Stockdog Corner: How much impact does a breed club program have on a breed?

By April 18, 2017July 20th, 2017No Comments


By Terry Martin as published in the Aussie Times (date unknown)

I badly missed my deadline with company here and got a reprieve so decided to do something I have thought about doing before (usually when I can’t think of a topic to write about).  How about a trip into the past?  To go back farther than 2003 I would need to retype from the magazines, but I found this one from May 2003.  To recap history, this was a time when we were voting on whether or not to leave the Hardship Registry open for another year – that is a moot point now.   But I did think the history of it might be of interest to some of you now almost ten years later.  In reading this over I find it interesting now ten years after I wrote this that ASCA has done something that has made registration less attractive to the stockman even than it was back in 2003.  My last paragraph has in some cases come true.  Hope you enjoy and comments always welcome (or suggestions for future topics).

Below is From the Stockdog Corner/Aussie Times written May 2003:

As I write this the ballots are ready to go out and we again vote on whether to leave the Hardship Registry open for another year.  Unfortunately many of you will have already voted without realizing that the ASCA Board has changed the Hardship Rules.  I know many stockdog people have in the past voted to keep the Hardship open because they feel there are farm and ranch dogs still out there that could be included in ASCA’s gene pool.  If you are among them, you should know that as of January 2004 the Hardship Registry will be closed to NSDR and UKC dogs.  The only dogs eligible for Hardship Registry will be those registered with AKC and CKC.  It is unfortunate that too few were aware of this when it came time to vote.

It was about six years ago when I mentioned in a Stockdog Corner a conversation I had with an ASCA Stockdog judge.  He had made the remark to me that the breed was splitting and not in the way we have heard for so many years between conformation and working.  He was only involved in the working end of the breed and felt we were splitting into trial dogs and ranch dogs.  A lot of people did not agree with that and pointed to the good dogs who do both successfully.  Lately I have been giving this a lot of thought and have been a part of some discussions that are somewhat disturbing.  I thought I would devote a few paragraphs to the topic and then welcome any discussion.

After being in the breed for over 30 years and watching the ASCA Stockdog Program develop, I am not so sure the dogs are splitting so much as the people are.  Obviously there are some dogs who win in trials who would be less than useful in many real farm and ranch situations.  Likewise there are valuable ranch dogs who would not shine in the trial arena.  Many of them could have done well either way, but their training and environment has developed them into what they are today.  There are and always have been individuals in the ASCA trial scene who do ranch work at home and compete successfully at trials.  But what about the people?

The ASCA Stockdog Program was pretty much developed by and for people who had real working dogs and wished to have them appreciated and recognized by their peers.  This is much the same as the way horse racing and rodeo began.  The talent is just too good to want to keep it hidden at home!  As the program developed it attracted people who loved and admired the working stockdog but did not have livestock themselves.  Many new ideas sprung up.  Clubs purchased sheep and doled them out to members to practice on, and then they got them all together to put on trials and clinics.  Individuals purchased sheep or a few calves and often had friends come over to work their dogs.  As training improved (and improved it did!) there were trainers who set up facilities to work dogs, something unheard of in the early years of ASCA trials.  Sheep became a real focus because they are less expensive to buy and feed and easier to house.  All of these things allowed more people to evaluate their dogs and of course led to the study of pedigrees and working traits.  Rather than the farmer/rancher breeding his good bitch to the best working dog in the area, people were shipping dogs and using bloodlines from other areas.  More and more people entered the world of ASCA competition who had no experience with livestock, but an interest in these dogs and working them as a sport.

Whether this is good or bad is not even an issue.  Without the influx of folks from the non-livestock world it is doubtful ASCA trials could have made it.  ASCA has held to the real life ranch ideals with the addition of Ranch Trials and the Post Advanced Division, both of which have helped maintain a challenge and the quality of dogs.

Recently in conversations I have realized that there are two worlds out there.  The working Australian Shepherd lives in both of them.  But the people have lost track of each other.  Actually the farmer/rancher segment often doesn’t know the trialer exists, and sometimes it seems that the trialer segment doesn’t care that the farmer/rancher exists.  The former uses ASCA simply as the registry for his dogs and sometimes is an ASCA member and sometimes not.  He is unaware of the world of purebred dogs and has no time or interest in becoming part of it.  He often has a knowledge of genetics either from animal science courses in college or from practical experience with livestock or both.  He knows you can breed the best to the best and at times come up with nothing and knows the great one can happen from the most ordinary of parents.  His stock, including his dogs, has to meet certain standards and be useful to his operation.  He knows that if he buys an eight week old puppy to be a working dog that it might not be good enough no matter who its parents are.  Thus he often has a distrust of high prices and although trial titles are impressive, he knows the proof is in the dogs themselves.  He very likely has a “yard dog” or two but he isn’t interested in paying as much for a puppy who might end up just another yard dog as he paid for his last cow and calf.  This is the world the Australian Shepherd came from – and where he still quietly exists away from the public eye.

There is a sense among some active in the purebred dog world right now that those who are not deeply involved in competition and all the up to date lofty ideals of dog breeding are somehow “ignorant.  If someone has Aussies and does not adhere to all the practices of the modern dog fancier (many with a decade or less in the breed) they are inferior.  So many of these quiet breeders I hear from have been in this breed for twenty or thirty years.  They know where the dogs came from and they want to keep owning and producing dogs like the ones they had generations ago.  For the most part they respect the trial world but many have competed with cattle or horses and know that wins and Championships do not guarantee useful offspring.  They don’t go out and buy a $100,000 arena Champion cutting horse to ride all day and bring in their cattle.  Their horses are often registered with the same registry as that Champion but they are far more proficient in a more practical way.

It really doesn’t matter which of these segments of the working Aussie owners is superior or the most politically correct.  It doesn’t even matter which one has the “best” dogs.  They both are here to stay – at least in the foreseeable future.  Farmers and ranchers have been breeding Aussies for far more years than trialers have and they will continue to do so.  Stockdogs have taken a big leap in popularity in the ranch world in the past decade although there are those who for some reason want to deny the fact.  Trialers have a passion for the working Aussie and are here to stay too.  They often do not have the same ideas about how to breed dogs or exactly what traits are most important in a working dog, but one common ground remains.  They all want a dog with that unique instinct that allows them to work or to play the game.  Luckily for the Australian Shepherd we have both of these groups dedicated to preserving the working Aussie, some just for their own use and some for the future of the breed itself.

The Australian Shepherd is a very young breed.  Records have been kept for less than fifty years.  My first Aussie in 1963 came with a five generation pedigree of dogs registered with NSDR.  There are a few holes in that pedigree but not many.  ASCA has only maintained a registry since 1971.  The gene pool for this breed is very very small.  When you break that down into specifically the “working lines” it becomes so much smaller.  How many definite working lines are there?  How many “popular sires” have there been over the past 25 years?  Looking at pedigrees you will find the numbers are alarmingly small.  Right now I know breeders who are looking for an outcross that has the traits they want to perpetuate in their own bloodlines.  If they have been in the breed for very long they have definite goals and have traits they want to avoid and traits they want to maintain.  This knowledge and these preferences diminish their choices even more.  In the end, where do they go?  Fifty years into this breed finds us with a very tight gene pool if you are seriously breeding working dogs and studying the popular bloodlines.  There are dogs (hard to find) out there who have been quietly bred through the decades by people just simply working their dogs and selling a few pups here and there locally.  Once in awhile one of these comes into the hands of an active ASCA person (or one of these people discovers the world of ASCA) and we have some new blood.  But not often enough! When this happens some serious breeders may cautiously “test the waters” by using this unknown dog, but it takes several years to know if this “new blood” will make a significant positive impact on a bloodline and then the breed.  These dogs often trace back to known dogs of the seventies, but those dogs are falling off the right side of the pedigree.  With the tight bloodlines in the Aussie trial world we can only hope and encourage those farmers and ranchers out there to continue to register their dogs with ASCA while they are using them in the real livestock world.  With the Board’s closing of the Hardship Registry to NSDR dogs, it becomes ever more important to encourage those not active in ASCA to keep up ASCA registration.  Ten or twenty years down the road a great dog with your dogs falling off the pedigree might come to light.  Without ASCA papers he or she will be lost to this gene pool forever.

Just as a kennel can get “bred into a corner” so could this breed by becoming too elitist and too judgmental of those who have one bottom line question:  Can he handle my livestock?