I've been following the results of the AKC Agility Nationals and it's been a very good year for Aussies! There were 4 Aussies in the finals of the 20" category and a few that missed it by the skin of their teeth. Lisa and Dust, my favorite team, finished 23rd out of approx. 200 dogs and deserve a huge round of applause. Lisa has some film clips on her blog and they are impressive!
Nonetheless, I have to rant a little bit about a topic I feel strongly about, that is Aussies and agility, and well... this is an agility blog so what better place ;-) And I know it's a political topic, but what the heck
The reason is that friend after friend and acquaintance after acquaintance who started out in the agility/performance world with Aussies or with something else and expressed the desire to get an Aussie as a second dog at some point is getting a border collie instead. Conversely, I also know of a few people who got Aussies for agility and are somewhat disappointed with what they have. Not that they don't love their dogs, of course, we all love our dogs to pieces. Yes, it's hard not to agree that there is a higher likelihood of getting a dog that can be highly competitive when comparing the average border collie to the average Aussie and I've been reading my Aussie and agility lists ever since I got hooked up to the internet (1998?), so I've witnessed all these arguments being rehashed, but here's my biased tak on this anyway.
I really think hardly anyone breeds Aussies for performance events like agility/frisbee/flyball. Breeders are divided into three main camps, the strictly conformation breeders (who, of course, will claim that temperament is also of primary importance for them, but suffice to say the various definitions of good temperament are not necessarily compatible), the strictly working breeders (as in working stock) and the versatility breeders (breeding for what they call "the total package"). My observations of strictly working bred dogs are non-conclusive. I've seen some that were awesome and I've seen some that basically just trotted along the course without much enthusiasm. Yes, they have been bred with emphasis on cooperating with a human, but well... chasing balls and tugging with passion are not required traits for stockdogs. So I've seen quite a few who simply run to please their owners, but would much rather be working cattle than waiting for their hot-dog tug at the end of the run. Nonetheless, I still think their structure and physical attributes are usually better for performance events than those of the typically show-bred dogs. I've seen some really enthusiastic show-bred Aussies in agility that simply lack this little edge which they would have if they had a bit less bone, a few pounds less, a bit more length of back and a bit more angulation in the rear.
So-called versatility breeders would seem to be the ones to fill the gap, but I don't think they always do. At least not most. Aiming for a balancing act between working ability and good looks and an outgoing temperament does not necessarily lead to fast and driven dogs. Plus, I have the sneaky feeling that many so-called versatility breeders are really interested in conformation, but they understand it differently than the typical show-breeders and aim for getting an Aussie that looks more like the old-style Aussies. BTW I love this type of dog, I just don't think these selection criteria for breeding dogs are necessarily going to produce a good performance line. Of course, sometimes they do!
And then there's the perennial question of WHY would anyone want to focus on performance events requiring drive nad speed. Wouldn't that be in some way unethical? Aren't breeders supposed to be breeding dogs that look and behave according to the breed standard? How can you choose to reproduce an Aussie that wants her frisbee more than her sheep and claim to be preserving the breed? And the breed standard has nothing to say about weaving, catching frisbees or doing swimmer's turns on flyball boxes. It describes appearance, temperament and working ability. In fact, I've heard the accusation (many times) that the really nice agility dogs have ATYPICAL temperaments for Aussies. They're hyper, hard to live with and generally nuts. Actually, I have not found this to be true regarding the best agility Aussies I've met (or owned). Usually, if they're hyper and over the top, they're not going to be biddable enough to get the control required by sports like agility.
And then the question of is it possible to breed for traits that are required in events invented by bored middle-class city slickers? Working instinct and style are clearly inherited, as are nice heads and fluffy coats. But are speed and drive inherited traits? Not to mention things like weaving style or catch-ratio in disc-dogging ;-)
Maybe they're not, but I still think that if you breed fast and biddable to fast and biddable, you're bound too end up with more dogs that are fast and biddable than if you breed nice head to fluffy coat.
And in a way the split between conformation lines and working lines shows how differently people can understand "breeding for the standard." I'm sure responsible conformation breeders and responsible working breeders are absolutely certain that they're both working for the good of the breed and yet they end up with such totally different "products."
But because hardly anyone breeds Aussies strictly for performance events it's VERY hard to find a good one. Yes, I'm sure many pop up in all kinds of breedings, but if someone is looking specifically for an agility dog (intense toy drive, food drive, good structure, focus and biddability), then it is a lottery. And because no one breeds with non-stock performance events in mind, people looking for an Aussie for such events turn to border collies.