Sunday, October 25, 2009

How to Breed the Perfect Dog

Levi is the finest example possible of a well bred dog. Note the classic line of his body, the expressive face. He weighs in at 70 pounds, as densely packed as a fireplug, yet he’s compact enough that his body only comes to my knees, with the exception of his head and splendidly carried tail. Observe that noble head, its perfect sense of proportion that completes this masterwork of canine engineering. Man may have bred a finer dog at some time, but I’d have to see it to believe it.

Levi is no recognizable breed, but he certainly looks like he should be.

Nor, however, is he an accident of nature and circumstance, as most mixed-breed dogs are. No, Levi is the byproduct of selective human intervention going back at least ten (dog) generations, perhaps many more.

Usually, with a mutt, you just don’t know what you have. You have a combination of half-dozen or more breeds, and when someone asks, “What kind of dog is that,” the only appropriate answer is, “I have no idea, but had I been present at his conception, I surely would have turned a hose on his parents." I’ve owned and loved a lot of dogs like that; this is not the case with Levi.

Levi is a product of Abeytas, New Mexico, perhaps the finest product ever produced by that tiny hamlet just south of Belen. Abeytas is inhabited primarily, if not totally, by the extended family of my friend, Rick Abeyta. Rick’s an impressive guy.  He built his beautiful house by hand, now takes care of his grandchildren, works as a senior investigator at the public defender’s office, and is just an all around good citizen. Aware of all these virtues, I still maintain that Rick’s finest achievement is the experimental dog breeding program that thrives on ancestral land that has belonged to Rick’s family since some time in the 1600s.

Rick probably won’t like it, but I am prepared to reveal the details of his breeding program, in the hope that his practices will be emulated by animal husbandry enthusiasts across the land, so more dogs like Levi will be born. Recognizing that my tone that could be mistaken for sarcasm, let me assure you that I am completely serious in my praise of Rick, and his family's, highly unconventional breeding program.

Life in rural New Mexico provides unlimited opportunity for unplanned pregnancy of mongrel dogs. Dog generations back, Rick began to select breeding dogs based not on pedigree, but upon good, New Mexico, common sense. If Rover and Lassie (these names are for theoretical purposes only, of course) are both healthy dogs and each possesses the most important characteristic, the litter will have at least some puppies who combine the genetics of the parents into an even more perfect template of what a dog should be. Those puppies are then bred with other dogs that have been created using similar criteria, and, again, in their litters there will be puppies who equal more than the sum of the parts of their already superior parents.

I’ve witnessed Rick’s breeding program for years and have marveled at the results. For many years, Lolita, a relative of Levi’s from several generations back, lived in our pack. She was the most beautiful, jet-black, silky-haired, long-legged, shepherd I’ve ever seen. I say “shepherd” because she had a wolf-like shape, as does Levi. I don’t think anyone could pinpoint what she was really made of, where one “breed” stopped and another began.

I could, and one day will, write about the particulars of Lolita’s personality, but for now please accept that she was the most loving, good humored, spectacular dog that I’ve ever owned, purebred Seeing Eye dogs, and Levi, included. Her one downside was that she could fly. Literally. She could hop over a seven foot fence like I can step over a matchbox. Since we couldn’t keep her in a cage, like a parakeet, she often flew away, only to return when she felt like it. In this sense, only, Lolita was not a perfect dog.

Levi, carrying many of the same genes as Lolita, is a more refined version of his progenitor that irons out some of her kinks, mainly the “being able to fly” stuff. He has Lolita’s exalted looks and, more importantly, her splendid character. Lolita and Levi are the two smartest, kindest, and most thoughtful dogs I’ve ever been lucky enough to spend time with. In future entries in this blog, I’ll make my case for that, but for the time being, just accept it as fact.

To me, Levi looks like the ur-dog, like a dog “should” look, and did look, when their breeding habits were left to what some call "chance," but what is actually natural selection. It is whispered in the streets of Abeytas that there’s a touch of the coyote and the wolf in Rick’s line of dogs. I believe that. Levi and Lolita both have more cunning than ordinary dogs, more endurance, and, most indefinably, more pure and wild animal wisdom. Furthermore, the only dogs I've ever owned who required non-routine veterinary care have been the purebred Seeing Eye dogs. Levi and Lolita have never seen a vet for any reason besides vaccinations and a yearly once-over.

In a sense Rick is breeding backward, moving ever further from the pedigree. But the purebred dog, as we know it, is a relatively modern innovation, and what Rick breeds is something far purer than any such animal.
Purebred dogs aren’t natural. It’s been my experience that they are far more prone to disorders necessitating expensive veterinarian care than are mongrels. Given that my main experience with purebred dogs has been with Seeing Eye dogs, which might be the most carefully and scientifically bred dogs in history, I can’t doubt for a moment the proposition that the genetic diversity of mixed breeds makes them healthier and more vigorous than purebreds. All of my experience confirms this. I love purebreds, but I’m much happier with a genuine dog.

Rick is restoring the dog to its more ancient glory, to a time when man and dog had a symbiotic, and, to my mind, more vitally meaningful, relationship, to the time New Mexico was harsh and unforgiving, when both men and dogs had harder, wilder, lives than we do. Levi has that spark of the ancient in his eyes, that selfsame aura that permeates the mountains and forests and canyons of the Land of Enchantment. Though unofficial, Levi is the State Dog of New Mexico, and I’m more proud of him than I could be of any purebred that won Best of Show at Westminster, because, to my mind, Levi is Best if Species.

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands
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a. bendelow said...

You forgot to mention how convincing a method actor Levi is, as this video of him in action on the Wilson Ave. Dog Beach proves:

Rich Sands said...

As is clearly demonstrated, Levi went to SAVE the "victim". Upon closer examination, it became clear to Levi that the "victim" probably had it coming for one reason or the other. He's an extraordinary judge of character!

Rich Sands said...

And, anyway, I'm not whitewashing. There will be many posts concerning Levi's occassional less-than-noble behavior that results from his puppyhood trauma. The thing is, I only have a little room each day (750-1500 words). When I post about his "problems" I'll be sure to link to your video. Thanks for reading, a. bendelow, and Dog be with you always.

TheMidnightWriter said...

Hi, I just love reading your stories Darling, and what people are saying about you makes me wish I lived closer to watch how well you Master in training Dogs, Best Regards.
The Midnight Writer

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