Breed Conservation for the English Shepherd

By Carolyn Christman and Rebecca Wingler

This is an update and expansion an essay written September 21, 2003 by Carolyn Christman.

Part Three.   How to Craft a Philosophy of Breeding for the English Shepherd

A philosophy of breeding is an individual journey that starts with two questions: Why am I a dog breeder? How does my work fit to support the overall breed? A breeder’s philosophy will evolve with experience and also over time. It is crafted by knowing one’s favorite strengths and interests and capacity. And it is crafted by finding a place at the breeders’ table and appreciating the work of others.

In answer to the first question, some feel a calling to share and then pass along the genetic legacy of an animal breed. They take the responsibility seriously and studiously learn the breed’s history and status, as well as the necessary skills of managing breeding stock and rearing young. They must also learn the deft and diplomatic skills of choosing buyers and mentoring the breed’s new human participants.

Others wander somewhat aimlessly into this role. They have a likeable animal or two and decide it would be interesting to breed them. This may work well; they may have a knack for the work and develop skills and knowledge along the way and end up making a contribution as well as gaining a philosophy in hindsight. Or it may be a mess.

Phil Sponenberg writes: “A basic and guiding philosophy is the single most critical component of any breeder’s program. A breeder’s first task is the development of a specific purpose in breeding animals. This may seem obvious, but it is very often overlooked, with the results that breeding is done with little progress toward any goal. Perhaps even worse than an aimless approach is a breeding program that chases after the fads dictated by the show ring or by other people. …”

“A philosophy of breeding combines the elements of genetics, selection, and husbandry to accomplish a specific goal or goals. If a philosophy is in place, every animal and every mating can be evaluated relative to the goal, giving purpose and identity to the herd or flock.”

Breeds prosper when the breed community supports breeders and they, in turn, support one another and the whole breed. This includes sharing information such as pedigrees and health data. It includes providing accurate and timely paperwork for owners and an introduction to the breed club and registry.

Success also includes the realization that the person I just cussed out on the Internet is the one breeding that really good outcross I’ll need in five years!

Breeders work under the umbrella of the standard and the breed’s history, and they also have slightly different priorities and selection practices. If ES breeders are all working toward the same goal with somewhat different strategies, some folks are likely to do it right.

Today’s rapid fire internet communication systems create challenges to all breed group dynamics and congeniality. Years ago, an angry response meant hand typed letters and using the copy machine at the post office. The best way to build relationships and friendships is in person, at ES Gatherings and through farm visits, and reaching out to others. It may take time for younger and less experienced breeders to become part of the network, yet it is worthwhile to seek out mentors with shared interests and philosophies.

Across North America, around the world, and through time, rare breeds of domestic animals have been saved only by the stubbornness and persistence of individual breeders. These “old codgers,” and some young codgers, have often defied the advice of economists and expert animal breeders and kept on working and using the historic stocks that their families had always had. This is the essential first step of independence, and it will save breeds temporarily.

But the second step is working with a whole community. If the “codgers” stay alone and guarded, their stocks will certainly be lost. Instead, working together, we can keep the breed on the payroll, selecting for historic type, letting stocks adapt to the times without being transformed: that is true stewardship.

Stewardship means protecting the legacy that we have inherited from the breeders who came before us and passing it along to the next generation. That is the goal of having a philosophy, so that each person’s work builds to this goal.


D. Phillip Sponenberg and Carolyn Christman. 1995. A Conservation Breeding Handbook. Pittsboro, NC: The Livestock Conservancy.   (This is the precursor book to the other references.)