Posts Tagged ‘dog shows’

And your solution is?


A quite a bit of social media buzz about the pekingese that won the AKC National Championship last month. The show was televised on Animal Planet this week, and the pekingese won it.

Pekingese are, to put it mildly, an extremely derived form of domestic dog. They are brachycephalic and achondroplastic. They are not my favorite kind of dog, and if you go through the old posts on this blog, you will see that I generally hated them. When you’re doing the angry dog blogging, this breed is great cannon fodder.

But the truth is I have very limited experience with pekingese. I have spent some time with a backyard-bred one, but I seriously doubt that he is representative of the top-level show dogs in this breed.

And this is a problem. Most of the people making these health claims about this breed have never been around one.  This backyard-bred one does have some health and  grooming challenges. He also does not possess the best temperament, which these show dogs clearly do have.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen suggest that we return to the days of yore, when the British were smuggling pekes out of the Forbidden City.  You know, the time when the dogs had less coat and more muzzle, and we could all be satisfied and happy if we just went back to those days.

This is a common trope in this sort of commentary. The original dogs were always better, because they are less derived, less exaggerated. It’s a trope that I once parroted without considering the dynamics as carefully as I should have.

Someone might want to return to that older style of pekingese, which is interesting. Very few pekes are show-bred. The vast majority of them are bred as pets, and most of those have that desired Forbidden City phenotype.  If you want one, you can buy one.

But the idea that we can somehow force the show community to accept that aesthetic as the new standard of excellence is a bit off. It is the case of someone thinking they know better than someone else and then forcing that opinion into some sort of edict.

And that is a recipe for any concerns to fall on deaf ears. There are issues with pekingese. There are issues with all breeds. To address them rationally requires a certain understanding of the subculture of the breed, and the social media and internet commentary takes almost no time to do this.

Instead, it’s a game of playing with aesthetics.  If your aesthetic is a dog that is only barely derived from a wolf, like a West Siberian laika or a basenji, then a pekingese will never match it.

But not everyone has that aesthetic, and grown-ups in free societies are okay with others having aesthetics that differ from our own.

We also need better science around the issues of dog welfare and conformation. Studies about the welfare issues surrounding brachycephaly do exist. We need more of those, and we need better ones, ones with large sample sizes and even more rigorous statistical methodology.

But even if we had all the science in the world that suggests the pekingese phenotype is somehow cruel, the breeders would want to produce them. They would be open to suggestions, I’m sure, but I don’t think they would want to change the pekingese fundamentally.

And this raises a simple question. We have all these people spouting about dog health and conformation issues these days, but not a single one has come up with a practical solution to the problem, other than, of course, shaming the breeders who produce those dogs.

And you know what those breeders do with those shaming rants? They ignore you, and they double down. They will not take you seriously.

The solution, then, is more nuanced. The solution is understanding that we don’t know everything and that our chest-thumping will lead us nowhere.

So in my long apology tour for the damage I once did here, I offer yet another mea culpa.

I don’t think I served the dogs very well, even though I thought I did. I was just spinning my wheels and asking for adulation. I got the adulation, but I did so without considering the impact of my words.

And for that, I will always be sorry.







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bull terrier and dalmatian

As long-time readers of this blog know, I think we need a new dog fancy.

By “fancy,” I simply mean the cultural institution that sets the mores and values for breeding dogs. The initial fancy was developed in the period from 1860 to about 1885 under the premise of improving strains of domestic dog. This was the time of Victorian science, which had inherited a legacy of the scientific breeding that traced back the eighteenth century agriculturalist Robert Bakewell.

This was also a time when zoology consisted of Europeans with some scientific training going to the far corners of the world in search of new beasts. If someone saw a bear with somewhat off coloration, that person usually declared it a new species.   This was the age of taxonomic splitting to the extreme.

And it was applied to dogs in ways that we would later come to regret. In those days, it was common to apply those taxonomic splitting principles to dogs. Even if you could get several breeds in the same litter, it was generally accepted that one would register each puppy according to its phenotype. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Bedlington terrier and Dandie Dinmont terrier problem. At one time, one could get either breed in the same litter. If it had dwarfism, it was a Dandie. If it had legs, it was a Bedlington. At some point, the Bedlington terrier’s coat was altered through cross-breeding with a poodle, and it became much less likely to have strains in which Dandies and Bedlingtons would pop up in the same litter. In Northumberland and the Scottish borders, there were drop-eared terriers that produced long-legged and short-legged varieties, but the dog fancy decided to split them up.

And now they are quite different dogs.

Fights in breeds about the true type also led to breed splits.

Yes. It was politics. The golden retriever was split from the flat-coat for two reasons:  1. It was believed to be of Russian and not British origin and 2. the yellow dogs weren’t winning prizes at shows.

The last breed split I’ve seen that resulted from a dispute over phenotype was the division of the Norfolk and Norwich terriers. At one time, there was a breed drawn from the little terriers of East Anglia that was called a Norwich terrier. There were two varieties:  one with prick ears and one with folded drop ears.  If you have both ears in a breed, it’s actually pretty hard to breed for consistent ear carriage– just ask the people who breed phalenes to papillons in the US–so they decided to split the Norwich terrier into two breeds in 1960.

Splitting up types and refining them were the main activities of the dog fancy. They didn’t have a good grasp on the science of population genetics at all.

These were social climbing people who wanted to innovate and create. In some ways, their hearts were in the right place.

But they were still stuck in the limitations of the Zeitgeist.

We now know that splitting up dogs into often contrived esoteric forms called breeds and then shutting off all those breeds from almost all infusions of new blood are actions that are not going to lead to improved health or welfare. We also know that if rigorous selection is performed within those breeds, we are doing nothing more than making the march to misery move at double-quick.


The dog fancy that we have right now isn’t really that far removed from the Victorian days.

It has generally been impervious to new scientific findings that have directly challenged axioms about blood purity and rigorous selection within a closed population.

It has also been impervious to suggestions that breeding for certain phenotypes are directly responsible for creating health problems. The extreme brachycephaly of pugs and the sloping hyena backs of German shepherd dogs can be demonstrated to cause very real maladies, but these criticisms are ignored.

One intellectually lazy argument is to attack anyone who points out these facts about extreme conformation as an animal rights activist. I know the full mantra– “You’re one of those PETA types who wants to end dog ownership!”

Not at all.

When one points out the absurdity of blood purity in this day and age, the other intellectually lazy argument is to say that one wants to end purebred dogs  or selective breeding.

I rather enjoy it when people who don’t wish to debate the issues simply put words in your mouth and intentions in your head that you simply wouldn’t consider in the first place.

No. I actually want to encourage selective breeding, but I want to give breeders more tools and more freedom to correct genetic problems and to innovate. Innovation is the key. People need freedom to think and to experiment.

The problem with the dog fancy is that skills and knowledge were passed on like apprenticeships. A new breeder would hook up with an older established one, and the established one would give out all the advice. That established breeder likely got his or her ideas from earlier one, who in turn got it from an earlier one. In the end, it may be that this wisdom all gets traced to someone who lived either in a time when we simply didn’t know or someone who was trying to peddle a pet theory about how to breed dogs (see Brackett’s formula for a good example of that one).

That’s not a culture of innovation. That’s a culture of tradition– often the culture of tradition for tradition’s sake.

In order to create a dog fancy of innovation we need a new paradigm, and I think this new paradigm needs to be based upon two principles

  1. Science
  2. Empathy

The first principle is oddly lacking in so much of the modern dog fancy.  People use scientific findings. If there is a new genetic test for a disease or a recessive coat type they don’t want, they are excited to use it.

But when science questions the validity of long-standing traditions and ideas passed on from established people to their apprentices, that is when things get ugly.

There is very little critical thought, and critical thinking is key to having science as a main principle.

It can be acceptable for someone to say that if you don’t trim the fur on Keeshond’s feet, its pasterns will become weaker.  (Someone did actually say this!)

If the dog fancy were more science-based as a founding principle, people would not be able to get away with pronouncements that are either not provable or are demonstrably false.

I don’t see why it’s such a scary notion, but a lot of people get nervous when you start talking like this. That’s because you may discover that some long-held shibboleth is nothing more than bullcrap.

Empathy is the other principle that is sorely lacking in the world of dogs.

I don’t know how someone can claim to love a dog and be satisfied with its constant discomfort.

But that’s exactly what you see when people breed extremely brachycephalic pugs that cannot cool themselves efficiently or breathe properly.

As soon as you start down this path, the accusations of confederacy with Ingrid Newkirk come out, and the breeders almost always say “It’s in the standard.”

And this is where the two principles come together. Breed standards are like scripture. They are written by fallible human beings.

They are also interpreted by fallible human beings, and they are misused by even more fallible ones.

At some point, your empathy for the dog has to bring to a critical analysis of the standard and the institutions that claim to be acting in its best interest.

It is at this level that the modern dog fancy has let the domestic dog down.

We can change it, but we have to be acting with the right principles.

Otherwise, we’ll fall into the trap that goes “All we have to do is have working trials replace dog shows and things will turn out fine,” which is followed by the even more absurd variant that goes “All we have to do is make sure our champion dogs pass a working test before they become full champions.”

Both of those statements are acting in the old paradigm.

They simply will not change things enough to make a real difference.

The new dog fancy cannot be the based on the old. It must be based upon principles that are worthy of the dogs themselves.








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dog fashions 1889

From Punch magazine, January 25, 1889. Image courtesy of Nara U.

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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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Painting by Maud Earl:

Maud Earl painted a lot of different dogs in the late part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century in both the UK and the United States.

She was a chronicler of what many dogs looked like as they became standardized breeds.

This is what the Scottish terrier looks like today in the form of this year’s Best in Show at Westminster:

The original dos were shorter in coat (which may be the result of a different stripping regime) and longer in the leg.

They are almost like different breeds.

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The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is going to be on television tonight.

I am also here to announce that I am operating under a moderated position.

I hear my blog being taken off blogrolls right now.


Hear me out.

I’m not against the concept of the dog show. I’m against dog shows entirely consuming dogs. They are not the only measure of quality of dogs.

I would be among the last people to tell you that conformation isn’t important. If a dog is built in a fashion that keeps it from moving efficiently or comfortably while doing its work,  then we can say it has bad conformation.

Conformation is but one pillar on which dogs are built. Conformation complements the other traits.

And that should be the perspective on which we focus our energies.

I think it all can hang on a simple rule for working dogs:

If you start to get a split in your breed between show and working forms, I think it’s time to have a discussion about conformation.

Another rule applies for nonworking dogs:

If the top dogs in your breed have difficulty moving, whelping, mating, and cooling themselves, you might need to have a discussion about conformation.

For all dogs another rule should apply:

If you notice that lots of genetic disorders have started to pop up in your dogs and if you also notice that you have a Tristan da Cunha situation in your registry system, it’s time to have a discussion about health testing and possibly opening up the registries.

I think that if we can have civil conversations about these issues, I am fine with dog shows.

And you know, I think most people in dogs are willing to talk about these issues. The trick is getting an institution that will respond to these needs. The KC in Britain is starting to take these issues seriously, mainly because the public, including many breeders, are trying to push for reform.

Can the AKC be reformed?

Well, I’m not convinced that it can’t.

And even if it can’t, we have nothing to replace it.

Maybe we can work to build our own institutions.

That’s not a bad start.

But we have to have some kind of institution. People will do awful things to dogs in the quest for mammon, and there has to be an institution, at least at the level of civil society, that ensures that we are doing right by our animals.

I sincerely believe that most people aren’t in dogs because they want to hurt them.

Everyone wants the best for these animals. Those who don’t want the best for the animals shouldn’t even own a goldfish.

We have to have this discussion here. I am willing to listen to anyone, provided that this person comes in good faith. That’s how I moderate this blog.

So if you choose to watch the dog show tonight, please think about the animals, their gene pools, their history, and what the future might hold. Think about that ancient bond that man has with Canis lupus familiaris. Think about that time when we were just another species in the ecosystem, and the proto-dog wolves were both our alarm systems and hunting assistants. Think about how far we’ve come from those hunter-gatherer camps. Man and dog, wagons hitched to the same star, our destinies forever linked.

Let’s hope that we choose to do right by them. They deserve it.


Now that I’ve waxed poetic for a moment, I need to offer one observation.

I don’t know how the average person would know what is going on the ring.

It is always said that the dogs are being judged to their breed standard, but it is never said what these are.

And it would make for very bad television for the announcers to present every breed standard and every little esoteric quibble and fancy point.

However, I don’t think the average person really understands what is going on. I think the average American is just sitting there rooting for his or her favorite breed, which is interesting, I guess.

The really interesting part of what goes on in a dog show is during the breed ring competitions, but these competition are virtually never televised. It’s always group and then BIS.

I think that if people really knew what was going on, these shows would be far more interesting.

Update: I am watching it, but I just switched from USA to CNBC. I’m not that much into wrasslin’.

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8 P.M (EST)  tonight on BBC America.

Don’t have that channel?

Check it out on youtube:


To watch the others, just click the video’s title as it is embedded on this page, and it will take you to the original youtube video. The others will appear as related videos.

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I’m posting this again, because I think everyone needs to see it again:


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I would show chow chows:


I just love their gaits. They are the exact opposite of what you’d want in a working retriever. It’s this stilted, yet smooth and rolling gait.

The temperament of this breed is far better than it once was, and they have no specialized working instincts or abilities that can be ruined through breeding for the show ring.

They are just aloof creatures that bond really strongly with their people. The bond very strongly with only a few people.

I could see me showing these dogs.

However, I much prefer working dogs like retrievers and active herders.

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Just wait until the Dingo becomes a recognized show breed. The fancy will totally screw it up.

Just wait until the Dingo becomes a recognized show breed. The fancy will totally screw it up.

I find televised conformation shows both horrifying and extremely boring. It is extremely boring because of the banter. It is extremely horrifying because people are talking so glibly about animals that have a nature, that have an intelligence all their own. How can one reduce the totality of a dog strain into single standard? How can one justify breeding for fancy points, which aren’t even in the standard, when those fancy point actually harm the dog’s health and encumber its working ability?

This is why the dog fancy must be reformed. If the dog can no longer do its work with the current fads in the show ring, the standard must be changed. (Exceptions of course exist for dogs originally bred for blood sports.)

I think if we could get that attitude more instutionalized in the fancy, we would have far fewer problems with bad conformation issues. Further, these dog shows would make sense.

Most of these standards did start out as working dog standards, but they got perverted from their original purpose. You cannot tell me that the bulldog’s flattened face, misaligned jaw, big head, big chest, and narrow hips are of any use to the dog. A bulldog can no longer be used as a catch dog. If you tried to use it as a catch dog, it would probably die from heat stroke.

Robert Leighton wrote in 1910 in Dogs and All about Them, that bulldogs were very difficult to breed. He writes that “[g]reat mortality” exists in bulldog bitches when they are bred. When he was writing this, nearly 100 years ago, bulldog bitches could free whelp, but if they did, they did so with great risk to their bodies. Today, bull dogs do not free whelp. But they were well on their way to being ruined a century ago.

We have a lot to answer for when we look at what we've done to the bulldog.

We have a lot to answer for when we look at what we've done to the bulldog.

If you want to see catch dogs work, click here. In Australia, pig catch dogs are of no particular breed, although they do strongly resemble some of the working strains of bulldog, like the American bulldog and the pit bull. They breed what works with what works, regardless of breed. These little freak-show bulldogs wouldn’t last five seconds with a feral pig or a tame one for that matter.

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