Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dog wars: The Ridgeback debates

I have mentioned acrimonious Ridgeback debates in the past One of them resulted in an irate breeder sending the Anti-Terrorist Task force to my door: . Now there is another breeder, saying some similar things. Is it the same breeder? Certainly not. The first breeder, the one who turned me in, has been so universally castigated, that she is sure to want to make her sin a secret forever. This new one seems to think her authority should be respected. Alas.

What are the issues and what is the complaint? It is hard to tell, because typically these breeders, the ones who leap off the wall with both guns blazing, aren’t terribly articulate. I don’t mean to generalize here about all breeders. There are only a very few who do this. They yell in capital letters, but they don’t formulate sensible arguments; so it is difficult to argue, let alone communicate, with them. Trying to slow them down and countering their ranting with logical, well-thought out arguments only makes them angry.

I suspect their anger hinges on their experience. They have bred Ridgebacks for a number of years whereas I have never bred one. I have lived with Ridgebacks for close to 20 years and know a lot about the dogs I’ve owned, but my knowledge of “all Ridgebacks” is based upon reading and discussion. Whereas they, these breeders, have been in dog shows and have “seen” hundreds if not thousands of Ridgebacks. They take a superior position: They are breeders and will judge and evaluate prospective owners. Since I have been interested in Ridgeback health, and a certain temperament, I have not precisely “judged breeders” but perhaps set up a criterion that I want met in my next Ridgeback. I have reversed the order of things. I am not waiting patiently, hat in hand, for a breeder to determine my qualifications. I am announcing what it is I want, and shall do my best to get it.

Probably most breeders aren’t bothered by an owner who has had Ridgebacks and wants something particular in his next one. But some seem offended at my very existence. How dare I, a mere owner, make statements about the Rhodesian Ridgeback, or – gasp – criticize a breeder?

One of my observations has been that a “softening” has gone on in the breed. The Ridgeback was derived from dogs that were used by Cornelius Van Rooyan to hunt lions. The breed was also used by farmers to guard against hyenas, leopards and baboons. Could the modern-day Ridgeback do that? Some of them could, but I suspect that not as many could as in the days of yore.

Let me give an example of “softening.” At one time the Great Dane was a fierce boar dog. It was considered ferocious and used as a guard. But it is so big that who would dare own one in this modern litigious day and age? So a “softening” went on, and now the Great Dane has a reputation for being sweet and gentle. The goal of the modern day breeder of potentially dangerous dogs is to produce “sweet” ones. If you can say a Doberman, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Rottweiler is “sweet,” then you are on safe ground. But what about what the dog was bred to do? The Dobermann was created to be the preeminent guard dog, and perhaps the German Dobermann people (as opposed to the American Doberman people) still strive for the original temperament, but here in America we have bred away from it. Not as many American Dobermans would meet Mr. Dobermann’s standards.

If one shooting occurs, some congressman is sure to propose a new gun law. By the same token, one dog bite will typically be followed by someone calling for more restrictive dog laws: Let’s make the Pit Bull or the Rottweiler illegal, someone will say. We know the “dangerous dogs”: the Pit Bulls and the Rottweilers and all the rest. It does no good to say that the American Staffordshire Terrier only “looks” like the Pit Bulls of old. It does no good to point out that the American Staffordshire Terrier was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1936 as a separate breed and that one of the intentions of the AST breeders was to breed away from the Fighting-Pit-Bull temperament. Surely they have been able to do that, to breed away from that temperament, if they have been working at it since 1936. It doesn’t take that long to change a dog breed. The canine genome is the most malleable of all genomes. One can, if one wishes, create a whole new dog breed, that is, a dog breed that will breed true, in a very few years; so breeding for a certain look or away from aggressiveness is demonstrably possible. Now I don’t mean this in absolute terms. If the Great Dane was bred as a fierce guard dog, and it was, then you will get some Great Danes that will meet that old standard, but by breeding away from that fierceness you will get fewer fierce ones and a greater number of sweet ones. Would American Staffordshire Terriers fight for Michael Vick? Yeah, sure, but not all of them and not as many as the old Pit Bull. I am not making an “absolute” statement about the Ridgeback either, merely, not as many would meet Van Rooyan’s standards for a lion-hunting dog as they would have in 1922 when the breed was first standardized.

Probably another reason I annoy certain breeders is that I’m not a true partisan. I am an engineer and must be able to justify a breed-selection functionally. I look at my circumstances, evaluate what it is I do and want to do and then determine which breed or breeds would best suit me. Probably most people don’t think like that. They had a certain breed as a child and now as adults, that is the only breed they will accept, or they pick a certain breed because it is cute. I want a breed that is “suitable” to my circumstances. We lived in a condo and I thought a Ridgeback was too large, but my wife was fixed upon that breed; so I resolved to keep it in shape by jogging with it every night. I could throw a tennis ball for my German Shorthaired Pointer, Heidi, but that wouldn’t do for Trooper; so we jogged and hiked.

When we retired, I wanted to be near an area where we could hike. There are some mountain trails not so far away, but as often as not, we go down to the river. It takes less than five minutes to drive down there, and we have a stretch of perhaps five or six miles where we can go on this almost-always-dry river. There is always something new to see down there. One might say that in a certain respect I agreed to this retirement location based upon Trooper. The river was precisely right for him. He thrived down there. So when he and Heidi died I sought another Ridgeback that would be equivalent to Trooper, that is, who could handle all of the challenges of the river. Alas, that didn’t exactly work out, or rather I couldn’t tell whether it had worked out. Ginger was “sweet,” but gave no evidence of being at Trooper’s level of protectiveness. An engineer insists upon evidence.

I don’t want to seem to totally reject “sweet.” “Sweet” is awfully nice to live with. In fact I have thought about that, from an engineering standpoint: perhaps “sweet” is affecting me in some beneficial way. Ginger isn’t on the alert the way Trooper was. If her head perks up it is because she hears some dog she might be able to play with. Trooper was on the lookout for trouble. Do I need a dog that is on the lookout for trouble? I don’t have a South African farm threatened by baboons. Perhaps a stray dog will wander by out front or a cat will hop up onto my back fence, but that’s about it. So perhaps “sweet” will suit me well enough in the future. But if my wife were to read this, she would take offense. Surely, Trooper was the “sweetest” dog in the world. Well, yeah, Susan, but he was also very alert for trouble. Ginger isn’t.

Sage too is “sweet,” but she is quite a bit edgier than Ginger. Sage looks out for trouble, and I must admit that Sage has proved herself. She has stood up to large stray dogs we have encountered at night. She also stood up to a large man I wasn’t sure wasn’t threatening us. So, perhaps it would be best to say that Sage provides a “nuance” of protectiveness I wasn’t previously aware of. Trooper was quick to go into a defensive posture if he saw what he perceived to be a threat. Sage won’t do that. She’ll wait until the threat is upon us and then explode. Trooper would stop the threat a long way off. Sage will stop it up close.

But what about competence at the river? Actually, both Ginger and Sage were able to switch seamlessly from chasing rabbits to chasing coyotes and feral dogs. They are large girls. Sage weighs 85 pounds and Ginger weighs perhaps 90. Most feral dogs aren’t that large and 175 pounds of Ridgeback bearing down upon them has caused them all to run. But we haven’t seen a large feral-dog pack down there since Trooper’s days, and if one should start up again I hope my girls won’t be as brash as Trooper was – and they probably wouldn’t be. Not only are they “sweet” but they are cautious. But I want to emphasize that there are two of these “sweet,” not quite up to Trooper’s standards, girls. If I had just Ginger I would still worry about her safety. I might not worry quite so much about Sage, if she were my only dog, but I would still worry. If I had another Trooper, I would not worry about trouble at the river.

Perhaps this current antagonistic breeder misunderstood my interest in “another breed.” She assumed I was unhappy with my Ridgebacks and wanted to switch away from them. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to “downsize” and still have two dogs. I recall that the combination of Trooper (very protective) and Heidi (a good watchdog) seemed perfect. Also, though Trooper (90 pounds) plus Heidi (55) pounds represented 145 pounds of canine, Trooper and Heidi never did the same thing at the same time. If Ginger and Sage and I were out on some farm road at night, when they were younger, and a rabbit darted across our path, there was 175 pounds of canine out to the ends of their leashes in a Ridgeback-instant. I had to work on that with them, and they don’t do that anymore, at least not as much. We were out last night and that very thing happened. Ginger didn’t move at all. Sage took a couple of steps toward the rabbit but stopped when I cautioned her; so we are good now. So why couldn’t I just become reconciled to having two Ridgebacks in the future? The puppyhood of two Ridgebacks seems daunting to me. Far better to get just one – and then some other, smaller breed if I feel a need for two dogs.

So what is there to fight about, in all this? I’m not quite sure. When someone is standing off cursing you and shouting at you, you can tell they are mad about something, but if they won’t calm down, and apparently such people can’t, then you can never know what is bothering them. I just hope that the Anti-Terrorist Task force doesn’t show up at my door again.

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