Reflections on Breed Conservation

by Mary Peaslee

If the one constant in life is change, a breeding program dedicated to conservation has a built-in challenge. Some change over time is inevitable, and necessary, as the environment presents new demands. The key to successful conservation rests in identifying which things are integral to the identity of a breed, and need to remain stable, and allowing the rest to adapt and change as needed.

Many traditional working dog breeds are threatened by the changes brought about by urbanization and technology. Historically, English shepherds were preserved by farmers breeding their working dogs. As small farms disappear, and larger operations turn to mechanized support for production, all-purpose farm shepherds — and the people who remember the dogs’ value and use — have become ever harder to find.

Thankfully, there are individuals and groups working to promote the value of working dogs in agriculture. Working stock dogs can save their owners thousands of dollars annually in labor costs while helping to maximize production. In addition, recent trends in livestock management and the rise of community supported agriculture provide new opportunities for all purpose farm dogs to prove their worth.

Working aptitude is not the only quality that defines English Shepherds. As a wise friend once observed, “let’s not miss the other reason so many of us share our lives with English Shepherds… not just because they can do a job, but because we love having them by our side as we do ours. This dog lightens my load because she lightens my heart. In these stressful times that’s got to count for something, too. “ In addition to emphasizing working instincts, breed conservation requires selection for the unique character which defines English Shepherds and has made them treasured companions for generations.

Having identified which qualities need to be preserved, the next issue confronting breeders is to determine how to test and select for those things. There isn’t one “right” way to proceed but there are some practices to be wary of — in particular, those shaped by the “dog fancy” or show ring model, which emphasizes competition, closed stud books, and form over function. English shepherds have first and foremost been useful dogs, with a moderate “natural” form, practical coat, keen mind and bold spirit. For information on conservation breeding principles — as opposed to the breeding model employed by many kennel clubs — see this article by J. Bragg.

Finally, one last issue that those of us who value conservation must confront is the rise in “animal rights” activism. The cynical use of emotional rhetoric and flawed logic by PETA and other organizations to push legislation whose implementation would, quite simply, eliminate breeds such as the English Shepherd, is both despicable and deadly. There are groups with solid research and sound ideas working to address this problem but they lack the celebrity endorsement and financial backing of the more radical animal rights groups. Please consider supporting groups such as the National Animal Interest Alliance — or, at the very least, check out their website for information on the truth behind “mandatory spay – neuter” and breed specific legislation.