What Does It Mean to Be a Preservation Breeder?

‘In Preservation We Trust’
What Does It Mean to Be a Preservation Breeder?

From the July 2017 issue of ShowSight. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.

Anyone who breeds purebred dogs is a preservationist — if only by default. By taking a bitch of a particular breed to a dog of the same breed in order for her to conceive, carry, whelp and wean a litter of puppies with success, her owner is ensuring the preservation of her breed. This is Dog Breeding 101, of course, but the arrival of puppies begs the sincere question: Can the dam’s owner be considered a preservation breeder? 


The term “preservation breeder” is a somewhat recent designation. It is used with increasing frequency among dedicated fanciers to reinforce a commitment to produce dogs of quality as described by the breed standards. This new designation is a direct response to an AR campaign determined to eliminate the controlled breeding and ownership of all companion animals. To a growing number of serious fanciers, the stakes have never been higher and the use of “purebred” seems out of touch these days, if not entirely obsolete. “Preservation” may best describe the work required of today’s breeders who wish to live in a world where Schipperkes and Rottweilers coexist alongside “service dogs” and “rescues.”


With preservation as the objective, every breed requires a plan of action tailored to its particular circumstance. Each breed’s development, historical function, current state of health, and susceptibility to disease must be understood in order to establish standard practices that will help to ensure its continuation. To define these practices, the dog fancy would benefit greatly by borrowing from the standards established by an agency of the U.S. federal government that has been in the preservation business for more than a century. The standards and guidelines developed by the National Park Service (NPS) for the preservation, rehabilitation, reconstruction and restoration of historic properties could well be adapted by breeders, dog clubs and the AKC. Although maintaining and preserving a cultural resource — purebred dogs included — presents unique challenges, it is our duty to ensure that future generations come to appreciate our recognized breeds just as we did.



Standards for Preservation

“Preservation” is one of four distinct approaches developed by the NPS for the treatment of historic properties. In the built environment, preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing construction and the retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. A comparable example in the dog world might be a Herding breed that remains capable of performing its intended function owing to its recognizable make and shape. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi can still work as a drover today much as it did in the 10th century. The breed’s substance, agility and energetic self-confidence suit it perfectly for any task that requires an active and intelligent canine. Whenever a breed’s construction and character remain intact — with all of its hallmarks in place and no serious faults to fix — its preservation could be considered a matter of historic significance.


Like the great castles of Wales, the Pembroke is a living record of a particular time and place. Its characteristic build, low-set yet sturdy, remains as strong today as does Pembroke Castle that sits atop a rocky promontory by Milford Haven. And like the castle with which it shares a name, the Pembroke holds an historic significance in its own right. The breed’s association with Vikings is specific to the west of Wales and is culturally unique. Similarly, its moderately long and low silhouette, with short legs and an egg-shaped rib cage, have served it well as a cattle droving dog for ten centuries. In that time, the breed became standardized in appearance with a “foxy” head shape that partly distinguishes the Pembroke from its Cardigan cousin. For the Pembroke to remain a Pembroke, its head type must be preserved. Equally important is the breed’s posterior. A legacy of its hardscrabble life moving 1,000 pound cattle from meadow to market in the days when a tail could cost a dog its life, the removal of a pup’s stern is a matter of tradition. Under the guidelines established by the NPS, a docked tail would be considered an alteration of historic significance and worth preserving.


Historic preservation requires that distinctive features, as well as noteworthy contruction and craftsmanship, be preserved. In dogs, characteristics such as coat texture, color and markings would be high on the list for conservation. The Pembroke sports a weather resistant jacket with a short, thick undercoat and an outer coat that is longer in length and more coarse. Though the body coat should lie flat, the ruff around the neck, chest and shoulders and the hair on the back of the forelegs, rear of the hindquarters and on the underline are fuller and longer. This is the type of coat described by the breed standard that has long served the breed well in its homeland. It deserves to be preserved. Likewise, preservation of breed-specific colors and markings will ensure that the Pembroke Welsh Corgi remains wholly unique and separate from the colorful Cardigan with it more continental pedigree.



Standards for Rehabilitation

Another Welshman could represent the second approach defined by the NPS. The Welsh Springer Spaniel is a good example of a breed that retains both its original instincts as well as its appearance, but has been enhanced in some way to meet the changing needs of the fancy. Subtle enhancements of coat and color indicate a desire by breeders to ensure its continuation through a “rehabilitation” of sorts. Rehabilitation, as defined by the NPS, acknowledges the need to make alterations owing to a modified function or purpose. However, modifications to distinctive features and materials — as well as to the relationship of individual parts — must be kept to a minimum. 


The Welsh Springer is a living legacy of the red and white Spaniel described by Dr. Johannes Caius in his momentous work, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, published in 1576. The breed remains a protypical land Spaniel today, compactly made and built for work. Its moderately-feathered and weatherproof coat, unique head, and loyal and affectionate nature are its signature features. These essential Spaniel characteristics have remained virtually unchanged since the breed was known as the “Starter” in its native land. Unlike many of the Spaniel breeds that came along later, the Welsh Springer retains both its original character as well as its original appearance. Though the breed was never intended to be glamorous or exaggerated, most modern-day Welsh have a slightly polished appearance when compared with their forebears. 


Breeders of this dog understand that the market for puppies is somewhat limited. In order to ensure the Welsh Springer’s survival, fanciers must compete with several better-known — and more readily available — Spaniel breeds. This would be no easy task, except for the fact that this breed happens to possess all the qualities that define a classic. There’s no need for extremes with this Welsh since the basic parts and pieces haven’t been altered for nearly 500 years. However, with its ancient characteristics firmly preserved, the breed today can afford the luxury of a longer coat with its distinctive contrast of red and white. These enhancements, it should be noted, are mere window dressing on an otherwise historic structure. Should the polish ever wear off, the Welsh Springer’s good bones and charm will endure.



Standards for Reconstruction

In order to ensure the continuation of any dog breed, drastic measures may become necessary. When two World Wars decimated the numbers in many European and British breeds, it became necessary to make judicious outcrosses to dogs of questionable parentage in order to make certain a breed did not die out. Similarly, when disease threatens a breed’s future and the health and welfare of individual animals is at stake, it may become imperative to consider doing the unthinkable. In the language of the NPS, this sort of extreme departure from conventional wisdom would be classified as a “reconstruction.”


Reconstruction may be considered when a property — or a breed of dog — is threatened with vanishing either in pieces or altogether. The NPS advises that when necessary, a contemporary solution may be required to interpret an historic value. In terms of saving a breed from extinction, this approach would be used to “reconstruct” seriously defective genetic material through the introduction of healthy genes from a “non-carrier” dog of another breed. This course of action has been tried in the past, most notably in Dalmatians. In 1981, AKC’s Board of Directors approved a request to register two littermates, a dog and a bitch, that were five generations removed from a Dalmatian-Pointer cross. The outcross was part of a study begun ten years earlier in an effort to eliminate a defect in the metabolism of uric acid. (Too much uric acid in the blood can cause both dermatitis as well as bladder and kidney stones.) The hybrid offspring proved to have normal metabolism of uric acid, along with the kind of ticking associated with the Pointer’s coat. When these dogs were backcrossed to Dalmatians, nearly half of the offspring had normal metabolic function of uric acid, including five dogs with typical Dalmatian spots. These dogs proved that the gene for the defect was not required to achieve the breed’s desired spotting. The study concluded that the distinguished spots and the uric acid defect are associated in the Dalmatian solely due to an abnormally close link of two disparate genes on the same chromosome. It also made it clear that the strict selection for spots had resulted not only in a gene for this breed-specific characteristic, but also for the uric acid defect. Both had become homozygous in the breed. 


Naturally, the decision of the AKC Board was controversial at the time, but it was also prophetic. As the study of canine genetics has advanced, more connections between phenotypic traits and the incidence of disease are being revealed. Serious fanciers are being confronted with scientific information that’s challenging the very foundations upon which our breed clubs have been built. When confronted with the suffering that results from disease, reconstruction through carefully controlled outcrosses may be the only viable alternative.



Standards for Restoration

The NPS allows for a property to be celebrated for a particular time period, not just for the date of its groundbreaking or its current condition. By identifying a specific chapter in a building’s life as being more significant than others, certain features may be modified or removed altogether. This approach to honoring an historic site is referred to as a “restoration” and requires greater vision for a project to succeed. In the dog world, a parallel could be drawn in a breed that is celebrated not only by serious fanciers, but by dog-loving people the world over — a breed like the Cairn Terrier.


In 1939, a dog named Toto burst onto the big screen in a basket carried by the biggest star at MGM Studios, Judy Garland. Toto wasn’t just any dog. He was a perfectly-sized Cairn that could just as easily leap off a closing drawbridge as crawl down a foxhole. He was everythig his breed expected him to be, only he was more. Toto was a star. He was undoubtedly a Terrier (after all he was willing to take on the Wicked Witch of the West), but his scene-stealing appearance in one of history’s most beloved films thrust his breed into the spotlight in a mid-century America sort of way. Cairn Terriers were no longer just an early working breed from the Scottish Highlands. The Cairn Terrier had become a celebrity. 


In the 21st century, “adaptive reuse” has been coined by real estate developers, city planners, architects and politicians as a directive for finding new purposes for places that already exist. Well, dog breeders have been doing much the same thing for years. Whereas a breed may have been originally developed to retrieve ducks, chase gazelles or confront an errant bull, the Golden Retriever, Saluki and Bulldog have each manged to survive through their own particular adaptive reuse: guide dog; coach potato; and symbol of the British Empire respectively. The survival of each breed depends — at least in part — on its having been rebranding for the modern world. There’s really no shame to this. Every breed has its supporters who work (or test) their dogs for function, but not every puppy they produce will find a similar home. In fact, most pups will live out their lives with people who discovered the breed through a film, a televised dog show, or a Google search. Think about it. A social media restoration could just save our breeds from going the way of the St. John’s Water Dog and the Alpine Spaniel.


Despite the doom and gloom attitude of some of today’s fanciers, many people “in dogs” are discovering a renewed devotion to the sport. Today’s preservation breeders have come to realize that our beloved breeds — and the clubs and events that support them — can no longer exist within the status quo. As cultural, economic and technological changes continue to forge a scism between serious dog breeders and everyone else who cares deeply about dogs, the time is nigh to implement a determined course of action that guarantees our breeds will be preserved in perpetuity. So, what kind of preservation breeder are you?

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