Front and Finish: March 1996

I realized recently that many of my columns begin with the gentle remark that "this month's column is a little different." I do that, I'm sure, so none of you will notice how formulaic reviews are, with the summary and the good points and the requisite bad point and the exhortation to buy the book if you're interested in buying the book. I doubt I've fooled many people. But, for a change, this month's column really is different. I'm not going to review a book or a video or even a computer mailing list. I won't be talking about something which can be subscribed to or put on a shelf. Instead, I'm going to review a series of passionate arguments which are familiar to many readers of Front and Finish. For the last year and half, I have been an eager reader of this controversy rather than a participant, which is how I -- a longtime exhibitor of conformation basset hounds -- justify writing it as a "review" in a column which normally considers new books and videos. This month's column is on the border collie wars.

At this point in my column, I normally provide a detailed capsule summary of the work under review. For your edification, then, here's a shorthand form of the general arguments which I have heard AKC obedience people level (in one incarnation or another) against those members of the border collie community who vigorously and consistently opposed AKC recognition and who adamantly and fully reject the conformation showing of border collies:

I am not as interested in the substance of these arguments as I am in the fact that all of them represent an unwillingness to hear what the herding community is genuinely saying. Each in some sense responds to situations which do not actually exist and makes claims which do not, on closer examination, follow logically from the evidence at hand. I'll spend a bit of time on how I think I'm right about this charge of question-begging and muddle-mindedness before proceeding on to the more interesting question of why communication between the herding and the obedience world has broken down so badly.

On The Elitism Charge: Although I have heard obedience people repeatedly accuse the herding community of insisting that border collies must only be used for herding, I have never read a single article (either in print or on the Internet) written by a herder who argued this point. In fact, I have read quite a few things that seem to imply the opposite: for example, both Beverly Lambert and Amanda Milliken (both nationally-known sheepdog trialists) have written of their enjoyment of mushing with their border collies in the winter, and the newsletter of the United States Border Collie Club regularly features articles on border collies in obedience, agility, frisbee, flyball, and therapy. I have, of course, read many, many herders who argue that border collies should not be bred for any purpose other than herding, but this point is completely separate from the other. For some odd reason, these two positions are often elided when the spittle starts to fly. I am certain that there are some herders who believe that border collies who don't herd lead empty and wasted lives, but (if we keep to the useful principle that what people write has some correlation to what they believe) they are certainly not in the majority. In any case, the charge of herding elitism appears largely without foundation.

On The Rights Claim: It seems to me that "rights" talk, appeals to the American tradition of democracy and freedom, and the invoking of the Bill of Rights, is a little peculiar in this context. Certainly nobody has an inalienable "right" to participate in particular canine sports with their dogs, at least in any meaningful political understanding of the term "right." Moreover, it is perfectly appropriate for a community to attempt to govern itself and protect its own interests; such, of course, is precisely what the border collie obedience community is itself trying to accomplish. It also appears contradictory to me to assert on the one hand that people have the right not to be told what to do and on the other to urge people to educate others about the necessity of OFA and CERF for breeding stock. Logically, how can exhorting people not to breed without genetic tests be education, while exhorting them not to show in conformation be tyranny? Both are "telling others what to do," but in the interests of safeguarding the breed; one stance should not generate more resentment than the other.

On The Health Argument: Border collies certainly have their fair share of health-related problems. Yet the fundamental argument made by the herders has never been that AKC recognition will cause health problems in the breed, so the response by obedience handlers that the breed "already" has problems is inappropriate. There is reason to fear that the very limited gene pool which will befall the AKC border collie in two years when the stud books close will lead to new and exotic health problems. But that's really a secondary concern. The primary reason that herders have opposed AKC recognition is the fact that recognition would inevitably lead to the dogs being shown in conformation, from which it would necessarily follow that the dogs would be bred for conformation. The health-related problems which will result from AKC recognition have only served to muddle the argument.

There is no question that promoting responsible breeding, helping with breed rescue, and helping breeders to realize the importance of health clearances on all their breeding stock are worthy goals. Yet logically, these goals are completely separate from the question of AKC recognition. They have unfortunately become entangled with it, creating a false dichotomy. Reading many of the arguments, one is left to assume that only two positions are possible: one can either be an opponent of AKC recognition who cares little about health or rescue issues, or a proponent of AKC recognition who is deeply concerned with health and rescue issues. But this simply isn't true; there is no necessary connection whatsoever between a concern for the physical wellbeing of the border collie and an opinion on AKC recognition. There are supporters of AKC recognition who refuse to obtain health clearances on breeding stock, and there are opposers of AKC recognition who are among the most finicky and responsible of breeders. There are AKC breeds with severe health problems, and there are AKC breeds with virtually no problems at all. There are people active in rescue on both sides of the issue. None of it has anything to do with the price of onions.

On The Appeal to Function: Conformation without doubt is important to working dogs. But unfortunately, AKC show dogs all tend to gravitate toward the same basic structure, regardless of purpose. Working border collies have a general structure similar to that of wolves: they tend toward slightly crooked fronts, shorter upper arms, and cow hocks. But conformation judging tends to reward dogs with parallel fronts, long upper arms, and heavier bone. The best conformation judges do take into account soundness and structure rather than simple breed "type," but the sort of structure they consider is a structure in which the dog looks its best at a flying trot. Border collies are built the way they are because of the extraordinary agility required for them to do their jobs; trotting is a gait rarely necessary in their work. Rewarding the wrong sort of structure, as conformation judging will almost certainly do, is at best silly and at worst dangerous. Herders have not argued that conformation itself is irrelevant; they have merely claimed that a "show dog" understanding of structure has no relevance to the work of their dogs.

But why is it that two groups of people, both of whom appear to love and respect their breed, have such a difficult time communicating with each other? Why do two groups who both seem to care far more about what a dog does than what it looks like find themselves unable to hear what is truly being said and claimed? After a year and a half of reading the border collie wars, I have become convinced of one seemingly odd fact: the herding community has far more in common with conformation culture than it does with the obedience world. The reason for this counter-intuitive claim is simple: herding breeders and conformation breeders are both breeders. Both have a particular vision of what makes their breed unique. Both are working with the assumption that it is their responsibility to bring forth the next generation of animals. Both believe that success comes from something inherent in their dogs rather than from their own talent and hard work. Perhaps most importantly, both view their particular competitive sport as a means toward the end of approaching their vision of the breed. Like a conformation show, a sheepdog trial is not primarily a place for handlers to have fun with their dogs; it is instead a means of selecting the breeding stock for that next generation. Herders and conformation fanciers may well be on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to selection criteria for breeding, but they are indeed on the same spectrum.

Obedience people, by contrast, are part of a different world. Obedience handlers do not participate in obedience trials in order to select a new generation of dogs. In general, serious obedience trainers own one or two dogs which they have purchased. They often have more than one breed. Even if they stick with a single breed, and even if they have a few litters along the way, they are rarely breeders. (There are exceptions, of course; there are several well-known obedience lines of border collies. Yet, by and large, I am confident that the generalization will stand.) Naturally enough, they care greatly about soundness and temperament, because without soundness and temperament they could not pursue their hobbies. But inevitably, perhaps, they are less concerned with the deeper philosophy that underlies a breed than they are with their own goals and with the future of their sport. Neither culture is deeper or more worthy than the other, but it is critical to recognize how profound are these differences. Without this recognition, the herding and obedience communities will continue to misunderstand each other.

What I believe is most important to keep in mind -- and what is at the same time elusive and difficult to grasp -- is the fact that an obedience trial is a performance event, and that conformation shows and sheepdog trials are not. A performance event celebrates and rewards the joy of the human/canine partnership; a competitive event like a conformation show, a field trial, and an ISDS sheepdog trial celebrates and helps to define the dog itself. Thus, a performance event can offer noncompetitive titles as the simple recognition of that partnership, while such recognition would not be found in competitive events designed solely to separate the better from the lesser dogs. AKC itself shows awareness of this important distinction in the very fact that it offers both field trials (which are competitive events through which breeding stock is supposed to be selected) and hunting tests (which award noncompetitive titles based upon a minimum standard of competence). Performance events do not pretend to approach a standard of excellence which defines a breed and provides the basis for the selection of breeding stock, as do both sheepdog trials and conformation shows.

I remember very clearly the first time I realized the disparity between obedience and conformation culture. In the course of conversation on the Internet obedience mailing list, I made an offhand remark to the effect that the goal of conformation showing was making your dog a champion and, on the next level up, beating other dogs in the quest for group placements and Best-In-Show awards. Several serious obedience competitors jumped on me quickly and ruthlessly. That might be my goal, I was told, but only arrogance and elitism would lead someone to assume that this goal was shared by everyone. I was dumbfounded. It was clear to me that they had made some sort of parallel between obedience trials, where lots of different goals are possible, and conformation, where such is simply not the case. Yes, I enjoy showing my dog in breed for the partnership of it, and there have even been times when I've lost when I can honestly say I've had more fun in the ring than times when I've won. But the point of a dog show isn't having fun, and it isn't about setting personal goals. The goal is to beat other dogs and to win. There is nothing in conformation shows akin to the obedience "leg," where one receives credit for a certain agreed-upon minimal standard of performance. It would make no sense whatsoever to serious conformation people if you solemnly informed them that all you wanted to do was show your inferior-looking dog in American-Bred forever and collect pretty ribbons, that you enjoyed the time with your dog and you took pride in those ribbons. If they saw you doing that weekend after weekend, the nasty ones would chortle and the kinder ones would avert their eyes in embarrassment. The assumption of the conformation community is that, if one is serious, one begs, borrows, or steals a decent dog and learns to groom and handle well, or (unfortunately in many breeds) hires a professional to do it. I'm a huge defender of the idea of personal goals and satisfactions (heck, with a basset hound with two legs toward her UD and almost thirty tries at that elusive third leg, I'd better be!), but that sort of philosophy simply has no meaningful parallel in the conformation world. But I couldn't explain that in any coherent way to people who exist solely within the culture of obedience trials.

Months later, I realized that my confusion as to how to respond to these charges was echoed in the discussion between herders and obedience trainers on the subject of the border collie. Obedience handlers would bristle at what they perceived as the elitism of the herders; the herders, they would cry, had no respect for their personal goals. They were unable to understand why the herders refused to accept that obedience was just as worthy a sport as herding, not realizing that herders didn't consider herding truly a "sport" at all. Often they would argue that they, too, were interested in herding, and that AKC's herding program would offer many more people the chance to enjoy the pleasure of herding with their dogs, even if they chose not to devote the time and commitment required to compete in ISDS sheepdog trials. Yet for sheepdog trialists, this argument makes as little sense as the idea of people showing in conformation "for fun" without truly having a shot at winning points and finishing their animals made to me. Neither the conformation nor the herding culture is built around the idea of personal goals, and personal goals are one of the most important foundations of performance sports like obedience. And all this is complicated by the fact that, unlike an ISDS sheepdog trial, an AKC herding trial is indeed a performance event, in which one can earn legs and titles and in which the concept of "for fun" is culturally accepted. Yet for dedicated sheepdog trialists, such a trial is little more than a parody of what they do; they object just as much to the different cultural assumptions as they do to a perceived lowering of standards. This clash of culture makes genuine communication very, very difficult.

Obedience handlers think that they're speaking the same language as the herders, and therein, I think, lies the reason for many of the muddled and mutually contradictory arguments. They assume that sheepdog trials are performance events like obedience trials. It's a reasonable assumption, since in both sheepdog trials and obedience trials dogs work with their handlers to complete particular tasks. But they are not, in fact, alike in their essence. Like the conformation exhibitor, the herder believes that the dog is the critical element of the dog/handler team. Just as the conformation person believes that a mediocre physical specimen will never win Westminster with even the most talented of handlers at the end of the lead, the herder believes that good training and handling cannot (and should not) make an indifferent dog into an Open trial winner. Good handling in both conformation and in herding can certainly make a dog appear to be better than it really is. But border collie herding trials are conceived as a means to determine top dogs, rather than to admire the styles of top handlers. Indeed, this very fact is part of the basis for the herders' concern about the deterioration of herding ability in the dogs, since such a loss cannot be rectified by training and handling. By contrast, there is a widespread belief in obedience that the trainer is at least as important as the dog, and -- in many cases -- more important. It is often said that a great obedience trainer can be successful with any dog, but there is no parallel to that line of thought in either herding or conformation. Both conformation shows and sheepdog trials are showcases for dogs; obedience trials are in a large sense showcases for trainers.

This problem of communication has a stark clarity about it when the question of showing in conformation arises. I have heard some obedience people -- most of whom are largely uninterested in the conformation ring -- argue that showing their working-bred dogs in conformation would actually be a positive thing to do, because it would help prevent the domination of the American border collie conformation ring by conformation-bred Australian and British imports. Refusing to show good herding-line border collies, they claim, will simply turn this threat into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If judges don't see herding border collies, they cannot be expected to know what a herding border collie should look like. I have also heard them contend that conformation is simply one more activity in which they can enjoy being with their dog, and that such showing will do no harm. These are good, pragmatic arguments, but they are unimpressive to the herders because herders are not pragmatists. Instead, both herders and conformation breeders are artists, artists with radically different visions of precisely what it is that constitutes art itself. Herders cannot countenance the idea of a border collie in a conformation show because they intuitively have a deeper grasp of what a dog show is than obedience people. They do not exist within the culture of a performance event, and so they understand that showing a dog in conformation is not something done for fun; it is a means of approaching a vision of what a breed should be. To show a dog in conformation is to accept the fact that the process itself should aid in the quest toward the breed's ideal. It is this that the herders consider an artistic abomination, and it is also this which many pragmatic obedience people find most difficult to comprehend.

Reading an ongoing debate is much more exhausting and difficult than reading a published text. Emotions get in the way, and words constantly pulse and shimmer rather than remain tidily on a printed page. But reading a debate can be more rewarding than reading a book for precisely that reason. So, at the point in my column where I normally find a one-liner to urge you to read or not read what I've been writing about, I will end as I always do. Try reading the border collie wars, regardless of your breed. The questions it addresses -- questions of what makes a breed a breed, how structure relates to function, how AKC culture affects purebred dogs, whether it is truly possible to preserve working ability in show dogs, and many more -- are questions which should be of profound interest to any serious student of dogs. You owe it to yourself and your dogs to check it out.


Article Copyright © 1996 Heather L. Nadelman.
Contact via email


Page last updated March 20, 1997. All material Copyright 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc.
Contact via email