Not being one to shy away from conflict, debate, and the chance to change my mind or learn something new, I contacted the breeders involved in mating merle dogs to merle dogs and asked them about their experience and justifications in creating and using a double merle. This is the letter I sent them:
Greetings Matt and Anita,
My name is Christopher and I’m a hobby Border Collie breeder from Denver. I have a few questions regarding your dog Wyndlair Avalanche, specifically his role as a homozygous merle and your experience with that.
If you have a moment, I hope you can help give me a breeder’s perspective on your experience. Here are my questions:
* Was the Southland’s Beyond the Glory x Twin City Wyndlair Anthem breeding planned to create a double merle? Did you know this was a possible outcome before the breeding? How many double merle puppies did you get from that breeding?
* Are both parents obvious merles or was either a cryptic?
* Both of Avalanche’s parents and many of his progeny are show champions. It doesn’t appear that Avalanche is one himself. Was he shown? What elements prevented his Championship if any.
* Does Avalanche suffer any major or minor issues suspected to be the result of his MM status? Any issues believed unrelated to his MM status?
* Do or did any of the other puppies from his litter, especially any other MMs, have any issues that are believed to be related to the Merle gene?
* How many puppies from his litter were viable and survived to a year old? Were any stillborn or near birth failures? Are all of the littermates still alive? How would you characterize the litter size compared to average Rough Collies or any other litters the dam whelped?
* Some breeds seem to tolerate double merles better, for example there have been historical double merle sires in Shetland Sheepdogs. How would you assess the Rough Collies in this respect? Are there other notable MM sires or dams historically? Are there others that are currently active? To the best of your knowledge, have any of them suffered MM related illness or dysfunction?
* What plan or goal did or do you have for Avalanche as part of a breeding program that influenced you to create an MM dog versus a single Merle dog? How did you weigh the benefits vs. risks? What was your logic before breeding Avalanche and has your assessment changed now? Would you pursue an MM dog again?
* What advice would you offer to another breeder interested in the Merle gene? What lessons have you learned that you’d want to pass along?
* What sort of reception, critique, etc. have you gotten regarding Avalanche being a double merle? Have you found this to be controversial or accepted? Has there been a difference in reception from other breeds with merle versus those breeds which reject merle? Have you had any issues registering your dogs with the kennel club? How about the breed club?
Many thanks for your time and expertise,
Astraean Border Collies
This is the response I received, unedited and in full, from the breeders of Wyndlair Avalanche, the blind and deaf Rough Collie I profiled before. Emphasis mine.
Thank you for your inquiry about Aiden and your list of questions about the merle gene in Collies. You have obviously put a lot of thought into the subject of MM’s. Hopefully, I can provide some perspective from our experiences in the Collie breed and answer some of your questions. It sounds as though the merle gene may behave a little differently in your breed than it does in Collies.
Our decision to do a merle-to-merle breeding was the result of a couple years of frustration in not being able to find a quality non-merle stud dog that had the temperament, health, soundness, pedigree and breed type that we work to maintain in our breeding program. It was not a decision made lightly, but after much thought and consideration. Doing a merle-to-merle breeding should only be done by experienced and knowledgeable breeders, and only when a suitable non-merle with the desired quality is not available. Aiden’s sire and dam, both wonderful examples of correct Collie type, temperament and health as called for in the Collie standard, were the perfect complements to each other. Our hope in doing the breeding was not to produce a MM, but that is ultimately what we got. Aiden was a singleton puppy with no other littermates conceived. He has always been extremely healthy, happy and robust. He always has a smile on his face and his tail never stops wagging. Being a MM, you wouldn’t show him, as phenotypically he doesn’t appear as a recognized breed color. Genotypically, he is a blue merle with an additional merle gene.
We have never experienced or heard of any health issues in the Collie breed tied to the merle gene. Litter sizes, health and vigor are just as strong as with non-merles. Both Collies and Shelties have had notable MM producers of dogs without any illness or dysfunction. Each of the offspring of a MM inherit a single merle gene and are normal merles, phenotypically and genotypically.
I can’t say I fully understand your question about a “specific interest in (or quest for?) the merle gene.” Color is immaterial in the Collie breed. The breeder’s goal is solely to improve quality. Color is no object.
Aiden has been very well-received by the Collie fancy. He has more than fulfilled that promise we foresaw in the breeding. Those that know him personally know the wonderful dog that he is, and those that are seeing his progeny are equally impressed with their quality. Aiden has proven prepotent for his wonderful temperament, vitality and breed type.
I hope that helps answer some of your questions. Best wishes to you in your breeding program.
Matt & Anita Stelter
Notice that they fail to mention that he is blind and deaf. They specifically claim otherwise! Notice that they claim that they have NEVER had an issue with litter size breeding merle to merle, but that Avalanche was a singleton! This is why we can’t rely on breeder anecdotes as data, they’re perfectly willing to lie or utterly fail to recognize that singleton litter is well below the average for the breed and that being blind and deaf are not healthy conditions, they are in fact congenital diseases.
Your e-mail came at a good time. I’m off this week – my son came for a quick visit and I actually have time to sit down at the computer
I’ll warn you ahead of time… I’m not the best at the right “words”…
I’m a breeder first… I love to keep track of what a sire is producing. At every show that we attend…I am interested in seeing the puppies -male or female, smooth or rough coat. I look to see what characteristics that the sire is stamping on his puppies. I’m more interested in the whelping box than the ring…although we’re doing fabulous in the ring!
On Avalanche…we saw very consistent puppies with different families that produced the look (or face) of what I want to continue with in my lines. I’m going to call it “the look of eagles”…something that is so special…it crosses many pedigrees and dogs. When you see a “good one”… it doesn’t matter what the line is… they have the same “look”. Avalanche gives his puppies a beautiful eye (expression), clean muzzle, no depth. There is an elegance that excites me everytime I see something produced by him.
I had brought a gorgeous tri colored collie bitch (Stella) into my lines who was an outcross. You can get her pedigree on our website (Mainstay Back of the Moon). With her first litter, when bred to my male “Tony”, Ch. Riverrun Lionheart, she produced an outstanding litter of puppies. I could have kept just about anything and have been happy. The girl I kept from that litter finished her championship from the 6-9 class with three specialty majors and a Best in Specialty Show Win over quite a lot of specials. She’s in season now and will be bred to Tony’s son “Tanner, Ch. Galatean A Good River Runs Through.
So, on Stella’s second litter… we decided to breed her to Avalanche which would give me an entire litter of blue merle puppies. We have a kennel of sable & white collies – We are known for our beautiful sables…but I’ve wanted to bring the blue merle color to Riverrun. The breeding would also tie in with my bitch’s pedigree – a line breeding on her sire’s side. I would then plan to take a puppy from Stella’s litter and breed it back into my own lines.
I knew ahead of time that the breeding to Avalanche was taking a chance… Avalanche is basically blind and deaf. He will never be in the show ring. I don’t think I ever would do a breeding at Riverrun that would produce MM puppies. I want my puppies to all be healthy and I don’t want to ever take a risk of having a blind and deaf collie. Avalanche is also not very balanced – He is straight in front and doesn’t have a strong rear. He doesn’t move very well and that is the drawback on many of his puppies. At our National Specialty…there were many beautiful puppies sired by Avalanche, but most of them had very bad movement. I was getting worried after I saw them.
But, there were so many things to like about Avalanche…The word “majestic comes to mind when I think of Avalanche. He has an amazing arch of neck – a profuse coat. You couldn’t really look at his “expression” because it was obvious he was blind. But, everything else was fine with his headpiece…stop, muzzle, cleanness, no depth… As a breeder, I went back and forth, weighing his faults and virtues. Would my bitch be strong enough in her own virtues to overcome his faults? I have to admit I was worried all the way through the pregnancy and then waiting and watching the puppies as they grew up. Fingers and toes were crossed…
I bred to him, knowing about the horrible movement of his puppies. Stella (the tri bitch) has an outstanding body and movement and has produced it with her nine puppies in her first litter. We are used to good movement but we were doing a breeding into a new pedigree. I had already decided that if the litter couldn’t move…they wouldn’t stay – no matter how nice their headpieces were. They have to please me when they’re moving in the yard. We were very lucky…Mother Nature gave my litter of four great bodies and movement.
Another worry came up after we had done the breeding… I now was hearing that Avalanche threw terrible eye checks. Of my four pups – 2 were fine, but 2 had small colobomas. I’m not used to having colobomas but they were small and the puppies were easy to place in pet homes. My pick bitch puppy, Quinn, was fine. Quinn is everything I was hoping for – she has the “face”, or “elegance” that will make her a specialty bitch… she also is “balanced” in body and movement. I’m beyond thrilled with her. She is only 13 weeks of age but I think she’s going to be a WOW!
I have heard through the collie “grapevine” that Avalanche is now with his breeder in Wisconsin. He was with Mike (Sheila) Cheatham of Southland Collies in Tennessee since he was a puppy. He was familiar with his home and was loved by Mike. Mike always took him with her to the Barn and he always was by her side. He had huge fenced pastures in which to play with other collies. Watching him…the last thing you would guess is that he was blind. It must be very hard for him to be in a new place. Collies are so very family oriented… my own collies are not “kennel” dogs but are part of our family and get house time regularly.
Avalanche is very controversial. There are breeders who are horrified that a breeding was done that produced MM puppies. There are breeders who would never send a bitch to him. His color or his role as a homozygous merle didn’t matter to me… the puppies that he produced were all that I cared about. I don’t know of any other MM sires that are actively producing such beautiful puppies. I don’t believe that there have been other notable MM sires.
I frankly don’t give a hoot what other breeders think about Avalanche. I put my breeding program first and foremost. Maybe that’s why we’re so successful. I want the most awesome puppies and collies that I can breed. I’m willing to go anywhere in the country to find the right sire for my bitches. We keep striving with each breeding to get better than the one before. It’s funny…the more successful you are…the more people are unhappy that they don’t have the same success. We’ve got a wonderful group of friends, we call it “family”, who cheer you on – win or lose…and are always there for each other. I don’t lose sleep on those people that are negative and have nothing nice to say and will always take a jab trying to hurt you. It pays to have a sense of humor in this dog game.
AKC hasn’t had any problems registering Avalanche kids and our breed club is the same.
So…in closing… My advice is to go ahead and do what your gut tells you to do. If it doesn’t work out…you’ll have pretty pets!
If you get a chance, keep in touch and let me know what you’re doing with your breeding program. I am usually slow to answer. Between work (I design and maintain flower gardens) and dogs… I never usually am at the computer.
All the very best,
Ridgefield, CT 06877
A few hours later, I got a follow-up email.
You know Chris…I guess I’m just too trusting of people… just looked you up on google and you sound like a very unhappy person.
I answered your e-mail with the best of intentions…I thought you truly wanted to know why I bred where I did and I answered you as such…wish I had done a bit of research ahead of time.
May you have the best of luck with your ideas and thoughts.
I find the Stelter’s deceit to be unacceptable and unethical, and Mary Jackson’s candor to be refreshing although troublesome in content. That’s really the nicest sendoff letter I’ve ever received after questioning someone as forcefully as I did Mrs. Jackson and her use of Avalanche as a stud dog.
But what’s the greater lesson here? In the Wyndlair breeders, I see people who have drunk the koolaid and are beyond salvation. They believe in taking every element of the breed standard and turning it up to ludicrous levels. They are so concerned with the trivial they fail to see the obvious: who cares if Avalanche can’t hear, his ears LOOK great! Who cares that he can’t see, his eye sockets are perfectly oblique!
I see Mary Jackson as a well intentioned breeder who was blinded by the fame and popularity of the hottest stud dog in town and compromised her own values to gain a little of that starlight. She wouldn’t create a monster like Avalanche, but she would use him, which ultimately does create a demand and market justification for the people who did create him.
This is where a code of ethics comes into play. To prevent this slow fall from grace, this inching toward destruction; to prevent good breeders from going bad and bad breeders from benefiting from their malfeasance.
It’s unfortunate that the CCA doesn’t warn against this practice and shun those who do it. Other breeds and other registries have outlawed this sort of breeding and it’s time that the Collie Club of America does so as well. It’s better for the dogs, it’s better for the sport, and it’s better for the image conformation sport presents to the world.
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