I am not fan of journalism by press release.
It’s not really “journalism” anyway. It is simply media relations, and media relations might as well be called spin. Spin is not really about the truth. It’s about advocacy, and it’s often about deception.
There is so much of this in the world of journalism about dogs that it is very hard to tell if something is true or not.
And if you want to see a very good example of it, take this puff piece that appeared on the BBC’s website last May. It is called “Why is the Skye terrier is an endangered breed?”
It discusses how popular Skye terriers were for a time. For a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, It was a breed that was quite fashionable to have, especially in the burgher classes in Scotland. Indeed, I’ve written about how the Marjoribanks family, who started the strain of yellow wavy-coated retrievers that are the basis for the golden retriever, were actually better known for the Skye terriers than their retrievers.
But now their retriever has taken the world by storm, and their terrier is a breed on the verge of extinction.
The BBC piece could have done some really good homework on this breed. The question of why breeds become popular and then become extinct is a very fascinating question to me.
Instead, the reporter who wrote the piece decided to do the laziest thing possible: Go to the Kennel Club and get their media relations expert to spin a tale for the presses. It goes like this:
Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, says Skye terriers are good house dogs with a very loyal and friendly character.
She says: “They are very glamorous. Their coats are very attractive. They are a very friendly, nice dog to have around and they are certainly very weather-proof.
“If you are out and about they will not get cold.”
So why has the breed fallen out of favour?
Ms Kisko says: “Much of this is about the profile of the dog, whether or not people are aware that the breeds exist.
“Some of the problems we have with the vulnerable breeds is that people have simply forgotten that they are there.”
Well, that actually didn’t answer the question at all. People just don’t know about them.
Except that they do.
I grew up on the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Disney made a movie about this dog, a Skye terrier that stayed at his master’s grave for fourteen years.
Too bad the entire story was a hoax. The truth is it was an elaborate hoax to promote tourism and business in that part of Edinburgh.
People know about this breed. They just don’t want them.
Now, I thought we could delve into why this breed’s popularity collapsed, but the Kennel Club representative decided to use this opportunity as a chance to smear Labradoodles, a dog that has nothing to do with Skye terriers at all. Although in fairness, it is a representative with the parent club of the Skye terrier in the UK who starts down this bizarre comparison.
Designers breeds such as the labradoodle – a crossbred created by crossing the Labrador Retriever and the Poodle – have become very fashionable.
Mrs [Gail] Marshall [of the Skye Terriers Club] says this is another reason why traditional breeds such as the Skye terrier are being marginalised.
Ms Kisko, whose organisation does not register cross-breeds, says: “The designer crosses such as the labradoodle and the cockapoo (a Cocker Spaniel and a miniature poodle) are proving to be very popular these days and that is all on the pretext that they will be automatically healthier than the breeds they come from, which is patently untrue.”
She says people should do more research before buying a dog, checking out some of the British native breeds which have been popular pets for centuries.
I was not expecting this to be the reason why Skye terriers are becoming rare!
First of all, the purebred Labrador retriever is by far the most popular native British dog breed. It was actually developed in its present form from the St. John’s water dog of Newfoundland on a few select estates in England and Scotland. It is an easily trained dog, noted for its versatility in helping guide the blind, assist the handicaped, and sniff out bombs and contraband. It is also docile as can be.
Skye terriers, by contrast, have very hard to care for coats. They known for being difficult to train, and they do not have a reputation for being good family dogs.
The Labrador requires more exercise than the Skye, but if you’re in a world in which dogs with Labrador-type temperaments are more practical and desired, why would you expect Skye terriers to be able to compete?
Futher, the big reason people get Labradoodles is because they want the Labrador temperament, but they don’t want the Labrador hairs all over their houses. So they get Labrador/Standard poodle crosses, which are lower shedding than pure Labradors.
Now, there are a lot of claims about Labradoodles that are not true:
They are not hypoallergenic because people are allergic to dog dander, not dog hair. Also they do get the health problems associated with both Standard poodles and Labradors, but because the cross has been around for only a short time there have been no good studies to see if there is a heterosis effect (though there probably is).
And Labradoodles are mass-produced, often in deplorable conditions. After all, there is a big market for a Labrador that doesn’t shed as much and looks like a bigger version of Benji.
And that’s precisely what doesn’t exist for the Skye terrier.
Further, the terrier and retriever markets are entirely different demographics, so this claim that people wanting Labradoodles is the reason why no one wants a Skye terrier might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read on the BBC’s website.
I’m stunned that the answer to the question about why the Skye terrier is going extinct gets reduced to something so completely impossible.
This is actually a question for which I don’t have an answer.
I know that Skye terriers have not been used as actual earth dogs in many, many years, but that alone wouldn’t ruin their value as pets. Yorkshire terriers, which are also silky-coated terriers of Scottish ancestry and are almost never used as anything but pets, are quite popular little dogs.
Why would people be so Yorkie-crazed but so dismissive of the Skye?
There must be a good reason, and the answer absolutely is not that people want Labradoodles.
All that was done in this piece was to deflect what is a very good question into a hatchet piece on intentionally-bred crossbreeds.
Not all is perfect in the world of the doodles, but just because they are intentionally-bred mixes does not make them illegitimate. If done right, doodling is an entirely harmless activity, and if really done right, it could be a source for increasing genetic diversity in established retriever and poodle strains.
It just makes them a convenient scapegoat.
The Kennel Club has no answer for why the Skye terrier is in such dire straights.
I think the real reason it has no answer is the real answer is that this dog is a fanciers’ dog. It became a plaything of the dog pageant set. The dog pageant and freak show people are at the heart of the Kennel Club’s mission. It is their base in the same way the religious right is the base of the Republican Party. In politics, one does not go out of the way to insult one’s base. (Only Bill Clinton could ever get away with it!)
When a dog breed becomes something that can only be admired by a very narrow set of fanciers, then it is on its way to becoming rare already.
I also think there is a distinct possibility that the fanciers of this breed intentionally bred “one mannishness” into this dog after buying wholeheartedly into the Greyfriars Bobby hoax. If you breed a dog that naturally tends to bond with only a few people and then is reactive toward strangers, you might be asking for its popularity to drop rather quickly.
So if you breed a dog with a coat that is hard to groom and temperament that requires lots of work and socialization to make the dog docile and tractable, why would you be surprised that very few people want them?
You cannot blame the public for wanting Labradoodles.
The real blame is on dog fanciers who allowed a romantic story– one with huge gaping holes in it– to cloud their judgment on how to breed a dog for the twentieth century.
And because they allowed that story cloud their judgment, the breed won’t likely see the end of the twenty-first.
That’s definitely not the Labradoodle’s fault.