Four years ago I wrote about Scottish Terrier wisdom in terms of their never forgetting friends in ‘low’ places (March 4, 2009). I pointed out that our dogs’ loyalty to low places comes naturally to them since being down-to-earth is their natural habitat. By contrast,
“It’s not natural to some of us. To the upwardly mobile, origins in ‘low places’ can be an embarrassment and avoiding friends from humble beginnings can become a priority. Like someone with dyed hair, we fear exposing our roots.”
Our dogs are object-lessons to us in the art of staying grounded, part of which means we don’t turn our backs on friends in low places.
Further reflection convicts me of the fact that disowning humble origins is precisely how we began our journey with the Scottish Terrier. The rough, non-standard working Scotch terrier we fancied from the Scottish Highlands was not good enough for our urban tastes by the turn of the 20th century when the Scottish Terrier Club of America was franchised by the American Kennel Club (1900). So we set about through a closed stud-book and intensive linebreeding to improve the ‘Diehard’ from the old country into a dog worthy of upscale, urban tastes.
As I wrote in the 1st Quarter, 2013, issue of Great Scots Magazine (”Big Truth in Little Dogs’ Bodies”):
What this means for modern dogs is that in the century of major population migration in the U.S. from rural to urban centers between 1850-1950—that is, the period when American culture morphed from agrarian ways and values to urban life-styles and euphemized it as “upward mobility”—we redefined and reshaped not only our communities and families, not only our homes, work and our leisure, but we also redefined and re-made our terriers to suit upscaled tastes. The new professionalized sport of dogs standardized breeds just as we standardized city codes and automobiles and tract neighborhoods, reshaping our dogs, including Scottish Terriers, into ‘fancy’ versions of what they once were.
This ‘make-over’ by the dog fancy goes unnoticed today in Scottish Terrier circles because we’ve never known anything else. Way before our time the Scottish Terrier came under the rule of the American Kennel Club in 1900, so the working terrier originals behind our dogs are out of sight and out of mind. We forget that the handsome Scottie we have today, complete with genetic link to bladder cancer 20 to 30 times greater than any other dog and with rapidly declining longevity, is a modern urban invention, something that never existed in the highlands of Scotland in the days before kennel clubs. What lived and hunted there was not a ‘breed’ as we know it, but a terrier type sculpted by function without regulations or pedigrees, regularly out-crossed to improve stamina and effectiveness as a hunter, and so, diverse, not uniform, in details of appearance and genetics. Today’s Scottish Terrier breed is the ostensive ‘improved’ version, made handsomely uniform, it’s true, but tragically deconstructed, a genetic shadow of the original ‘diehard’ dogs bred to work. We forget ….
It’s worth asking why we changed the old Scotch terrier formula, why we thought details of appearance should occupy our official attention, and why we thought we knew more about what these dogs should be than his originators? The answer is simple, if arrogant: to urban values appearance and show are everything … and since power and money reside in the city, ‘they know best’!
I’m not shy to say this chauvanism is little more than a conquistador spirit turned loose in dog circles. It is arrogant, exploitative, and self-absorbed, and has no place in the ethics of stewardship and husbandry. Stewardship and husbandry first and foremost, require deep reverence and deeper ties of blood, sweat, and tears. They require these virtues because stewardship and husbandry are fundamentally not about us, our wishes and tastes, our will, but about safeguarding, preserving, and faithfully passing on a gift received that transcends us. Faithful stewardship is not license to re-write the book of the Scotch terrier. That is piracy, or in modern urban parlance, a hostile takeover.
Reflecting on our beginnings in 1900 and the trajectory of deconstruction set in motion at that time, I see tragic irony in the fact that today the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ being mentored among our breed’s gatekeepers is not to the terrier who was our gift-in-trust from the Highlands, but faithfulness to the arbitrary standard that changed him.
I say arbitrary because our problems today in the Scottish Terrier gene pool are not because we have a standard; our problems exist because we set the wrong standard. We chose form over fitness, glamor over genetics, and thus trivialized ourselves and this dog by reducing him and our stewardship to show rather than substance. And because we spent the first 95 years of our breed’s history officially fixated on gathering accurate show records without even the first health record—blind to health records essential to track and to correct what our inbreeding was doing to the health of our dogs—we deconstructed the ‘diehard’ as surely as urban ‘developers’ in the 1970s bulldozed the classic, landmark Fred Harvey Alvarado Hotel in downtown Albuquerque because it was old and didn’t fit city planners’ ideals for urban renewal.
This mind-set has to do with the whole conundrum of ‘progress’ which breezily presumes that whatever is new is to be preferred, whatever is ‘modern’ is superior, whatever is ‘upscale’ is better, whatever is quick and convenient and easy is the path to follow, and above all that money and winning define the good life. The old Scotch terrier survived the cold and brutal dangers of his native Scotland but he didn’t stand a chance against the glitz of modernity.
We could have chosen a different trajectory for the modern Scottish Terrier back when it all began if our eyes had been on substantive not superficial measures as breed standard. We didn’t choose substance because, frankly, we had our own life-as-sport agenda. There existed, after all, a model we could have followed—the old one prizing work and fitness that produced the tough terrier type in the Scottish highlands that caught our urban fancy in the first place.
But our self-centered modernity had no grace for rustic highlanders dictating the shape of dogs to come. They may have created the rugged, lovable terrier, but just as today in Jack Russell Terrier circles, we knew we could vastly improve upon crude beginnings. What, after all, could folk ways contribute to a modern sport of dogs? Our new blueprint for urbanizing their cobby little dog into ‘best in show’ would be success for all in every way!
And so we made facile choice of breed standard without realizing that eclipsing health by handsome would in time ruin the dog we love. In fairness, ignorance of genetics chose that superficial appearance-based standard in the beginning. The graver sin is our blindly clinging to that destructive choice a century later, long after we know better. “We came with vision but not with sight. We came with visions … but not the sight to see” (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America).
The rest, as they say, is history—leading straight to present National Institutes of Health bladder cancer research using the Scottish Terrier as worst case canine gene pool.
As I reflect on the history of our modern stewardship of the Scottish Terrier it is palpably clear to me that we’re on a destructive trajectory because we began with disloyalty. We began our journey with the little working terrier from the Western Highlands of Scotland ashamed of him as he was and determined to give him a ‘make-over’ to suit fancy, uptown ways. And because we were ashamed of our gift-in-trust from the country and conscious of city judges and standards we bred out of our Scotties the ‘country’ and bred into him our facile urban image–to his ruin and to our shame.
Now, with our dogs as worst case bladder cancer canine gene pool for the National Institutes of Health’s genetic bladder cancer research, I wonder whether it’s too late for us to learn from the ‘Diehard’ the lesson of loyalty we abandoned at the beginning. Loyalty is never an abstraction … it is a very down-to-earth, down home, every day kind of virtue. I wonder if there is still time for Scottish Terrier gatekeepers to embrace mindfully and appreciatively what we’ve been at pains for over a century to eradicate: the humble and ‘lowly’ in the dogs we all say we love.
Joseph Harvill, publisher of Great Scots Magazine