Fri, 02/07/2020 - 4:09pm

Good Fences

A classic poem offers some surprising advice about breed type

You probably read Robert Frost’s iconic 1914 poem “Mending Wall” in high school. You know, the one with the famous punch line: “Good fences make good neighbors.” That one.

Now, re-read it as a dog person: Each spring, Frost and his neighbor walk the fence line separating their properties, each heaving the tumbled rocks of their shared stone wall back in place. Think of his property as the breed you love, and the stone wall as its breed standard.

At the start of the poem, Frost contemplates the unseen forces that cause his fence to unravel over winter.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

That “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” is the same obstinate, unrelenting force against which all dog breeders press their shoulders: Nature, pure and simple. Just as she heaves the ground during winter and washes away foundations, so too does she constantly, quietly, seek to blur the differences between dogs. So we continue to build – and rebuild – the partitions between our various breeds, especially those that are closely related: Think Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound, Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky, Australian and Silky terriers, Mastiff and Bullmastiff. Unless we constantly mend the metaphoric fences that differentiate these breeds – that is, unless we relentlessly maintain those characteristics outlined in the standard – Nature will continue her capriciousness, eventually eliminating the boundaries that make a breed unique.

Every property’s topography is different, and in some places fences are weaker than others. In dogs, we give extra attention to those delicate areas where type can give way. This is why knowledgeable Cane Corso fanciers and judges, for example, put such emphasis on convergent head places: Permit parallel planes, and you are inviting that Neo to bound across your crumbling fence. (And there are indeed athletic Neos. You just haven't look hard enough to find them.)

Back to Frost:

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. …

Field breeders know the value of sheer heart over conformation. Their dogs excel based on what they do, not how they look, and as a result their stone walls are often in a bit more disarray. If the shortest route to bagging their prey requires blowing a hole in the carefully tended fence that is type, many will do it.

Those who want dogs that satisfy both form and function need to think about whether their fence is to be an active barrier or merely ornamental – and where the tipping point is. The Connecticut countryside is dotted with dilapidated fieldstone fences that in some cases have not been tended in a century or more. They are still visible, but not very pretty (an overused word used relentlessly in our sport, despite appearing in no standard I know). By comparison, think of the effort those original fence builders expended, digging up stones and then painstakingly interlocking them without benefit of mortar so their creation could survive the test of time, just as German tax collector Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann and South Carolina hunter L.W. Boykin did for their eponymous breeds. Doesn’t that level of commitment and vision deserve at least a modicum of tending?

All this does beg the question of whether the opposite can be true: Is it possible to have too much fence? I think so: We can become so wrapped up with the aesthetics of a fence that its stability is compromised – what our canine colleagues across the pond call hypertype. Or we become so enamored of an incongruent or inappropriate style, like a pueblo-worthy stucco fence in New England, that the connection between the architecture and the terrain that inspired it is lost. In those cases, the best solution often is to create an altogether new breed, as became the case with English and American cocker spaniels.

… The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

While he theoretically could maintain the fence himself, Frost makes a point of calling his neighbor to do it each year. This not only saves time, but also provides a different perspective, as a fence looks different depending on whether you stand inside its boundaries or outside them.

Time and again, we hear experienced dog people say that learning others breeds helps us with our own, and they say it because it is true. Our fences may be substantially different – some made of granite, others of limestone, some high and imposing, others low and pastoral. But their similarities as well as differences can be instructive as we learn how other fences compare to our own.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. …

Just like the differently sized stones that make up Frost’s fence, so too do our breed standards describe traits with varying degrees of importance. The biggest boulders create the foundation, and so their presence is mandatory. When that has been satisfied, then breeders and judges alike can turn with pleasure to the smaller stones, the finer details appreciated by connoisseurs that are the maraschino cherry atop the sundae.

Frost is right that there seems to be an otherworldly force that both keeps a fence’s stones in place, and also causes them to topple. In dogs, we are reminded of this when the meticulously planned, perfect-on-paper breeding turns into a Godzilla movie, while the “oops” produces the next national-specialty winner. Pure, sheer dumb luck is the often unmentioned component in successfully breeding purebred dogs. But we make our own luck, some would argue, so perhaps intention plays a key role, too. If I had to bet who was more successful keeping his stones in place – the questioning, wavering Frost or his single-minded neighbor – I would without hesitation say the latter.

… It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

In the short term, I suppose Frost is right: If we have two completely different breeds that are as different as pine and apple trees – say, a Chihuahua and a Great Dane – what is the risk if there is no fence? If that Chihuahua is a bit oversized and that Dane is not as, well, great in size? But in the long view, if we all left our metaphorical fences untended, Nature would drive the species across the great open expanse toward the path of least resistance, which is pariah or primitive type. And so in the end every dog would look like a Canaan Dog.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

In this passage I hear the newcomers, those young breeders rubbing their hands over their first litter in the box, secure in their knowledge because they do not yet know what they do not know. Or sitting ringside next to a successful senior breeder, lobbing out those “Why not?” questions that only drive the latter deeper into a disapproving silence.

But Frost’s poem – which so cleverly expresses his ambivalence about the fence even as he acknowledges its necessity – reminds us that in dogs not everything is cut and dried. Some of the most successful breeders across vastly different breeds in the sport have punched holes in their fences, because what was on the other side in the end was a greater benefit than a threat. (Think of Tobin Jackson and his, er, creative license in the Mastiff. And if you don’t know the details of that fascinating story of transgression and transformation – hello Great Dane, hello St. Bernard – find an old-time Mastiff person to tell it to you.)

Sometimes it is fair to look at a fence and ask “Why?” Other times, not. It is experience and intuition that help us make the distinction.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Today, with nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment on the rise and the building of fences a symbol for something menacing in our culture, Frost’s “Mending Fence” is often interpreted as a plea for tolerance and diversity. Frost does see his neighbor as a bit of a rube, fueled by ignorance and blind tradition, “moving in darkness.”

The difference with dogs, of course, is that we exult in the great diversity of our breeds. This is why in Group and Best in Show competition, dogs are not compared to each other – how can one declare the primacy of an apple over a pine cone? – but rather against their own ideal. We welcome each newcomer not with suspicion, but rather with curiosity. We build and maintain our walls in order to maintain our differences, while all the while celebrating them.

The long-ago father of Frost’s neighbor understood the importance of creating clear boundaries before problems arise, as they inevitably do. The simple aphorism he passed down – “Good fences make good neighbors” – intimates at the many scenarios he encountered to make him believe so. Isn’t that the hardest thing in dogs – to take the sage advice of those who came before, to learn from their mistakes rather than insisting on repeating them ourselves?

Even harder, though, is deciding what not to take at face value – when, if at all, to breech the fence and reset boundaries.

Just like the properties we call our own, our breeds are only ours for a finite time. The fence lines were set by those who came before us, and those who came before them. We can only tend them, and then we too must pass them on. Sometimes, in deference to our times, we make minor adjustments, though hopefully with great deliberation and sensitivity. After all, the stones we use and the patterns in which we arrange them will have an impact that far exceeds our tenure.

Choose your stones wisely, and mend your fences accordingly.

 

 

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