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Honor Breeds As They Are: A Reflection on Breed Purpose

There is a post that has been shared often recently speaking to the indigenous temperament of Afghan Hounds and how there are times that the innate pressures of the Afghan's original environment that formed not just structure, but temperament are often forgotten in favor of other traits - perhaps, some might say, superficial traits.

Many of the sighthound breeds are not remotely modern breeds. That is far more emphatically so for the African and Asian sighthound breeds, whose origins stretch back millennia. The thought that we can bottle those breeds and bring them to some perfectly manicured peak so detracts from the storied history of each of those distinct breeds, who are so deeply intertwined with the cultures they developed alongside.

I could speak at length on the privilege within the dog fancy, and have. Quite frankly, I could again speak on hubris of primarily white countries expecting to perfect ancient breeds that were perfectly suited to their purposes in their indigenous countries. These breeds did not and do not need a white savior to reinvent them. And it is at this point where I must acknowledge that I am privileged. As a white woman living the in United States, I can never understand on an intrinsic level the lived experience of the Tuareg people or any other of the people who have coexisted alongside their ancient dog breeds far longer than that United States has existed. I can only do my best, acknowledge my shortcomings, and do better in the future.

What I wish to address, because it isn't a topic I have spoken on, is the pressing, inexorable push toward homogeneity. I wish I could say I disagree the notion that it's human nature to reject those different then themselves, but I have seen enough to believe that xenophobia to be intrinsic to humankind. The tendency is ubiquitous. You see it everywhere, but especially in the dog fancy. 'My breed is the best because X. That breed is awful because Y. That breeder is horrible because I would never make the decision they made.' It's inescapable.

What I have an increasingly low tolerance for are two variants of the same concept. First- 'that breed shouldn't exist because I cannot step outside my own viewpoint to understand the value of that breed's traits'. And second, 'we must change the breed because I do not value intrinsic breed traits and have not been successful in integrating the breed into my personal expectations.'

Are there breeds whose purpose is gone? Certainly, many breeds whose original purpose is extinct. Are there breeds whose purpose has either changed naturally or been intentionally changed after their original purpose died out? Yes.

The question then becomes, does the dog breed's intrinsic nature need to change? Or can those traits remain outside their original environment, provided the stewards of the breed honor the breed as they are and find people who seek breed traits as desirable, not as problems to be conquered?

To answer that question for anyone beyond ourselves, we must do our best to understand that while a trait might not be the best fit for our lifestyle, our preferences, that simply doesn't make someone who desires those traits inferior. We also must have enough introspection to acknowledge that someone may actively desire a trait you despise.

In the current age, are traits like aggression still appropriate? This is a frequently debated question. I feel it's helpful to think of aggression as a spectrum. On one side might be a dog that attacks any dog or human unprovoked (this basically doesn't exist in reality) and on the other side would be a dog that wouldn't chase a rabbit or mouse, would never harm another animal or human even if they were being tortured (this also basically doesn't exist in reality). In the middle are most dog breeds. Herding is modified prey drive. Retrieving is modified prey drive. Prey drive is animal aggression. So yes, there is some level of aggression in most dog breeds. Simultaneously, those dogs might never harm another dog or a human. Thus, thinking of aggression as a spectrum.

You personally may not desire a dog that would stand their ground under attack (again, this is a form of aggression). For myself? A woman who often travels alone at odd hours? That trait is highly valuable.

Beyond aggression, there are so many traits that some may never value that others do. Watchfulness/environmental awareness is a big one of those traits in many of the ancient breeds I work, that many of my clients struggle to understand. Watchfulness is a survival trait - not just in the sense that if some breeds weren't wary, they might get injured by their surroundings. Watchfulness is also a trait of any dog that hunts independently. Again, I travel in all sorts of areas. Having a dog at least as aware of their surroundings as I am is valuable. Do I potentially sacrifice having fancy heads up heeling, at least in certain environments where the dog is more focused on their surroundings than the artificial human desired task? Yes, but that's a trade off I'll make happily.

Contrast to a breed like a Labrador. They are beloved by so many because they are friendly with dogs and people. They will do most things for food. They have a high tolerance for pressure. In return they aren't as aware of where their body is, their food drive can become consuming and obsessive and you have a higher potential for consumed items causing blockages, you have to train neutrality in public. For some people, those potential trade-offs are no concern. For my personal life and preferences, they're deal breakers.

And it's worth noting - no dog breed is the same. To deny this is to misunderstand the each dog breed developed to fill a particular niche, in a particular culture, in a particular environment. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever is different than a Curly Coated Retriever and different yet from a Labrador Retriever. A Chihuahua is different from a Tibetan Spaniel is different from a Maltese. So too are Whippets and Greyhounds developed solely for coursing and/or racing in a particular environment different from a Saluki that developed to course in a different environment who is different from an Azawakh who developed in yet a different environment plus has an additional purpose beyond coursing. All of these environmental and cultural pressures create different breeds with different structure and different temperaments.

The dominant culture in American is one of friendly, forward, joyful, sometimes heedless dogs. That doesn't mean that is the only acceptable culture, it's simply the largest.

As I said earlier in the piece, there is a tendency to homogenize dog breeds. Homogenize the human population. The ideal of the nuclear family was pushed for decades. This deliberate pushing of a single unifying narrative can actually serve to create divides, however. What about those who didn't want to marry? Whose partner didn't look how society deemed they should? Who didn't want kids? Couldn't have kids? Those people were told they were simply wrong for valuing different areas of life, for being different than society deemed acceptable.

What does this have to do with dogs? You can see the same narrative being pushed. I say that I couldn't live with a Lab or a Golden Retriever (both of which are lovely breeds and I enjoy my friends') and people will literally argue with me over my preferences. 'But they're so easy', people will tell me. Here's the thing, that's just not the case for me. I certainly work them on a professional level, but they wouldn't be easy to live with for me. And that's okay. Yet there is this narrative that all dog breeds must fit the very new (within the last few decades) acceptable idea of a dog, even when humans are diverse as sand on a beach. It's the narrative that has changed. Not the diversity of people. Not the diversity of dogs.

Some might ask the question. 'Preferences are fine, but what about dog breeds that can't exist in the modern world?' To which I reply - which dog breeds are those? I've met Filas (a very human aggressive breed) who existed fine in public spaces. They had some restrictions and the owner was aware of their limits. But at no point did I feel unsafe. I've worked with Caucasian Shepherds and again, never felt unsafe as long as I understood the parameters on which they operated.

Do Azawakh need to be changed from how they have existed for thousands of years? I have seen it argued they do. More than anything, I am baffled by this. At the end of the day, people are allowed to breed however they wish, but I truly am confused why I would ever need to alter the intrinsic temperament of the breed, a temperament the makes the breed who they are, when I've never once felt that I needed to compromise on my activities because of the dog breed I choose to have.

In the last two months my dogs have: attended dog shows and stood for exam there, trialed in rally, raced, lure coursed, camped, crossed the Canadian border, come on vacation to the beach, hiked, stayed home alone while I worked, come with me to work, been handled by people other than myself, done unsedated X-rays, flown across the country, boarded, had multiple house guests, moved homes, and this isn't an even remotely comprehensive list for my personal dogs. In the past two months, puppies I have produced have shown, raced, lure coursed, trialed, traveled, flown across the country, boarded, helped me with client dog assessments having never done it before, hiked, seen the vet, had house guests over. My point being - I'm not just lucky to have my dogs be successful in modern American society, puppies I produced that don't live with me have been successful in the modern world too.

To me, the view point that Azawakh must be changed to adapt to the pressures of white society shows a likely lack of understanding of the intrinsic pressure of indigenous dogs' native environments. I think there is this perception that because the environment indigenous dogs grow up in is different, that's it is less comprehensive. To which I argue- which dog is exposed to more sights and experiences? The American dog that grows up in a fenced yard, doesn't leave home until 16-20 weeks (after final vaccinations), who attends a puppy class, is walked a few times a week, and taken to the vet yearly? Or the Azawakh who is born into a camp? A camp that might move, that has camels, goats, cattle, and other stocks around at all times. Where the camp children live alongside the dogs from their early life. Those Azawakh see people and other animals moving around daily. They have strict boundaries and rules and expectations from a time because they must. And in return they fill a role, a genetically fulfilling role they developed to fill for thousands of years. Which actually involves more exposure to stimuli and the world?

I would argue if a dog can survive the hardship of indigenous living, they can adapt to American society with no issue. Because, at their core, this breed must be masters of versatility and adaptability. Yet the idea that West is Best persists, without acknowledgement that while different, the Azawakh's native lives were never easy, nor simple

I live my life as I wish, quite successfully. And have with everything from a Sahelian import to an F7+ generation pedigreed Azawakh. I set appropriate boundaries, guidelines, and enrichment the facilitates their needs being met and I am able to enjoy the breed exactly as they have always existed without feeling the urge to homogenize or change them.

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