Uncanny Minor Differences

At my very first dog show, my mother and I were watching the Australian Shepherds massing at ringside before their turn to trot around the ring and my mother commented, “that one looks just like a Border Collie.”  The handler’s curt and offended response was “you know, that’s not a compliment.”  I just laughed, because the response was so unexpected and so orthogonal to the intent of the remark.  Looking like a Border Collie is a high honor in this family.

But the offense the Aussie breeder took speaks to the reality of the Narcissism of Minor Differences:

“the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.”

It is more important to this breeder that her dog not be confused with a Border Collie than it would be if it was confused with a more distantly related dog like a German Shepherd or a Flat-coat.  A gross misidentification wouldn’t really speak to the merits of her dog, unless it kept happening; but a common misidentification is clearly more grating because it threatens the communal identity of her breed; and similar looking breeds are more likely to get confused for eachother.  In the show world, the realm of Platonic ideals, things that are different need to look different.  And even if the differences are small, the appearance should accentuate what is not the same and perhaps obfuscate the similarities.

Is that a Border Collie, Aussie, or English Shepherd?

It doesn’t matter that the list of attributes that describe both the Australian Shepherd and the Border Collie is much longer than the list of qualities which separates them.  I suspect that it wouldn’t take a lot of searching to find an Australian Shepherd with a tail, a Border Collie, and an English Shepherd that would be indistinguishable from looks and conformation alone.  Perhaps you could even find such dogs that would share a great deal of temperament and behavior as well.  There are Border Collies who work more upright than crouched and there are Aussies that show stronger eye.  Form does follow function and it’s entirely conceivable that a moderately sized cattle farm could chose any of our three look-alike breeds (or others) to satisfy their demands.

But this was a formal conformation event where some breeders are so eager to accentuate the differences that they work to create a line of dogs within their breed that is distinguishable from others in the same breed by looks alone.  Have a look at these Border Collies and you can easily see what this particular breeder has chosen as their signature:

Can you hear me now?

I don’t know if those ridiculous ears are accentuating a difference–they are genetically/physically different than many other BC ears–or if they are obfuscating a similarity–those ears would look normal but for the breeder artificially styling them with tape and braces to establish a look that is not passed along in the genes; but, those ears are clearly being used as a trademark aesthetic of this breeder.  My gut reaction to these “Sheltie Ears” is disgust that is likely generated by the NoMD. I don’t mind those ears on Shelties or Collies, but they look disproportionatly out of place on a Border Collie.  They’re otherwise handsome dogs save for the radar dish ears.  To me, these particular Border Collies fall down the “uncanny valley,” being in many respects more similar to the Border Collies I cherish than the Australian and English Shepherds depicted above, but my feeling toward them is unsettling.

But unlike the sheeple and showple I describe in the previous post, I don’t feel that there should be institutional barriers between these dogs and mine.  I do not need a registry to prevent me from breeding to these dogs nor do I need a conformation breed standard that would tell me that those ears are correct and ideal for the breed (let alone pretend that they are not the work of glue and tape instead of inherent and inheritable conformation).

But the sheeple would tell me that those dogs are Barbie Collies so I can’t breed to them in their sand box, and the showple would tell me that some of the dogs in the previous image are not purebred Border Collies and thus I can’t breed to them in their sand box.  Neither of them seem to appreciate that when you make your sand box so small by kicking other people and their dogs out of it, the only thing it’s good for is to collect cat feces.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.