The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has come and gone, and like most years, I thought we’d have no meaningful discussion about how dogs might be encouraging people to breed and select for unhealthy attributes in dogs.
However, this year, there is a bit of a viral story going out about how preferred phenotype in the show ring might be deterimental to a dog. But unfortunately, it’s very low hanging fruit.
The story started with this pretty good post from My Slim Doggy about how fat the Westminster Labradors actually are. And I should note that yes, these dogs are fat, and the behavior of the dog show apologist set on that page is abominable.
That’s a story in itself, but it’s not the absolute worst case I can think of.
The thing about Labradors is that they are the most popular breed in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and they are probably the most common “breed dog” in the world today. They are also arguably among the most useful dogs, for they not only are used for retrieving game, they are now the most common guide dog breed. They also great sniffer dogs, and they use to assist people in wheelchairs. There are many, many things this breed can do, and because the typical member of this breed is also among the most docile of dogs, they are very, very popular as family pets.
As a result, they exist in many, many different lines and what might be called “sub-breeds.” There so many different types of Labrador that it would take me too long to describe them all to you, and then I’d probably miss a bunch.
Labradors that are bred for the show ring are an extreme minority of the breed. And as a result, what happens in the ring really does not affect the survival of the breed as a whole.
And not only that, even if a Labrador has a tendency toward portliness, this problem can be easily remedied through a regime of diet and exercise.
So if the biggest problem that Labradors have from being shown is that the show specimens are a often quite fat, this is not such a big deal.
And the simple reality is that the Labrador breed is not a prisoner to the show culture. You can easily get a Labrador that is not a “labrabeef.” And it’s not that hard.
The real scandal is the countless breeds that are.
Within that Sporting group, there is actually very good example of a dog that has essentially been doomed to extinction through selection for a very exaggerated phenotype.
Unlike the Lab, it’s not a very common dog at all. In fact, unless you’re a dog nerd like me, you may have never heard of it.
The breed I’m talking about is the Sussex spaniel.
The Sussex spaniel is doomed. It cannot be saved. You can write it on a rock. It’s done.
The Sussex spaniel is the last survivor of a stupid fad that swept the early British dog fancy– the desire to breed extreme dwarfism in spaniels.
The Sussex spaniel has an illustrious history as a land spaniel in the South of England, but then dog shows got their mitts on them and things haven’t been the same since.
The two most common fancy spaniels in the early British fancy were field spaniels (which were usually black or black roan) and the Sussex, which was liver. Both of these dogs are ancestral to the two breeds of cocker spaniel that exist today, both of which descend from a Sussex/field cross named Obo. Before that, all small sporting land spaniels were call “cockers” as a generic term.
The fad was to breed them as short-legged as possible, and in some situations while doing beating on relatively flat ground and in heavy cover, a dwarf spaniel would have have been of some use.
But the twentieth century has largely supplanted both the field and Sussex as gun dogs. English working cockers and springers are the sporting spaniels of the UK, and in the US, main sporting spaniel is the working English springer. Welsh springers are still worked, and they have a lot going for them, too. And if the right celebrity were to own one, they could suddenly experience a popularity rise that they might not be able to handle.
And there are even working strains Clumber spaniel, which have bred out most of the exaggerated mass and loose eyelids that you see in the ring.
Field spaniels have been saved through the addition of English springer blood, and they are no longer dwarfs.
But the Sussex remains.
Col. David Hancock writes about the fate of the Sussex:
The history of the breed standard of the Sussex Spaniel tells you a great deal about show gundog fanciers. The standard in use in 1879 didn’t include words like massive, brows and haw or mention a rolling gait. In 1890, in came ‘fairly heavy brows’, a ‘rather massive’ appearance and ‘not showing the haw overmuch’. In the 1920s, in came ‘brows frowning’, a ‘massive’ appearance and ‘no sign of waistiness’ in the body. These words were approved by the KC, the ratifiers of all breed standards. In 1890 the breed’s neck had to be ‘rather short’; from the 1920s it had to have a long neck – in the same breed! The need for this breed to walk with a rolling gait is, relative to the long history of this admirable little gundog breed, relatively recent. Here is a breed of sporting spaniel, developed by real gundog men,subsequently, with the connivance of the KC, altered to suit show dog people, most of whom never work their dogs. It is a sorry tale, with echoes in other breeds.
The so-called ‘Chocolate Drop’ spaniels of Richard Mace have their admirers in the field. Originating in a cross between a working Cocker and a Sussex Spaniel, they are seriously effective working spaniels, strong, biddable and determined. In the last ten years, pedigree Sussex Spaniels have only been registered in these numbers: 89, 98, 70, 82, 68, 79, 77, 74, 61 and most recently 56. What would you want? A dying breed prized for its unique rolling gait, characteristic frown and waistline-free torso? Or a proven worker benefiting from a blend of blood? Gundog breeds which lose their working role soon lose their working ability and then the patronage of the shooting fraternity. I see much to admire in the Sussex Spaniel and long for a wider employment for them in the field.
I would love it if those “Chocolate Drop” spaniels became part of the Sussex breed and reinvigorated it.
But that is not going to happen.
Having written about Sussex spaniels before, I have rarely met with more obtuse dog fanciers than those associated with Sussex spaniels.
Too many of them are part of the blood purity cult, and the breed is also caught up in the double speak of “dual purpose” breeding that I so often encounter in gun dogs.
You will often hear people who have a rare gun dog breed brag about how their breed hasn’t split in type like golden and Labrador retrievers have.
The reason why golden and Labrador retriever have split so much is that they are actually used quite a bit, and the dog shows require parts of the phenotype that are largely antithetical to efficient movement on the land or water. The excessive coat in show goldens makes them easily bogged in the water, and the lack of soundness in many show Labs makes them easily worn out while doing retrieves.
These minority breeds, though, exist within a culture that is obsessed with the Delusion of Preservation.
Part of that delusion isn’t that you must keep the breed pure at all costs. Within rare kennel club-recognized breeds, there is also a delusion that you have to show in order to breed. The standard make the breed unique, and if you really want to preserve it, you have to test it against the standard.
The problem with standards is they are like scripture:
They are written by fallible people and by devious people, and they are then interpreted by fallible and devious people.
So these very rare breeds become trapped in the show culture.
And though people are using the dogs at tests and working events, they aren’t selecting for those traits alone.
But working springers and cockers are.
And there is absolutely no way that Sussex spaniels can survive this situation.
No redneck hunter is going to go out and buy a Sussex when he can get a springer from working lines for third to half the cos and no waiting list.
But Sussex spaniel people are still trapped in the hope that it might change.
But it can’t.
This is now a show dog that is trying to be preserved within the show system itself. Fewer and fewer people want this dog, and fewer people know that it even exists.
And whatever the merits the breed might have, it’s just not going to make it.
And then you have its very real problems as a breed:
Not only is it the gun dog with the rolling gait, it is also the only gun dog I know of that has problems with its discs (a common dachshund malady) and a very high incidence of hip dysplasia– 41. 5 % are affected according to the OFA.
Would a serious gun dog person go out of his or her way to get a dog with those sort of structural problems?
They would take their chances trying to slim down a fat Lab!
Obesity in show Labradors is discussion worth having, but it’s not the biggest problem with dog shows.
Labradors are not trapped. They are thriving as no other breed ever has.
But the dog fancy really is destroying breeds
It’s just that it’s not destroying those breeds that have a life outside of the fancy.
With this going on with breeds like the Sussex spaniel, it makes all the attention we’re giving to obese Labradors seem a bit trivial.
Dog shows really aren’t that important to the breed population of Labrador retrievers, but they are the main constraint facing the Sussex spaniel.
And this is where the Sussex will go extinct.
I don’t know when, but it is almost certainly going to happen.
It’s trapped, and no one is saying anything.
Because I’m a prick, that’s why.
You can use the memes as you’d like.
But you might just be going to hell with me!
I must have missed something along the way to learning how to care for animals, but maybe I didn’t.
I remember when I was a little boy asking my parents why my grandparents killed their young roosters (the technical term is “cockerel”) and left the young hens to survive (the technical term is “pullet.”)
Every year, their flock of mixed meat and egg chickens would have a ton of chicks. The foxes and raccoons got a few. And others got fried.
Almost all the fried ones were cockerels, not pullets.
As a juvenile male with an inquiring mind, I asked why such a fate always befell the young males.
My parents explained to me that the reason why the young roosters became dinner is because a farm doesn’t need many roosters. If it has too many roosters, all that will ever get done is crowing, fighting, and hen-chasing. If you want to manage the flock better– have the hens lay nice eggs and get nice and fat– you cull the young roosters.
And I thought that people understood this concept.
Well, as I’ve started writing about animal welfare issues, I’ve noticed that many people don’t get it at all.
Take the great outrage of this past week: The Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to cull a young male giraffe to prevent inbreeding in their herd.
I’ve notice most of the outrage comes from the United Kingdom, a place where there is a sort of animal rights cult that runs deep into the body politic. I don’t know where it comes from, but I, as an American, find it absolutely bizarre.
That’s not say that the US is AR-free. The state of California is full of this sentiment, and I’m sure you could find people whining about hunting somewhere.
But in the US, this is the fringe.
I suppose in Denmark, it is too.
That’s because in the real world of animal husbandry, things are not always nice.
Animals die. Animals fight. Animals get sick. Animals get hurt. Animals need culling.
In dogs, we cull all the time. We just don’t call it that. We call it selling it to a “pet home only.”
In farm animals, the animals culled are the animals that become food. The animals with the best traits are kept back for breeding, and this is how we’ve been able to breed productive meat animals.
Reputative zoos are really farms, but unlike the farms we have to produce meat, these farms are engaged in a different kind of breeding. It’s actually the exact opposite of the kind of breeding that has been so lauded in breeding dogs over the years.
In dog breeding, the main goal has been to breed from top performing or winning stud dogs in order to spread their genes throughout the breed. It’s madness, if you ask me, because it leads to more and more inbred populations and attendant gene loss.
Zoos are trying to do the exact opposite. The goal of a zoo breeding program is to retain as much genetic diversity as possible i their breeding populations.
Now, this makes sense, even for species that aren’t endangered. If the wild population of a given species suddenly becomes rare and genetically compromised, zoos that have maintained healthy, genetically diverse populations will be able to use that genetic diversity that they have set aside to save the species.
Zoos that breed this way are the genetic savings accounts.
A lot of the misunderstanding of the death of Marius comes from a misunderstanding of conservation breeding, and it also comes up against another piece of the puzzle:
The Copenhagen Zoo does not do contraceptives. In Scandinavia, almost all dogs are kept intact, and I believe in either Sweden or Norway, it was actually illegal to spay or neuter a dog as an elective surgery.
In the zoo situation, they keep their animals intact, so they have a full complement of hormones and relatively natural social structures. That means that females and males are going to mate whether the mating makes sense for the purpose of conservation breeding or not.
I don’t have a problem with this attitude. It makes quite a bit of sense for the welfare of the animals involved. They get to live complete and full lives.
However, the question of what to do with the surplus offspring is not a trivial one. Historically, zoos sold their surplus animals to private owners. This is one reason why there are so many tigers in the US, and it was also a major source for the canned hunting industry.
Many argued that the Copenhagen Zoo should have just allowed Marius to go to another zoo, but if that zoo isn’t part of the same breeding network, it would not make sense to allow Marius to become part of it.
The zoo in Yorkshire that offered him a home sounds like a possibility, but it’s not a viable option. Let me explain:
These reputable, accredited zoos all support each other. Smaller zoos can go under– and many often do. If something were to happen to that Yorkshire zoo, there could be a chance that poor Marius could wind up sold to a circus or put in a canned hunting operation.
I don’t think Marius’s biggest supporters want that to happen.
So euthanasia was the best option.
Marius was killed with a rifle shot to the head. That is precisely how we kill cows in West Virginia.
He was then given a public dissection, which resulted in the British animal rights activists sneering at the Danes for doing such a thing. I mean it’s not like the British would ever show a giraffe dissection on television, would they?
Of course, after Marius was dissected, he was fed to the lions. The poor lions probably have never tasted giraffe flesh before, and in the wild, it’s pretty rare for a lion to kill a giraffe. But if they didn’t feed Marius to the lions, they would just have to feed them some domestic meat, which was slaughtered just as humanely as Marius was. In this way, you could almost think of Marius saving the lives of a few cows that would have had to have been killed to feed the lions.
Are you kidding me?
I don’t understand this. I guess I learned something when I was five years old that ton of people never have learned.
Animal husbandry isn’t pretty. Sometimes, things must die for the greater good.
I feel very sorry for Bengst Holst and his staff. He’s trying to do what is right for the animals, and all these bleeding hearts who claim to love the animals are screaming for his head.
It’s kind of like the Animal Rights Tea Party.
The animal rights movement has done nothing for the conservation of our planet and its biodversity. It is simply a movement of fanatics who refuse to listen to reason.
I have no use for them. I don’t think they really help animals in the long term, and if their demands were adhered to, we would see utter collapse of ecosystem after ecosystem and the extinction of countless species.
Animal husbandry requires both empathy and reason. Without reason, empathy can often do as much harm as good. Without empathy, the animals just won’t be cared for properly.
The problem is too many people are obsessed with the empathy side of the equation.
And it’s not helping at all.
Here’s a clip of Bengt Holst trying to speak some reason to an antagonistic British presenter:
I still am having a hard time understanding the British animal rights movement:
You had more protests over a badger cull than you did over austerity.
There is something very pathological about that.
And I say this as someone who might be better called a “hard-core leftist.”
But I don’t get this stuff at all.
The painting above is by John Emms. a British dog artist whose work chronicled many of the scenes and dogs of the dog fancy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These dogs are not Jack Russell terriers.
Well, allow me to qualify that statement:
In the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a Jack Russell terrier.
There were fox terriers, and the Rev. John Russell (“Jack Russell”) was a sporting parson who rode to hounds in Devon. Foxhunting in the UK is today an illegal and much maligned pastime.
But at the time, it was the most quintessentially English sport. Americans emulated their mother country and imported both foxhounds and foxes*, and the only reason why there are foxes in Australia today is because someone wanted to bring foxhunting Down Under.
It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that foxhunting became a sport of the nobility. Before that, hounds were run on deer, but as the wool industry became more and more important to the country, there became a need to control foxes. Yes, foxes do occasionally take a lamb, but occasionally is far too often.
And deer parks became very expensive to maintain, and it was much economically sensible to turn those forests into agricultural land for growing grain or pasturing sheep. In this environment, deer became scarce, and foxes became numerous.
So if you have this tradition of riding to hounds after deer, why not train the dogs to take on a fox?
And thus began the British tradition of foxhunting began.
Now, foxhunting ends with the hounds killing the fox– at least that’s the tradition. In America, where red foxes have to compete with all sorts of native predators, the numbers have always been fairly low, but on the island of Great Britain, foxes existed in very high numbers. So American hunts usually never end with the dogs killing the fox.
The fox just goes in a den, and the chase is over.
In the traditional British hunt, the foxes goes in a hole, and when the hounds discover it, another dog is brought in to do some dirty work.
This would be the canine equivalent of the ferret– the earth dog
The earth dog’s job is to go into the den where the fox is and make it run out– the traditional term is “bolting.”
When the fox charges out, the hounds either catch it or start running it again.
This is not an efficient way to hunt at all. The best way is to call the foxes in and shoot them, but hunting in this way was meant to be a replacement for hounding deer. In Medieval England, access to these deer forests and the right to keep hounds for hunting was always a right of the nobility. Commoners were given some access to the forests over time, and at different times, these rules were relaxed. However, during the reign of the Hanoverian kings, these laws were quite draconian. Poaching became not only a crime, it became a sort of way of class resistance. The hunts were symbolic of being part of the upper class, and this simple fact is why the Labour Party (the mainstream socialist party in the UK) has always had issues with hunting, especially riding to hounds.
With the fox replacing the deer as the primary quarry, there became a need for the earth dog to help finish the hunt. Deer don’t go to ground. Hounds can cut them off or wear them out pretty easily, but once a fox goes into a den of some sort, the hounds have no chance of catching them.
So the terrier is needed to flush out the fox.
Now, England always had terriers. Their primary purpose was to kill vermin– rat out of the granaries, bolt out badgers, rabbits, foxes, and otters to the gun or into nets or lurchers’ jaws.
They were dogs of the small farmer. Probably the best way to think of these dogs is the general Jack Russell type terriers that aren’t registered today, as well as the Patterdales, borders, and fells. Some of these dogs were dwarfs. Others were wire-haired. Some were smooth. These were commoners’ dogs and were definitely associated with poachers. When deer chasing was the main noble sport, there was no way one of these little dogs would be on a hunt.
But things had changed, but the nobles began to modify these terriers.
Almost none were predominantly white. Red and red sable coloration is very common in these dogs even today, and they had to be common in the early terriers used on fox hunts.
And this presented a problem for the foxhunters:
When a fox is spotted running on the ground, the hunting cry is “tally ho,” and the chase starts again. But if you have a terrier that resembles a fox in anyway, there is a risk that a huntsman might see the terrier, call “tally ho,” and start a false chase.
But if the terrier is mostly white, then there is no way you’re going to mistake this dog for a fox.
Further, a white terrier is by nature that used for hunting foxes on mounted hunts then it is not the dog of a poacher.
And that’s how we got this white hunt terrier, which has since become several breeds.
The original name was “fox terrier.”
In the past hundred years, there are now two kennel club breeds called “fox terriers,” which are the wire fox terrier and the smooth.
These dogs have rather long muzzles, but that is not what they looked like at all when they were being used on mounted hunts.
They looked like the dogs in painting above. We would call them Jack Russells, but what North Americans call a Jack Russell is just this old type of fox terrier.
This is the type of fox terrier that the parson loved, and because this type of fox terrier was used on a regular basis, it retained the old type.
The fox terrier, according to the Rev. John Russell, was a four way cross of farm terrier, beagle, bulldog, and Italian greyhound.
The fact that this type of fox terrier still exists in juxtaposition to the two breeds of fox terrier that are in the kennel club is a really good example of what happens when a dog exists solely for the show ring.
These three breeds are all essentially the same breed, just bred to different standards. The long muzzles, upright shoulders, and stilted gaits of the show fox terriers are quite uncommon in long-legged Jack Russells.
In the show ring, selection pressures for performance can become released, and selection pressures for novelty, even deformity, become more evident.
Both of these breeds of show fox terrier have entirely left their roots.
And that is precisely what got rewarded at Westminster last night. Winning Best in Show last night was a wire fox terrier named GCH Afterall Painting The Sky. This breed has won Best in Show at Westminster 14 times, so it’s not particularly a shocker.
This dog has the typical stilted gait of a wire fox terrier, and she looks nothing like the dogs in the Emms painting.
And if you saw the Emms painting, you’d say they were Jack Russells.
Of course, in the UK, hunt terriers are out of work. Foxhunting as it was once practiced is illegal. They can still be used to rat and control vermin.
They have essentially fallen from their noble rise back into their common roots.
The earth dog as it once existed is largely out of a job, especially in North America where we now coyote chase with hounds and shoot groundhogs. We turned out terriers into treeing dogs, the rat terriers and the feists.
But it’s interesting to me that we celebrate this breed:
It is as English and elitist as anything we can imagine over here. It’s an elitists’ terrier used for an elitists’ sport.
And that’s our show dog of the year.
It tells us that the kennel club system as it exists right now is pretty foreign institution. Most dog people in the country really don’t take it seriously.
And that, I can say, is going to be the thing that saves dogs in this country.
*At one time it was believed that most red foxes in the Eastern US were English red foxes, but a recent genetic study revealed that they are actually native red foxes that wandered down here from Canada.
This was just an informal foxhound show.
There was no AKC-sanctioning it.
And the next day, there would almost always be a foxhunt.