Posts Tagged ‘show dogs’


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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Source for image.

What I am about to explain here might be offensive to curly-coated retriever owners. It is not intended to be.

I am merely quoting what Harding Cox, a retrieverman of the late nineteenth centuries and early twentieth centuries, thought of the breed. The breed has definitely changed since then, because it is no longer a “fancy” breed. It is now bred for sound working conformation and ability by its dedicated breeders.

Cox wrote the section on retrievers in W.D. Drury’s British Dogs: Their Points, Selection and Show Preparation (1903), and to be fair, Cox was a flat-coated retriever enthusiast.

He begins his section on retrievers with this somewhat Spencerian  prediction:

That the Curly-coated Retriever is doomed to practical extinction is a notable and an undeniable fact, which must be put down to the inevitable law of the survival of the fittest…For every Curly-coated dog (speaking of the recognised show type) used in the field, or exhibited on the bench, there are now a score, at least, of Flat-coats. (333).


Cox explains that reason why the curly lost favor in the British gun dog circles did not have much to do with their lack of tractability or their supposed reputation for hardmouth.

Cox contends that the real reason why the curly was not favored at time is that it was thought of as a show dog, not a working dog:

There seems to be a prevailing impression that the average disposition of the Curly-coated Retriever…is not as sweet and benevolent as that of the more popular dog [the flat-coat], and that he is less tractable. The writer’s only experience of these animals is in the show-ring, and he confesses that he has always found the exhibits mild and friendly enough. Probably the real reason of their unpopularity lies in the fact that they are more or less a “fancy” breed (345).

In this analysis, the real reason why the curly lost favor in Britain is because it was a dog bred solely for the show ring.

After all, this breed does have an unusual feature that is difficult to breed. Their coats do not withstand any crossbreeding. If you breed a curly to Labrador, you will have a dog with short hair and some wave to it. At this time, though, crossbreeding different strains of retriever was a common practice, and thus, the curly missed out on some of the experimental breeding that goldens, Labradors, and flat-coats experienced.

If you’re breeding for that feature, you’re not breeding for working ability. You’re breeding for the coat and for the rosettes that this coat will win you.

And that’s a recipe for disaster for a working dog.

If all the competitor breeds are being cross-bred and selectively bred for work, and you are breeding for a peculiar physical feature, your dog will not be able to keep up with them.

And the curly nearly went into extinction as Harding Cox suggested.

Of course, the flat-coat didn’t remain top dog in the trial circuit. After the First World War, the Labrador, which had been developed from breeding recently imported St. John’s water dogs with flat-coats, Chesapeakes, and all sorts of other dogs (including pointers and foxhounds), began to come into its own. The flat-coat developed a bad reputation for being hard to handle and for having possible borzoi ancestry (sight hounds are known for being terrible retrievers.) The yellow version of flat-coat became a separate breed, and it became the secondary retriever to the Labrador.

Nearly becoming extinct actually proved to be a blessing for the curly, for now the only people who were breeding them were truly interested in producing the best possible dog. The modern curly is now a dog with good working conformation and retrieving instinct, but most people don’t know about it. If the average person sees one, I guarantee you that the first question will be “Is that a Labradoodle?”

Losing popularity isn’t such a bad thing.


Today, the top working retriever is the Labrador. Most waterfowl hunters in North America go for Labradors.

In fact, the Labrador is now even more popular than its flat-coat predecessor. It is now the most common dog breed in the world.

The golden is the secondary dog. It is the curly of today.

However, this breed still remains common enough, although its popularity in Europe has started to drop off. In the US and Canada, it is still a very popular breed.

Most golden retrievers are rather like the curlies of the nineteenth century. They have been bred for their novel appearance alone.  Working ability has been secondary.

And many working retriever people pass the golden over.

It is just a matter of time until the golden begins to really lose its status in our society.

When I first heard of them, they were touted as being very easily trained and very good natured.

A few years ago, they were touted as being very good natured and much calmer than Labradors. (This isn’t necessarily a good thing, because extremely calm dogs are on their way to losing their working ability.)

Now, their temperaments have become far less reliable than they once were.

As things have progressed, the golden is not thought of as a working retriever. It’s thought of as a fancy breed for yuppies to own.

All of these factors set the golden up for meeting a very similar fate that befell the curly in the early twentieth century.

Is this a bad thing?

Well, as I said before, losing a lot of popularity was a blessing for the curly. It allowed only the most dedicated people to breed them.

And with all the problems that the golden is facing, the only way to solve them is for the breed to lose some it of its popularity. Too many stupid people are breeding them.

If the demand for cute little golden retriever puppies would just drop, dedicated golden retriever people would be able to breed good dogs once again.


It amazes me how many comments I get whenever I offer even a tepid criticism of a breed. I usually don’t attack individual dogs, but I do attack breeding practices. However, these criticisms are viewed as affronts against an individual dog, which may be sound, smart, and healthy.

I have nothing against the curly-coated retriever.

In fact, if you read this post and didn’t know any better, I bet you’d think I hate golden retrievers.

The truth is that I can offer a criticism of a breeding practice or trend within a gene pool and still respect the individual dog.

Every dog breed and every bloodline within a breed or strain has its virtues and vices. We need to be honest about them.

It’s only then that we can have real discussions about improving our dogs through selective breeding.

But because this candor eludes too many people who consider themselves dog people, we can’t have that conversation.

But for the sake of the dogs, we need to have that conversation.

It’s time to detach our egos from our dogs.

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We’ve already gone over the bulldog part of this documentary. I think there are people who are really starting to push for reform in the bulldog–which is getting harder because of the bulldog’s increased popularity.

The Pekingese bit is far more troubling. I happen to have a book called The Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston. It happens to have some interesting piece on the first Pekes ever imported to the UK.

And it has photographs of them.

They were different from the typical Chinese street dog.

They did have some exaggeration in type.

However, they looked a lot more like Tibetan spaniels than the dogs you see in the show ring. (Tibetan spaniels are not spaniels, in case you were wondering).

These small brachycephalic dogs have been in Asia for a very long time. Indeed, they may be one of the oldest forms of domestic dog. Remains of small, short-muzzled dogs have been found in kitchen middens in the Gobi Desert. These dogs have been dated to 10,000 years ago. And they were very similar to the pug or Peke type.

They were scavengers. Their small size was most likely an adaptation to the Spartan conditions of the human settlements and camps. The shortened muzzles may have been an adaptation to elicit more food from these ancient people. Short muzzles look cute to us, and it is a very human response to want to indulge animals we find cute.

Now,  their short muzzles and small sizes were functional in that environment, but it now seems to me that we’ve gone too far with the Pekingese.

Any dog that has to sit on a ice pack after just a short run around the show ring is not “fit for function” — even if that function is to be a pampered pet.

What I find interesting about Pekes is that one almost cannot find the photos of the early dogs in websites associated with breed clubs or show breeders. Their looks have entirely disappeared down the memory hole.


Although looks alone should never determine the quality of a dog, I have noticed something disturbing about the fancy. One must train one’s brain to think of exaggeration as beauty. I find the early dogs much better looking than current show dogs. I am not a Pekingese person, and I’ve not been indoctrinated into their culture.

But I once worked with an assistance dog organization that used golden retrievers. All but one dog was from show lines. This particular dog had no problems retrieving. She did not have to be taught at all. She was gracefully built and reddish in color.  Because of her abilities, she was going to be a brood bitch for the program.

The other dogs had no retrieving instinct. They had to be taught to retrieve. They were calmer than she was, but they were a bit harder to work with.

But what was interesting was what the uninitiated public thought of the dogs. We had to do a program for a summer youth program, and the children thought the red bitch was prettier than the other dogs.

Now, they were not indoctrinated in the breed standard. Lightly-built goldens that are red in color are thought of as ugly in the show ring. The average person tends to find these dogs better looking than the show dogs. (I also do, but that’s not my fundamental attraction. Lightly-built dogs are in keeping with working conformation, and darker colors are more in keeping with the breed’s history.)

I think that’s because our brains are designed to reject exaggeration. We have to be trained to learn that exaggeration is good.

Of course, this dog was 8 months old, as were the other dogs.  I was told by the director that when the pups were 8 weeks old, no one thought the red bitch was cute. The show dogs were far cuter puppies. They looked like little polar bears. And I think that’s what drives exaggeration in golden retrievers, coarse dogs produce cute puppies.

It was only when they started to mature that the working strain puppy started to look better than the other dogs. She was also learning at a far more rapid rate than the other dogs. Now, this program was more interested in form rather than function, and if one dog was learning so much better than the other dogs, they started to go for those working lines.

The last time I checked with this program, the majority of their dogs were working strain goldens and of the darker color. There were goldendoodles and Labrador or two, but there were no show-type goldens.

But I did find this experience instructive. One must be indoctrinated to like extreme exaggeration.  However, when confronted with cute puppies, this tendency is often overridden.

So cuteness is driving certain breeds off the cliff.

And the rest are being distorted through the fancy’s indoctrination.

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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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working border collie

“Reconstruction of ancient breeds fed on the same atmosphere that spawned the Arts and Crafts movement that swept much of Europe and the United States. In the face of the socioeconomic disruptions of industrialization and the destruction of individual craftsmanship inherent in mass production, reformers sought to resuscitate local artisanal traditions.  They found local craftsmen and paid them to make objects– furniture, pots, jewelry– that resembled idealized past forms. In reconstructing types of dogs, breeders took a similar approach, combing through old paintings and written descriptions, then scouring the countryside to find animals that most resembled their conception of what had existed. They then bred litter after litter, first trying to mach that look, and then taking  the dogs that came closest and breeding them to fix those characteristics.”

Mark Derr, A Dog’s History of America, p. 236-237

Now what Derr describes as a passion of the late nineteenth centur  fancy sounds a lot like people who like to maintain the working forms of dogs. However, there is a crucial difference between the hopeless romantics of the 1880’s and modern working dog enthusiasts.

The difference is rather obvious. Working dog people are concerned with functional conformation, but they are generally well-disposed to some diversity in type. Temperament and behavioral conformation are just as important working dog people as functional conformation.

To these nineteenth century Sir Tuftons and Sir Buftons, appearance was all that mattered. If a text described a specific working dog, they roamed the countryside in search of dogs that resembled the dog in the text. It mattered not whether the dog behaved anything like the dog in the text. Indeed, I highly suspect that a few small farmers pawned off culls from their litters whenever the city slickers came calling.

Instead of preserving working dogs, this movement in the fancy actually totally wrecked certain forms.  The Newfoundland dog as it exists today is much larger and much more coarsley built than any working dog of that island. The show collies have long, narrow muzzles, which are totally unlike any dog used by a Scottish crofters. The bulldogs are nothing like the dogs currently used as catch dogs today, which actually rather closely resemble the bulldogs of yore.

Now, today, this movement still exists. There are people who want to turn border collies into show dogs. If one peruses the AKC Miscellaneous Class, you will see many rustic working dogs that are up for consideration for full AKC recognition. Note that you see redbones, blueticks,treeing Walkers, and Boykins on that list. All of those are rustic working dogs native to the United States. Also not that there are dog breeds that have previously been ruined in their home countries that are now being offered in this country as show dogs, like the Sicilian farmer’s mastiff (Cane Corso) and the Norwegian Lundehund (which can develop a host of digestive disorders called “Lundehund Syndrome”).

This tendency is very strong within the fancy, and while it proports to save working dogs, it actually does the opposite. It degrades thems.

The only way to breed working dogs is to actually work them to see which actually do have functional conformation and have the right behavior and temperament for the job. You cannot do this in the show ring, and you also cannot do it by reading books of yore– especially if that book was written by Stonehenge or Dalziel.

Derr explains the problems of the fancy rather clearly:

“The original stock, the rustic dogs, worked beautifully. which was why they were sought out and were already celebrated for their sagacity and ability in Europe, as in England and America. But they were variable in looks and size, and so those that did not fit the program became expendable, denounced as degenerates of the pure form” (237).

The fancy’s breeding program and evaluation criteria were the diametric opposite of the working dog breeder’s program. Working dog people bred what worked with what worked, regardless of whether that produced dogs that varied in appearance or not.

The Arts and Crafts fancy thought of dogs like  finely crafted spoons or pots. They wanted them to look as if they were the same animals they read in the treatises and histories that were so popular during that era.

Now, I must admit that I do have a bit of this tendency. I like very dark goldens, like the ones you would see in and Edwardian shooting scene.

However, I wouldn’t want a dog that merely looked like the dogs in those scenes. Further, I understand that these dogs had functional conformation as well as retrieving instinct, drive, and biddablity. I have to have all of those things. It’s a bit like have an old-fashioned, hand-made pot that leaks or an old-fashioned, finely crafted spoon that can’t hold any liquid.

But looks, as the cliche goes, are only skin deep.

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