THE GENESIS OF THE WORKING AUSSIE SOURCE WEBSITE
by Kay Spencer
“Truth is never pure, and rarely simple.” –Oscar Wilde
“God wants everything to be known.” –Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
One of the qualities of the internet is its common lack of “history”— so often it is hard to tell where, how, and when something came to be. So here is some back story for Working Aussie Source, for anyone who is interested in Aussie Politics. Since it is more (probably way more) than most people want to know, I thought I’d stick it here in its own article. Those who belong to other breeds with similar challenges might possibly find my experience useful too. I apologize for any inadvertent inaccuracies, and I’m absolutely sure I’ll express opinions with which someone disagrees. Nevertheless, I think it is a story usefully made public.
Can’t Be Done
As a new owner of a working Aussie pup in the fall of 2003, I wanted to find other like-minded persons. When I discovered the Yahoo discussion board Aussie-Herders, I felt I might have found the community I had been searching for. I mentioned on that board how difficult it had been for me to find a working-type Aussie on the internet, among the many Aussie websites and puppy listing sites which turned out to not have working Aussies at all, even when they advertised that they did. Wouldn’t it be convenient if all the working-type Aussie breeders were listed somewhere in one place? This provoked a fairly long discussion, but the most common reaction from those who had been around the block was that it couldn’t be done.
Why not? Well, there were two basic reasons, which I will name the Versatility Reason and the Crossbred Reason.
How Serious Is Serious Enough?
The Versatility Reason goes like this: while the majority of Aussie breeders either breed first and foremost for conformation shows, or working qualities, but not both, there are a substantial number which do breed for both. No one with significant experience working Aussies in practical ranch situations felt that these “versatility” Aussies, as a group, could be fairly represented as true working dogs, since their working ability is demonstrably diluted. However, there is no demarcation between purely working lines and diluted-with-showdog lines, only shades of gray. How could breeders who weren’t serious about working qualities be sifted from those who were? How serious is serious enough? Who would choose?
And also, how would this hypothetical person or committee decide who was in and who was out? Would applicants’ dogs have to pass a test? What kind of test? Would they have to submit a video of their dogs working? Who would watch it? Clearly, the whole thing was impossible. And even if it wasn’t, there was always Reason #2.
The Crossbred Wars
The Crossbred Reason goes like this: In the 1990’s, the working Aussie world was riven by accusations that two diffferent breeders had clandestinely crossed Border Collies into their lines. The community divided itself into camps: those who refused to believe the accusations, and incorporated the suspect dogs into their own bloodlines as they saw fit, and those who swore they never would. There was also another, quieter group of people which thought both sides had some good arguments, or who felt nothing could be done at this point and it was time to move on, or even thought a little Border Collie blood wasn’t all that bad an idea—I have listened to all of these people. At length.
This issue in ASCA was the impulse behind both the institution of DNA certification of breeding stock, and the development of the Working Description. In any case, there was so much bitterness between the camps that it seemed impossible they would agree to be on the same website, although both sides had excellent working dogs.
Fools Rush In
I figured, being a total newcomer with no particular aspirations to breed, compete, or run for office, I had nothing to lose by trying. Since I wasn’t qualified in any way to review applicants on their merits, I proposed a different solution. On Aussie-Herders, I solicited names of people who, it was generally agreed, were inarguably working Aussie folk. From the lists that were sent me, I developed an initial invitation list of about sixty breeders (since expanded). Jeni Gallichan, of Mikatura Aussies, designed and launched the site for me for a bargain price, and I was in business.
With input from the Aussie-Herders community, I wrote up a statement of “requirements” for breeders not on my invitation list. Although it was a self-administered assessment, it was quite rigorous, probably even insulting, and was eventually edited down to the simpler and hopefully more welcoming questionnaire on the site today. But I have come to the belief that this questionnaire is not nearly as important in screening as is the tone of the whole site, and of the many ads already there.
It turns out that people do, for the most part, know what kind of dogs they are breeding. Those who breed for versatility have plenty of venues of their own; they have no need to try to gatecrash my site. That’s turned out to be, in the main, a groundless fear.
From the first, I was determined that the site was going to welcome all breeders of working Aussies, figuring that the working/not working divide would be plenty hard enough to negotiate all by itself. Somewhat surprisingly, this stance was accepted by many; breeders from both sides (and neutrals) in the Crossbred Wars signed up. In a few months, about twenty people from my invitation list had signed on, which already made it the largest list of working Aussie breeders available anywhere in any medium.
The internet is vast, but what it contains that is pertinent to working Australian Shepherds is quite limited, and hard to locate in all that vastness. So I started developing my links page. I focused on collecting links which bore directly on working Aussies. I also accompanied each link with a description, so as to waste as little of people’s time on fruitless searching as possible. I’d done enough of that myself.
I also had an image in my mind of Working Aussie Source as a library of information for working Aussies, but to begin with I didn’t have much information. There was an obvious shortage of articles about training Aussie stockdogs (on the Web and off), but all I had to post were edited versions of discussions on Aussie-Herders about various training problems. These were, by their nature, of uneven quality, and were also extremely tedious to transpose into an article format.
That was frustrating, and I also chafed at the time delay caused by having to pass everything I wanted to post or change through a website manager (Jeni Gallichan, who was being extremely generous with her time). I enrolled in an online intro-to-website-design class, which gave me, mostly, an insight into how much I didn’t know.
The New Design
My first webdesign class convinced me that I would have to pay someone else to institute the design changes I had accumulated in my mind. Since my sister, Amy Levine-Koman, is a graphic artist (Djuna Design), I hired her to do the next incarnation of the site. That took about six months to bring to completion. Her design was really beautiful, I thought, but now it was time for me to start managing it myself. I started taking serious webdesign classes at the local community college, and began to learn coding basics. I’m a writer, not a computer geek, and these skills do not come naturally to me, so progress has been slow.
The Stockdog Library
Continuing my search for training articles, I kept hearing about this great, now-defunct magazine called Ranch Dog Trainer. So I tracked down the publisher, CynDee Cooper, and she very generously agreed to let me post relevant articles from it on Working Aussie Source. This took months to arrange. Since she no longer had a set of complete back issues, and what she had was only on paper, everything had to be manually scanned and re-formatted for the web. However, Sherry Baker loaned me her own incomplete set, CynDee sent me what she had, and between them I had most of the years covered. So many great articles there; I was excited to be able to start making them available again.
Audrey Klarer loaned me her (also incomplete) set of Aussie Times from the late 1970’s and 1980’s, but these, although there were a few gems to scan, were primarily filled with ASCA business and advertisements for show dogs, as they are today. It was interesting to see that, although ASCA has become more sophisticated and far larger, the general trend of the club was set thirty years ago.
Over time, I have also added quite a few articles from all sorts of other sources, including interviews I have done myself, and manuscripts sent directly to me. The Library has become what I had envisioned: a significant source of information, available to everyone.
The Advisory Board
When the site became more popular, and people I hadn’t ever heard of or who I felt ambivalent about, applied to be on it, I got up my nerve to ask a few people with impeccable working Aussie credentials to serve as a review committee to look over the applications which weren’t obvious. Everyone I asked graciously agreed to do so. They haven’t had to work very hard so far; I suspect just having such a committee described on my home page makes it that much less likely that someone who wonders whether they can be described as a working Aussie breeder simply won’t apply. However, they have been extremely useful in those few cases, which arise every few months, which I find impossible to evaluate. It is still a judgement call, and the judgement ultimately has to be mine, but it feels much less presumptuous to make such a call based on real and collective experience.
What About New Breeders?
Another improvement I instituted was a Reference Breeder service, such that listed breeders could sponsor someone they knew, who just needed to post a litter or a dog for sale. In that way, more people could use the site to advertise their available working Aussies, even if they didn’t want or qualify for a breeder ad. This has helped address an ongoing dilemma of mine: inexperienced breeders need help getting the word out about their pups even more than well-established ones, and a main goal of Working Aussie Source is to connect working-bred pups with people who are looking for them. But how to screen breeders with no track record? And then, new breeders, and the people who buy pups from them, truly need experienced mentors to advise them when problems arise. There’s a whole galaxy of places to get into trouble, when you start out with working dogs. Ideally, that Reference Breeder would be available to lend a hand to both parties.
Well, It Can Be Done After All
Now (August 2006), the two-year-old site is passing the fifty ads mark, there are nearly sixty articles of various kinds in the Stockdog Library, and the site is far more popular than I ever dreamed could be. I add new events, new Working Dog Diary entries, and new articles constantly, and every week I receive email from all kinds of people telling me how much they enjoy and use my site, and sending me stories, photos, and announcements, as well as questions, often the very questions I have had myself.
The biggest lesson I have learned from my experiment is how much can be accomplished by focusing on needs rather than problems. There is indeed a deep interest in, even a passion for, this kind of dog, out there in the world. Rather than try to address the challenges of creating a site just for working Aussies in a judgemental, exclusionary way, I decided to simply be as welcoming as possible to the community the site is intended to serve, and let the bitterness, the arguments, and the confusion strictly alone. That has turned out to be a very rewarding approach.
Why indeed. Why do people do things they don’t get paid for, or at least, paid anything like enough? There are a lot of reasons. I love my dog, and not just that, I love the kind of dog she is. I see that this kind of dog, the working Aussie, is fading out of public awareness as it has been replaced with another kind of Aussie. I want to do my bit in the effort to save the working Aussie from going the way of so many useful breeds which have become little more than idealized images of the original, parading around a showring and being suburban pets.
Many worthwhile things are lost merely because not enough people concerned themselves with saving them while there was still time. After they’re irretrievable, that’s when we miss them. Unlike many working breeds, the working Aussie is still very much with us, but it is beleaguered on many sides: by the advent of the cattle-bred Border Collie, by the decline of diversified family farming, and by the burgeoning popularity of the show Aussie, among others. It faces a complex set of challenges, and I really do not know if it will be around in thirty years. I sure hope so.
And that is what this website is about.