Impossible Dream

Breeding for Perfection

by C.A. Sharp

First published in Double Helix Network News Winter 2005, Rev. Nov. 2009


              When breeders discuss goals the catchphrases “improving the breed” and “striving for perfection” are all but routine.  But what exactly are perfection and improvement?   Are they even achievable?  For that matter, are the terms even meaningful?

This isn’t to imply that breeders are spewing hype with no goal greater than attracting business.  What most mean by these phrases is, “I’m trying to produce the best quality dogs of this breed possible.”  But in the process the concept of quality gets entangled with ideas of improvement and perfection in ways that may not ultimately benefit the breed.

 A contradiction in terms

Consider improvement.  On the face of it, that might mean moving closer to perfection.  Even if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that perfection is a constant, most purebred dogs are bred for show.  Show breeding tends toward the exaggeration of physical appearance.

When a breed has a signature trait, such as size, coat type, or a distinctive shape of head, that trait frequently becomes more exaggerated over time.   The Pekinese once had a muzzle, the American Cocker Spaniel’s coat did not always flow to the ground, and the Dachshund’s back was not nearly so long nor low to the ground.   Big dogs are bigger, small ones smaller and in coated breeds the competence of the groomer can be just as important as the qualities of the dog for success in the ring.

Is this type of change truly improvement?  In some cases it renders the dogs unsuitable for their original purpose or predisposes them to health, soundness or maintenance difficulties.  There is a term coined by enthusiasts of vintage architecture to describe improvements gone wrong:  Remuddling.  To find a remuddled breed one needs look no farther than the modern English Bulldog, which cannot even reproduce without significant human intervention

 If it ain’t broke…

In some cases, maintaining the status quo may be the best tactic.  Author and Border Collie trainer Donald McCaig has said “Refining a breed is a mistake.  The best we can do is leave it no worse than we found it.”

This is obviously true when the improvement has rendered the dog more difficult to work or live with.  In the case of a function breed still regularly utilized, like McCaig’s Border Collies, if it is already doing the job supremely well meddling may lead to disaster.

The tides of breed fashion heavily influence the concept of improvement.  Look at historical photographs of most breeds and you will see marked differences between the greats of today and those of several decades or a century back.  As the needs and preferences of people change, so will the traits considered ideal in a dog.  Success by one breeder can spur others to “improve” their stock so it more closely resembles that of the winner.  Much of this revolves around esoteric aspects of appearance rather than essential breed traits.  Chasing fashion in this manner can lead to a narrowing of the breed’s gene pool as one or a few lines are favored above all others.

 Setting the standard

Written breed standards were developed to serve as descriptions of ideal dogs.  Their “original purpose,” if you will, was to serve as a blueprint for generations of breeders, without the risk of change or loss inherent in the transmission of oral history and knowledge.  But standards may contain errors—as with the persistent myth of the 45 degree shoulder.  Standards also can vary from country to country or even within a breed.   There are two US standards for the Australian Shepherd, the original one developed by the Australian Shepherd Club of America, an independent club/registry, and the AKC standard.  They are very similar but there are differences.  Which of the two is “more perfect” depends upon whom you ask.

As discussed earlier, a successful show and promotion campaign or the whims of fashion may redefine perfection.  Those whims may or may not be supported by the breed standard, but that doesn’t prevent breeders from breeding for the new style.  The AKC standard for the German Shepherd Dog describes the back as “level” and says it is “straight, very strongly developed without sag or roach…”  The illustrated version of the standard shows this clearly, yet the outline of many show dogs today does not conform to the outline in the illustrations.  The roached back has become so common that detractors have coined the phrase “banana back” to describe it.

Standards cannot adequately address health or behavior.  Keeping up appearances is important in breeding show dogs, but excessive focus on show points can obscure the importance of other aspects of the breed.  Failing to consider these as part of the perfection package can destroy a breeding program.  Can the most beautiful, smooth-moving dog in the world truly be perfect if it has or produces health or behavior faults?

And standards can be changed, sometimes to adjust the wording to reflect what the breed has become:  What was once perfect, ceases to be so.

 Different strokes for different folks…

Any breeder worthy of the name wants to produce quality animals, though the definition of “quality” will depend on that breeder’s larger goals.  Are these to be show dogs?  Pets?  Performance event dogs?  Working or service dogs?  Or perhaps some combination of these?  Each breeder needs a clear vision of her goals.  If the breed is multi-purpose, she must have a good understanding of how dogs bred for a different sets of goals will (or will not!) meld with her own stock.  Those other breeders’ goals are not necessarily less worthy, but differing goals may be mutually exclusive.

Times do change and so do dog breeds in response the evolving needs and preferences of people.  Cultural and technological changes can have a huge impact on a breed.  The breed’s original purpose may cease to exist or becomes so insignificant that few dogs are required to perform it.  In such cases change is inevitable as the breed is adapted to suit a new role.

When some breeders pursue traditional, function-based goals while others breed to produce show dogs, pets, or dogs used for a different kind of function a significant divergence in type and behavior can arise between the different strains within the breed.  More than a few breeds have split along show and function lines, sometimes to the point that what was once a single breed is essentially two, with little or no genetic exchange between them.

The idea that a breed’s original, functional, purpose can be maintained by maintaining a particular appearance without at the same time carefully selecting for the necessary behaviors and instincts is a common misconception.  Some part of those behaviors may be preserved, but unless they are an integral part of the definition of breed perfection, they will lessen, fragment or be lost entirely.  Show ring perfection cannot be achieved consistently unless breeders keep that goal firmly in mind, so how could one logically assume that other complex traits would be any different?

When it comes to breeding for purposes other than the show ring, written standards may not even apply.  The International Sheep Dog Society maintains no standard for working sheepdogs, operating on the premise that the proof is in the pudding.  ISDS Border Collie breeders look for their vision of perfection in the field, not on a piece of paper.  There is no published standard for what makes a good pet, either, and most dogs today are companion animals.

No dog can be all things to all people.  Very few dogs exhibit high quality in more than one or two areas of canine endeavor.  The experienced breeder knows what he’s aiming for and will select only those dogs that meet his criteria.  However, those rejected dogs might be valuable to another breeder with a different set of goals.

 Reality check

If the definition is narrow enough, perfection may be attainable.  But what is that sort of perfection worth?  A breeder must consider the whole package—appearance, behavior and health.  Health issues are often the neglected stepchild of perfection, a consideration that is secondary to the prime goals of producing the best show or function dogs.

Poor health is anything but perfect, occasionally inspiring novice breeders to declare they will not breed any dog that has any health risks, however minor.  Not every genetic defect is equally “imperfect.”  One can’t put a missing tooth on the same level as cardiomyopathy or epilepsy any more than a minor color fault is on the same level as a significant structural defect.  Genetic perfection does not exist.  No breed or line, no matter how carefully selected, is without at least some risk for something unwanted.  Novice breeders will either learn to set realistic goals or get out of the game.

The trick is to have a comprehensive vision of the ideal dog that includes health and behavior as well as appearance, with a view toward the purpose these dogs are bred for, whether it is work, show or companion status.  The vision should be far-sighted, encompassing not just at the litter this year but those that will be born decades hence.  It must be substantial enough to withstand the buffets of passing fancy.

True perfection is a myth.  The best of breeders know that, but they develop a clear vision of the breed based on knowledge of its history and a thorough understanding of the health and behavior of dogs.  When a breed is blessed with enough breeders who share such a vision, quality of the breed will be maintained into the future.