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Posts Tagged ‘breed standards’

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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Photo by Marlies Kloet

Photo by Marlies Kloet

On the Pedigree Dogs Exposed Facebook group, debate is very common, and things have heated up in the aftermath of Crufts.  So many controversies are going on with Crufts this year, but one of them that has me curious is one involving the issue of breed standards.

Last week, rancorous debate ensued when it was suggested that the golden retriever that won the breed at Crufts was overweight. I don’t have an opinion about the weight of the dog, but I was curious about why golden retrievers in Europe are so divided between show and working types.

The answer I was given was that golden retrievers in Europe were just pets, and it didn’t matter if they were built for the purpose or not.

Earlier I had posted an image of a golden retriever winner at Crufts in 1927, and I asked why they were okay with breed changing so much.

The answer I received was that the breed should just be allowed to evolve.

Both of these answers are problematic.

Everyone who gets interested in dogs learns that dog shows and breed standards were developed to preserve the breed, but if conformation is allowed to slide just because the dogs aren’t used anymore or are allowed to “evolve” based upon fashion, then how can anyone say that dog shows have anything to do with preserving the breed?

I got no answers to that question.

This evening things have taken an even more bizarre turn when the issues turned to those surrounding the tendency to breed for extreme type in conformation with dogues de Bordeaux. On my group, it was asked why dogues de Bordeaux were being bred to look like giant red English bulldogs, and it just so happens that we have video of the author of the FCI standard for that breed excoriating breeders for producing such extreme dogs.

So if the even ideas of the people who helped standardize the breed don’t matter, then the entire edifice of the dog show is pretty tenuous.

It ultimately comes down to people will breed whatever they like, just so long as the judges award them with prizes. Judging requires understanding the standard, but much of the standard is like scripture– quite open to interpretation.

If all it comes down to is what wins in the ring, then this appears to be one of the worst ways of selecting breeding stock. Breed type and what wins in the ring become self-fulfilling prophecies rather than objective ways of evaluating dogs.

I assumed that some of this was going on all along, but I did not expect it be articulated to me in such a way.

It is rather quite distressing.

And yes, people do use golden retrievers in Europe, but it is now all but impossible to have a dual purpose dog in the breed now.

And people still do breed dogues de Bordeaux that look and move soundly.

It is just that dog shows and breed standards aren’t what they are portrayed to be. They are not the final word on a dog’s quality.

I think it may be long past time for the pretense to be dropped entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

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Major

The dog in the depiction above is Major.

Historians at the University of Manchester believe he was the first “purebred” dog in the sense we understand it today.

The Daily Mail reports:

A Pointer called Major has been identified by historians as the first ‘pedigree’ dog.

The team, from the University of Manchester, found a description of the dog in an 1865 edition of the Victorian journal, The Field.

It is believed that this was the first time that an attempt had been made to define a dog breed standard based on the animal’s physical form.

John Henry Walsh, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Stonehenge’, paved the way for the pedigree dog breeds we know today by creating a system of giving scores for different parts of the dog’s body.

His aim was to solve the bitter disputes that were brewing over the seemingly arbitrary decisions of judges at dog shows which could see a dog win a class one week and then come last the next.

***

Before the 1860s, types of dogs were defined by what they did, not how they looked.

Pointers were gun dogs, valued and bred for their ability to find game and, though a recognisable type, came in a variety of sizes and colours. But in the show ring they were expected to have a defined shape that aspired to the ideal set out in the breed standard.

Major signalled a new age where dogs were increasingly bred for their form and from their pedigree.

The emphasis on conformation to breed types spread rapidly to other countries, where British dog shows were emulated and British dogs imported as foundational breed stock.

Major was in essence a type specimen on which a breed standard was drawn.

Breed standards were created to stop two real problems that happened in the early fancy:  fights over what the one true type was and to maintain continuity of type, which changed rapidly from year to year to meet the caprices of the judges.

Now, it’s certainly true that dogs that belong to a closed registry breed that have a defined standard do indeed change type rather rapidly, but before breed standards were invented, they changes were dramatic. One year only black and tan drop-eared collies could win, then then next only those with Roman noses and prick ears and sable coats could.

The pointer is derived from pointing breeds from Spain that entered the British Isles following the Spanish War of Succession.

They became popular among the landed gentry, who often crossed the dogs with foxhounds to add speed and endurance.

And because they were the possessions of the gentry, they became bred for style.

It certainly true that the dogs were bred for work, but they were also bred to look nice while they were working.

The average person had no use for this animal. In Britain, the pointer was only ever expected to point. They were never trained to do anything else, which is one reason why virtually all English pointers, even trial stock bred in the US, are not particularly well-disposed to retrieving. The only purpose this pointer breed ever had was to freeze in a stalking position whenever its nose indicated birds were near.

In countries with a more egalitarian hunting culture, like what became Germany after 1848, the pointer breeds were made far less specialized.  They were bred for the average hunter, who couldn’t afford to keep big packs of hunting dogs. The commoner hunter had to worry about dog taxes, and it made more sense to have a dog that could hunt down wild boar, point pheasants and partridges,  and retrieve shot game.

But in the British context, a shooting estate had to have many different dogs, each trained in a division of labor system, with spaniels flushing, pointers and setters indicating, and retrievers marching at heel with the shooting party, ready to be sent to fetch what was shot.

Thus, it would make perfect sense that the first modern purebred dog would have been a pointer.

The first conformation show ever held was at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859, six years before Stonehenge would turn Major into a type specimen. The only dogs shown were pointers and setters.

It makes perfect sense that these dogs, which were used only by gentlemen to do very esoteric work on shooting estates, would be the first dogs that would be bred for a conformation show.

Their actual work was work that only the really wealthy could appreciate or afford to indulge in, and it’s really not a big leap for breeding a strain of dog that does nothing but point birds to breeding a line of dogs solely for what they look like.

Major was not of an exaggerated breed, and the dogs bred to look like him were not exaggerated at all.

However, when the notion of breed standards became deeply entrenched in the fancy, dog breeders decided they were sculptors of canine flesh and began producing all sorts of bizarre shapes to meet the standard.

This is where the insanity began.

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