Breeding to a Standard - is it really a good thing?

Did anyone watch the PBS documentary the other night on the state of pedigree dogs in the UK?

I did and I was disgusted at what the show ring and inbreeding have done to several breeds.  Most shocking to me was that the breeders are so caught up in the sanctity of breeding to the Standard that they don't realize the damage they are inflicting upon their animals in terms of health and future generations. 

The examples cited on the documentary of structural, facial and skull changes over the years were striking.  I was shocked at the footage of the German Shepherds in the show ring -- their back legs out of portion and misaligned, and a breeder saying what a perfect specimen in conformation to the standard the winning dog was.

When one Cavalier breeder tries to do something about a fatal hereditary condition, she was vilified by the rest of the breeders.  The frosting on the cake was when a dog afflicted by that same condition won top honors in a show.  Makes one wonder how these breeders could be so brainwashed that they think it's perfectly acceptable for a dog with a fatal hereditary condition to be allowed to compete and then go on to sire hundreds of puppies.  What were they thinking?

I have heard this documentary isn't real new, but it was new to me.  Here's a link to it if you're interested in checking it out:

In relation to Shetlands, arguing over fleece length and type is pretty mild stuff.  I'm in favor of maintaining as wide a genetic base as we can, but blindness in certain lines is a serious issue that really should be addressed.  Breeders shouldn't be in the dark when it comes to the genetics producing blind lambs (sorry for the pun there). 

On the Bluefaced Leicester front, there are accusations of crossbreeding in the purebred flock flying just as fast and furious as in the Shetland breed. 

And there seems to be no shortage of UK experts willing to tell us just how bad the North American Shetlands and the Bluefaced Leicester flocks are.  Maybe it's time we all take a step back and try to get a more objective view of what's right in front of our eyes -- real live sheep, with good points and bad points.  We want them to be useful specimens, not just show ring beauties.  (Although my little Landon is the exception of course!  LOL)


  1. Hi Becky,
    I'm with you on disliking the peculiar mindset of breeders who go nuts about breeding whatever humans have decided is the perfect animal. Perhaps it's because the line between hobby and business gets blurred, and people get passionate about their livelihoods; but I think there are more important things to put one's passion into-- never mind the report that skewed decisions about perfection actually harms some animals. As for Shetland fleece type and length... hmmm. If the buyers of fleece love it, what is broken that needs fixing? If this is too much ranting, please just delete. ;-)

  2. Landon is awesome! Quite a stunner! I'll have to check out the documentary. Thanks for sharing that link. This is a big problem in many breeds. People get addicted to winning, and often money is at the root of it all. Some breeds are big business.


  3. I am so glad that I don't breed dogs, and I never will! (I'll stick to rescue). Traits such as longevity, hardiness, good mothering, milkiness, parasite resistance, thrifty lambs, tolerance to heat/ cold, such things are so important in our primitive breed and they cannot be measured in the show ring. We never should have started showing Shetlands if we wanted to keep them the small, unimproved little fiber animals that they are (or were?).
    Our loose Standard & Appendix, used as guidelines as intended, are just perfect to preserve sheep recognizable as Shetlands, and keep enough variation to maintain a large gene pool.
    I've heard the blind lamb problem referred to as "the dirty little secret of Shetlands". Some people need to spend less time "pot stirring" on the internet, and solve their blind lamb problems first!

  4. I have seen that documentary and it is very thought provoking.

    With regards to Shetlands (the only registered animal I have any familiarity with) I think the standard and appendix is a good thing.

    But I think people, with any breed, can destroy the animal with greed and exaggeration of specific points. The Shetland folks are in a big discussion about fleece. But it could have been about the hollow on the face between the cheek and nose, or the "lightness of bone" and one of these single traits could get blown out of proportion. When a single trait is the sole focus than everything else is in danger of suffering. Softness in shetlands should be ever present in the minds of breeders, but not at the expense of other defining features, like bone, hardiness, earset, or mothering ability (to name just a few.)

    I agree that showing animals can often lead to ruining what they were originally praised for. How can a show ring judge place animals according to hardiness, milkiness, good mothering skills, longevity, etc? It's more likely the judge will place animals according to how they look.
    I feel that with Shetlands, the Standard defines what the sheep should look like, and the heritage defines what the sheep should DO. The one should never be subjugated to the other. The ideal Shetland is a fulfillment of both.

    No one animal or flock or breeder will attain this perfection of balance, but it is there to strive for if breeders embrace the Standard and the Historic hardiness as a whole package. I don't feel the one has to negate the other.

    This is quite soap box. Just my opinions. Take with a grain of salt if necessary. :)

  5. Breeding to a rather loosely defined standard(which is what we have with Shetland sheep)isn't the problem. Breeding for SHOW is. As soon as the first Shetlands went under a "commercial/meat" judge the standard started becoming skewed for larger size/bone/fleece weight without regard for type and other true Shetland attributes.

    How many of us have watched judges place animals from largest to smallest and then "quote" the standard as though they actually followed it?

    How many of us have watched animals that were cowhocked or had disqualifying tails being judged for GCH of the show while smaller animals with better type or less fleece went to the back of the line?

    And how many of us have felt the fleeces on the winners who were declared "fine & soft" and cringed.

  6. In Cardigans we follow our standard. We also have clauses that state the health of the dog/breed shall never become a concern (meaning we always do health first and foremost). We don't want our dogs too short legged, or too long backed as it presents problems. Having a dwarf breed is in itself a harrowing ordeal, we don't want to add to it. Everything in moderation.

    I agree breeds like GSDs, Bulldogs and other brachiosaphalic breeds have gone too far. The media does a great job at portraying their downfalls (also thank PETA and HSUS).

    Briards have had the same standard for 400 years and have changed in cosmetics only (length of coat, texture etc) but have remained healthy, structurally able to do their job of guarding and herding.

    I agree, our Shetland Standard is quite vague at best and allows for a lot of opinions. In dogs we have weight ranges, height at shoulder ranges, ratios for skull to muzzle proportions etc, to make sure we are all striving for the same. None of my Cardis are the same, but judged against hte standard seem to fill it quite nicely. Bone appropriate for size, weight appropriate for size, length appropriate for size. Its always best to take each animal and almost 'point card' them. That way there is no issue with the standard. They either meet it or they dont' and are graded accordingly. Not to what else is in the ring with them.

  7. I just got word from Utah State and they are willing to take on my quest for a genetic test to identify the gene causing blind lambs in our Shetlands!!! I am so excited.

  8. Wow, Mim that IS exciting! I wish you all the best in working with Utah State. After having experienced the birth of a blind lamb in our very first Shetland lambing, I think it's one of the few genetic health issues that afflicts our otherwise super hardy breed.

    And thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments in regard to the show ring. Food for thought, that's for sure.

  9. I saw part of that television show and was surprised to learn that (at the time) there were 10,000 bulldogs (of that type) in the UK but they were so inbred it was the equivalent of 50 individual dogs! It made me wonder about our sheep and if we will be seeing more problems over time?

  10. Yes, I remember that part too. For me the most remarkable thing was that the breeders were so blind to what they were actually doing to their animals. I think there is a lesson in humility for all us there. The story of Kim's ewe that was trapped for 3 weeks without food in the bitter cold and not only lived through the ordeal but went on to deliver twins is definitely a testimony to the hardiness of the Shetland breed even today here in NA.


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