How Good Are Our Breeds Today ... Really?
Successful breeders discuss why breeds may decline, rise or otherwise change over the course of time.
Gretchen Bernardi |
October 23, 2013
All breeders come to realize, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, that mediocrity breeds terribly true, but real excellence slips easily through our fingers. It is certainly true that we have some superb dogs being bred and shown today. Breeders' opinions on the overall quality of their individual breeds depend very much on the breed in question. Those who have been involved in breeding and showing purebred dogs for any length of time have seen the quality of the dogs rise and fall, sometimes to recover, sometimes not.
Many breeds flourish for a time and then decline, never to again attain their glory days, when quality was abundant, giving breeders wide choices in sires. Other breeds seem to always struggle, sometimes from lack of popularity, often from too much, with breeders behaving badly to fill a sudden public desire for puppies of a certain breed. The histories of our breeds written from an honest perspective tell stories of struggle, success, heartbreak, victory — all elements of the human condition.
There are several kinds of breeders, but essentially we show breeders fall into two categories. First, there are those who want to produce dogs that are excellent in every way, that conform to the standard, are healthy, a joy to look at and a pleasure to be around. They strive to produce dogs that have that little extra something that sets them apart. Then there are those who want to produce puppies, period.
The first type of breeder works hard long before breeding takes place, looking for a stud dog with the right virtues coupled with a compatible pedigree, one that complements the bitch. The second type simply breeds the bitch to a dog at home or a dog belonging to a friend, sometimes even to a top winner, with little consideration of the suitability of its characteristics or its pedigree.
It is frequently said that the primary problem is that we no longer have real breeders maintaining large kennels housing and producing large numbers of dogs. I don't agree with this. At least, I don't agree that it's the principal cause in what some see as the decline in quality in certain breeds. First, we do have some remaining large kennels that are producing quality animals, showing them and placing them in show and breeding homes. Second, we all know clever and dedicated breeders, keeping small numbers of dogs, who have produced and continue to produce high-quality dogs. Unfortunately, many of these breeders have simply stopped showing their dogs, preferring to breed to their own understanding of the standard and not to what they perceive as the judging community's limited knowledge.
Show after show it seems that the majority of dogs being produced and shown, especially in the classes, are the result of the breeding decisions of the second type of breeder, while the dogs from the first type, our devoted and principled breeders, are diminishing in numbers.
In the end, maintaining any level of quality in a breed depends in large part on the number of dedicated breeders — dedicated, that is, to producing quality dogs and not just dogs — that remain in that breed. It's too easy to apply feelings about the state of one's own breed to all others, so I asked several top breeders how they saw their breed today, if their breed was in better or worse shape than 15 or 20 years ago, or if it was about the same.
The Decline of a Breed
Patricia Craige Trotter and her Vin-Melca Norwegian Elkhounds are famous throughout the world, and she is a familiar figure on both sides of the ring, as a multi-Group judge and as an impassioned exhibitor. Her dedication to her breed won her the 2004 AKC Hound Group Breeder of the Year Award, several Winkie Awards and other honors. There are surely few people in the country with longer or deeper dedication to one breed than Pat, and so it's especially sad to read her matter-of-fact description of her breed: "Unfortunately, my breed, the Norwegian Elkhound, is in the worst shape it has been in since the 1940s when most of the dogs were low and long."
In Pat's opinion, the blame can be placed, in large part, on a lack of interest in the breed itself and on the loss of good breeders. "Good people are struggling against the odds to keep the breed alive. Our breeders are people of modest means, and the cost of veterinary care, housing dogs, making dog shows, etc., is a constant challenge. Public interest in the breed has lessened over the years, and the breed does not sell for big prices, meaning breeders are always struggling to prime the pump. Many of our best breeders have gone on to their 'Happy Hunting Grounds,' while others are nearing the end of their breeding careers." Lack of public interest, fewer breeders and falling registrations have resulted in the breed being on the AKC's low-entry list.
"With fewer dogs being bred, the gene pool has shrunk, and the chances of seeing a ring full of quality dogs at most shows are greatly reduced. Obviously, numbers contribute to a breed being more competitive," she says.
And all of this bad news falls heavily on the conscientious breeder, who has trouble finding correct dogs and bitches to use for breeding stock. Faced with these obstacles, Pat hopes that breeders "can become more skilled in applying the best of selection procedures to make the most of our dwindling gene pools."
Reminiscing about the Elkhound entries of the past, she says, "This past weekend my exhibit was the lone Elkhound entered at Santa Barbara. In 1965, our national specialty benched 125 Elkhounds at the Golden Gate Kennel Club. In 1974, there were 300 Elkhounds at the national held at Disneyland and judged by Olaf Roig, president of the Norske Kennel Club, and Olivind Asp, Norwegian breeder/hunter."
Clearly things have changed in this breed. Pat longs for the correct Elkhound of its glory days and hopes that breeders, admirers and judges of the breed will recognize the correct ones. "When you see an Elkhound that is up on leg, of correct athletic hunting type, carrying the proper harsh, flat coat and expressing the hardy, energetic nature of the breed, appreciate it. Seek dogs that are square with a short, strong loin. Understand that the correct dog will signal to the observer that it could do the job it was bred to do. And that is to trail moose over hill and dale, through alternately freezing and thawing waters, bay it up and work the gigantic animal like a cow pony works cattle — dodging back and forth while subtly controlling the giant animal all the time with good eye focus and 'moose sense.'"
A Rising Breed
Barbara Miller and her Max-Well Norfolk Terriers are internationally known, and she is much more optimistic about her breed. Like many of us, she began her showing and breeding career with a less than stellar example of the breed. She bought her first Norfolk in 1973 but says that "her ears were that of a hound and heading more to her cheek rather than to the outside corner of her eye. She was also as long as a train. She had an excellent bite and a wonderful disposition."
But Barbara's keen eye for conformation told her that many Norfolk of the day did not meet the standard. "Too many were long, rather than off-square, too many had houndy ears, and certainly too many walked on spindly legs." By breeding carefully, she was able to produce a better Norfolk. Furthermore, she was able to help improve the breed by importing and sharing imported dogs.
"Breeders began to take the standard to heart," she says, "and produce a Norfolk with moderate length of neck, slightly off-square, ears to the outer corner of the eye and good width in the foreface allowing for a good scissors bite." Breeders, exhibitors and handlers also became m ore skilled in presentation and grooming.
Barbara contributed heavily to the breed's improvement and presence in the Group and Best in Show rings at Westminster and other prestigious shows. Honoring her successful breeding program, she was named AKC Breeder of the Year in 2007, topping all Group winners.
Barbara believes the breed improved greatly and is still in good shape. Even so, there is always room for improvement, always an area that deserves watching. In this case, she is concerned about too-short necks and backs. "It is a bit unfortunate that some being exhibited show no neck and are too short-backed, resembling a Norwich Terrier," she says. "The Norwich standard calls for short backs but with a bit of neck. If you look closely at Norwich, too many have their heads sitting on their withers, which is hardly what the standard calls for." Barbara insists that the nuances between the Norfolk and the Norwich must be recognized and preserved, even though the standards are similar. Bites are the main problem today in the Norwich, but the parent club is currently addressing the issue. The Norfolk seems to be in very capable hands.
Changes for the Better, and for the Worse
If we wanted to know about the Bloodhound, who else to ask but Susan LaCroix Hamil? And as is the case with so many of our breeds, Susan says that it is better ... but also worse. Temperaments and soundness are much improved over the last 15 or 20 years. "Rarely these days do you see extreme fearfulness and/or aggression," she says. "In previous decades it was not uncommon for several dogs to be excused from the ring at a national for poor temperament and lameness, particularly in the front end; we have gone for a number of years now without incident."
And, if anyone would know, it would be Susan. Her Quiet Creek Bloodhounds have been consistent winners at specialties and at our largest and most prestigious all-breed shows, with one or more Quiet Creek dogs usually in the top 10. But Susan wears many hats in addition to that of a conscientious breeder, whose skills made her the Hound Group recipient of the 2006 AKC Breeder of the Year Award. She is a licensed veterinary technician and, until recently, managed the Canyon Animal Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif. Susan is a judge, a club officer, a delegate, a member of the AKC Canine Health Foundation President's Council, a board member of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and an officer in her parent club. All of that involvement makes her especially interested in the "whole" dog, encompassing health, temperament and soundness for its work.
The Bloodhound is overall more sound today, she reports. "Rears have definitely improved in strength and balance, and rarely do you see frank unsoundness in the front now. Foot structure seems to come and go at various times, with the foot being round and well knuckled up with thick pads still being the ideal, but occasionally difficult to find. An army marches on its feet and so does the Bloodhound."
But while the Bloodhound has improved in some areas, it has declined in others. "The Bloodhound, as with many breeds, is exhibiting more straight fronts. Our standard describes the front as 'shoulders muscular and well sloped backwards ... chest well let down forming a deep keel between the forelegs,' and what we are seeing more of in the ring are straight shoulders with no forechest and nothing between the front legs," Susan says. "Along with this we are seeing ribbing that is more oval rather than 'well sprung' as called for in our breed standard, and some straighter rears than the ideal." Susan speculates, as many of us do in other breeds, that it is easier to have cleaner down-and-back movement in dogs with straight front assemblies, which may also be the reason for the shorter legs seen in many breeds today.
We have heard from just a few breeders who responded to my inquiry, and my next column will pursue the question further, with thoughts from other breeders. All of them lead busy lives, and I very much appreciate the time and thoughtfulness that went into all of the responses. Stay tuned.
From the October 2013 issue of Dogs in
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