Dogs of the Shepherds: A Review of the Pastoral Breeds

“Dogs of the Shepherds: A Review of the Pastoral Breeds,” by David Hancock. The Crowood Press. $55.

Pastoral breeds are one of seven groups in The Kennel Club’s breed recognition lineup, but don’t overlook this terrific history and Hancock’s spot-on observations as they relate to the quality of purebred dogs in the United States.

While this treasure is slanted toward field prowess and conformation beauty in the UK’s 37 pastoral breeds, Hancock’s sobering analyses is a must-read for every American purebred fancier, both inside and outside the show ring.

He has studied dogs for more than half a century in more than 20 countries. The author of 12 books on dogs, his byline has appeared on more than 750 articles in national and international magazines.
Dogs of the Shepherds
He establishes early, “In this book, I aim to make a case for the origin and function of all pastoral types, ancient and modern, to be respected, not in the pursuit of historical accuracy, as important as that is, but because they can only be bred both soundly and honestly if their past development and traditional form is honoured.”

Pulling poignant quotes from respected authorities in books – some more than a century old – and complementing text with early-day photos and illustrations, Hancock offers the reader a sharp-edged understanding and portrait of the subjects at hand.

“The pedigree world,” he writes, “has not always been kind to the pastoral breeds, with the Rough Collie being a prime example,” with quotes from late 1800s experts on fanciers’ attempts to change the breed’s conformation and altering its lifestyle from working dog to simply companion.

In a chapter entitled “The Working Format” the respected author serves up a combustible line in the sand between the beauty pageant dog-show world and breeders of working stock.

“Now that breed health, breed purity and instructions to show-ring judges are all receiving much merited attention, there is one extremely important aspect of pedigree dog breeding and showing that deserves attention. It would be sad if we lost breeds to the perpetual pursuit of prettiness backed by prolonged inbreeding, more than regrettable if we lost breeds to rogue genes and monstrous if judges rewarded exhibits displaying harmful exaggerations. Sad, regrettable and monstrous too if our precious breeds are bred to the wrong template; the show ring has changed a number of breeds, not for the better; fashion, fad and pressure from influential kennels can impose a changed type of breed.”

Hancock’s impassioned portrayal of the German Shepherd Dog’s dramatic conformation change over decades is certain to stir up considerable debate among traditionalists and contemporary breeders worldwide.

He says, “It is foolish to regard any dog registered with the KC as a purebred product with true type just because it is a registered pedigree dog. Type in any breed of dog is far more subtle and a lot more elusive than that. For me, dogs with a genuine look of their breed are always to be preferred to untypical specimens with ‘papers.’ Is a German Shepherd Dog with a roach back, hyper-angulation in its hindquarters and a lack of substance, with two show-ring wins and KC registration, to be preferred to an upstanding, well-boned and symmetrically built dog with a level topline but no papers? Contemporary GSD breeders seem to have lost their way and it is going to take decades to restore true type to this quite outstanding breed.”

Later, he asks how much longer are we going to continue valuing breeds on their appearance alone when it is temperament that makes them a successful companion animal.

The role of onetime dogs of the shepherds have changed – service, therapy, bomb and drug detection and other challenges are now included in their potential job description. Hence Hancock argues that physicality, genetics and temperament must be the prime requisites for breeders going forward.

“Dogs of the Shepherds” is an arresting and valuable mosaic of a historically prominent dog-group corridor that is tackled with an adventurous spirit and tough realism. Hancock’s candidness makes it a must read for any fan of pastoral or herding breeds.

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