a working terrier.A scent hound and a sight hound are not just different looking -- the code inside them is different too.What does this mean for dog breeders and dog owners?It means that a dog that has been bred for generations to point birds in tall grass and brush should not be placed in a world of parking lots and city streets far from forest and field.It means that a working terrier should not be placed in a home with a hamster running endlessly on a tread mill and a caged parrot that squaks and flaps its wings in an inviting manner.It means that the code inside every working breed of dog should be acknowledged, respected and valued for what it is.And yet, how many breeders of working dogs are doing this?By definition, none that are breeding solely for pet homes.And in that disconnect is a lot of canine misery.The code inside herding dogs like the Border Collie, the Sheltie, and the Corgi tells them to "gather up the herd" and keep outsiders at bay.The code inside the Jack Russell tells them to kill the hamster, bark at all squirrels, dig up the yard, and kill the cat which looks and acts amazingly like a red fox.And yet if these dogs obey these instincts, they get into trouble!Yet if they ignore these instincts, they are repressing everything they are, and are ever meant to be.For the dog, it is a lose-lose situation.The result is predictable: Boat loads of Border Collies, Corgis and Shelties with free-floating anxiety. Flotillas of Jack Russell terriers waiting in rescue for anyone to give them a good home.Yes, surrogate work can be found for Border Collies and Jack Russell terriers.I have known collie owners to buy ducks and chickens for their dogs to herd, and for terrier owners to keep pet rats in their garage for their dogs to chase in go-to-ground tunnels buried in the back yard.More commonly, working terrier and collie owners turn to fly-ball, frisbee and agility to bleed off the steam building up inside their dogs.There is nothing wrong with fly-ball, frisbee or agility. Excellent stuff and good for the dogs. But let's be honest here, eh? Any dog can do these activities.What makes a border collie special is not frisbee or flyball -- it is what happens when sheep, cattle, or goats, or ducks are turned loose for them to herd.What makes a working terrier special is not that it will retrieve a ball -- it is what happens in the field, at the hole, when fomiddable quarry is found at the other end of the pipe.I am not against dog companion dogs, but if folks are looking for a companion dog, then get a companion dog!Please.There are scores of breeds, and millions of mixed breeds, suitable for no other purpose than companionship.Get one of those. I will not object.What I do object to is getting a highly charged hunting dog or herding dog and then expecting it to be something else.That's going to be about as successful as a bridesmaid going to Gay Pride Day in order to find the Man of Her Dreams."They are all so handsome," she thinks, "and I KNOW I can convert one of them to my side, if only I love him enough."Right.That's a program for misery, isn't it?And yet that happens all the time in the world of dogs (and humans too from what I can gather from reading the tabloids) .Bottom line: It's important for us to accept dogs for what they are.They are not surrogate children (see this post on that point), nor are they inanimate objects -- mere property.They are sentient beings, and we have a duty to them. That duty is not simply take care of their bodies while ignoring their minds.And to repeat and undescore the core point of this piece: The minds of all dogs are not alike.It's important for us to accept that different breeds of dogs come with different genetic codes, and that those genetic codes deserve to be unleashed.In short, the duty to dogs is not just to make sure dogs have physical health, but to make sure that they have mental health as well.In order to be able to deliver on that, we need to accept each breed of dog for what it is, and to not try to change it.Try not to change it. This last point is fundamental.It is about RESPECT.You cannot tell me you respect America in one breath, and then tell me you want America to give up all its values and history and cultural ideosyncracies in the next.You cannot tell me you respect Gay people in one breath, and then tell me you want to make them all Straight in the next.And you cannot tell me that you respect Jack Russell Terriers or Border Collies in one breath, but that you want to breed out everything that is their essence and reason for being on earth.To Hell with that.That's where I come from.That's where I stand. And that's how I identify my duty to the dogs.