One day a few weeks ago, I googled something like “dog treeing squirrel.” I was curious, you see, about Silas’s truly excellent squirrel-treeing form. The result was that I fell down the internet rabbit hole (pun woefully intended) of squirrel hunting.
It was a window into an entirely different dog world. The squirrel hunters combine two sides of something that just don’t coexist for most of us anymore. In our little corner of the internet, most dogs aren’t doing the “job” they were “bred” to do. (There are some exceptions–the dogs at 24 Paws of Love sled, and the 2BrownDawgs do field retrieving. I’m probably forgetting a couple. Still, our part of the blog world is not brimming with terriers who hunt rats and border collies who herd sheep.) More typically, we’ve–at best–deflected those behaviors into dog sports, like agility or flyball, that ostensibly use the same drive and skills.
The squirrel hunters, in contrast, are breeding dogs 100% for their ability to perform a job, and then using them to do that job. While all the squirrel dogs on the internet have a vague similarity about them, mostly in size and body shape, nobody cares what they look like. The postings of puppies for sale aren’t showing AKC registrations, but lists of hunting events that the parents won.
This is, I imagine, what all deliberate dog breeding was like at some point, in a past that is becoming quite distant. “I’ll breed my best shepherd to my neighbor’s best shepherd, we’ll get great shepherd puppies.” Because people were geographically isolated, a certain cohesiveness of look eventually came about, and in time the look itself became a shorthand for what the dog was capable of. The look was refined much later. We, being modern people who call pest control instead of owning a good “ratter,” tend to fixate on just the look.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with owning a dog whose main purpose is that he looks the way you want him to look. Breeding for pure appearance, though, is deadly. (A good breeder is, at minimum, also breeding for health and temperament, but we all know that a very small percentage of dogs come from that kind of situation.) It has also, for many breeds, gradually stripped away the very reason that they were bred to start with. My neighbor’s Gordon Setter is as interested in birds as I am in professional wrestling. Nobody cared if her parents and grandparents were titled field hunters; they just wanted a black and tan dog of certain proportions.
On the other hand, most of us don’t have the desire, environment, training facilities, or know-how to work a working or hunting dog. Plus, high-level working dogs often have far more drive and independence than people really prefer in a household pet. There’s a lot to be said for coming home in the evening to a dog whose “job” is “snuggle buddy,” rather than to a dog who is neurotic because a Kong can’t replace a herd of sheep.
It’s hard not to feel like something very important has been lost along the way, though. Not just a natural series of health tests (a dog can’t pull a cart with hip dysplasia), but an entire history and purpose. Toy breeds aside, dogs were meant to do things, not just sit under a table at the local coffee shop, stroll through the park, or nap on our sofas. We’ve forgotten that and so, in a wide variety of breeds, have they.
What have we gained in return?