Open thread: Breeder/buyer

Now that I’ve gotten all bossy about both sides of the story, I’d love to know what you’ve experienced, both good and bad, and how you handled it or wish it had been handled.

I’ll start…

First, as a buyer: I’ve bought Danes from more than one breeder, but only one has stayed “my breeder” in my head. And yes, you know who you are :). She has been known to work a full shift and then drive hours down to my house to hold my hand during a bad whelping, and she will tell me if a dog I’m considering has the crappiest rear she’s ever seen and I need to stop getting seduced by his head. 

I have had a significantly bad experience with someone else (breed and timeline not to be revealed). I was sold a dog who ended up having some major temperament problems and, when I approached her, she said “Oh, yeah, that sounds like his dad. Your puppy is actually here because his dad ripped up a fence and raped the bitch on the other side. She ended up needing a transfusion because he hurt her so much, but don’tchaknow she actually ended up with a nice litter out of it.” 

That was delivered with a perfectly straight face; there was not a hint of guilt or worry in her voice. 

Thankfully, she did take the dog back, and I was able to walk away significantly lighter in pocket but far happier. 

As a breeder: I’ve alluded to my real nightmare one, which was with a co-owner (by the way, we did at least get the puppies registered, but it was MONTHS and only with both of us consulting lawyers; it was AWFUL). My worst episode of being completely befuddled was this one:

It was coming down to the wire on a litter; they were two days short of eight weeks. I had every buyer scheduled in a row over the next few days, every puppy was assigned, everybody set to go. 

Then I got a letter in the mail…

“Dear Joanna: I am so sorry to say that I cannot buy Princess from you at this time. I did not tell you when we visited and talked that I have cancer. I believed that it wouldn’t affect my ability to buy the puppy, but recently my Spirit Guides have told me that this is a poor time to get a dog.” 

I think my mouth hung open for about five minutes. 

So what about you? Tell tell!

Breeder Etiquette

(Added last: So for some reason this text looks GIGANTIC in my RSS reader but normal size on my browser. If it’s doing the same to you, just go to the actual blog and it should look normal. I’ll fight with the formatting after I get some sleep.)

I promised a breeder etiquette post weeks ago, but I have been putting it off because I didn’t want to get people mad at me. But I can’t get it out of my head, which usually means that I NEED to write it, so I am doing so. It’s taken me like five days to write, which is why I haven’t updated in so long.

Let me begin by saying that my personal convictions are the result not of having done everything right, but of incredible difficulty and heartbreak. My last Dane litter was such a nightmare (not with the buyers, with the other owner involved) that I still, seriously, have the cold shakes about it. Because of my complete inability to make things work with another person, I feel that I let my puppy buyers down and I know that I was unable to stop one dog from going into a place that I am fairly sure was not the best home for it. 

I’ve also put a couple of puppies into homes that turned out not to be suitable for that dog, and those lessons are reflected here as well.

So trust me, what is below is not “Here’s how I do things that are so awesome,” it’s “Here are the things I totally whiffed and if possible I’d like to not have anyone go through what I did.”

And, of course, I’ve been a puppy buyer more than a few times. I know what it feels like to have your whole world focused on whether a website was updated that day or not.

So here goes. As always, this is my opinion only; feedback is always welcome.

1. Please be free and open with information.

a) Return phone calls and e-mails, at least with a boilerplate response. 

It’s super easy to get completely snowed under with puppy inquiries. You can spend hours a day returning phone calls and e-mails, which is par for the course as the puppies get older but when the puppies are tiny babies you just CAN’T spend all that time away from them. But puppy inquirers feel bereft or ignored or take it very personally when an e-mail or call isn’t returned.

After several litters of people getting ticked at me, I set up my answering machine to say “Hello, you’ve reached… If this is a puppy inquiry, please visit us at our website, which is …. and read through our information. If after that you’re interested in getting to know us better, please send us an e-mail and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

I also set up four or five e-mails that I could copy and paste and send to inquiries with very minimal changes. One was “I am so sorry, but we are not taking any puppy inquiries at this time; thank you so much for your time and good luck in your search for the perfect puppy.” Those went to the inquiries that I had a bad feeling about. The second was similar, but listed half-a-dozen breeder names and numbers at the bottom and advised the buyer to contact one of these breeders. That one went to people who sounded good but I really just didn’t have a puppy for. The third was a “Thank you for your inquiry; let me tell you more about the litter” information dump. It was very long, introduced the dogs, talked about what kind of person is a good owner for these puppies, told about my expectations for buyers, and included as an attachment a copy of my questionnaire. The last one was a “So you want to take the next step” e-mail that went to people who had submitted the questionnaire and who had passed my initial screening; it had my contract attached and talked about the specifics of the contract requirements. 

I also sent out a CD to every legitimate inquirer. I HIGHLY recommend this. My first litter I printed out a 15-page packet with pictures, pedigrees, and all kinds of information. It cost about $5 each and HOURS to print out. If I burn a CD, I can put a hundred times as much on it – I put in links to every good web article I can find, I put in tons of training information, health, vaccines, you name it. I’ll add historical and informational pictures and, as my digital cameras have gotten better in quality, more and more puppy pictures with each litter. It ends up costing me about $.75 for each CD, including printing a nice label for it, and I don’t feel any worry about not having enough or about spending so much money that I can’t just give them away. I’ve even brought some (very general ones, with no specific breeding mentioned but all the useful info) to shows and handed them out instead of business cards when people inquire about puppies.

Remember that even though it’s one of many to you, it’s the ONLY one for them. I completely suck at this and I really need a kick in the pants every few days to remember to post new pictures (even though to me they just look like gerbils and are not interesting appearance-wise at ALL yet), to update the website, to gush over each litter like it’s my first. 

b) Don’t set people up to fail

There is a bad thing that happens in a lot of breeders’ minds where after a while there’s almost an “us versus them” feeling about prospective buyers. You set up situations or questions that can only be navigated or answered correctly if the buyer comes in with a ton of “inside information.”

The main idea here is that there are a set of correct answers to a group of accepted questions, and you immediately reject any puppy buyers who don’t answer every question correctly. Questionnaires are a GREAT tool; I would never want anyone to think that I’m criticizing the idea of a questionnaire. What I’m talking about is the difference between “Do you have elderly or disabled living in your home?” and “What are your feelings on putting a puppy in a crate?”

The one is designed to help the breeder put the right puppy in the home; that’s a critical fact for the breeder to know. The second is purely a way of hoping that the owner completely hangs himself. An “insider” will answer using the boilerplate that we all “know” – it’s an excellent way to housetrain, that it’s not cruel, etc. Most uneducated or outsider puppy inquirers will react more viscerally, and will say “Oh, wow, that’s horrible. I would never do that.”

And then you say “Ha ha ha ha, you idiot” and chuck the application.

I understand this, believe me; I’ve felt it myself. But it’s not either healthy or fair. And I am not convinced that it WORKS. Asking questions like how they feel about crating, or who the dog will be taken care of by (the only “correct” answer being both adults in the house) and then rejecting applications based on the uneducated answer, diagnoses nothing more than whether the buyer has read enough websites that they know the politically correct breeder-approved answers to the questions. 

The two placements that I’ve done that have failed the most spectacularly had exactly “correct” answers to every single question of that type on my questionnaire; one, I later found out, had given those same perfect answers to two other breeders and was busy collecting dogs. The other had given me every right answer but had zero intention of actually acting in the way they had indicated.

The ones that I am most proud of were pretty universally owners who were brand-new and who came into the transaction completely clueless but eager to do it right. 

So I’d ask breeders to be aware of the difference between Internet research and true intentions. Don’t speak Dog and then criticize people who don’t know it yet. 

Some questions are absolutely essential to ask. Some only provide good information about how much the buyer does or does not know. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to figure out the person’s intention for the dog. I’m just saying that if the answers are wrong, provide tools and reconsider. If they say they might like to breed the dog, there are hundreds and hundreds of good articles on exactly what breeding entails. Heck, invite them over so they can see what’s involved; meet them at a show so they can see what that is. If they strike you as mentor-able, why not sell them a show puppy? If they (as most will) say wow, not in a million years would I ever want to do this, they’re a lot less likely to sneak off and breed the dog than someone who wrote down the right answer but thinks that you are keeping some kind of secret about how much money you can really make on puppies.

c) Explain the weird stuff

Good breeders insist on doing certain things that seem CRAZY, either super-hyper-controlling or actually victimizing of the buyer. We say “You are going to give me a check for an amount that could buy a used car, but I’m going to name it and I’m going to control it and I’m going to microchip it in MY name and I’m going to prevent you from breeding it and I’m going to visit your home to check on it.” 

It’s no wonder that people start to feel like breeders are out to rip them off or pry in a completely unnecessary way into their lives. It can feel like the breeder is trying to suck all the fun and benefit out of owning a puppy. Can’t NAME it? Isn’t that a little nuts?

I think as breeders we owe them a clear and reasonable explanation, and a chance to fully understand what’s going to happen LONG before they send a deposit or pick up a puppy. If you are honest about the fact that it IS going to sound weird, and here’s why we do it, you’ll get people on board and not make them try to figure out how they can wrest the most control over the dog away from you.

2) Please socialize the litter until they leave for homes. If you are going to keep the puppy beyond eight weeks, socialization (COMPLETE and SOLO socialization) becomes your responsibility.

This is not an option, and far too many breeders treat it like it is.

Until eight weeks, group socialization within the litter is perfectly acceptable. You MUST provide lots and lots of different people, different surfaces, textures, heights, games, toys, and so on. But you can do it within the group, where each puppy is learning both from the environment and from the other puppies.

Within the group is also where the puppy learns the fundamentals of bite inhibition, so keeping him or her within the litter until as close to 56 days is always the best idea. 

Where a heck of a lot of breeders fall off the job and put the future of the puppies in real danger is that they do not switch from a litter socialization to solo socialization from eight to twelve weeks.

The socialization window closes at 12 weeks. From eight to twelve weeks is when the puppy learns what things are happy, friendly, normal, and fun; anything else gets a big “Danger!” sign on it. That means every noise, texture, sight, smell, person, animal, event, and challenge is going to be perceived as a possible threat if they do not encounter it before twelve weeks.

The way you set the puppy up for success in life, and create a dog who approaches every challenge with bright optimism, assumes every person is wonderful, and communicates well with every dog, is to expose him or her SOLO to everything the dog can reasonably expect to encounter. And it MUST be done before 12 weeks.

Doing this correctly as a new puppy owner is practically a full-time job. Every single day you have to think “Who can I take this dog to see; where can we go; what smells can we smell; what textures can I put under her feet.”

The only place puppy buyers shouldn’t be taking puppies is high-dog-traffic areas like the floor at the vet’s office, dog parks, and pet supply stores (those should wait until 12 weeks if you’re using Recombitek vaccines – which I strongly recommend – or 14 weeks if you are using normal vaccines). If you don’t know all the dogs on your street, don’t even put her down on the sidewalk. Carry her into houses and schools and so on. But she MUST get out of your home.

So don’t go to the dog beach, but DO go to your aunt and uncle’s beach. Don’t go to the dog park, but DO go to puppy kindergarten or puppy playgroup as long as the instructor requires that every puppy begin vaccines before attending. DO take walks in the woods, in fields, on college quads. DO go to schools, preschools, retirement homes, churches, banks, restaurants, and every other venue you can think of. DO make sure your puppy has met multiple people of every age (dogs cannot generalize, so a two-year-old is a VERY different creature from a seven-year-old and also very different from a teenager), gender, clothing style, facial hair, ethnic group, etc. Seek out sounds – garbage trucks, semis, golf carts, airplanes. Animals – sheep, goats, cows, horses, chickens, geese. Again, remember that dogs cannot generalize. Meeting friendly chickens does not mean that ducks are also safe; ducks are aliens. You need to go after every single species you can find.

So my strong message to breeders: If you are keeping a puppy until ten weeks, you’ve left the owner just two weeks to get all that done. Is that reasonable to expect? Is it even physically possible? I’d say no, so you’d better be busting your hump to socialize the puppies from eight to ten weeks.

And if you’ve kept a puppy until twelve weeks, as so many do, that puppy is completely shaped by what you have done. You are delivering a handicapped puppy to its new owners if you have not undertaken a complete – and again I capitalize SOLO – socialization of that puppy. That dog may have been able to grow up perfectly well and happy in your home, where it would never encounter anything other than what it has already seen, heard, smelled, and felt before it turned three months old. But if you sell it and it goes to a new home and the doorbell sounds different or the recycling truck is at a different pitch, or the new home has sheep and horses and yours didn’t, that puppy is substantially less able to react to those challenges in optimistic, confident ways. It’s just not fair to ask the new owners to overcome that kind of a deficit. 

Socialization issues are REAL, they are quantifiable, they are often tragic. They are often the result of well-meaning breeders and owners who are worried about disease exposure. But, as one researcher I read said (very wisely), “Parvo kills in a few days, but the behavioral issues caused by lack of socialization will kill them in a few years.” Dead is dead; there’s no “win” there. So you be as cautious as you possibly can be, you avoid dog-trafficked areas, you keep the dog-to-dog contact limited to friendly, vaccinated dogs at home or in a puppy K. And you push the dog socialization VERY hard once the 14-week shots have been given. You do NOT keep the puppy safe and concealed in the living room with his siblings and mom until that point, unless you want to risk some very nasty behavioral problems, problems that you are passing along to that puppy buyer.

3) Please remember that you’re selling a dog, which is a piece of property. Your responsibility as a breeder is to provide a puppy that has the best chance to succeed in THEIR house, not yours.

This goes back to socialization as well, but it touches on the big-picture ideas of ownership and your responsibility versus the owner’s. Breeders, where they get “impolite” about this (since this is supposed to be about etiquette), tend to do so at either end of the spectrum. Either they do not support the owners enough or they become “helicopter parents” (heck, I know a few who are more like Black Hawks!) that try to micromanage every aspect of the puppy’s life.

None of us really like being reminded that they’re just property, because it seems to contradict what we feel about our dogs, but if we move the dogs in our homes out of the realm of property and into the realm of anything else – companion, child, long-term tenant – we lose the ability to do much of the good we do as breeders. You don’t have the right to tell your tenant who to have kids with; you don’t have the right to expect that your companion will sleep in a cage at night, or pick up that duck and bring it back to you. 

The contracts we ask puppy buyers to sign are good and necessary and mine is ridiculously long and scary, but we have to realize that all the contract gives us is some (slim, usually) grounds on which to sue someone. Are you going to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a lawyer and probably fail to win because a puppy buyer disobeyed you? I think most of us would if the dog was actually in danger, but would you do it if the dog was being fed the wrong thing? To a great extent, once they leave our homes they leave anything but an illusion of our control over them.

When it comes to selling (especially pet) puppies, think carefully about what you can succeed at; figure out where you’re willing to fail.

This is up to each breeder and there’s no one right answer. For me, personally, I am completely unwilling to fail at providing a puppy who has the structure to live a normal life, go up and down stairs, run after kids, chase sheep and cattle. It also has to have some personality or behavioral basics that will enable the socialization efforts of the new owners to work well. I am completely willing to crash, burn, and explode in noisy pieces when it comes to color, coat, whether the tail curls. I am somewhat willing to fail when it comes to herding instinct and bone/substance and head type. 

So my decisions on breeding will focus on making sure that I come the closest to reliably succeeding (in EVERY puppy, not just the show puppies) on those things that I feel I must provide as a “product.” I will place high but not highest priority on the things I want to be there.

And I try to realize that the raw product (the eight-week-old puppy) has a higher chance of failing in the home if I’ve made success difficult to reach. Hence the structure that can (hopefully) withstand stairs, or the temperament that is as receptive to training as I can make it. 

Now, trust me when I say that I do my absolute best to scare new puppy owners to DEATH. We have a 60-minute “Come to Jesus” conversation over my contract and my recommendations before I bring the puppy out into the dining room. But the fact is that once they close the door and walk away, it is their puppy, not mine. 

4) Please keep the money where it belongs

If you sit at a table with a bunch of breeders, they will discuss dogs with joy and glee and respect; eyes light up and hands start waving around. They will discuss other breeders with more or less focus on whether they think that breeder is succeeding where they’ve decided a breeder should succeed, or they’ll tell stories of road trips or show mishaps or that show puppy that got away. They can get catty and gossipy, but it stays reasonable.

Where blood pressures go through the roof and horrible names are called and dire warnings about EVER associating with that person start to come out is where a breeder has lost even one dollar, one puppy, one litter, to another person “unfairly.”

The stories about this are rampant. “I put her on as a co-owner and the next thing I know she’s in New Brunswick and I never saw that dog again.” “I told him he could have a puppy from that litter and he came in and took my pick boy, just walked away and now look, that dog’s in the top 20 and is my name on it? Nooooo.” “Yeah, she said that I could take Pepper as a replacement for that dog who failed his hips… then Pepper started winning. She shows up at my house and says that by rights Pepper’s litter should be half hers, but she’ll be ‘nice’ and just take two pick puppies back!”

My personal story is one that I don’t want to talk about in specifics because the dog and the owners are still alive, but it ended with someone standing on my lawn screaming at me, and then flatly refusing to sign litter registration papers. I believe that what I did that caused so much ire in that situation was not only right, it was the ONLY right thing to do, but it caused a storm of fury and retribution that ended up hurting a ton of people and made me feel horrible for months afterward. 

All these have led me to the following conclusion:

a) Co-owns are the devil. 

I should clarify, of course. Co-owns that are a “legal” (at least according to the vast file cabinet that is the AKC) reflection of an existing partnership are totally appropriate. I will co-own Bronte with Kate because both of us will tell you that she is a dog with two moms. I also co-owned a bunch of prior dogs with another breeder because I felt it reflected the real situation; she was supporting me a great deal with help and advice and travel and so on, and putting her name on their papers was a sign that I knew who the real brains of the operation were. 

Co-owns as a way to exert force or coersion upon a dog owner, be they pet or show, causes SO much pain and resentment that I really think the vast majority are not worth it. 

Look at why we do them: We keep co-owns on bitch puppies so the owner can’t breed her without our permission. But it doesn’t REALLY do that, does it? All it does is keep them from registering the puppies with AKC. It doesn’t put a chastity belt around her or prevent them from breeding her half a dozen times and selling the puppies as “purebred no papers,” which in my area gets you a full 50-75 percent of the registered puppy price. And the whole process of refusing to sign the papers causes so much blackness and hatred that it’ll take years off your life.

If you think the bitch isn’t breedable, you can sell her on a limited registration. That way the owner has only the AKC to blame for the lack of papers. If she is in fact a show puppy and you sell her on a co-own, you’re either adding an extra layer of complexity on to the paperwork for a person who was never going to do anything without asking you anyway, OR you’re only “protecting” the bitch from a bad breeding in terms of the breeding ending up on AKC paperwork. You’re not preventing the breeding in the first place.

And it is very important to realize that the AKC can be horrifyingly capricious about granting registrations without the second signature. When I tried to approach them in my situation, they said “Forget it; without the second signature you’re completely out of luck.” But in the SAME MONTH an acqaintance of mine who had bought a puppy, and had not been given the registration slip because the breeder had registered the litter but routinely held the individual slips until proof of spay/neuter, called AKC up and was told that they WOULD issue a slip to her because the breeder had already registered the litter. 

DO NOT LOOK TO AKC to save you. If you don’t trust the person you’re selling the dog to, don’t sell them a dog on full registration. If you DO trust them, save them the pain in the neck of mailing things back and forth to you, and just sell them the dog. 

b) Never let a financial arrangement ruin a friendship; never let a financial arrangement form the basis of a friendship.

The dog is the only thing that matters. If the welfare of the dog is at stake, heck yes you abandon friendships. But if you’re really going to chuck ten or twenty years of happy friendship over who gets to show a puppy that is worth a thousand bucks, you need to move cautiously. Similarly, don’t assume that your stud dog owner is going to run with you through a field of bluebells; being excited about a breeding is not the same as sharing the breeding when the rubber hits the road. If one of those puppies is diagnosed with a heart problem, don’t get resentful if the stud dog owner is suddenly  as far from the bluebell field as she can get. Being ticked off because a person who you handed a check to isn’t acting like your best friend is just going to lead to horrible stress and resentment on both sides.

c) Prepare your pet puppy buyers for the financial reality of ownership.

Be very clear about your financial/return/refund policy; do not let the puppy leave your house until the buyer has agreed that he or she understands it. If your contract includes these aspects, make sure you also address what can and will happen in the event if dissatisfaction with health, temperament, etc.

There is nothing worse than a buyer assuming that what you will do is what someone has told him “good breeders” do, or a buyer being scared to come back to you because they don’t know how you’re going to react, or a dog falling through the cracks because you and the buyer have a disagreement.

The classic conflict arises when a puppy buyer has wrecked a dog, it’s now three years old and biting everyone, and they want their money back. If that’s what you offer as a breeder, then you need to pony up. If it’s not, you needed to be very clear about that three years ago. On the other end of the spectrum is an owner who is demanding a replacement puppy but won’t bring the original one to you, and you don’t find that acceptable because you’re pretty sure that something very hinky is going on. 

My own policy (and, again, this is not the only right one) is that I never sell a dog twice. If a dog or puppy is returned to me and it is able to be sold – that is, if it is not a rehab job – I will gladly return to the first owners every penny that I get for the dog the second time around, less my expenses on travel and/or vet. On the other hand, if I have to not only give this dog away but put in hundreds of dollars on trainers and behaviorists and vets before I can do so, I do not refund money. I try to encourage people, therefore, to act sooner rather than later. If they are coming to believe that this isn’t working, it’s in everybody’s best interests to have the dog come back to me quickly.

My health return policy (after the normal five-day or seven-day no-questions-asked refund) is that I will replace the puppy as soon as possible, but I do not promise a cash refund, and if the owners have fallen out of touch I want to see the sick or unhealthy dog. If it ever came down to a real-life situation, I’d be more than happy to (rather than give them a puppy from the next litter) sell “their” replacement puppy and give them refund money, but I don’t promise it in the contract because there are just too many ifs. I don’t want to write down what I cannot deliver.

Like I said, what I do is not more correct than what you do. You can do more, or less; you can have the most bizarre contract or weird expectations you want. You run the circus. Just make sure the buyer knows exactly what is going on and has read the entire contract and discussed every clause with you before they walk away.

5) Please remember that far more unites us than divides us.

We are all passionate about dogs. We are all trying to make their lives the best we can. We all spend (according to the rest of the world) far too much time, money, and energy thinking about, training, grooming, hand-feeding, and obsessing about dogs. The infighting can get so vicious that we forget that we have a lot more in common with that horrible person who stole our handler from us than we do with 99.8% of the rest of the world. It is not a bad idea to take a deep breath and ask “So what are you feeding now?” and remind yourself that they care just as much about the answer as you do. 

White spotting cont.

From the (very good) comments:

From Chris: One thing interesting about collies verses their cousins, the shelties, is that for the past 60+ years, blazes in collies have been frowned upon and thus have largely been bred out (or at least minimized to near invisability). The vast majority (90%+) of collies have solid (no blaze) heads. Even the white collies (i.e. color-headed whites, not double dilute whites) tend to have solid colored heads or discreet blazes. Collie breeders just HATE big blazes (I know – I had a blazed collie, my late great Pablo, and at the nationals, some folks recoiled as if he sported a big scar on his head instead of just some white hairs. I kept my eyes open for other “strongly blazed” collies and found 5 others – that year the nationals had a entry of IIRC 800).

I don’t believe the “white-eared mismark is found in collies. I’ve never seen or heard of one in modern times.

I remember an interesting discussion about breeding white shelties and a comment was made that it should be discouraged as it tended to produce deaf dogs. I was surprised as color-headed white collies hear just fine (I’ve had two including my current sable-headed white, Fawkes). My pet theory on why white collies don’t have hearing problems is due to the lack of blazes in the breed. In contrast, blazes are widespread in shelties and so breeding two white factored shelties with blazed faces might well produce pups with excess white on the head and the increase possibility of deafness. My theory may be totally bogus but I like it for now.

Chris – I have definitely noticed the blaze preference. The interviews I’ve seen with the Weatherwax people about choosing the official Lassies (which have never been AKC registered and are hardly show quality, but are purebred) seem to focus entirely on picking the one puppy that has the big fat blaze people think of Lassie having.

I think the science supports you on head white. Breeds with very strong head color can sustain piebaldism for generations upon generations without a lot of color-related deafness; look at the Papillon.

Having said that, deafness has many, MANY causes in dogs, and blaming it only on color leads to lots of (legitimate) objections. Color around and over the ears is a fine rule of thumb, but we shouldn’t automatically think that every white-headed dog is deaf because of lack of color, and we shouldn’t assume that every deaf dog that has head color must somehow have white hair inside the ears or something. For that reason, and because even the whitest of white-spotted breeds doesn’t produce only deaf dogs, I don’t personally like attempts to justify color disqualifications based on deafness; there are too many inconsistencies. I DO think it’s a good idea for breeds who have an existing definition of a spotted color to try to avoid the temptation to go whiter and whiter and whiter. That trend is something you can see in a whole bunch of breeds, because we tend to see whiter dogs as flashier. Encouraging breeders and judges to keep the correctly marked but darker dogs on an even footing with the lighter ones makes sense.

I should also add that I am not sure it makes much sense to treat color-related deafness like it’s a gene. You have recommendations in a bunch of white breeds to not breed unilaterally deaf dogs, because the deafness “may be passed on.” It’s not the deafness that’s being passed along, it’s the COLOR (or lack thereof). You could perfectly responsibly breed a deaf dog as long as the breeding partner had a lot more color, and two hearing dogs can certainly make a bunch of deaf puppies if the parents produce a lot of white. Treating it like it’s a separate gene from the color-related ones doesn’t do the dogs any good because it falsely penalizes (or falsely elevates) breedings that may give you completely different results than the parents show.

From Carolyn: One clarification: “mismark” generally indicates a dog with too much white to be (easily) showable, such as a half-mask or white-headed dog. The Pem and Cardi standards differ: any body white above a horizontal like from the elbow back is a “mismark” on a Pembroke. In Cardigans we generally label this a “splash coat”. Only dogs with over 50% body white are to be faulted. Likewise on the head, white ears are permissible in Cardis but not in Pems.

It has been generally accepted for quite a while that head white and body (excess) white were not related. We had our own early experimentation: our first bitch Julie was a plain male x a white-headed bitch. There were no mismarks in either of the litters they produced. For Julie’s first litter we bred her to a half-mask. Result was 5 normally-marked heads, 2 half-masks, 1 white-headed. We lost an additional normal face, half-mask, and white-head at birth. No extra body-white (piebald/splash coat) on any puppy.

Alice and Hunter obviously each carry both the head-white and the body-white genes.

Boxers and some other breeds have restriction to the piebald gene which mimic Irish spotting. I’m wondering if Irish was completely eliminated from the boxer/Pembroke cross descendants.

Carolyn – What I should have said more clearly in what I wrote earlier is that Little’s divisions of “irish,” “piebald,” and “extreme piebald” aren’t supported by DNA evidence.

Cardigans aren’t actually irish spotted, not as we’ve traditionally defined the term (as being on the “s” locus as a kind of minimal piebaldism), and there aren’t just three types of spotting in the MITF-spotted dogs.

Instead, we need to come up with a new term for herding-spotted (which also may be Bernese spotted and Boston Terrier spotted), and differentiate it from the MITF.

And we need to understand MITF better; one study I looked at thought that MITF actually encompasses a huge spectrum of color, from very minimal white to entirely white, depending on how many copies of the mutation were being passed along. This would make sense when you look at spotted breeds.

If this is in fact the case, one scenario that would make sense is that in Bull Terriers and Boxers and Danes, what’s been trapped in the breed is the ends of the spectrum and nothing in the middle. So you have, for example, 2 copies of the mutation (plain dogs) and 20 copies of the mutation (white dogs). When bred together they balance and create a dog with medium white (the flashy or mantle-marked dogs). You can’t make the medium white “stick” because the components are 2 and 20.

In terms of how Cardigan mismarks work, we do now have a good idea how piebald Cardigans end up in litters (both parents have a copy of MITF with some number of mutations). We don’t know how the head mismarks work. As of yet, we don’t have any evidence for a half-mask or white-head gene within the herding spotted gene, because we have no idea even what the herding spotted gene is. Even the fact that I’m calling it herding spotted is my own invention and I’d have to be very ready to abandon it. Breeding-based evidence is not a bad thing, but (as we find with a whole bunch of Little’s stuff) it often bows in the end to different data once the genetic basis is discovered.

We also have to learn which color characteristics are not genetic – we know that some are developmental and are not the result of genes, at least in cats (cloned cats can be different colors and have different eye colors from the original cat). White chest spots in solid breeds are probably the result of this kind of random developmental event.

 As an example of this phenomenon, Dalmatians as a breed have a big problem with uric acid; they have a gene that prevents them from breaking it down and excreting it. Dalmatians have been bred to Pointers to attempt to create Dalmatians with normal uric acid metabolism. This experiment has been a resounding success in terms of cutting the rate of the bad uric acid mutation, and the “new” Dalmatians with some Pointer blood look like perfectly normal Dals and are of high quality in all respects. All, that is, except for the sacred spots. Dalmatians with normal uric acid production have smaller spots than the Dals with high uric acid. The low-acid dogs don’t have the half-dollar-sized perfectly round spots that are the holy grail of Dalmatian color; they’re more dime-sized. You can see this beautifully illustrated in the “I” litter here. So what’s going on? Is the uric acid gene also a pigment-controlling gene? Or does a higher concentration of uric acid in the dog lead to larger spots? Can breeders push the low uric acid dogs to have larger spotting without abandoning the positive health effects?

All of these questions (Dals, Cardi heads, etc.) are COMPLETELY open at this point in time. We just don’t know how it works, and the genetic research has shown that the picture is actually incredibly complex. What I find just riveting about this kind of stuff is that it turns out that so many different gene mutations can cause the exact same changes in appearance. Who knows how many different mutations we’ll eventually find leading to white spotting and other colors, some of them isolated in just one breed and some widespread.

Oh, and I have no idea whether the Cattenach (Steynmere) dogs have retained a more stable white spotting pattern than their cousins. I’ve been following his dogs for years, but he doesn’t usually post pictures of whole litters so I can’t tell what the spotting has done. I know he does have white dogs. 






White spotting on Cardigans, Collies, and other herding dogs

First, credit for a whole bunch of stuff here to Dr. Schmutz at the University of Saskatchewan; she has done more for our modern understanding of dog color genetics than anyone else I can think of. I am always fascinated by her writing and try to keep up with what’s being disovered. The below is VERY NEW STUFF; it was not what I “knew” even last year.

A little background:

When I was getting started in Danes, I was considering which color family to get involved in. While there is some overlap, and I rebelled eventually and did cross-color breedings, the color families in Danes are pretty rigid and you have to decide which color you want to pursue. 

When I researched harlequins, and the mantle color that went on to be approved as a showable color, there was quite a lot of mention of how difficult it was to get a “show marked” harlequin or mantle. This means, with some leeway for more or less white, a white collar, white on the legs, and a white blaze. All-over harlequins are very definitely not preferred and you’d have a difficult time finishing one. If you look at this litter by a FABULOUS harlequin breeder that was a wonderful friend and help to me when I was getting started in Danes, you can see that she won “the harlequin lottery,” with an entire litter of show-marked or close to show marked puppies. Notice how the harlequin puppies also have a big fat white blaze and white necks and white legs; they’re mantle-marked as well as harlequin.

My fellow Cardigan lovers look at an evenly marked litter like that and think, “Well, sure, but all of my litters have looked pretty much that good.” A Dane person looks at that and the words “won the lottery” really are quite accurate. 

In an average harlequin Dane litter, the number of show-marked dogs is very small. Often only one or two display the desired collar, blaze, and legs. Some puppies in the litter are usually merle (which is a disqualification in Danes, so most are sold as pets), but even the ones that are harlequin or mantle are often mismarked. They either have too much white (and here I mean the white markings, not the white areas between the harlequin patches) or too little. 

A very similar thing happens in Boxers, another breed where the desired color is a collar, blaze, and white legs. These “flashy” Boxers, when bred to other Boxers with similar markings, don’t produce a whole litter of evenly marked puppies. You hope for a few, but you know you’re likely to get plain (solid-colored) dogs, which are considered less likely to show successfully, as well as mostly white puppies that are disqualified and either placed as pets or (if deaf) often euthanized.

Bull Terriers show the exact same spectrum of markings, only in that breed you can show the solid and minimally white dogs as well as the completely white ones (one more example of the “game” of dog showing that doesn’t make a lot of rational sense, but that’s the way it goes). 

Little (in the 50s) defined white spotting in three divisions – irish, which meant white collar, blaze, and feet (though the collar could be minimal); piebald, which meant that the body color was broken up into spots and the white on the legs took up most or all of the leg; and extreme piebald, which is the white spotting like white Bull Terriers and white Boxers have – almost no color on the body at all.

The problem with Little’s definition was that it was so impossible to breed that elusive collar/blaze/feet pattern consistently, in so many breeds. If it was an established color, genetically, you should be able to breed two desirably marked dogs and get all desirably marked puppies, not have the pendulum swing wildly back and forth.

And the additional mystery was that in some breeds – Cardigans are one of them, as are Border Collies – the color DID work predictably. So what on earth was going on?

Some of the puzzle was unraveled when researchers determined that there are a couple of mutations in a gene called MITF that can cause white spotting in dogs. They also determined that white spotting in dogs is NOT the same as white spotting in, for example, cows, despite the resemblance visually.

MITF was identified as the gene that causes spotting in Boxers, Bull Terriers, Landseer Newfoundlands, etc. Hoorah! White spotting solved!


When a Shetland Sheepdog, with a full gorgeous white collar and white feet and a white blaze, is tested for MITF, the result is “solid.” The dog is “not spotted.” It’s a completely unmutated MITF gene.

So what on earth is going on?

Well, the answer is that the white blaze and collar and feet on Shelties (and Collies and Corgis of both types and Border Collies and so on) is a DIFFERENT mutation. The white color may look the same as the white on a Pointer, but what’s causing it is a different phenomenon. Just like the spotted cows are caused by a different mutation than spotted dogs, herding-breed markings are caused by a different mutation than many of the other breeds. That’s why herding-breed markings are so predictable; whatever mutation it is seems to be more “stable,” if you want to talk about it that way, than the wide variations conferred by the mutations on MITF. 

Cool, huh? Very. But let’s throw a wrench into the works – because as it turns out, MITF is also in the herding breeds, in addition to our mystery mutation.

A single copy of the mutated MITF gene, when added to the “herding-spotted” mutation, pushes the white up higher on the hind legs, up to the flank, and often puts a small break in the solid blanket over the dog’s back.

Sound familiar? Yup, a single copy of MITF is responsible for “white factoring” (which is what Cardigan people call “looks like she’ll probably produce mismarks”). Interestingly, MITF does not seem to make blazes any wider or collars any bigger; you can have huge white collars and big fat blazes on a MITF “solid” dog, and only small blazes on white-factored dogs.

So mystery mutation = white blaze (thin or wide), collar (which may be thin or fat), front feet (or entirely white front legs), back feet, tail tip. 

Mystery mutation + MITF = all of the above plus a high slice of white on the back legs, up into the flank area. 

In Collies and Shelties, these “white factored” dogs are sometimes bred together, because some fanciers really like the piebald or color-headed-white dogs. In this case some puppies will get two copies of the MITF mutation and will be the same color as a Pointer or a Landseer: mostly white with some patches over the body and (typically) round patches around the eyes and ears. 

In Cardigans, we label these piebald dogs as “mismarks” (again, see the game? Same genetics, totally different decision on the part of the breed club), so if we have a dog that has a bunch of white (and is probably white-factored, though most Cardigan breeders don’t look at the color and try to label it the way Collie or Sheltie breeders do) we Cardigan breeders tend to breed him or her to a dog with more minimal white. We do mystery + MITF x mystery, or mystery x mystery, as the vast majority of our breedings. As a result of these rather “instinctive” breeding choices, even though we haven’t understood the genetics behind it, we only very rarely end up with piebald dogs. Of course they do exist, and if you really wanted to make them you could easily do so by looking for Cardis with white going up on the flank. 

OK, now, before I get mad or confused comments: In Cardigans we also have a mismark that is confined to the head; I’ve heard it called “white-ear” a couple of times and that’s as good a name as any. It’s when the blaze and the collar are so wide that they meet in the middle, removing the color on the ear and around the eye to a greater or lesser extent and causing breeders much angst as they try to figure out what “white should never surround the eyes” should mean to them. (Is “surround” the operative term? “Eyes,” so one eye is fine? If there’s a tiny brown spot over the eye, does that mean that white should not surround that? And so on.)

I strongly suspect that white-ear or head-only mismarking is related to the strength (for lack of a better term) of the “mystery” mutation, and not is the result of MITF. I think this for two reasons: a) because if it’s MITF then we should be seeing a lot more piebald Cardigans, because it’s not uncommon to breed dogs with big blazes and wide collars together, and b) because those dogs usually have normal white back feet and the white does not extend up into the flank. 

So there you go! A small intro to Cardigan spotting, with a big caveat that while the information that’s out there is good, and WORLDS better than it was even five years ago, as genetic study of dogdom continues we will get more and more (and more precise) information on spotting as we will on so much else.

By the way, Clue (who has a lovely white collar but doesn’t have a ton of white on her head) has white going right up her back legs into her flank. I can see the same marking on her mom (but not her dad), and some other offspring of her mom’s sire also have it so it probably came from him. And on and on it goes, up the pedigree. So if Clue is bred to a boy with a lot of white, she’ll probably produce mismarks. That kind of thing has really never bothered me, but if I was super serious about it I’d be on the lookout for a boy with little white back feet. As it is, whatever we get from her will be nothing but wonderful and perfect. 😀


Note: if you came here from a search engine or only see this post, you should also read the continuation, here:

Sable and Red and Red and Pink and Pink and Cream and Cream and White, oh heck.


I am going to totally pick on Janet today, because she left a comment about one of my favorite Cardis, Scout.

By the way, how gorgeous is Scout? Oh, very. When Kate and I play Fantasy Football at three AM with Cardigans, Scout is always a top draft pick. She’s just yummy. 

Janet says that her handler likes IOD blackening shampoo with Scout because she’s “technically a sable.”

YES! You win! 

However, what most red-Cardigan breeders and owners don’t realize is THEY ALL ARE. 

Yes, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore, and all non-ee reds are indeed sables. 

I once got thoroughly spanked on this issue because I sent a picture of a very odd-colored Great Dane to the resident Dane color expert, J.P. Yousha (Chromadane is her kennel name). The dog in question was a blue fawn*, which is something we don’t see much in Danes but is not “rare,” but it had a substantial overlay of blue over its whole body. It was somewhere between a “blue sable,” if I use the lay terms, and a red-headed-tri where the black was instead blue. 

* Blue meaning the real blue, the maltese-dilution blue, which is why I personally don’t use “blue” for merle Cardigans. I had blue Danes and so blue always means blue in my brain; I can’t switch to calling merle something that to me means dilute.  

Anyway, I sent J.P. Yousha this picture, with a question along the lines of “Is this a sable Dane?”

I got a very quick response: “Of course it is; every fawn is sable. Didn’t you know that? Now get off my lawn.”

(Actually, she was much nicer than that; she’s a lovely person, but her brain was clearly much larger than mine and I did indeed get off her lawn.)

That was a lot of years ago, and since then she has of course been proven right by the research done by Sheila Schmutz, who is the researcher coming up with so many of the very useful gene labeling discoveries that allow us to test for different colors. 

Here is the deal:

It’s common to talk about dog coat color like it’s a big column of most “dominant” to most “recessive,” and talk about how black (in most breeds) is the “most dominant” or that another color is the “most recessive” and so on. In fact, there are many color alleles and they co-exist on the same animal. Some hide, some reveal, others combine, and so on. There IS, of course, a dominant/recessive behavior within each allele, but not nearly as clear-cut a one as we might assume. It’s great that we all learn about simple dominant/recessive relationships in seventh grade Life Science, but sometimes it hurts us when we expect all traits to act that way. In fact, simple (single) dominant/recessive is very rare when it comes to the traits you can see with the naked eye; most of them are combinations of a whole bunch of genes that combine in different ways, in the same way that there are 26 letters but far more than 26 words. 

So in color you have to keep in mind about a dozen allele areas, which are organized by letter and have changed several times over the years of color genetics research. Little in the 50s did a lot of the groundbreaking work, and his designations are usually taken as the preferred ones until and unless newer research proves him wrong. For example, when I first learned the color series, the locus “A” was thought to be where most black pigments and the agouti (sable) pigments and also brindle lived; newer research has moved black and brindle to K and left sable at A, but put another black (the recessive black found in German Shepherds, for example) BACK at A. It’s completely fascinating stuff, but going through every bit of color naming would get incredibly long and would be interesting to no one but myself, so I want to make this a little shorter.

For the purposes of looking at red versus sable, the two areas we’re interested in are A and E.

A controls the patterns where there is a mixture of yellow and black on the dog, with the black generally being expressed on top and the yellow on the bottom. The different A possibilities are a^y, a^t, a^w, and a. The carat mark is supposed to imply that the next letters are superscripted (made little and lifted above the line). That’s the way you’re supposed to write them. However, the carat key is one of the most annoying in the world to type so I am going to beg your forgiveness and just use ay and aw and so on.

aw = agouti

Agouti means that the hairs are banded along their length, with a dark base, light middle section, and dark end section, or even that there are multiple repeating bands of color. This is the color that Malamutes and Siberian Huskies often exhibit. It is very difficult to tell the difference between agouti and the next color, sable, without closely examining the hairs.

ay = sable

Sable means that the dog has black hairs growing in a mostly yellow coat (and by yellow you should read “any shade of yellow, tan, dark tan, red”–just not chocolate or black). These black hairs occur thickest along the topline (from the top of the head to the end of the tail), but also creep down behind the shoulders and frame the cheeks. 

In many, probably the vast majority of, sables (and this is where Cardi people should sit up and take notice) there is a progressive lessening of the black hairs as the dog ages. The puppy is born with many black hairs among the yellow, but as the dog ages the black hairs are replaced with yellow, though often in a richer shade than that found on the belly or sides. 

The genetic difference between those dogs that very completely shed out the black hairs and those that retain them is UNKNOWN. They presumably have some form of modifiers but that has not been discovered yet. On the “A” allele, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. All dogs of this color type, from the sootiest to the clearest, are “ay” dogs. 

If the “red” dog had even a single black hair on its body, from birth onward, it is a SABLE dog. And most of them retain at least a few dark hairs throughout their lives.
















The amount of black present in the coat also doesn’t reliably indicate whether the dog carries the next color that lives on the A locus, which is black and tan. In other words, don’t think that your very dark sable dog is a carrier of black and tan; she may simply have more dark hairs. Collie people? No, you can’t reliably tell whether a dog is tri-factored by how much black is in its coat. As a rough rule of thumb it can work in SOME breeds, but don’t depend on it.

at = black and tan

In these dogs, the expression of yellow is confined to only the points (broadly thought of as the underparts) of the dog. 

Where this all gets very interesting is as we combine gene loci. 

Remember how I said that the genes work in combination, not by a single relationship of dominant/recessive? That means that a dog can be black AND brindle AND sable AND red AND white all at the same time, and the dog will look white. Or the dog can be brown AND black and tan AND brindle AND red, and the dog will look red. That’s why understanding how color works in your breed, and keeping track of colors on a pedigree, is so important. If you breed that white dog to that red dog, thinking you’ll get red and white dogs, you’re honestly just as likely to get BLACK dogs. You could also get brown dogs, sables, brown sables, black and tans, brown and tans, brindles, brown brindles, black and brindles, brown and brindle, reds, creams, and whites, depending on what colors were carried recessively by each of those units. And that’s JUST looking at the A, E, K, and C (or I) alleles; there are many more. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly muddled you, let’s go back to our Cardis who are (in this case) either sable (what we call red or sable) or black and tan. We’re not going to attack brindle just yet. 

We have to introduce a new locus now, the E locus. The E locus controls whether the dog can have black or brown (think chocolate here, not fox red) pigment. E (dominant) allows the dog to have that pigment; e (recessive) does not allow any black or brown pigment to show on the dog, not even one eyelash.

Our sable/red or black and tan Cardis are almost certainly either E (which means they can show black pigment) or Em (they have some or a lot of black pigment AND they have a mask). However, they may carry and therefore eventually produce a dog with the recessive color on the e locus, which is all-over yellow with no black or brown.

e = clear red

A dog that gets an “e” from each parent cannot produce any black or red pigment in any hair on any part of its body, from tailtip to eyelashes. It is completely without those pigments. That doesn’t mean it can’t be very dark, however; Irish Setters are genetically this color and they can be very richly colored. Cardigans born this color vary from cream to light red; because they are so striking in the litter and used to be considered a light form of red, the color is often called “pink.”

The colors we’re familiar with in the Cardigan all depend on the varying degrees of black in the coat. So when a dog is clear red, the color that cannot be expressed could be anything from a brindle-pointed merle to a light red. That’s why, when and if reds are bred (and there’s certainly no reason not to breed them) you need to know the colors in the pedigree behind the dog and consider doing some judicious DNA testing if you think your red may be an undesirable color for the proposed breeding.

So, to summarize:

What we call red? Sable.

What we call sable? Sable.

What we call pink? Red.

So what about cream and white, then?

I think it’s worth pursuing the “clear red” color to its lightest end purely because breeders so often think that colors should combine sort of like paint, so the color of the parents has a great influence over the color of the offspring in the same way that the color of human skin has a great influence over the color of the skin of the offspring. This perception leads to great wrongs; if a breeder mates two black dogs and gets a cream-colored puppy, or two cream-colored dogs and gets a dark brown or black puppy, or any other combination that creates a puppy that looks radically different from the parents, there is often an assumption that something went wrong. Either this puppy has revealed something shameful about the parent dogs or perhaps the parents are not really the parents.

The oddly colored puppy or puppies are also thought to be somehow “suspect”; for a lot of decades the fawns (light sables with black masks) that were produced from black to black breedings in Great Danes were routinely euthanized, even though fawn is an acceptable, even desirable, color. If they were not euthanized their breeder was roundly criticized and it was a foregone conclusion that the fawn puppies, once grown, could never be used for breeding. Incorporating a “fawn from black” could destroy your reputation. It was as though those puppies were not “real” fawns, because their parents were black, even though genetically they were identical to the fawns produced from fawn breedings. 

That situation has, thankfully, changed in Danes, but there’s still a lot of misinformation floating around out there. So I want to show you where “e” goes when it heads all the way toward white.

The best place to see this progression is actually in Poodles. Poodle “red” is ee red, clear red. When made lighter, it becomes apricot. Lighter still is cream. The end of that road is white. 

The exact gene that causes the progressive lightening is not known; some say it is chinchilla and others want to call it “I,” for “intense” (meaning that the yellow is less and less and less intense as more doses of the gene are dropped into place). What is important about it is this: THE DOG IS STILL BLACK OR BROWN. In most breeds, black is the base upon which this is all built, so I’m going to use that word; substitute “brown” in your head at will.

It’s a black dog, who cannot express any black hairs, with several layers of intensity removed from the clear red coat. That’s why white Poodles still have black eyerims and noses and lips. A similar (though perhaps not identical, since they don’t seem to have the intermediate red/apricot/cream stages) thing happens in white Shepherds, who are genetically ee. Samoyeds are also ee dogs, as are white Pulik. But Great Pyrenees are NOT ee dogs; they’re actually piebald sables or piebald agoutis with a very fast-acting greying gene.

Identical appearances, but if you bred a Samoyed to a Great Pyrenees (at least with what we know about color genetics right now) you’d probably get almost all dark puppies!

Anyone who has known me since Dane days knows that I can go on about this for hours and hours, so stop me if you’ve heard this one or, if you want to make my day, ask me more about it. Just as a sneak preview: Did you know that the white we have on our dogs (Cardigans; also true of the other herding breeds) is actually not white spotting? Yup, it lives on a totally different, mysterious, as yet undiscovered gene and is completely different from the white spotting that you can see in hounds or terriers or most other breeds. But we ALSO have their spotting, which is why we get the major mismarks. Interested? Just let me know :D.

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.

Puppy Buyer Etiquette (slightly) continued: Expressing preferences

One of the comments on the earlier brought up a very good point: How about when you reeeeeeeeaaaaaalllly want a particular puppy in a litter?

I think this falls into two basic categories: When you NEED a particular puppy and when you have fallen in love with a particular puppy.

If I am looking to buy a puppy to show and breed, I am usually looking for something I don’t have eight of at home. So when I call up a breeder, or talk to them at a show, or e-mail them, I’ll say “I am keeping an eye out for a really wonderful black dog; are you planning a litter with Xerxes right now?” They immediately know that I’m not interested unless they have a black male show-potential puppy whose father is Xerxes. So they’ll send me away if they don’t get any males in the litter, or if they know Xerxes isn’t going to be used, or whatever. The flip side of being this specific, of course, is that I have to wait around until the puppies are all evaluated, and have the breeder or co-breeder pick their puppy or puppies, and then hope there’s a black show male left for me. 

Being this exacting works really well if you know and trust that breeder, so you know she’s not going to try to sell you a puppy that’s not actually competitive, and/or if the breeder already has a couple of Xerxes litters around. It’s even better if you can see the puppies in person; that’s why every Nationals is like a giant puppy-swapping party. You see a stunning brindle puppy in a golf cart, run over, say “Who is that gorgeous creature?” and hopefully things go from there; either you wrangle an introduction to the breeder or (just maybe) that particular puppy or her sister are for sale. 

When you’re getting your first show puppy, and I’m still in the throes of this (I have not been in the breed long enough to have ANYBODY offering to hold puppies for me, except maybe Kate – blows kisses to Bronte’s puppies – ) it’s probably wise to express fewer preferences to the very best breeder you can possibly rather than more preferences to a breeder who isn’t as good. One of my e-mails to a particular breeder basically went “I would be thrilled beyond belief to even be considered for this litter; I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d like to take home your dog’s POOP.” I couldn’t have cared less about color, gender, amount of white, anything, because I was so excited about the potential of the litter and loved the two dogs involved so much. 

If you’re not going to be showing or breeding, I think it’s entirely appropriate to express a preference of gender, especially if you have a dog at home and he or she tends to get along better with one than the other. Just let us know if you can be flexible on that or if you MUST have a certain gender. 

It’s also more than fine to let us know that you like a certain “fault.” If you think fluffs are da bomb (and, wow, I do); if you think pinks are to die for; if you like the half-white heads or no white at all (which is not a fault but can be more difficult to show), please do express that. With those particular criteria, all of us love to have owners who not only will accept them but desperately want them, so if we don’t have one in a litter we’ll try to point you in the right direction to get, say, a fluffy white-headed merle puppy (and, ohmygoodness, how gorgeous would THAT be). 

From there, you’re looking at color and at markings. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with expressing a preference to the breeder. Just realize that it’s not fair to the puppies for us to put markings (which are entirely superficial and have nothing to do with who the puppy IS) above personality and behavior and needs. For example, let’s say that you live in an urban environment and go for long walks every day; you have three kids and a Pointer. The litter you’re looking at has two brindle puppies with big wide blazes and one tri puppy with a little white squiggle. He’s kind of ugly, honestly. You may feel extremely disappointed, even angry, when you see those wide-blazed puppies go to other families and you get offered the ugly puppy. But if you’ve done your homework and chosen your breeder correctly, she’s giving you that puppy because he’s completely unflappable, adores kids, and has shown a remarkable ability to make friends with big dogs. Wide-blazed brindle #1 was very high-energy and went to a herding home. Wide-blazed brindle #2 showed more sensitivity to noise and would probably not enjoy the chaos of your house; she’s going to live with a retired couple who listen to NPR all day.

If you find that you absolutely cannot accept anything but one color or “look” of dog, please just let the breeder know immediately, and don’t get mad if you don’t get it. Ask your breeder to let you know as soon as possible if she thinks that the one puppy that meets your request won’t be available to you, and ask for a referral to another breeder in that case. Again, please don’t go get yourself on a bunch of waiting lists in the hopes that one breeder will give you a copper brindle with a wide blaze and one solid-colored leg, unless you tell ALL the breeders involved exactly what you’re doing and that you’re on everyone else’s list. 

The theme here, as it was below, is to COMMUNICATE. Be honest, talk a LOT, keep up the calls and the e-mails, offer full disclosure. If you’ve been honest and fair with us and we can’t offer you your dream puppy, we’ll be more than happy to send you to the next breeder with a glowing recommendation. If we’ve been honest and fair with you, you shouldn’t feel concerned or ripped off. Just keep talking, talking, talking. Miscommunications and resentments build when one party thinks the other is keeping secrets or withholding crucial information – in other words, when one party is treating this like a commodity transaction (I’m sure she’s trying to rip me off, so I’m going to protect myself and get what I want) rather than a relationship (I’m sure she wants the best possible outcome, so I’m going to be as honest as I can). The most important thing to remember is that in order to thrive, the puppy is going to need both of you (good grief, I sound like a divorce lawyer, but it is almost like that), so do your best to reject any behavior that will cause the other person to leave the relationship.