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A landrace is a group of plants or animals that is native and naturally-occuring in the area where it's found. This also suggests that the organisms are ideally suited for that particular environment. These kinds of plants tend to be called "native species," but the situation is slightly more complex with animals.

It's a given that any particular animal did not actually develop from nothing in a particular spot. Ancestors probably came from somewhere else and may even have been a different species when they arrived. (The same is true for plants.) But these origins have to be far, far back in a landrace's history.

And when people find that an animal can be useful, it's impossible for them to keep their hands out of the process. But a landrace has had only minimal human intervention. As veterinarian and professor D. Phillip Sponenberg wrote in "Livestock Guard Dogs...." (see External Links), "People simply use what is locally available and adapt it to the task at hand."

Between the short time span of human involvement and the simple methods available in earlier times for guiding the animals' development, the resulting landrace isn't a new species. It might or might not be a new breed. For example, if location A and location B have similar environments, shepherds are likely to have similar needs from their flock guardians. As a result, their dogs may be so similar that there's no basis for calling them different breeds.

Or different potential breeds. A landrace is usually seen as a population of animals that hasn't yet been formally standardized in a way that would allow it to be called a breed. The appearance of individuals within such a population may be more varied than a breed standard would allow, but that's irrelevant to the people who work with them. The important criterion is that they function alike.

So in surveying the many landraces of dogs that developed around the world, it's possible to see that sheep-guarding dogs have both different functions and a different general overall appearance from sheep-herding dogs. And yet, the different populations of flock guardians were different enough in characteristics that they could be developed into different breeds.

What happens then is up to the vagaries and caprices of the human spirit. The people who draw up a breed standard may or may not want to preserve the qualities of the landrace as much as possible. If they do, the standard will stress that the animals must be able to continue performing the landrace's functions. And appearance will be described loosely rather than rigidly and in detail.

Even so, if breeders decide to veer away from the standard - and if judges at dog shows and other forms of public display reward the variant animals - then the very characteristics that made the landrace worthy of becoming a breed may be lost.

Well, and so what? There aren't enough flocks of sheep left in the world to give guard duty to all the individual Akbash, Anatolian, Great Pyrenees, Komondor, Kuvash, and dogs of other breeds that were formerly landraces of livestock guardians. And some breeds, such as the Irish Wolfhound mentioned by Dr. Sponenberg, seem to have lost their jobs altogether.

Due to this issue and others mentioned, the original landrace of versatile Russian sled dogs, as they first came to North America around 100 years ago, has developed into three or more breeds and non-breeds because of differing human goals:

* standardizing their appearance for competition as show dogs;

* changing their purpose away from that in the breed standard (to racing); and

* retaining the function and natural variety of the landrace.

The last of these three is the goal of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project.



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