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Archive for the ‘dog breeding’ Category

The Nadir of Dog Kind

nadir

The domestic dog is the most successful subspecies of wolf in the world.  All other subspecies have generally existed in spite of man’s persecution, but the dog thrives because it exists at some level domestication. Western culture exalts the canine, and many dogs living in North America and Europe have much easier lives than many people living in developing countries.

The dog in the West has been bred to be useful. Selective breeding produced many specialist forms, but most of these became antiquated as the Industrial Revolution continued on.

Because of our dog obsession, we began to breed these dogs as pets for the middle class. The fisherman’s dog of Newfoundland was bred larger and larger in Europe and the United States until it was a great shaggy beast that would be more likely to sink a dory from its ponderous girth than ride in it. The great fowling setters of Britain and Ireland were bred so profusely coated that their feathers do nothing but collect thorns and burs. The dachshund outside of its German performance registry is bred with such short legs and such a long back that paralysis from disc slippage is constant worry.

Such developments could have only happened when industrialization had created enough wealth and technological advancements to allow dogs to be bred solely as pets and exhibition animals. The value of a dog could come solely from what its parentage was, not its absolute functionality as a working animal.

One has to remember that this development is not necessarily a bad thing. Dogs that couldn’t perform very often wound up shot or left abandoned, but life for the bulk of domestic canines got better.

But at the same time, the unintended consequence of dogs being valued for what their ancestry represented is that all sorts of weird fads and styles could work their way through breeds, often crippling or severely encumbering them as individuals.

The bulldog, for example, did not typically have the best life as a working dog. Bulldogs were bred to attack bears and bulls– and sometimes big cats, like lions and tigers– in baiting contests that were meant as reenactments of the days when mastiff-type dogs had to battle with any number of fell beasts in the wilds of Europe. In Britain, those beasts had largely been subdued by the time baiting contests became popular, and the dog was bred for the bloodsport.  These dogs did not live long, happy lives as gladiators.

In the nineteenth century, the sport was made illegal, and the bulldogs soon found themselves out of work. They could have had the fate of the modern otterhound, a breed of griffon bred for pack work in the rivers.  When the otter finally became a protected species, the otterhound found itself without a job, but the introduced American mink provided it a possible redemption– until pack hunting with dogs became severely curtailed. The otterhound now exists almost solely as a fanciers’ dog, a relic of a time when the otter was so numerous as to threaten trout and salmon stock and thus needed to be hounded and harried along the banks and marshes.

But enterprising dog fanciers and dog dealers figured out that the bulldog could be redeemed through crossbreeding with the pug. an import from China by way of the Netherlands, and a few of the smaller, more docile terriers.  The goal was to make a bulldog that wasn’t so big and fierce and scary, a bulldog as toned down and tame that a baby could pull its flews not receive even the slightest growl from the beast.

This experiment largely succeeded, and as the bulldog became more and more popular as a show dog, the fad became to breed for the so-called “sourmug” type.  This type is the basis on which the modern bulldog, usually called the “English bulldog,” was formed. Breeding for a more and more massive head and narrower and narrower pelvis did cause problems with reproduction, but as we’ve advanced as a civilization, the AI and the Cesarean section allowed us to push the limits further and further.

Bulldogs were a breed that was not particularly popular through most of the middle and late twentieth centuries, but as we’ve moved in the twenty-first century, the much of the West has gone bulldog mad.

The breed was much celebrated on reality television, and when it became known how gentle they were, the public was intrigued. When it became well-known that they didn’t have that much of an activity level– which is largely the result of their constricted airways–the overworked post-industrial middle class went gaga for them.

Over time, though, it soon became well-publicized that the bulldog had atrocious health. About the only condition they didn’t suffer from was matted fur, and the English bulldog is still a relatively large dog. The modern West is an increasingly urbanized world in which weight limits are now being placed upon what dogs can be kept, and smaller-sized dogs are much more convenient to keep in a small space, even if no limits exist.

For decades, North American breed registries have been dominated with Labrador retrievers as their top most registered breed. The same goes for the Kennel Club in the UK. This is a large breed that is noted for its intelligence, and although not all individuals are well-wired for gundog work, many of them clearly are.  Some Labradors do well in city. Others eat down the furniture in the studio apartments where they are forced to dwell.

But now, it looks like change is afoot.  With the amount of inconsistency in the activity level in Labradors, urbanites have gone out in search of a replacement dog. They didn’t find it in the English bulldog. They didn’t find it in the Chihuahua either.

But after years of looking for that perfect urban pet, the perfect candidate has started to materialize. In the UK, the Kennel Club reports that the French bulldog is about to replace the Labrador as its top registered breed. The French bulldog is also the top dog registered with the American Kennel Club from the Los Angeles zip code.

The French bulldog is an offshoot of that original British dog dealer scheme to produce a nice pet from bull-baiting stock. This type of bulldog became popular in Paris (hence the name “French bulldog”) and Vienna, and it did have a bout popularity in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, when its close cousin from Beacon Hill was the AKC’s most popular breed and the French dog came along for the popularity ride.

Its health is somewhat better than the English bulldog, but that isn’t saying much.  But it is smaller, and it has a short coat and a lower activity level. And it has been bred for docility.

Docile, small, smooth-coated, and phlegmatic. These are the desired characteristics of the post-industrial pet.

These dogs are so much removed from what I understand a dog. To me, a dog will always be a hard-runner who glories in the chase and whose coat is anointed with burs and foul-smelling substances. They are domesticated but not debased.  They are relics of a time when man lived right as part of nature and not some entity that is under the delusion that it can be separate from it.

Post-industrial society with postmodern values has pretty much set itself on creating a post-dog canine. If these trends continue, we might long for the days of the big, fat Labradors that their owners believe are just “big-boned.”

At least the Labrador is still a dog, but the post-dog canine, like French bulldog, is but a facsimile of what came before. Through its veins courses the blood wolves that were first forged into the hunting and war mastiffs of yore and then into the brawny bullbaiters of Elizabethan times, which now lie in this bizarre permutation of an extreme brachycephalic toy with the ears of a big-eared bat.

If this breed does replace the Labrador as the most popular dog in the West, then I think we can say that the dog species has reached its nadir. No longer can the fit, active dog thrive in our societies. Domestication will finally end with this sad debasement.

I say this not as someone who hates French bulldogs but as someone who wishes that we were more aware of what we were doing to dogs through our casual selections for pets. If French bulldogs were bred for smaller heads and longer muzzles, I would not have much of a complaint, but then there wouldn’t be much separating the French dogs from those proper Bostonians.  And dog breeders like to accentuate the differences between related forms.

The post-dog canine isn’t something that should be celebrated. It is to be lamented.

Lamented, for it will mean that our kind has made yet another step toward denying our own basic animality. No longer are these creatures from campfires of old. They are merely distorted pets for our own convenience, no longer beings in their own right but caricatures of what a dog once was.

They are caricatures of the canine in the glow of the city lights and neon signs.

The campfires have long since burned out.

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faith

I didn’t think I’d do another one of these, but my conscience has been dragged back into it.

Jemima Harrison posted this morning (my time) about a friend’s flat-coated retriever who died at the age of 7. Both the dog’s parents were dead before they were 8 years old.

I used to follow this dog’s owner’s blog, way back when there was a more active dog blogosphere. I remember when she was born, and I remember when her mother died.

I’ve always admired this breed. It was once the most common retriever in Britain, and I love all those old paintings and photographs of the dogs at pheasant and partridge shoots.

At one point in my life, I thought I wanted one of these dogs. They were sleeker and more agile than golden retrievers, and I’d always preferred golden retrievers that came in that body type, even if the show ring never did.

But then I looked at the health of the dogs, and I decided that I would pass.

A golden retriever is already a notorious tumor factor. That there could be a retriever in worse shape with regard to cancer was something that really did bother me.

I used to wonder if this breed could be made more viable if they did some crossbreeding, but virtually every breeder in the breed is so opposed to it that having rational discussions with them is like talking to a creationist or someone who believes that Bush did 9/11. Their job, regardless of the facts, is to come up with ways to justify keeping the gene pool walled off.

And at that point, I knew the problem would never be solved.

It’s taken me a while to realize that no amount of explanation will change anything.

It’s that way with just about every breed of dog. If it’s not flat-coats and cancer, then it’s bulldogs and everything that’s wrong with them. Or pugs.

After doing this for years and years, I’ve stopped having any confidence that any of these problems will be solved, and I’m not wasting my time.

So we’ll hold onto closed studbooks, “linebreeding for health” or some other delusion, until we hit the eventually genetic dead-ends of several breeds.

The population of canids known as “domestic dogs” will continue on, because the vast majority of North Americans will choose things other than registered dogs. And the village, street, and pariah dog populations will still be there in other parts of the world.

But as for the Western “purebred” dog, its future is quite tenuous indeed.

And when you’re powerless to stop something, you’re better off giving yourself some distance.

That’s what I have done.

 

 

 

 

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A very sound specimen of a breed I really like a lot wins BIS at Westminster:

cj

Not complaining.

I wish the AKC allowed black roan in this breed though.

 

 

 

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But this dog won the Nonsporting Group at Westminster last night.

annabelle

If we’re celebrating purebred dogs, the best way is to shun the ol’ sourmug.

This is the breed that has pretty much everything wrong with it, except that it doesn’t get matted fur.

This is the most buggered up dog that “sound scientific breeding” ever produced, and the fact that people want to buy these–and spend a fortune on them– is just a sign that people still are suffering from having too much money and not enough sense.

When you get one of these dogs, you’re pretty much guaranteeing that the animal won’t live long and will have at least one or two emergencies that could have been prevented had the dog not had such an exaggerated conformation.

I was going to stay out of this nonsense this year, but the fates were not with me.

Let’s just hope this poor thing doesn’t wind up Best in Show.

If that happens, it will just be another sad day for dogs, and the American purebred dog establishment of this country continues on into irrelevancy.

I don’t have the piss and vinegar that I once possessed to attack the modern concept of a bulldog.

I’m just sad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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lewis harcourt's retrievers

This is a clipping from the Illustrated Sporting News from March 28, 1908. It is about Lewis Harcourt’s golden retrievers and their talents compared to other strains that were bred for a more uniform type.

The text of the piece, for those who might have trouble reading the text, goes as follows:

When Mr. Harcourt’s yellow retrievers were exhibited at Cruft’s Show, the dog-show critics condemned them for want of uniformity. That was a display of ignorance, of educated ignorance, for in any pure bred, and necessarily inbred race, the greatest characteristic it can possess is its differences. In other words, the breed qualities condemnatory of the mongrel are the salvation of thorough-breds. For thirty, or more, years, Lord Tweedmouth has passed this breed of sandy-coloured retrievers. Ideal breeding cannot be found in breeding for colour, because it is reminiscent of the remark of the Suffolk sportsman, that “there is a toy in the kennel of every sportsman, from his honour to the rat-catcher.” But there has been no ideal retriever breeding for many years. It has been governed by show influences, or breeding for uniformity of error. Consequently, the colour fad is quite as likely to have done less harm than the breeding for uniformity [of type], particularly when we remember that the colour faddists have always been sportsmen and the uniformity faddists have not. Besides this, there is evidence of a public sort that there is working instinct left in this race. Mr. A. T. Williams’ crack field trial Don of Gerwn was by one of them, and no dog has distinguished himself more in public than this liver-coloured one. Now that a race of breeders of retrievers are arising who breed for nothing but work  and have a large field of choice, it will become harder to maintain a particular colour in small numbers at the high working standard that is sure to be set. On the other hand, it does not follow that crosses with best working black dogs will stamp out the golden colour (pg. 126).

This piece points out that this strain of flat-coated retriever, which became the basis for the modern golden retriever breed, were actually pretty influential in the main flat-coated retriever breed at the time. Don of Gerwn, mentioned in the piece, was the winning of the 1905 International Gun Dog League’s retriever trial in 1905, and his sire was one of Lord Tweedmouth’s yellow retrievers named Lucifer.

The author of this piece was obviously a practical sportsman, excoriating show breeders and pointing out that if you start breeding for type alone, you start producing lots of useless dogs. The author’s line about every kennel having a “toy” in it is probably always truism, no matter what sort of working dogs are being bred, but the implication is that retriever breeding up to that time had gone astray as wavy/flat-coated retrievers were being bred with a heavy emphasis on making them look more uniform in type.

The original wavy-coated or flat-coated retrievers were quite variable in type. Some showed a stronger St. John’s water dog or “Newfoundland” type, while others were very setter-like. Both really wavy coats and extreme straight coats were found in the breed, which is one reason why the breed had two different names.

The “golden retriever” strain had been closely held by only a few devoted sporting families, and they were used for sporting work, mostly picking up from grouse and pheasant shoots and tracking wounded deer. There was not a strong selection for uniformity in type, just for the yellow to red color.

The “golden retriever” strain retained a lot of variance in type that was being lost as the wavy-coated retriever began to develop along a much more narrowly defined creature.  Flat-coats were having the bone bred out of them, and in the drive to make them straight-coated, there was a selection away from the dense undercoat that protected their Newfoundland ancestors from the cold water and kept British land retrievers well-insulated from thorn pricks.

Today, the golden retriever’s diversity in type is something that ought to be celebrated. It is in the golden retriever breed that the old wavy-coated retriever’s diversity in conformation was preserved, and it is in part because of this diversity that the golden retriever wound up thriving as a breed while the flat-coated retriever has become quite rare (and almost became extinct).

Beyond the narrowness of discussion of golden retriever types, though, is the pernicious desire of the show ring culture to produce cookie cutter dogs.  Many breeds have excluded colors, like the pied in mastiffs, the white in German shepherds, and the yellow in modern flat-coated retrievers.  Others, like the Portuguese water dog, have a coat type that is excluded. These dogs with “improper coats” look a lot like flat-coated retrievers, but they have been deemed essential for the breed’s survival. Even though a genetic test now exist that determines whether a bearded dog carries the improper coat, the breed club urges breeders not to exclude those dogs.

Which is pretty forward-thinking for the modern dog fancy.

Diversity is seen as an aberration in the world of purebred dogs. In working dogs, people are more willing to allow for conformation or color differences because it means one can select more for working characteristics, but in a show dog, the looks really do matter to the point that it becomes much harder to select for working traits. It also becomes harder to select for health and genetic diversity.

The more one narrowly defines the “correct” criteria for breeding selection, the harder it becomes to breed for sustainable gene pools across the breed.

In this way, in a purebred dog the greatest characteristic it can possess is an acceptance of diversity. In golden retrievers and Labradors, there is already a very wide acceptance for diversity, but in breeds like mastiffs and pugs, there is very little tolerance for this essential diversity.

In 1908, golden retrievers were just a few years from becoming an actual breed, instead of a strictly working-bred strain of flat-coated retriever.  Ever since the two breeds have split, yellow flat-coats still pop up, and they are now usually sold with the understanding never to be used for breeding. However, they tell us very clearly that these two breeds didn’t arrive as separate specially created kinds that jumped off of Noah’s ark.

The two breeds are part and parcel of each other, so much so now that the flat-coated retriever that exists now is really but a sub-type of what we call a golden retriever– at least that’s what the DNA says. If you ever follow the pedigrees of golden retrievers, you’ll hit black flat- or wavy-coats soon enough.

Much more so than in 1908 does the modern flat-coat needing new blood. Plans to cross flat-coats with goldadors (golden retriever/Labrador crosses) from guide schools have been rumored. There was even a discussion about crossing them with Labradors in Britain a few years ago, but it never went anywhere.

The closed registry system no longer rewards innovators like Lord Tweedmouth or Lewis Harcourt.  Innovation, which we celebrate with our crossbred hogs and beef cattle, is now abhorrent in the world of dogs.

And has been for quite some time.

But it still stands that diversity is not the enemy of sound breed management.

So here’s to the yellow flat-coats, pied mastiffs, and parti-colored Gordon setters.

Someday, you’ll be appreciated for what you give to your breed, but it make take a lot more disease and suffering for us to recognize it.

Until then, let this article from 107 years ago tell us that truly knowledgeable dog people knew better than the modern fanciers. It was our fair warning.

To which too many didn’t heed.

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A Couple of Foxhounds, George Stubbs. 1792.

A Couple of Foxhounds. George Stubbs. 1792.

As strange as it may seem, the dog fancy’s sins began with the Enlightenment and stem from its rationalist, scientific values.

This may seem a bit of contradiction, but the best way to understand the dog world is that began with science but a science that largely ignores the modern concepts of population genetics. The modern science of population genetics says that closed registries that celebrate breeding only an elite within that closed off population are  a recipe for long-term disaster.

But that’s something we’ve only understood since the twentieth century. The beginning of the scientific dog breeding actually start at almost the same time as scientific selective breeding systems were starting to be used to improve livestock.

And this begins almost a century before the development of an institutionalized dog fancy.

It begins with advent of the English Agricultural Revolution in the middle part of the eighteenth century.  This was the era in which the manorial systems were replaced with fenced and walled off pastures and fields, and new techniques of crop rotation and selective breeding increased farm outputs.

The English Agricultural Revolution was important for the development of the Industrial Revolution, for now it became possible to feed large numbers of factory workers in the cities. And the Enclosure that came with the Agricultural Revolution displaced large numbers of people who readily moved into the cities to find work in factories.

Without the English Agricultural Revolution, there would have been no Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the British Empire in the nineteenth century probably never would have happened either.

But it is the part about selective breeding that affects dogs the most.

Now, before the eighteenth century people did selectively breed dogs and other domestic animals. However, it was not a systematic effort.  The world relied heavily upon types we would now call landraces, and selectively breeding landraces is a much slower going system.  Regional variants of the same basic animal develop in this system, which is why you have shaggy saluki-types in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan and smooth-coated ones on the Deccan Plateau. It also is why naturally bob-tailed collie-type sheepdogs were common parts of Wales but were virtually unknown in the North of England and the Scottish borders.

All domestic animals had pretty much followed this path for thousands of years, but systematic selective breeding of domestic animals would change all of that.

The most famous scientific selective breeder of the English Agricultural Revolution was Robert Bakewell of the Dishley Grange House in Leicestershire. Bakewell created improved strains sheep, beef cattle, and workhorses using a system that included a lot of inbreeding.

Bakewell lived before Mendel laid the foundations for modern genetics, and he lived long before there was even a concept of DNA.

All he pretty much knew was that if you selected for a trait and bred tightly for it, you would soon created a population that had those traits almost universally.

Understanding that one could do that with domestic animals meant that one could create new, greatly improved strains fairly rapidly using incestuous matings and rigorous selection.

The dog fancy’s roots are definitely out of Bakewell’s selective breeding notions, but I had always thought that it took quite some time before these ideas ever got applied to domestic dogs.

It turns out that I was wrong about that.

Only six miles from Dishley Grange is Quorn Hall, and at the same time Bakewell was doing his selective breeding experiments, a man named Hugo Meynell was working on producing the ultimate foxhound.

Contrary to what one might assume, foxhunting is not an ancient English custom. Indeed, the practice started in the seventeenth century and began to develop into its modern form in the eighteenth century. Before men rode to hounds in pursuit of the fox, they rode to hounds in pursuit of the deer. However, the violent political upheavals of the seventeenth century had resulted in deer becoming quite scarce in England.  Displaced people poached deer, and they soon were found only in a few parks and forests.

However, the English aristocracy wanted to run their hounds, and it wasn’t long before they switched their hounds from hunting deer to running an animal that most Europeans regarded as vermin. The red fox eats of a lot poultry. It also takes a lot of game birds that were kept for shooting purposes, and foxes do occasionally take the odd lamb.

So the deer hound packs were converted into foxhunting packs.

With the foxhound begins the modern Western concept of a breed.

Martin Wallen writes:

The first dog in the modern era intentionally bred following a scientific method was the English foxhound. This method proved so successful that it became the model throughout the nineteenth century as people developed increasing numbers of dog breeds. Significantly, the creation of the foxhound coincided with the fundamental shift in agriculture toward the understanding that animals and landscape formed an integrated system of resources capable of supplying human needs through methodical management and improvement. This same understanding of systems also began to examine what had hitherto appeared an incomprehensible variability among animals—especially dogs—as a parallel to the no-less-troubling variability among humans, and to arrange the varieties into taxonomies that grouped beings with similar qualities into categories that came to signify essential qualities in individuals (Cultural Critique, no. 70, Fall 2011, pg. 127-128).

Wallen points out that Meynell used Bakewell’s system of “scientific breeding” to produce the hounds:

The “science” that men like Meynell… and Bakewell put to use involved restricted breeding between closely related individuals and destruction of animals that did not clearly manifest the desired qualities. Just as Bakewell judged his animals with an ideal measure of rapid meat production (Overton, 165; Pawson, v), Meynell evaluated his hounds against the conceptual ideal, the telos of “foxhound,” characterized as “fine noses and stout runners,” the canine element vital to the success of hunting foxes in the modern countryside (Hawkes, 4; Vyner, 15). Although Meynell and the others did not set out to create a “breed,” they plainly intended to create an improved hound that would serve a single purpose they valued within the institutional framework that cast animals as resources. Instead of adapting their activities to available hounds, they created a distinctly modern hound that facilitated their sport. Toward that end, they regulated their hounds’ sexual activities and life cycles, segregating serviceable individuals into a group delineated by recognizable and consistently reproduced qualities. The segregation is actualized in the pedigree granting inclusion to the hounds conforming to the standard, and excluding those that do not. (John Hawkes, Whipper-in—or the man who controlled the pack—for Meynell, clarifies what “exclusion” would have meant when he recounts that “in the spring of the year, [Meynell] broke in his Hounds . . . and he drafted them according to their defects” [7]; “to draft” a dog means to kill it.) With such power of judgment, these privileged men created an actual breed that would reliably and consistently pass on its qualities to future generations, and that would only ever act and look in defined and expected ways (pg. 137).

Meynell’s entire outlook of foxhounds and foxhunting was heavily informed by the Enlightenment, and his ideas about breeding and training foxhounds appeared in a pamphlet called The Meynellian Science:  or Fox-hunting upon System.  It was written by his whipper-in, the aforementioned John Hawkes. The idea that hounds could be rapidly improved as cattle could be definitely caught on.

Over the next century, breed improvement programs of this nature would run deep into the world of dogs. The zeitgeist of improvement through consanguinity and ruthless culling is still very much a part of the world of dogs today.

Never mind that this is running in direct contradiction with what we now know about population genetics. Too many dog breeders think they just inbreed and select their way out of problems that are actually the result of a closed registry breeding system that celebrates breeding from an elite.

The modern concepts of conservation breeding require conserving as many genes as possible and allowing outcrosses to other breeds. Virtually every dog breed in the closed registry system is in need of some sort of conservation breeding program, including many breeds that exist in large numbers.

This is not say that Hugo Meynell and Robert Bakewell were bad people. They simply didn’t know what we do now, and their methods were good science for their day.

Modern science says that we’re causing lots of problems by holding onto the old science, and if dog breeding today were as concerned with keeping breeding current with contemporary science as Bakewell and Meynell were, modern fanciers would be changing their ways.

But the dog fancy isn’t changing.

As the nineteenth century progressed, dog shows became more important than the actual function of the dogs. The same methods that were used to produce the superior foxhound were used to produce the deformed bulldog.

It’s currently being use to produce the freakish creatures that now comprise the “exotic” strains of American bully.

Inbreeding depression issues are rampant in the world of purebred dogs, as are the rise in inherited diseases, but all we get are complaints about dog food and blame-shifting to the puppy millers.

The system we have put dogs into is simply wrong for them.

The Meynellian Science of Breed Improvement goes on and on.

And the only “improvement” being a sort of ironic gesture of what was once the most modern way of animal husbandry.

Our modern Western concept of  a “dog breed” began with foxhounds, not with dog shows. And there is no other animal in the UK that is more associated with the establishment than the foxhound. It was a creature bred by the elite to hunt an ennobled quarry. Where once the Anglo-Saxon and Normans had run the deer through forests, now came the red-coated hunters on horseback in pursuit of the little red dog with the black stockings. The fox became an ersatz deer, and the foxhound became the symbol of the English conquest of nature, which it exemplified through its improvement through “scientific breeding” and the simple fact that it was used to kill a wild dog that never knew any master.

The foxhound and the foxhunter are now reviled in their native country. The fox is given greater nobility in a nation without wolves or any other wild canids that now cannot be killed. Foxhunting is now under a rather porous ban, which may change with the Conservatives winning big in last week’s general election.

The policy toward the both animals has changed as the symbols have been manipulated and shifted in the public conscience.

As the dog fancy continues to crumble in North America, it is possible that we might be able to set a new course. Maybe we’ll reject the Meynellian science for some real science, and do what is right for the dogs. Conserve the populations, not preserve them as closed off entities.

This is not a call to end all purebred dogs. To say so is nothing but engaging in igniting a strawman. It is simply a call for better breed mangement strategies that look beyond closed registries and contests that reward breeding only from elite dogs.

We must have a concept of a breed that is better than the eighteenth and nineteenth century one.

Because that concept is not serving the dogs well.

It’s serving the egos well.

Just not the dogs.

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Scottish terriers by the tail

Crufts always brings about controversies, but this year, I truly do dream of the days when best of breed bulldogs and Clumber spaniels failed mandatory health checks and dog fancy had a collective meltdown all across the worldwide web.

This year, the big controversies have largely been outside the general interests of this blog. There are reports that an Irish setter was poisoned at Crufts, but this is such a serious accusation that I will leave it alone. We don’t know all the facts. If we were dealing with a dog poisoner, then we’re dealing with a vile person.

And I’m not really interested in talking about truly vile people. Individual malevolence is certainly worthy of scorn, but I’m a structuralist. I’m much more interested in the collective evils that plague society, and in this case, I’m interested in the collective problems with the dog fancy.

Crufts didn’t give us much of that this year, but at the Best in Show judging and presentation, two things happened that got large numbers of people riled.

The one I thought would be more consequential was when a PETA activist stormed the floor with a sign that read “Mutts Against Crufts.” If this had been Westminster, I’m pretty sure we would all still be talking about him. I am not a big fan of PETA, and I’m not sure that this publicity stunt really put the purebred dog reform movement in a good light.

But PETA is not interested in having a rational discussion. It is interested in the theater.

Now, the reason I say that this PETA demonstration would have stolen show if this had been Westminster is because it was overshadowed by another scandal.

This scandal never would have raised the slightest bit of attention in the North American dog show world. That’s because this second scandal involved a handling practice that is so common in North American dog shows that most people don’t even notice it.

When terriers are judged in North America, most of the smaller breeds of terrier are lifted up with one hand on the tail and one hand just beneath the jawline.  Supposedly, it is a way of testing to see if the terriers still have their sturdy tails. If a terrier gets in a bad place, it could be useful to be able to grab it by the tail and pull it safety.

You see this everywhere in North American dog shows. I don’t think it’s he worst way to handle a dog like this, but I don’t think the dogs particularly like it. I’m not someone who is prone to picking up dogs in this fashion, so I honestly don’t what the science is behind the welfare issues involved. I am officially agnostic on the issue.

The dog that won Best in Show was a Scottish terrier. This is one of the smaller terrier breeds that is generally lifted up in this fashion at American shows.  The handler of this winning terrier, Rebecca Cross, is an American, and I’m sure she’s done the tail lift scores of times in the show ring.

And no one said thing.

But when she did it at Crufts–in front of all those cameras– uproar quickly ensued!

100,000 people signed an online petition to have the terrier stripped of her win.

This, of course, created outrage among the show set. The claim pretty much goes that lifting them by the tail gives the judge an idea if the terrier has a sturdy enough tail. If this terrier happened to be deep in the ground battling with a whole clan of badgers and the only thing that the owner had to grab was its tail,  then that sturdy tail would be a life saver.

The problem with that claim is that Scottish terriers are actually working earth dogs.

In Scotland, terriers were used more to bolt the badger and the otter than their English counterparts. Both the badger and the otter are now protected species. The rural Scottish culture that created these terriers doesn’t even exist.  The Scottish countryside was once full of crofters.  In the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, the Clearances depopulated the land in much of rural Scotland. The crofters were driven off the land in favor of sheep, grouse moors, and deer stalking grounds.

The working man’s terriers became show dogs, and the general prick-eared terrier from Scotland became the West Highland white, the cairn, the Skye, the Paisley, and the Aberdeen. The Aberdeen type is the basis behind the breed we call the Scottish terrier.

Now, terriers are still widely used in the United Kingdom, even though “terrier work” is quite controversial over there. There are still plenty of working red fells, Patterdales, Lakelands, borders, Plummers, and Jack Russells. There are even working strains of Bedlington terrier, which is a breed that North Americans think is only for the show ring .

But there are no working strains of Scottish terrier. You will not find them anywhere. A lot of Scottish terriers still have the temperament needed for this sort of activity. George W. Bush had a Scottish terrier that loved to dig out armadillos, but no one can honestly say that there is a great demand for an armadillo dog.

And a nine-banded armadillo is nothing like a European badger or otter.

So if no one is really breeding a working Scottish terrier, the entire ritual of picking it up by the tail is just playing make believe.

At the most charitable, it is a hypothetical abstraction. It’s not a real adaptation on a real working dog.

This year’s big controversy, which I’m calling “Tailgate,” is more revealing about the culture of the dog show than it is about welfare concerns.

My guess is that the Kennel Club will make a very strong stand against picking up terriers by the tail at its shows.

And that will be it.

Meanwhile, Scottish terriers will continue to have very high rates of cancer and von Willebrand disease. They will continue to suffer from their own peculiar disorder called “Scottie cramps,” and they will continue to have an average lifespan of about 10 years.

Which, for a terrier, is pretty pathetic.

And it is a shame. This breed does occasionally have a reputation for being a bit surly, but a lot of these dogs are real characters, very sharp and responsive and clever creatures.

They are known for the deep loyalty to their people, and it is a real shame that people have allowed this breed to go so far downhill.

They have come a long way from the badger setts and otter holts, but now they must be looked at more realistically.

Playing pretend about the sturdy tails isn’t helping the discussion at all.

All of this rancorous debate over the ethics of terrier-lifting isn’t going to amount to much.

It’s just going to continue on. One camp will say that it is causing the terriers too much pain and stress, while the other is pretending they are evaluating real working dogs.

There is no real room for a discussion about the issues raised by closed registries and popular sires in this debate, and as this debate rages, much time and energy is being wasted.

Such is the tragic condition of the dog world in 2015.

Side-tracked by Tailgate.

 

 

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