When I was in third grade I read a story I've never forgotten, an ancient Chinese parable entitled 'The Superior Horse'.
It was about Duke Mu and his stablemaster Sun Yang, the greatest judge of a horse in the world. When Sun Yang was growing old, the Duke desired him to appoint a successor, and Sun Yang replied that the only person he knew who was qualified was a young laborer named Gao. Duke Mu tested this young man by sending him out to find "a superior horse". Out he went, and walked the whole of China looking for the right horse. Finally he came to the Duke and announced he had found a dun mare.
But when the horse arrived, it was a black stallion! Duke Mu flew into a rage against the stupidity of both Gao and Sun Yang, but Sun Yang said to put the horse to the test first. So the Duke raced him against the best horse in his stable. The Duke's own horse raced with such courage that he burst his heart and died, but Gao's horse won easily.
Sun Yang exclaimed that Gao was indeed a better judge of horses than himself, for a true judge sees only the inner nature of the horse, and does not let himself be distracted by external things.
I have traversed, virtually anyway, a distance nearly as vast as Gao in his wanderings across China, while I've been searching for a puppy. I was clear about my priorities, which are a set of parents which:
Guess what? I've been looking for a year, and there are no such working Australian Shepherd litters being bred that I've been able to discover. Many have some of the above qualifications, none have all. So I have compromised. I found two litters which seemed very promising. Both breeders have breeding goals very similar to my list. They are both passionate about searching out and preserving the genetic diversity of the working Aussie while it is still available to us.
Now, one of the challenges of doing "diversity rescue" is that you must take risks on unknowns. Instead of being able to say, "I'm breeding to WTCH Bob because he consistently throws biddability" or "I'm outcrossing to Bar None lines because I want that low heeling and hard grip they are famous for," you must say, perhaps, "I am breeding to No Name Joe, who has never yet been bred, because I don't recognize a single dog in his pedigree for five generations, and he is a great working dog himself." That's a big jump, because not only is the dog himself an unknown producer, and his ancestry possibly not known either, but it is also an outcross mating which is by its nature more unpredictable.
It is a brave and committed breeder who will do such a thing, someone who not only understands the genetic trap of the "popular sire syndrome" but is willing to do something about it. I sure want to support and celebrate those people.
Now I am presented with a dilemma, however. If I lived on a ranch and had a row of kennels and a hefty discretionary income, I would buy a pup from EVERY attractive litter, raise them all, train them all, and keep the best. Instead, I have a marginally useful piece of land, a tiny house in which all my dogs must coexist, and a daughter who wants to go to an exclusive private college in a different time zone. I get one puppy, that's it. But which one?
Faithful readers will remember that, like most Aussie lovers, I have a favorite color, which happens to be dark blue merle without any copper or white, also called 'self merle'. I also had determined that a female would be easier to integrate into my household, given my resident dogs' personalities, than a male. Mother Nature not being fully dialed in to my wishes, each litter turned up with one available female, both basically solid colored, and five males, in one litter all reds and blacks with little white, the other, all minimal-trim blue merles.
Since there was competition for the single available female in each litter, I thought hard and decided I might be able to figure a way to make a male work for me. But I still had to decide which litter. What would have been ideal would be to go look at both sets of parents before the pups were ready to leave, decide between them, and then come back and select a pup, but it was just not possible, they were both way too far away. But it was hardly fair to keep a dibs on two pups when I only could take one. So I looked over my list of criteria again and again, hoping to be able to make a decision between them.
Both matches were total outcrosses, but the tipping factors turned out to be, geography — one was considerably farther — how much the parent of little-used lines had been proven as a worker, and, how closely related to lines available near me the other parent was (that is, looking forward to the possibilities of later outcross breedings). If you look again at my set of criteria, you'll see that color isn't listed. That's because of the story of the Superior Horse.
I saw an ad recently for Aussie pups in which tricolors went for one price, merles for a greater, and a hundred dollars was added on top for each blue eye. That was a telling example of just how rare the Gao's are in this world, those who look beyond mere appearance. It was pretty hard for me to turn down the chance at a self blue merle, let me tell you. Yet I feel very strongly that color should never be a criteria, not ever, not even once.
That's radical, of course. The founders of the first Aussie breed club originally intended for Aussies to be a solely merle breed — an aim which had to be abandoned as the genetics of merle were more understood — but the color demon lurks in the hearts of even the most practical breeders down to the present day. That inhibits selection of dogs based on their inner beauty alone, and hence, over time, diminishes the inner qualities of the Aussie breed.
And inner beauty is what lasts. I will bet anyone that your gorgeous-colored, dim-witted, unstable, disease-ridden dog will soon become a burden to you, while your plain-colored, honest, intelligent, great-hearted dog will be remembered forever and dearly. It's peculiar that we forget this so easily.