Posts Tagged ‘working conformation’

The following videos are of the tail docking procedure in a Jack Russell puppy. (It is very small. And yes, the puppy screams.)

Part I:


Part II:


Part III:


I am ambivalent to tail docking for several reasons.

It is true that  the puppy is in pain, but we haven’t banned circumcision or ear piercing in this country. I’ve not seen any evidence that the puppies remember the trauma of getting their tails cut off.

Phantom pain could always be an issue with this procedure. That’s why this procedure should be performed by a veterinarian. In many states, it is legal to do this yourself. I wouldn’t count myself among those who could do it.

I’ve not seen any evidence that Jack Russells or other terriers injure their tails if these are left intact. Feists and Dachshunds are undocked as a rule. You can’t tell me that Jack Russells have to have their tails docked. It’s just a tradition.

So in most breeds, this is cosmetic surgery.

However, in some breeds, there is some evidence that this preemptive amputation is actually beneficial.

Sweden banned tail docking for cosmetic reasons in 1989.

And when it did, there was an epidemic of tail injuries in German short-haired pointers within just a few years.

A study followed 50 litters of that breed.  38 percent had experienced a tail injury by the time they were 18 months old. By the time they were two, 51 percent had experienced a tail injury. (Yes, that’s a link from the Council of Docked breeds, a pro-docking interest group in the UK.)

These HPR breeds have whip-like tails with very little fat or cartilage on the lower part of their tails. If you’ve ever seen a gun dog work, they tend to wag their tails really hard when they are going on an air scenting mission.  As the dogs run through thick undergrowth, the lower part of their tails can get injured.

I would like a much bigger study on undocked HPR’s. The n in this particular study is somewhat low.

But many countries are banning docking, and it would be very easy to design a good longitudinal study of how often tail injuries occur within these breeds. If the risk is really that high, I think a case can be made for docking in these breeds.

However, I should also mention that sight hounds are particularly prone to these injuries. A common injury in greyhounds is the dog gets its tail caught in a door.

If you look at a greyhound’s tail, the whole thing is like the lower part of the HPR’s. It is like a thin whip, and it is very injury prone.

But none (as far as I know) has suggested that we should dock greyhounds.

Now, as I said before, I am very ambivalent when it comes to tail docking. Almost all of it is cosmetic surgery. However, there are cases in which tail docking really could improve the welfare of certain breeds.

This is an undocked vizsla, but it is one of the breeds that could benefit from tail docking. The lower part of its tail is not well protected by fat, fur, or cartilage. Photo by Béki Peti.

Although my views are ambivalent, my guess is yours are not.

So please feel free to leave what you think in the comments.

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 Ch. Bridford Giddie owned by Moses Woolland. You can't tell me that such short legs are functional to a working spaniel.

Ch. Bridford Giddie owned by Moses Woolland. You can't tell me that such short legs are functional to a working spaniel.

Very few posts have resulted in more invective on this blog than my two posts on the Sussex spaniel. (You see them here and here.)

I have since researched this breed a little more closely.

There have been liver spaniels in Sussex for a long time. The one that Stubbs painted was probably quite similar to the original dog.

Sussex spaniel

This painting was made in 1782.

In the early 1800’s, a particular strain of this liver spaniel was founded by a man known as “Mr. Fuller” from Rosehill in Sussex.

It was he who actually founded the modern dog called a Sussex spaniel

Now, maybe the dogs worked really well for him. And maybe the dogs do have some utility today–although most likely as museum pieces and “heritage breeds.” These spaniels do have good noses and a methodical hunting style that might be of some use.

However, the breed is not the working dog it once was. As a show dog, it was bred for shorter and shorter legs (as you can see in the case of Bridford Giddie.) The dogs stopped being bred for working traits, and the working spaniel people passed them by.

That’s why the breed is in such trouble today in terms of numbers.

The related field spaniel had exactly the same problem.

Ch. Bridford Brilliant, a black field spaniel owned by Moses Woolland.

Ch. Bridford Brilliant, a black field spaniel owned by Moses Woolland.

It also suffered a rather severe drop in numbers from which it has not recovered.

However, its exaggerations have been moderated. In fact, they not only have been moderated, they have been replaced with a requirement for more moderate conformation. And the field spaniel, at least in this country, does have a somewhat more modest footing since the conformation changed.

Please do not assume that I dislike the Sussex spaniel. A spaniel of this type could reasonably have some utility, but when run against the English springer or even an upland game retriever (especially a golden or European working Labrador, both of which have very good noses), it is not going to come out well.

The Sussex might be able to save itself if it were marketed as a docile, non-Avalanche of Rage prone spaniel. I could see this dog as a yuppie puppy– the latest trend among urban professionals who want something unique for their canine company.

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show golden

Now, occasionally, I get comments (and sometimes very heated and very long discussions) that usually end up with someone showing me a show dog doing the work of a performance-bred dog. It doesn’t matter what the breed is. If there is a split between show and working forms, there will be someone who has a show dog that is used in working trials and tests, usually just to prove that they can do it.

It’s not so much that they can’t do it. I’m sure you can find dogs with working instincts in show lines.

It’s just that many of them lack the ability to do it efficiently.

Performance-bred dogs are developed for performance. Performance denotes conformation– not written standards.  Written standards might even be based in reality and have all sorts of science behind them, but in the world competitive dog shows, it’s what wows the judges and “what’s in style” that actually rules. And those “fancy points” or “flourishings” can be the exact opposite of what a dog needs to do its work efficiently.

I’ll just go to what I know best for an illustration.

I an working golden retriever, the absolute last thing you want is 8 or 9 inch feathering streaming of the dog. That much feathering can easily drag in the burrs if doing land work, and that much feathering will get bogged in the water, which will make the dog extremely slow and cumbersome in the water.

You also don’t want a dog with excessive bone. You want more bone than a setter, because the dog migh be working in very cold water and needs volume to retain heat. However, you don’t want the Newfoundland-type body in a working retriever.  You also want a more agile body that can really run out with style and has stylish water entry.You can’t get that by loading a dog up with bone.  Breeding for too short in the leg and too heavy in the body is a selection against stylish water entry and agility in the field

Now, a big Newfoundland can retain heat far better than any retriever, and it’s a much stronger dog. It’s also a much slower dog in the water, and if it’s running hard on land, its heat-retaining body is at a major disadvantage. And that’s why we need to keep in mind, that golden retrievers are not Newfoundlands. (This has to be repeated every once in a while.)

Now, golden retrievers have had very scientific and analytical revisions to their AKC. If you ever read a good golden retriever book, you’ll often get more detail in gait than you’ll ever read in any other breed book. However, all of the science that went into making sure the gaits were efficient didn’t stop the development of the golden Newfoundland dog.

Now, I’ve read defenses of breeding so much bone in goldens. It goes like this:

Tweed water spaniels were said (in one breed descriptions) to be heavily boned. Thus, it’s a good idea to breed for a lot of bone in a golden retriever, because it’s in keeping with the breed’s history.

1. Tweed water spaniels varied greatly in appearance. Some may have had more bone than others. When I look at the first litter of the Tweedmouth strain, I see dogs that are rather gracile in appearance and also are light gold in color (not cream). Their sire, Nous, is a heavier built dog, which was the style for wavy-coats in those days. However, when goldens and flat-coats were actively trialed, the main goal of most breeders was to breed out the heavier bone. That’s why flat-coats have their current conformation, and why most goldens, until recent decades, had very similar conformation.

2. Can someone show me a working Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog today? Oh that’s right, you can’t. The breed is extinct. It most likely got absorbed into golden, Labrador, and flat-coated retrievers. It may also have disappeared into the curly, which the other breed that is well-known to have had a bit of TWS in it. I usually prefer to call the TWS the “Tweed water dog,” because its characteristics were more similar to the St. John’s water dog and retrievers than other breeds of water spaniel. The other reason why the breed became extinct is that it probably didn’t have the conformation to really compete with the modern retrievers. The later accounts all suggest a dog with very heavy bone, and that’s a problem for a working retriever.

I’m sure that someone can find a show-bred golden doing retriever work. I’m sure they exist. However, that’s not my point.  A performance bred dog has actually been selected for generations to have the temperament it needs to do the work. And what’s more– its conformation has been selected by what works in the field, not what wins ribbons at dog shows.

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golden retriever bear

I have never understood certain fads in purebred dogs, especially in dogs with which I have a great deal of familiarity.

I’ve never understood why breeders think it’s cool to breed retrievers that don’t retrieve. I also never understood why you would have a breed called a golden retriever and then do everything in your power to breed the golden color out of it.  Hey, I’m not a dog show person.

I’m also not into fad pet dogs.

So I’ve never understood why I see golden retriever and Labrador dogs offered for stud in the local paper described as possessing the following assets:

1. Big dog (100 plus pounds)

2. Blocky head

3. Heavy bone

Not a single one of those is functional to a working retriever. Very blocky headed dogs often lack muzzle depth to hold a bird properly (That’s one reason why the Newfoundland dog is no longer used as a retriever.) A big dog can overheat far faster than a smaller one, and dogs with lots of excessive bone aren’t agile or efficient movers.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the average pet retriever owner would like to have a dog that looks like a bear, rather than a functional working dog.

Of course, that’s okay.

However, it means that I have to sort through lots of dogs with this type in order to find a decent working dog. It also means that the lines that have a more natural head and body are going to be little less genetically diverse.

So while the “bear goldens” are cute (and they certainly are as puppies), they really aren’t exactly what is needed in a working dog.

Now, my ideal dog isn’t cute. It’s rustic and functional. It looks a bit like it belongs on in Edwardian shooting scene or on a ranch in Montana or the Dakotas. It’s a good natured dog, but it’s entirely without exaggeration.

If you want a dog that really looks like this, it exists. It’s a very trainable and good natured breed– in fact, it’s from that same root stock. It’s called the Newfoundland. You can also go for Leonberger, if you want one with tawny coat. (Of course, Leonbergers and FCI Landseers are closer to retrievers in their builds).

But in a working retriever, you really don’t need a dog with a bear’s conformation. All you have to do is watch a Newfoundland dog swim, and you’ll see why.

I have nothing against Newfoundland dogs. It’s just that, as a retriever person, I find that they lack speed and style in the water. They remind me of a big heavy draft dog that incidentally has water dog ancestry.  And that’s probably what they are. A good retriever can swim circles around a Newfoundland, but in a weight pull, I’d definitely put the Newfoundland on top.

Because Newfoundlands are in a different breed group than retrievers, comparisons between the two aren’t given enough attention. The truth is I find them really interesting. They descend from almost exactly the same stock, but they have evolved in such different ways. The bear-like conformation probably works for the Newfoundland, although I suspect that water dog trial purists prefer FCI Landseers or Leonbergers. That conformation definitely doesn’t work for the retrievers, for you want more style and speed in the water.

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Here’s a video of a European show golden with a Show Gundog Working Certificate.

Now, that all sounds good.

But then I looked up what a Show Gundog Working Certificate actually was.

The KC awards a Show Championship, but no gun dog can be a full champion unless it passes this working test. Originally, they had to be run in actual trials, but now, they get to do the sort of amateur behavior. These certificates are given at trials or a special show gun dog working certificate test.

The retrieving behavior tested during this test is pretty much remaining steady to a line and retrieving a dummy from the land and the water. It is the same as the true trial dogs. However, these dogs aren’t expected to beat the performance bred dogs, which they would have a very hard time doing. Instead, they are looking for a modicum of instinct that has been polished through some training. These tests are a wonderful way of getting more dogs in trials, so that the actual performance-bred dogs can clobber them. Brilliant move.

It does take  a lot of training to keep a dog in a line. That really is impressive. The fact that these dogs have enough retrieving instinct to be trained to do this work at this novice level is amazing. But it doesn’t disprove a very simple truth: Performance bred dogs are better at this work than these dogs are. You might find some dogs in the European show-lines that really can do the work. These dogs should be bred from. We need dogs with retrieving instinct to be bred. However, it doesn’t change the fact that their bodies are built incorrectly to really do the work. It also doesn’t change the fact that the very light colors are the result of fad breeding, which started around 1960. The original colors were light gold to mahogany. Some of the early dogs were light golds with cream shadings (like my dog), but none were so pale as to be mistaken for white.

The fact that this dog’s owner says it’s so hard for a show golden in the UK to make the grade here is an admission of what I know and what most serious retriever people know. The European show golden is not the best example of a working dog.

While they were breeding for light color, bone, and blockiness, they forgot to also breed for biddability and drive. And that’s why I’m very wary of these lines. The vast majority of these dogs are not selected for their retrieving instinct, and even if they have it, they may not be properly built to really do working gun dog work.

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This Cretan hound is something like the dogs Xenophon calls the Castorian.

This Cretan hound is something like the dogs Xenophon calls the Castorian.

The hounds used are of two kinds, the Castorian and the Vulpine. The Castorian is so called because Castor paid special attention to the breed, making a hobby of the business. The Vulpine is a hybrid between the dog and the fox: hence the name. In the course of time the nature of the parents has become fused. Inferior specimens (that is to say, the majority) show one or more of the following defects. They are small, hook-nosed, grey-eyed, blinking, ungainly, stiff, weak, thin-coated, lanky, ill-proportioned, cowardly, dull-scented, unsound in the feet.  Now small dogs often drop out of the running through their want of size; hook-nosed dogs have no mouth and can’t hold the hare; grey-eyed dogs and blinkers have bad sight; ungainly dogs look ugly; stiff ones are in a bad way at the end of the hunt; no work can be got out of the weak and the thin-coated ones; those that are lanky and ill-proportioned are heavy movers and carry themselves anyhow; cowards leave their work and give up and slink away from the sun into shady places and lie down; dogs with no nose seldom scent the hare and only with difficulty; and those with bad feet, even if they are plucky, can’t stand the hard work, and tire because they are foot-sore.

Xenophon On Hunting (This is the Greek Xenophon, not the Roman one, also known as Arrian, who wrote about using coursing dogs many centuries later)

When one reads this text of about hunting dogs, it is pretty obvious that the author never used the “fox” breed.

I think here he’s referring to that ancient European hunting dog  that we might known today as the hunting spitz. The Laika and Elkhound family are the only remaining members of that family. However, it is well-known that dogs of this family existed in places like Germany and Poland well into the Middle Ages. They were then replaced by scenthounds, dog “improved” by the Ancient Celts in Belgium and France.

It is also possible that the author is also talking about this landrace as the fox dog. I am really uncertain.

The Castor breed is not a sight-hound or a scent-hound. It is a kind of varmint cur type that uses both its nose and eyes in the hunt. It’s probably an unimproved pariah type dog that is used for the hunt–something like the dog in the photograph at the top.  The Cretan hound is being standardized into a breed, but it varies a lot in apperance, just as any performance bred dog would. It is probably derived from landrace working dogs, just as the dogs that once made up the packs of Xenophon’s day.

These dogs were bred solely for the work of varmint hunting, and their exact phenotype isn’t firmly written in the standard. It’s about what works, not what’s cute or fancy.

But it is interesting that the Ancient Greeks were very aware of working conformation in their dogs. Of course, they are more interested in what they don’t want in their dogs, instead of what they do want. I suppose that they were much more willing to allow variance in the working dogs than we are now.

The Greeks were also willing to allow a wide degree of variance in hunting behavior with dogs running at different speeds and using different hunting tactics. This differs from how the British bred foxhounds, because they preferred a more uniform running style in their dogs.

So working conformation has been concept that has been around for a very long time, much longer than what I call “fancy” or “non-functional” conformation.

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CH K-Run's Park Me In First ("Uno") won last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

CH K-Run's Park Me In First ("Uno") won last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

The owner of the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show lets PETA have it in the LA Times. This article is a response to a PETA demand that the USA networks stop showing Westminster. This debate is between two extreme positions.

I have already said that PETA has jumped the shark with their “Sea Kittens” campaign. They also have a vendetta against domestication, which is, sadly, not logical. But for domestication, dogs wouldn’t exist at all. Further, dogs have co-evolved with people. We need each other. We co-evolved.

PETA’s solution to ending domestication is to kill 97 percent of all dogs that enter its shelters. This position very obviously causes problems with the mainstream of the American body politic. What is worse is that PETA has used good science, science that people like me also use, to promote their views. That’s okay, but it seems rather bad that PETA gets to be the only promoter of these views in the media. And if the American people already have negative views of PETA, I am found guilty by association, even if it is that we merely used the same information.

However, Uno’s owner’s position is also extreme. This is what she said about the unhealthy conformation in some breed standards:

 “Those are breed traits!  Those breeds have always looked like what they look like.  No, those traits come naturally when breeding dogs of the same breed…Peke to Peke produces all puppies that look like Pekes.”

No. Those so-called “traits” are exaggerated deformities. They are not natural in the least.  Most pekes can’t even breathe properly. They can’t whelp or breed naturally. They are the result of “artificial selection,” not natural selection.  They are not functional conformation either. Pekes don’t have any function other than to be held and cuddled.

So the media is able to set up a straw man using PETA as the main spokesperson for reforming the dog fancy. It is because PETA is the straw man, that I can’t even converse with some conformation breeders about breeding for greater diversity and a greater emphasis on health and working ability in the conformation standards. They will just say, “You’re one of those PETA extremists,” and the conversation ends.

The truth is I am not opposed to selective dog breeding or to breeding for some conformation, after all a dog does need good conformation to be a good working dog. However, the conformation shows have all become about glitz and glamour, finer points, and unusual mutations. It’s not about working function. (There are a few breeds that still have good working conformation as part of their standards, including the flat-coated retriever.)

Conformation is just one way of determining a dog’s quality. It must also have the working ability and temperament, and those breeders who focus more on those things deserve as much respect as the conformation breeders. Working ability, health, and temperament are  still far more important than adhering to very finely delineated breed standards. But I’m not opposed to conformation judging, provided that this is the main focus of the show.

I would also like the closed registry system to updated to allow from some intelligent outcrossing. I don’t think we’re doing our breeds an service by maintaining closed registries, when we  need to increase some genetic diversity in our breeds, just to make sure that genetic problems are less concentrated in our lines. I don’t think its possible to eliminate genetic diseases from dogs (Have we done so in people?), but greater genetic diversity prevents these disorders from becoming too concentrated.

Further, some of these breed classifications were originally quite arbitrary. I usually mention the golden/flat-coat split, which was originally on color alone. But there’s also the cain terrier/West Highland white terrier split, which was alson on color. The Norwich/Norfolk terrier split, which was on ear carriage (and that’s still pretty much the only difference). And there are certainly others. These are the breed splits with which we could use some intelligent outcrosses.

These are modest proposals, designed to work with creating a better dog fancy with healthier dogs. It is not PETA extremism. It is simply better animal welfare. PETA wants to destroy the dog. I want to save it, and that’s the difference.

PETA does not speak for me, and if PETA and I agree on something, it will be by accident.


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So they can do this:


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Which of these dogs has a functional body type, one that is designed for maximum health and energy efficiency?

This one?

American show golden:


Or this one?

Field-type golden:


Which is closer to the originals?

The Originals:


Show dog breeders like to think that they’re breeding to an ancient, refined definition of a breed. In the case of the golden retriever, they are not.

I would love to see morbidity and general health survey on working-type goldens versus show type goldens. The dogs I’ve had have all been working type. Life expectancy was 13-14 years. The average life expectancy for goldens in Sweden is 12.6. Most breed infos I’ve seen say 10-12 years for a golden retriever,  except for the Encyclopedia of the Dog  by Bruce Fogle (the original version from 1995). That version says 13-15 years for a golden, which is about my dogs lived. The 2000 edition used the Swedish moribidity data.

I hate to use one of those “appeal to nature” logical fallacies, but compare the body types of those goldens with that of some wild dogs (going from least related to most related to the golden).

A red fox:


A coyote:


A wolf:


A dingo:


Which of the two goldens at the top resembles these wild species most? Nature has taken millions of years to form the dog’s skeletal structure, and in 150 years, we’ve totally wrecked it. And goldens aren’t even the most messed up breed.

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