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Monday, July 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Charles Krauthammer

Akc Should Keep Its Snout Away From Border Collies

Washington Post Writers Group

"Alas, not many British dukes are bred as closely as their poorest shepherd's dogs. Even fewer dukes are bred for accomplishment." - Donald McCaig, "Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men"

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The dumbing of America has gone far enough. Yes, we have gotten used to falling SAT scores, coming dead last in international math comparisons, high-schoolers who cannot locate the Civil War to the nearest half-century. But we must draw the line somewhere. I say we draw it at dogs.

Last month, the American Kennel Club, the politburo of American dog breeding, decided to turn the world's smartest dog, the border collie, into a moron. Actually, it voted 11-1 to begin proceedings to turn it into a show dog, which will amount to the same thing. A dog bred for 200 years exclusively for smarts will now be bred for looks. Its tail, its coat, its ears, its bite, its size will have to be just so. That its brains will likely turn to mush is of no consequence.

What is the border collie? A breed developed in the border country between England and Scotland for one thing only: its ability to herd sheep, though, if necessary, it can work cattle or hogs or even turkeys. (Our border collie likes to swim out to the middle of a pond and herd ducks.)

It is a creature of uncanny intelligence and a jaw-dropping capacity to communicate with humans, able to herd 300 sheep at a time at a distance of a mile and half from its shepherd. It is, testifies Baxter Black (NPR's "cowboy poet, philosopher and former large-animal veterinarian"), "one of the greatest genetic creations on the face of the earth."

Now it faces genetic ruin. When bred for looks, great swathes of the border collie population, which comes in all shapes and sizes, will be condemned to genetic oblivion.

It would be nice to breed for beauty and brains, but history and genetics teach that the confluence of the two is as rare in dogs as it is in humans. Inbreeding in the pursuit of man-made standards of beauty has reduced other breeds to ruin: In the 1950s, writes Mark Derr in The Atlantic Monthly, show people turned the German shepherd into a weak-hipped animal with a foul temper and bizarre downward-sloping hindquarters. The cocker spaniel lost its ability to hunt. The bulldog and the Boston terrier have been given such exaggerated heads that the females regularly need C-sections to give birth. As for the AKC's Irish setters, says veterinarian Michael W. Fox, "they're so dumb they get lost on the end of their leash."

The genetics behind such sad stories is straightforward. "In genetics, selection for one trait usually comes at the expense of another," explains Jasper Rine, professor of genetics and former director of the Human Genome Center at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs. "The notion that one could achieve a standard conformation for Border Collies and maintain their working qualities is simply foolish." Which is why the border collie people are prepared to sue to keep the AKC's snout from under their tent.

Why should anyone else care? Well, a society that grieves for the accidental demise of the snail darter and the spotted owl that not one in a million Americans has ever seen, should not easily acquiesce to the deliberate destruction of a unique breed of animals whose fate is so intimately entwined with man's. "Border collies: Are they truly smarter than a chimpanzee?" asks Baxter Black. "Can they change course in midair, drag Nell from the tracks and locate missing microfiche? Yes. I believe they can. They are the best of the best."

And for those who find such fascination with dogs self-indulgent sentimentalism, consider this: In a world of rising crime and falling standards, of broken cities and failing schools, the border collie is one of the few things that works. Must we ruin this too? Reduce it to imbecility in the name of prettiness?

In the short interval of calm between our latest capitulation to North Korea and our invasion of Haiti, it is worth pondering this small but telling domestic folly. Face it: Our kids are not going to beat the South Koreans at math for decades. But we can still produce a thinking dog. For now.

(Copyright, 1994, Washington Post Writers Group)

Charles Krauthammer's column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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