I think she may have some coat. (A paean to the FLUFF)

When I first contacted Betty Ann about getting a puppy from her, she had a litter there that had a couple of girls available, but she said “Well, you’re going to have to call me back in a few weeks, because I’m pretty sure they’ve got some coat.” 

When I had attended the CWCCA Nationals in ’05, I had seen that some Cardis were, well, volumized, but I hadn’t really bothered to segregate them into categories. I was too busy trying to translate what I knew about Danes and horses and Sussex Spaniels into these funny little freight trains that were moving around the ring. 

So when she said that, I understood that they had coats that were too long to show easily, no big deal, and waited until a couple of litters later when Clue was born. 

To prepare for Clue, I joined a few Cardigan e-mail lists and read through the archives, back to the beginnings of each list, to figure out what I was getting myself into. And in the discussions I saw something called a Fluff referred to, something that was obviously owned and bred only by Iranian terrorists, an evil creature with the potential to destroy the breed, the Group, and half the population of Maryland.

“Holy cats!” I thought. “What the heck is a Fluff?”




Have you managed to creep back to the computer after being driven under the kitchen table with terror? Yeah, I know. I should warn you next time.

If you’re not scared enough now, get ready for more chills, because coat variants exist in a ton of breeds. We tend not to see them because they’re not in the show ring or on the breed profile pictures, but they’re in backyards (and in breeders’ back bedrooms) all over the place. If you’ve never seen a fluffy Mastiff, you owe it to yourself. The long-coat variant on the Mastiff can be anywhere from a little too full in the coat to “wouldn’t be out of place in a Leonberger ring.” Border collies come in two flavors that are very much like Cardigan coats. Lhasas have a short-coated variety, as do Pekingese. The cardinal example, of course, is the Collie, where the two coat types have been exaggerated in their differences to the point that most people don’t even know that they’re the same breed.

Bonita (or whatever her name will be after she goes to her new home) is a very cool coated Cardi; she’s got hair that stands off her body as well as length. She’ll end up looking more like a Pem fluff, or like a Australian Shepherd, than some of the Cardis that just have a longer ear fringe and a flag tail.

So what the heck is the big deal about these dogs? 

Well… honestly, there isn’t one. 

The Cardigan Welsh Corgi standard asks for a coat of a particular type, specifically does not want a coat like sweet Bonita’s will turn out to be, and that’s that. It’s honestly about as sensible as the fact that Labs have to have a certain coat but Goldens, who are theoretically doing the same job, have to have a different one. Or that Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have to be curly but Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers can’t be. 

There are some very, very scary words used about coated Cardigans (these are taken right from the lists, though of course I would never attach names) – inferior, abnormal, unacceptable; the ones with coats to the standard are normal, correct, useful.

What makes this coat “inferior” and “abnormal”? You’ll hear that the countryside of Wales with the mud and rocks made long-coated dogs useless and therefore long coats are incorrect for the breed. Those people don’t tend to mention that the breed working sheep right at this second in Wales is the Border Collie (who has quite a bit of hair – you can see a beautiful rough BC working sheep in Wales in the now-famous Samsung ad). They also don’t mention that the Welsh Terrier and the Welsh Springer Spaniel carry quite a bit of coat and were extremely useful historically.

Presumably the Welsh people could tolerate some mud on their dogs. 

You’ll hear that coated dogs are completely unsuitable for herding, period – but where do these puppies end up? In “performance” homes, often herding homes. If they’re rank failures at useful herding, why in the world are they (gasp!) herding?

You’ll hear that continuing to breed dogs with recessive genes for coat will have “very obvious consequences” – and they’re right. The very obvious consequences will be some dogs with coat. How much of an apocalypse that represents is up to you as a breeder; the owners of coated Cardigans have not yet been swallowed up in the sucking maw of hair hell, but I suppose the worst could be yet to come.

Then there’s the argument that, OK, maybe dogs with hair could herd in Wales, but the hair is unsuitable for herding at breeder X’s home in Texas or similar. So is the standard supposed to reflect the historic job or the current job? The historic job seems to be what every other aspect of the standard is pinned to, so arguing that nobody should ever breed a coated dog because it gets to be ninety degrees somewhere in the world seems a little silly to me. It’s fine if you say that YOU don’t want to breed a coated dog, but I don’t know that the existence of an equator should limit what other breeders are allowed to do.

So what DOES coat have to do with herding?

The genuinely incorrect and truly non-functional coat would be a coat like the Coton or the Havanese. Such a coat is long, incredibly soft, each hair is very narrow and fine, and the coat is almost straight but completely matte in texture. The cuticles of each hair shaft are rough, not smooth, so the coat does not reflect light. When the rough cuticles rub against each other, the effect is like felting a piece of wool; the tangle becomes tighter and tighter until the hairs form an actual piece of fabric. These coats will not just mat; they will create a spongy and absorbent cord. And these coats will hold on to every bit of detritus and mud and dirt the dog goes through. They have zero ability to shed any kind of moisture and in fact draw it up into the hair; these breeds can get colossal skin problems going because the skin cannot dry out. These are coats designed for their gorgeous looks alone; these breeds (at least in their end result, what we have now) were never designed for anything but perfect companionship and the pleasure of pampering and grooming a dog. 

I’ve never seen a coated Cardigan anywhere close to this kind of coat. They have longer coats, but it’s still a mixture of topcoat and undercoat. It may get a little muddier or wetter (or it may not), but it will dry and it will keep the dog healthy.

What is a “functional” coat? The answer to that is as broad as the entire spectrum of “dogs with jobs.”

Can a functional coat tangle? Absolutely. Brush your dog. Can a functional coat mat? Unquestionably. Brush your dog. Can it be long? Yes. Can it be curly? Yes. Can it be “open” (so you can see some undercoat where the topcoat hair parts)? Of course.

But SURELY it must be true that no dog can actively herd if its coat is just constantly tangling and bringing in all sorts of muck and leaves and junk! No shepherd would EVER tolerate that!

I’ll be happy to concede the point if you’d be willing to go to a herding test and yell “You’re not running a real herding dog! You’re not real shepherds!” at all the people running Pulik or Polish Lowland Sheepdogs.

Where this starts to get really complicated:

It’s easy to make blanket statements, like “We just need to test everybody and breed away from the Fluff gene.” or “There’s no reason that non-fluff-carrying dogs have to be lower quality; you just have to put the effort in–breeders who don’t are just being lazy!”

Well, you all know how I feel about blanket statements.

Here’s the first difficult bit: The show-standard-correct coat is not necessarily the fluff-gene-free coat; the fluff-gene-free coat is not necessarily the show-standard-correct coat.

The Cardigan standard asks for a specific set of qualities; here it is:

Medium length but dense as it is double. Outer hairs slightly harsh in texture; never wiry, curly or silky. Lies relatively smooth and is weather resistant. The insulating undercoat is short, soft and thick. A correct coat has short hair on ears, head, the legs; medium hair on body; and slightly longer, thicker hair in ruff, on the backs of the thighs to form “pants,” and on the underside of the tail. The coat should not be so exaggerated as to appear fluffy. This breed has a shedding coat, and seasonal lack of undercoat should not be too severely penalized, providing the hair is healthy. Trimming is not allowed except to tidy feet and, if desired, remove whiskers. Soft guard hairs, uniform length, wiry, curly, silky, overly short and/or flat coats are not desired. A distinctly long or fluffy coat is an extremely serious fault.

First of all, that first sentence is a grammatical nightmare and really very unclear. As it stands, it could mean “as dense as it is double,” meaning that if it’s only a little bit double it doesn’t have to be very dense, or if it’s very double it should be very dense. It should be something more like “Medium in length, dense, and unquestionably a double coat.” At least I think so. You may disagree.

That being said, we move to the words “harsh” “wiry” “curly” and “silky.” All of them have a range of meanings, which is appropriate; we’re supposed to give judges guidance but if we made every single word mean only one thing we’d have one best dog in each breed and every BIS would be won by the same dog. Then we have a short, thick, insulating undercoat, a range of hair lengths over the body that forms a natural pattern as seen in a lot of primitive dogs and the wolf (as is appropriate; the double coat is the ancient coat), stuff about the fact that the dog can be shown out of coat, trimming, and then some coat types that are undesirable. Notice the bit of contradiction here – when a standard says “undesirable” it usually means “don’t reward it, but it’s not the end of the world,” but just a few lines up it is said that the coat is NEVER wiry, curly, or silky. So which is it? Many a breeder has slipped a very curly dog through that particular loophole, and they should not be penalized for it as long as the wording is that ambiguous. If you’re mad, talk to the Standard Committee. 

Then we get to the part we’re dealing with here: Basically, the coat can’t be “distinctly long” and can’t be “fluffy.” 

With the advent of the genetic test for the Fluff gene, I’ve seen a lot of breeders say “This is a correct coat; he’s not a fluff.” That, my friends, does not necessarily follow. I’ve seen some “distinctly long” coats attached to non-genetically-fluffy dogs; I’ve absolutely seen some coats with thin undercoat (when the dog is IN coat), with no pants, and completely flat. And I’ve seen genetically fluffy dogs that have all the qualities listed above, just with more fringes around the ears and tail. Is there anything in the above wording that forbids ear fringes, as long as the hair ON the ears is short? Is there anything there that forbids a flag tail? They’d be “undesirable,” but the dog would be right there in the ring with the curly backs and the super-short coats. 

In short, what’s in front of you is what you’re supposed to be looking at, and what you’re supposed to be judging. Not the result on a gene test.

The quote above (“All it takes is more effort to do it RIGHT”) is the objection that is usually given when breeders say “I love fluffs; I think fluff carriers have better coat than fluff-free dogs, and they seem to have a lot of strength and bone, I’d like to keep using them.” I’ve not bred enough dogs period, let alone enough fluffs, to say that either way, but I know lots of breeders who have seen LOTS of litters, who see the qualities they like (substance and bone) from birth, long before the hair has grown enough to give the illusion of better bone. And they say the fluffs are often the best in the litter. So I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. And there’s no question that fluff carriers are often the ones with the very best show-standard-correct coats, as they balance between too long and too short.

So what of that objection?

I think it IS true that you don’t necessarily have to have shorter Beagle-type coats on the non-fluff-carriers if you work really hard on it; I think it’s true that you can get bone and substance without coat. The question I’d ask is WHY. Why is coat being made the FIRST thing I’m supposed to eliminate dogs based on, or the first thing I’m supposed to select based on? Because that’s what you’re doing, when you say “You shouldn’t breed fluffs” or “You should think twice before breeding fluff carriers” or “You need to go find the non-fluff-carriers that have the thick correct coat.”

I will say without a single qualm that, all things being equal, breeding a non-fluff coat is preferable. However, all things are virtually never equal. By saying that I just have to put in the effort, you’re in effect saying “Fix coat FIRST, then work on the other stuff.” I disagree. I prefer to work on the other stuff, ALL the other stuff, until I really do have a situation where all things are equal and I can get picky about superficial things. 

So why, then, do we have a longer coat so strongly discouraged in the Cardigan standard?

Because… we do. 

Coats and color are expressions of differentiation between breeds, or an idea of what would have been preferred historically, or the leftover bias of a few breed founders. Founder bias should not be discounted; in the early half of the century (and this idea persists in some breeds and some species well into this day and age) there was a strong feeling that dark, solid-colored animals with short-but-not-so-short-it’s-weird coats represent strength and working ability. Lots of white markings, light color, and hair are signs of not being quite serious about real life. Anyone who has heard a Belgian afficionado talk about those expletive-deleted Shires with their stupid white legs and light hooves and huge feathers, good for nothing but parades and Renaissance Faires, knows what I’m talking about. Ditto for Thoroughbred breeders and trainers; many won’t even consider a horse with chrome and even solid chestnuts are considered risky. This attitude was very much a part of the development of early breed standards, and is still in many of them. Think about how many standards ask for “deep, rich, saturated” colors (whatever those may be) and how few would praise “pale, pastel, washed out” colors. Even when the dogs are allowed to be light, they’re supposed to have dark skin and “pigment” (nose, eyes, pads).

If we accept the idea that coat length is more about bias or cosmetics than about actual usefulness (and I think this is inescapable, given the incredibly useful dogs who are dripping in coat), does that mean such a clause in a standard is invalid?


Breeds are allowed to decide which colors, coat types, eye colors, nose colors, etc. are to be required in the standard. They’re allowed to be just that superficial. They are allowed to say that there are certain things that are justified purely through circular reasoning. Why can Labradors not have white markings? Because they’re Labradors. Why are they Labradors? Because they do not have white markings. There are some superficial traits that are there purely and simply to define the breed via its appearance. Those traits that most clearly define the breed on appearance alone are usually the ones that are the biggest faults, in fact. You can bring a Golden in the ring that has a butt three inches higher than its shoulders and back legs that are perfectly vertical posts as long as it’s not black. 

Think about it this way. There’s a game called Monopoly that involves moving around a board in a circle, collecting certain points in the form of fake dollars, and the player who has the most points at the end wins. That’s the “function” of the Monopoly game. Monopoly also has some extremely superficial traits, like the fact that two of its board spaces are named “Park Place” and “Boardwalk” and there is another set of spaces called “Railroads.” These things add very little to the function of the game; they are just more spaces where you can collect or be deducted of points. 

If I create a board game that asks players to move around a board in a circle and collect money, and there are certain ways that money can be added to or deducted from my total, I’ve just about completely replicated the function of Monopoly. And Parker Brothers or whoever owns Monopoly right now would not care a bit. 

If, however, I created a game called “Pomopaly,” in which players had to move across a grid instead of around a circle, and I named grid pieces “Park Place” and “Boardwalk” and had others called “Railroads,” and I had players put “hotels” on their grid pieces, Parker Brothers would be all over me and I’d be sued immediately. 

That’s because when you think of Monopoly and want to play Monopoly and think about how fun Monopoly is, your brain has captured those feelings in association with those very superficial traits, NOT with the function of the game. Those superficial traits are actually more intimately tied in with that game than the functional traits are.

That’s why, although I think that coated Cardigans, fluffy Mastiffs, short-coated Lhasas, and so on are perfectly lovely and NOT abnormal or inferior, I would not fight to have those requirements removed from those standards. It is not only OK, it’s absolutely to be expected that there will be a set of relatively meaningless superficial traits associated with a breed.

Where I would fight, and fight hard, is with someone who says that breeders shouldn’t be allowed to use dogs with meaningless superficial traits in their breeding programs, or should be penalized if they produce some dogs with these meaningless traits. 

There is a whole group of people who say “Well, I’d rather have the fluff thing than an incorrect topline or ugly head or cowhocks.” And that’s a perfectly good and true statement. It IS better to have longer coat than unsound bodies. But that still says that the longer coat is icky, just a little less icky than a wonky bite. 

It’s much more true to the actual fact of coated versus noncoated dogs to say “The only place coat matters is in the show ring, and that’s where the judgment for or against it should stay.” I would personally  be rather offended if a breeder judge called me a poor breeder (of ANY breed) because I allowed a dog with superficial faults to reproduce. I’d also be VERY unhappy with that same judge if he or she awarded me or anyone else a ribbon for a dog that displays a major superficial fault (unless everything else in the ring is so bad that even with my “serious” or “extremely serious” fault my dog is still the best in the ring).

The judge’s job is to apply the standard to each dog in each ring; my job is to create a population of dogs that is as close to the standard as possible. In other words, the judge’s job is to focus on ONE DOG; my job is to focus on my BREEDING PROGRAM. If I find that using a few dogs with superficial faults brings the quality of my entire population up, or (conversely) if I found that never using dogs with superficial faults brought the quality of my population down, then I’m doing no more than my job if I use them. 

Will I ever actually breed a fluff? I haven’t the slightest. I think Bonita is the bees knees, but she’s not going to be mine and, even if she were, she’d have to demonstrate structure, temperament, soundness, and working ability. Right now she’s just an adorable ball of poofiness. Will I get mad at you if you don’t breed a fluff, or if you’ve made the decision to breed away from them? Never. I am much more of a lumper than a splitter; I think you have the right to do whatever it is you feel is most correct. The only thing I’m serious about is defending the right of good, careful breeders to keep the label of good, careful breeders if they use dogs that are coated. I think that the reality of the situation demands that they be respected, as long as they care about an overall level of quality in their breeding program. Using coated dogs should never be a litmus test, because it’s based on wholly superficial things. Save your ire and spleen for people doing genuinely wrong things; there are plenty of those to go around.


9 thoughts on “I think she may have some coat. (A paean to the FLUFF)

  1. Wow, that fluff sure is frightening looking! I had to shield my childrens’ delicate eyes from the horror.

    PS I’m slowly composing my “introduction to a breeder” letter to you.

    PPS Can you write a post about flea/tick/misquito preventative for the summer months?

  2. Well, now. We’ve bred a fluff or three in our time for sure. Bred as in “created” that is. But I don’t keep fluffs myself at this point for a very specific reason. We live on 5 acres which includes not only mud but volumes of stickers. Over the years I went from Shelties to Aussies to Pems to Cardis (with a few other side jaunts) and one of the reasons I have Cardis now is for the non-matting coat. I ended up shaving my old Aussie girls in the summer and don’t want to deal with that kind of coat any more. If I lived in town and had more time it would be another story. It could be that the Welsh farmers felt the same way.

    I’ve never witnessed Cardigan people getting worked up about fluffs out here on the left coast like you must have back there on the right though. If they are otherwise good dogs they are groomed and finished.

    Mars coat king.

  3. I have a fluff, he has a coat very much like a border collie. The only place we have to watch a bit for matting is behind his ears, the fluffy cottony hair. But even that is minimal. As for burrs and the like, Monday night we went to the field. Magic the fluff came home with 2 burrs caught in his britches. Peace with a correct coat had none that stuck. Mud slides off his coat as easily as hers, but snow, wet sticky snow doesn’t. That is probably the only time I find his coat to be a disadvantage. He does get wet tummy snowballs in the wrong kind of snow.
    Now, I also have the curl issue, and let me tell you, I honestly prefer the fluff coat to the curly one. Right now I have a lovely boy from my litter who is very nicely built, but he has a medium coat with the waves. While I agree its not the best, I do think that structure and movement should be looked at with more than coat anyways. Or maybe I wish that because I have coat issues?

  4. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with some breeders. If a dog can’t win in the ring, it’s considered a SIN to ever breed it. Even if we’re talking about a recessive-gene cosmetic fault in a dog that’s otherwise fantastic.

    It’s dangerously close to the logic of breeding for ‘winning type’ instead of the actual breed standard.

  5. I’m visiting from smooth collie land (had them since ’88). I’m a little confused about correct/fluffy in cardigans. In collie land it’s either smooth or rough and there’s no mistaking the two. I do think that being rough factored influences a smooth coat much like being tri-factored influences a sable coat – from my experience rough factored tend to have plusher, thicker coats and pure-for-smooths tend to have flatter, slick coats. I know there are other modifying factors. In the US, the pure-for-smooth still have a definite ruff (3″ long neck fur) but from photos, I’ve seen some smooth collies in Europe with such short, flat coat that they have lost the ruff completely.

    A neighbor has a fluffy Pembroke – in Mr. Big’s case, fluffy is an understatement – he has a coat that would make any rough collie show breeder envious (i.e. strong, straight outer coat, tons of under coat). Mr. Big is a robust guy to start with but the addition of all that fur makes him look enormous compared with a regular Pembroke. Untrimmed there is no daylight under him and his coat is so full, he’s as wide as tall. In Mr. Big’s case being a fluffy has no advantages (well except if an Ice Age hits, he’s golden – that dog has some serious insulation). His owners take him in to get a crew cut (1″ all over) every so often so that he can go out and do stuff.

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