Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoughts on IFP and the Role of Performance Homes

More ruminations on sport dogs and pound puppies and Fancy Performance Puppies...

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to approach dog sports: (1) You choose the dog first, and you get into sports based on what the dog enjoys and does well; or (2) You choose the sport first, and you pick a dog who's likely to be successful in that sport. I don't think either version is necessarily better or worse, just different. Many homes cycle back and forth between the two.

Category #2 is further complicated by how you choose to define "successful," but I'll get more into that later.

For the entirety of Dog Mob's sport career (which is a whole, what, one year and some change? Not exactly lifelong veterans here...), I've been in Category #1.

I got Pongu as a clueless newbie with no real aspirations beyond "adopt a pound dog and give him a nice home." I didn't even know what dog sports were. Then my puppy turned out to be insane and I got into sports because I read in a bunch of dog books that sports were a good thing to do for building up your fearful dog's confidence, and now, several years later, we're firmly ensconced in Crazy Dog Person Land because that's how we do things around here.

Crookytail was kind of an in-between case in the sense that I picked him out of the shelter because I had a vague notion that he might work out as a sport prospect, but HAA that didn't happen. He's still here, though, despite his complete inability to do anything beyond muddle through novice titles with crappy scores. And when I chose him I didn't have any clear idea of which sports I might want to do with him, and honestly the real reasons he stayed were founded on his sweet personality and my reluctance to go through another foster parting as rough as Stella's had been, not any actual demonstrated sport potential, so I classify Crooky as Category #1 too.

Imaginary Future Puppy will be in Category #2. I've been around a little bit longer, I've developed my skills a little bit more, and I now have a very concrete list of goals that, at least in IPO, are unlikely to be met by a pound puppy.

This is a fairly common trajectory in dog sports, in its broad outlines if not its specifics. A lot of people start out doing sports just for fun with the family dog, and while a lot of people stay there, a significant chunk of them get bitten by the bug and start looking a more competitive dog the next time around. Probably the best-known example is agility people switching from other breeds to Border Collies, but it happens in all the sports, and the extent to which it happens is directly correlated to the competitiveness of the venue. People pick dogs that they think will win, and how you define "success" has a major influence on the dog you choose. But that, again, is a subject for another post.

What I want to get into this time around is the role of performance homes in dogdom.

There are not that many performance homes in the country. There just aren't. HSUS estimates that there are about 78 million owned dogs in the U.S., and the most persuasive estimate I've seen is that there are about 50,000 homes actively participating in all dog sports across the country. (This is murky and hard to guess, because there are a ton of different registering organizations, a lot of overlap in registrations -- a person is likely to be registered in, say, CPE agility, AKC agility, CDSP obedience, and U-FLI flyball all at the same time, but it's still just one home -- and difficulties in definitions; does a person who has taken two agility classes with their dog, but never competed in a trial, count as a "sport home"?)

If you are in that tiny fraction of performance homes, then where you choose to get your dog can have repercussions that extend beyond your own home and your own dog. It doesn't have to. But it can.

If you choose to adopt a shelter or rescue dog, you may become an Inspiring Example of how pound puppies can succeed in performance arenas, debunking the myth that only purebreds can win fancy titles and ribbons. Just by doing your own thing with your own dog, you may encourage other owners of pound puppies to give sports a try. You may be cited by the shelter or rescue organization as encouragement for other people to adopt dogs from that group, because look, its dogs are awesome!! And you may help other pet owners find a way to deal with their newly adopted pound puppy's unexpectedly high energy and athleticism. All good things.

If you choose to purchase a responsibly bred performance purebred, however, it also has the potential to do good things.

It's no secret that I am not the world's biggest fan of the conformation ring or what it's done to dogs. The first breed I seriously looked into getting was the German Shepherd, and there is nothing quite like the modern American GSD to give you a bleak view of the value of the conformation ring. If there is any actual benefit to breeding dogs for conformation showing instead of functional structure, working instinct, and intelligence, it has entirely escaped me. I've seen way too many pedigrees where all the dogs had Ch. prefixes but not so much as a CGC on the other end, and frankly that is depressing.

However, conformation breeders HUGELY outweigh performance and dual-purpose show/performance breeders in this country, and one of the big reasons for that is the lack of good working homes to take those puppies. Conformation breeders can sell all their non-show prospects to pet homes. Working breeders, depending on the breed and the specific litter, often cannot. A serious field-bred Lab or working Belgian would be a complete disaster in the average two-kids-and-white-picket-fence suburban pet home.

This difference in demand is why a pet-quality German Shepherd puppy from top show lines often costs $2500-3500, while a performance-quality German Shepherd puppy from top working lines can be had for $1500 or less. But it's that working line, in my opinion, that really deserves to be preserved as what that breed is supposed to be. And it is largely up to performance homes to support the breeders who are striving to do that.

In smaller breeds, like the Belgian Tervuren, performance homes are even more critical. These are the homes that are able and willing to train and title their dogs to high levels, and thereby prove the merits of potential breeding prospects for the preservation of the breed. The working Belgian Tervuren population in the U.S. is tiny -- fewer than 100 such dogs are born each year, and there's a lot of overlap in their pedigrees. Expanding the gene pool with proven, breedable working dogs is key to keeping that breed healthy.

It's possible to obtain an excellent sport prospect from either of these sources, of course. And whether you choose to adopt a performance pup from a shelter or rescue or buy one from an ethical breeder whose vision you support, there is no wrong answer. But either choice has the potential to shape the bigger world of dogdom in slightly different ways.

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