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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Elder

Function shapes form

“Form follows function.”

These three words are often cited to explain the paramount importance of breeding to the breed standard. The breed standard was developed in an attempt to codify what features make each breed unique and what features of form, temperament, movement, and work define the breed. The breed standard is put forth, after the breed has been developed, as a guide for breeding dogs that look like the breed. Consistency in the form that was proven by the functional breed foundation to be the ideal form to do the job becomes the defining look for the breed.

The function came first.

The breed was developed to move cattle.

The breed was selected for and bred by early cattlemen from a certain population of dogs doing the actual job.

The form was, much later, set down as the “standard” form by breeders of the time.

This form was said to be the form best suited to their function. The standard was developed not in order to select better working dogs but to compete in shows – not shows of function, but shows of form.

The function formed the breed.

The preferred ideal form was then set down into a standard. The show dog was born to compete for the prize of who was considered closest to that idealized form without considering their ability to function.

Breeding evolved from breeding for the function to breeding for the form. The interpretation of what is called for in the standard has always been a matter for much debate and there is, indeed, plenty of room, in those written words of the standard, for various drift this way or that way according to the breeder’s physical preferences. Those preferences are heavily influenced, in many cases, by what will win in the show ring. Little attention, in the show fancy, is paid to the function and what variation of form is best for that.

Breeders spend a lot of time searching for a dog to breed or to breed to that will give them that elusive detail of structure that will provide the competitive advantage for their next big show winner. The proving of their correctness is done with wins in the breed ring not in the working field.

At some point, people have started breeding form for form’s sake and left function behind. There is no attempt to check that form against function to see if it is indeed a useful construction. It is assumed that since a judge at a show tells them their dog is a winner and it belongs to the breed, it, therefore, is exactly the form for the function. Over generations of drift, the prevailing form is, in many cases, a caricature of an athletic, functional, working dog. Bodies become gross and heavy, overdone or severely underdone angulation, heads trending towards mastiff bulk, but who doesn't love the teddy bear puppies!

There is little to no attempt to breed for more or better function. The form, the outer shell, of the dog has become the ideal and the function, the bones and meat of a breed, is irrelevant to so-called preservation breeders, preserving a look but not a breed. The true Australian cattle dog is a functional working dog. The proof of function is the work. The proof of form is the successful functioning of a moderate athlete doing the work of the breed.

The ACD standard states, “The dog’s prime function and one in which he has no peer, is the control and movement of cattle in both wide open and confined areas.”

If people breed for excellence in that function, they will have the correct form. It is how the breed came into being. It is the essence of the breed. The correctly functioning dog is the epitome of the breed.

If people breed only for a form, they will continue to drift away from a functional dog - a dog who can no longer do the work, a dog with peers or, worse, superiors in moving cattle.

As it continues on, without any work experience and functional evaluation of the drifting form, the dog will not only no longer be able to do the work but also will no longer have the correct form for that function.

Function sets form. Without working function, there is no system of ongoing checks and balances on the form. There is no longer a form related to a working function. The breed moves, inevitably, towards a new form - the form of a dog whose function is winning a dog show.

Form follows function. What is your dog's function? What choices are you making in breeding a form to support that function and how relevant are those choices to a working dog? Or are you, instead, breeding for the function of show dog? What are you emphasizing in breeding selections?

“Any feature of temperament or structure foreign to a working dog must be regarded as a serious fault.”

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