it is what it is! Thoughts on joan graber's:
"A merle is a merle is a merle! Isn't it?

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By Kathy Moll, Deep River Collies

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” (Gertrude Stein)

In the study of logic, the Law of Identity simply says that a thing is the same as itself. In our modern lexicon, “It is what it is!”

The highly regarded Collie breeder and judge, the late Joan Graber, cleverly applies the Law of Identity to the merle gene in Collies in her October 1991, article on the sable merle and Standard revision published in the CCA Bulletin. Joan was one of many Collie breeder/judges of the past who believed in the truth of two basic issues that came to the forefront 18 years ago and again today.

The two issues are paradoxical. Issue # 1 is that sable merles are as normal, healthy, and similar in quality to comparable Collies of other colors. Issue # 2 is that sable merles should be specifically included in the Collie Standard.

To illustrate that sable merles have been an important part of Collie breed development, Joan discusses the history of the merle beginning with 19th century Collie breeders in Great Britain. She bases her conclusions upon what the early creators of the modern Collie wrote and what they did based on very old pedigrees and color/ pattern descriptions that they included.

From the historical evidence, she draws some conclusions. As the earliest Collie Standards assert, color really was “immaterial” to these Collie breed developers, and they seemed to view sable merles as neither positive nor negative but simply as a fact illustrating “it is what it is.” A lack of genetic information meant that early breeders simply used the best available individuals, including “dappled sables,” in their breeding endeavors and may not have made a connection between merling as a pattern and sable coat color.

For example, the great grand dam of CH Metchley Wonder, a bitch named Bonnie Greta, is described as “dappled sable” as is Duncan, Wonder's great-great grandsire. Since Wonder was whelped in 1886 and his son, CH Christopher, in 1887, the above mentioned sable merles were born circa 1880. CH Christopher is behind all modern Collies and, therefore, so are his sable merle ancestors.

Since merles were the most commonly seen herding dogs of the 19th century, the gene has been around for at least 150 years. Dr. Leigh Anne Clark and her team, who mapped and sequenced the merle gene in 2005, tell us that it is the same gene in all breeds. She and her fellow genetic researchers draw the conclusion that “the breeds analyzed in this study (the mapping /sequencing study) share a common ancestor,” and that “the occurrence of merle in many breeds and the fact that the first breeds to diverge from the working sheepdog population in the 1800s have merle patterning . . . suggest that the founding mutation may predate the divergence of breeds.” So, the merle gene is older than the Collie breed itself.

Joan points out that the very commonness of the merle gene may have been the reason it was “out of favor” in early Scots, Irish and English Collie show dogs. We should feel fortunate that the beauty of the merle was saved from possible oblivion by early American Collie breeders who saw the unique possibilities in the pattern.

“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.” (Aristotle)

Moving forward in the early 20th century, Chris Casselman and Thomas Halpin built the famous Hertzville Collie line based on Lodestone and Tokalon stock. Trudy Mangels explains in her Evolution of the Collie that by the 1930’s, Hertzville Collies were best known for excellent head qualities, but had also developed Collies who won Best in Show awards (6 in 1939 alone). CH Hertzville Headstone and his two sons CH Hertzville Historian and CH Hertzville Headstudy were among their best known BIS winners. Headstone was a major winner in the ring and an excellent producer. He was a sable merle. He produced 10 champions and would no doubt have had many more had he not died prematurely at age 6 years. He influenced many Collie lines and was the double great grandsire of CH Hazeljane’s Bright Future, the 4-time CCA National Specialty BOB winner.

Joan quotes such past authorities as Thompson Gray, Dr. O.P. Bennett, Charles Little, Trudy Mangels, Dot Gerth, and Bobbee Roos and mentions several Collie breeders of the late19th and early 20th centuries. Their thoughts and information are illuminating and instructive. Joan repeatedly calls upon Collie fanciers to “go study your genetics.” She explains that prejudice against the sable merle and fear of including the pattern in the Standard has often been based upon lack of genetic understanding. She likens these prejudices to those disallowing blue marked white Collies until the 1977 Standard revision because some breeders confused them with double merles. Likewise, she compares the prejudice to past hesitation to do rough to smooth breedings to improve Collie quality for fear of producing a coat hybrid.

All three prejudices are based on erroneous beliefs about genetics. Study genetics, study breed type, study Collie history. These are points that Joan makes throughout her article. Education is an ongoing process for all Collie fanciers regardless of longevity in the breed and regardless of experience!

Much has been made of “educating CCA members” about the sable merle this time around as well, and so it should. However, there appears to be disagreement about who has been sufficiently educated and what they know and do not know; what they understand and do not understand. To deny the general membership the right to a viewpoint on the grounds that they are uneducated and inexperienced flies in the face of logic and is insulting. Who has made that decision and upon what evidence is their opinion based? Attempts by some to portray CCA members who support the sable merle as uneducated beginners are gross mischaracterizations! Most proponents of the sable merle and revision are well educated, well informed and well intentioned as are most of their opponent counterparts. Make no assumptions without clear evidence!

My own observations of sable merle and Standard revision discussions over the years tells me that something of a consensus has at last been reached by most 21st century breeder/exhibitors and all but a few Collie specialist judges. With a few notable exceptions, most fanciers appear to agree (at least in theory) on Issue #1 -- Sable merles are as normal, healthy and as similar in quality as comparable Collies of other colors. In fact, some who oppose Standard revision use this issue to “prove” that sable merles are covered in our current Collie Standard.

Thus, we come to Issue #2 – Sable merles should be specifically included in the Collie Standard. This, of course, involves revision to the Standard. Here fanciers definitely part company and generally fall into two camps: “They are covered as is”; or, “They are not covered as is.”

The Collie Standard must strive for clarity, must reflect scientific/genetic information as it becomes available, must provide vital information for breeders and judges toward the “ideal” in virtues, and must include guidelines for assessing faults and their degrees. Failure to apply these precepts to our Standard is a serious breech and a disservice to the Collie breed. These are the very reasons that periodic, thoughtful revision is needed to make our Standard the best it can be.

Some opponents say a sable merle revision would be a hasty move! It’s been 18 years since the last thorough discussion and poll of the members. At that time, revision was favored by a majority of the members, yet a few made the decision for the many, and no revision occurred. Sable merles have been contributors to the Collie gene pool for at least 130 years. Discussions of Standard revision to include them happen every 15 to 20 years with a majority in favor, yet no action is taken. Hasty? I think not! As Joan’s article did 18 years ago, this article also covers most of the objections to Standard revision and presents counter arguments.

Revisions should be made to clarify. If our standard was clear about the sable merle, we would not be having our current discussion. The very fact that we’re arguing proves that the Collie Standard lacks clarity on this point. Judges as of a few weekends ago continue to withhold ribbons for lack of merit because of blue in eyes. In conversations with other breeder/exhibitors, I made some discoveries. One bitch that needs a major to finish and has won under specialty judges, had ribbons withheld by a judge at a specialty because she has one blue eye. The same judge has given a specialty BOV at a very large entry to a different sable merle that also has one blue eye.

Other recent comments at shows include a judge who pulled 2 bitches for winners, and then suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I didn’t notice that.” The “that” was some merling on one ear. The other bitch won immediately thereafter and the sable merle was not even considered for reserve. Another judge opponent of revision has given a sable merle with one blue eye and one brown Group placements at large entry shows while writing that sable merles are unacceptable in the show ring.

A well known opponent of standard revision, especially of blue in eyes, recently spoke to an exhibitor at a specialty whose sable merle had just finished. The opponent to revision complimented the exhibitor upon how beautiful the bitch was and how she deserved a specials career because of her quality. When the exhibitor expressed hesitancy because her bitch has one dark brown eye and one dark blue one, the revision opponent explained that the blue eye was not important!

More than one breeder judge has told me in personal conversation that to put up a quality sable merle with blue in its eyes means that he/she “just ignores” the part of the Standard that disallows that. Should judges have to “ignore” part of the Standard to reward the Collie that comes closest to it in his/her opinion?

Recently, a sheltie/breeder judge who had a Collie assignment explained to a couple of Collie exhibitors that a simple Standard revision to clear up the sable merle conundrum would be appreciated.

The Collie Standard says, “In blue merles, dark brown eyes are preferable, but either or both eyes may be merle or china in color without specific penalty . . . Except for blue merles they are required to be matched in color.” A simple examination of the word “required” (an absolute) illustrates that sable merles with even a small blue fleck in one eye do not have the “required” match. Therefore, judges are compelled to ignore that requisite in order to reward such a Collie for outstanding virtues. If Collie aficionados are this conflicted, imagine the confusion for all-breed judges! I truly believe that clarity IS needed. Contradictions and inconsistencies about the standard as it applies to sable merles are still common place, and the practical application of the Standard is, even now many months “post directive,” all over the place.

Joan uses the arguments presented by opponents of revision to include the sable merle and counters them. For example, one argument goes like this: “If the old breeders didn’t think sable merles should be included, who are we to do so?” Joan asserts that the “old breeders” that opponents are speaking of “are ’old’ only in that they preceded us, but they were not older than those breeders of the 1800’s to whom color really was immaterial.” The oldest breeders/developers of the Collie breed believed that color was immaterial and wrote the Standard so that it included that wording. Later revisions to the Standard changed that wording. How old is old? Is 150 years too old? How about 75 years, or 50? Would 30 to 40 years qualify one as an “old” breeder? What is too old; what is too new? “With age comes wisdom.” Well, maybe in some cases, but let’s face reality: “Age doesn’t always bring wisdom; sometimes age comes alone.” Logic dictates that wisdom and knowledge in some areas does not equal wisdom and knowledge in all areas.

However defined, there is disagreement among “old” breeders concerning sable merles and Standard revision and there always has been. So to which breeders of the past do we defer? Are current CCA mentors “old” enough? Is every “old” breeder a CCA mentor? Should fewer than half of the total mentors influence the revision decision for every CCA member? Should a 6-person review committee, all of whose members, save one, oppose revision, make the decision? Should the club president decide for 2000+ members? Furthermore, a purported AKC mandate concerning revision is mysterious indeed. AKC makes no decision for parent clubs to whom breed standards belong except in the final phase. During this last phase, exact revision wording that has been voted upon by the full membership and approved by a 2/3 majority is presented to AKC for approval. Even then, AKC is deciding to approve or disapprove wording based upon whether or not it conflicts with AKC rules. CCA owns the Collie Standard and, like other parent clubs, agrees to allow the AKC to use it.

The standard should undergo revision when genetic information and science dictate. Joan uses the blue marked white as an example. In addition to this 1977 revision, changes based on new scientific knowledge were made to the description of Collie gait. In the 1950 reworking, four colors were added to the Standard, including the blue merle. Prior to that revision, many other changes were made to reflect increasing knowledge. Why is this case different? It isn’t!

Articles published in scientific journals in recent years have added new information to our understanding of the merle gene. Why would we close our eyes to this new educational opportunity? Why not apply what we know now? Our Standard attempts to describe the ideal. This does not mean that the attempt at such description in itself equals perfection. The Collie Standard is better than most breed standards and is a tribute to the work of many individual fanciers over the past 100+ years. It has undergone quite a few rewrites and revisions throughout Collie history. Its authors have said nothing, to my knowledge, to indicate that they believed their writing was “perfect.” We are striving for perfection in our breeding programs in actual living, breathing Collies. There is no evidence that breeder’s of the past wanted future breeders to treat the Collie Standard as though it were “written in stone” when clarity and science dictate otherwise. While describing desired virtues, the document also assesses faults and the degree to which they should be penalized.

“We can’t encourage blue eyes in sables,” is the most vehement argument against sable merle inclusion, and Joan addresses it. She does so with the genetic information available to fanciers in 1991. Most of that information is on the money. However, we know even more in 2009 about the merle gene than we did in 1991. For instance, we now know that the merle gene is an insertion gene that randomly copies itself and that the length of its “A” tail is also random and accounts for wide variation in merle patterning. We also know that this same randomness applies to eye color in all merles. Those with the insertion gene present as merles, but the gene’s “A” tail length controls the degree of merling as well as the randomness of eye color. Both blue merles (homozygous, for black and tan) and sable merles (homozygous for sable, as well as heterozygous for sable) have random chances for pigmentation in the eyes.

The same mutation insertion and incomplete dominant mechanisms that randomly put merling on these Collies also produce the following possibilities on eye color: both eyes brown; both eyes blue; one eye of each color; partial blue and brown in one or both eyes; and blue flecks in brown eyes. So while eye size, shape and set are genetically controllable through selective breeding, the presence of blue or merling in the eyes of merles is not. Breeders do not have the option to “breed for blue eyes,” even if they ignore the Standard’s preference for dark brown! A sable merle with two blue eyes is no more likely to reproduce them than is a sable merle with two brown ones, according to the best available genetic studies. Either will produce randomly occurring brown, blue and merling in eyes in offspring just as blue merles do. If such were not the case, we would have seen an ongoing increase in blue eyes in blue merles. No such thing has happened! “A merle is a merle….” and “it is what it is.”

While dark brown eyes would be the preference of breeders and fanciers in both blue and sable merles, blue in eyes may or may not detract appreciably from the merle’s expression and is an individual matter of proper evaluation. The Collie Club of America Standard Review Committee's own report uses quotations from breeder/judges concerning specific sable merles shown to them. One of the common themes that emerges is beautiful expression. Many of the sable merles to whom they attribute sweet expression have blue or merling in eyes and even total blue. All well educated Collie folk know that color is only one of many contributors to expression. Joan says, “Not only the color but also the size, shape, placement, large or small haw, light or dark haw, affect expression. In all cases we are dealing with our definition of expression, and we need to remember expression is an aesthetic rather than a functional attribute.” She goes on to quote Bobbee Roos on the subject of coat color: “True Collie expression is inevitable regardless of color because of the head properties.”

Blue merles were included in the 1950 rewrite of the Standard. Over the past 59 years, their inclusion with merle or blue eyes allowed, but dark brown preferred has contributed to the breed, not harmed it. Merles exist, fanciers use them in breeding programs, many exhibitors show them, none of that will change. As for judges, a West Coast friend recently made this point, “If the judge feels that the blue eyes affect the expression of the dog, the judge will place the dog accordingly. The exhibitor will face the same considerations in deciding whether or not to show the dog. I suspect that by changing the Standard, we won't see either an increase in blue eyes or a significant change in the number of blue eyed sable merles put up.” I agree with my friend! “A merle is a merle…” Revision is made to clarify and to reflect new scientific knowledge!

Another argument, “We open up the Standard to other changes, some of which might be bizarre,” is specious. Only a few opponents of revision have brought it up to my knowledge. Proponents have stayed on point. This revision is ONLY about a long over due, decades-old request for revision to include the sable merle. That was all that the membership meeting vote addressed and is all that 71% of all CCA members cast their votes for or against.

Misunderstanding abounds about what is involved in revision. Our own constitution calls for a process; even though, in my opinion, it hasn’t been properly followed so far. With the assumption of power comes responsibility. For any elected official there is always a mandate to follow our constitution, be honest with the membership and make its wishes a prime consideration!

“So what’s the turmoil?” Joan asks. Those who have suggested possible revision language have done so in ways that are unobtrusive but clear. The sought after revision described by many proponents requires but a few words and affects less than 1% of the Standard’s language to clarify and reflect current knowledge!

Joan tells us, “Those who say we should not be accommodating the Standard to what we are breeding, or that our present Standard was outlined by our founding fathers, need to review all the Standard changes since the mid 1800’s . . . I would like to think that we make changes in the Standard to clarify certain areas for breeders and judges as well as to correct errors as we gain more knowledge, especially in areas of genetics and inheritance.” Since we’ve been breeding sable merles continually since the 19th century development of the breed, we’re hardly accommodating the Standard to a fad! As Joan also reminds us, “The sable merle is not going to go away.” And I would add, “Why would we want it to?”

Related article

> A merle is a merle is a merle! Isn't it? by Joan Graber, Rudh'Re Collies

Reprinted with permission

The Collie presents an impressive, proud picture of true balance, each part being in harmonious proportion to every other part and to the whole.

– from the AKC Collie Breed Standard

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