How Good Are Our Breeds Today... Really? Part Two

Successful breeders discuss why breeds may decline, rise or otherwise change over the course of time.

By Gretchen Bernardi | December 18, 2013

In "How Good Are Our Breeds Today ... Really?" Part One, I discussed the rise and fall in quality of purebred dogs and the problems faced by breeders, real breeders, in the constant struggle to maintain quality over time and against untold odds: economic downturns, popularity and lack of popularity of a specific breed, loss of confidence in the judging system and other obstacles. To assess the current state of our dogs, or rather of certain breeds, I asked several well-known breeders their opinions about the quality or lack of quality in their breeds today, and if they thought their breeds were better or worse than 15 or 20 years ago, or about the same.

In Part I, I posed that question to Pat Trotter, Vin Melca Norwegian Elkhounds; Barbara Miller, Max-Well Norfolk Terriers; and Susan LaCroix Hamil, Quiet Creek Bloodhounds. Their answers should not surprise anyone: Some things are better, and some things are not so good. This month I spoke to Patti Widick Neale, Sylvan Borzoi; Dr. Edna Martin, Full Circle Wirehaired Dachshunds and Kaihorn Afghan Hounds; and Robert Schroll, Ravenrush Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.


Patti Widick Neale, Sylvan Borzoi

Christopher and Patti Widick Neale
Photo Denise Flaim.

Patti Widick Neale has been involved with Borzoi since 1974, competing in conformation, obedience and lure coursing under the Sylvan kennel name. She has been judging since 1993, and judged the American national specialty in 1998 and 2012 and also specialties in Canada and Finland. She does not hesitate to state that she believes the quality of the average Borzoi entry has declined. "The annual number of Borzoi born is about half of what it was 15 to 20 years ago, which is reflected in show ring entries," she says. "Small entries mean a much easier point scale in many areas, so a lot of marginal animals still finish. The competition for Grand Champion points now is similar to the level of quality in the classes then."

Still, she thinks the dogs at the top end remain comparable to the past but are "often 'saved' for the challenge of class competition provided by the 13 specialty clubs," making specialties the best possible educational tool for exhibitors and "a better comparison testing ground for a breeder's current crop than a series of one- and two-point shows." She also admits that the difficulty of raising large dogs, especially in today's economic climate, limits the number of people who can become Borzoi breeders, and therefore few are replacing the long-time breeders who are diminishing in number. I think we have heard this song before, and not only among the fanciers of large breeds. She wishes she had the answer to this growing and widespread problem. So do we all.

Although she doesn't mention it in her reply, Patti is an accomplished photographer with an array of beautiful photos to her credit, and not all of them are of dogs. She describes herself as a "sometimes casual, sometimes serious" photographer, but her work is yet further proof of how often our best breeders, especially in the sighthound breeds, are accomplished artists in other arenas in addition to the art of dog breeding.


Dr. Edna Martin, Full Circle Wirehaired Dachshunds and Kaihorn Afghan Hounds

Edna Martin

Some know her as Mrs. Donald Martin of the Martin Basset Hound family. Others know her as Dr. Edna Martin, who once worked for the AKC. But most of us know her as Midge, an accomplished breeder and a judge of two Groups plus a few other breeds. She obtained her first show dog in 1964, an Afghan Hound that she and her first husband found through an ad in the New York Times, which said, "Male Afghan Hound, shown three times, three blue ribbons, including Westminster Kennel Club." They, too, won many blue ribbons with the dog, but no purple ones.

Her association with Dachshunds came about as mine did and, I would wager, as it did for many others with large or giant breeds. She wanted dogs that her daughter could show. Her journey to her first Wirehaired Dachshunds involved some of the greats in the breed. She enlisted the help of Bobby Fowler and his wife, then Pat Beresford, and the dog came from the well-known Herthwood kennel of Dorothy Pickett, close friend of Peggy Westphal, Nancy Onthank and her daughter, Dee Hutchinson. Add John Cook to this group of experts, and she had about the best mentors anyone could want in any breed.

After her employment at the AKC and a divorce, Midge returned to breeding and showing Standard Wirehaired Dachshunds. The sire of her first Wire litter was the great Ch. Westphal's Shillalah. Midge continues to breed and exhibit Dachshunds but leaves the showing of Afghans to "those with younger legs." But she is still very interested in the breed, and through her judging assignments and observations at shows, she can certainly comment on the state of both breeds. But she chose to emphasize the Afghan in her responses to my questions.

The essence of Afghan Hound type is stated at the very beginning of the standard, which says, "The Afghan Hound is an aristocrat, his whole appearance one of dignity and aloofness with no trace of plainness or coarseness," and yet she sees dogs come into the ring, tails drooping, pulling away from the judge. She realizes that construction is a problem in many breeds but finds it particularly troubling in Afghans, with incorrect length of back, incorrect bend of stifle and fronts that are too far forward and too straight to balance the over-angulated rear.

"The Afghan Hound is built like a Quarter Horse," she writes. "His short coupling and sharp angles are less speedy than the sighthounds of sinuous curves, but he makes up for that in his agility and ability to turn sharply and pull himself up steep and rocky terrain. For this he needs a front that is strong, with both shoulders and upper arms well angled so that the front legs are set well under the dog, something rarely seen in the ring today."

Although size is more correct than in years past, she sees other problems in the Afghan breed: overreaching on the move, sickle hocks, lack of underjaw ("The Afghan Hound is a medium-sized killer and needs a strong jaw to bring down dinner for the Bedouin chief," she writes), unsteady toplines on the move and exhibitors thinking that the faster the gait, the better. And the current demand for a wide-open, German Shepherd Dog-like trot is turning the Afghan Hound into "a Standardbred trotter instead of a compact, efficient Quarter Horse, with more forward-set front, longer loin, flatter croup and higher tail set." This emphasis on what we used to call TRAD (tremendous reach and drive) seems to be affecting many breeds, not only Afghan Hounds and other sighthounds.

Midge clearly loves the breed and is disappointed in the quality of the dogs presented recently. But, like many of us, she can't pinpoint exactly where the fault lies. She wonders if the judges aren't being well-educated or if breeders are forgetting the purpose of the breed.

She concludes by saying, "As an educator, I believe that the best way to counter some of the problems we see is with education ... of judges, certainly, but newcomers to the breed, especially. This is a wonderful breed, one that is versatile and fun. They provide comic relief and are a joy to behold. Education about function and construction, as well as knowing the virtues and faults in your dog's ancestors before you breed is a prime requisite." And who among us would disagree with that?


Robert Schroll, Ravenrush Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

Robert Schroll

"Everyone thinks that he or she can breed them, and they do. And something once very special is now as common as a penny." Robert Schroll is speaking of the breed to which he and his partner John Gammon have devoted more than 35 years of careful importation and breeding. But then he corrects that statement, saying, "That is not really correct, as all pennies look alike, something which cannot be said of Cavaliers."

Politics has played an important role in the history of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, from its very beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries to the mid-1990s. A court favorite during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, its popularity waned until 1925. Robert writes of the breed's new beginning, saying, "It was not until 1925, when an American named Roswell Eldredge began offering a prize of 25 pounds at Crufts for the dog that most resembled the longer-nosed spaniel featured in the paintings of the old masters. [That was] a very substantial amount at the time, so Charlie (English Toy Spaniel) breeders began to keep their long-nosed pets and breed them to each other with the hope of winning the cash. Eventually these breeders got together and formed a club. A Blenheim dog named Ann's Son won the prize, and with him sitting on a table surrounded by club members, the Cavalier standard was written."

Size, looks and temperament made the breed a popular choice, and soon the Cavalier came to America and was especially embraced by Trudy and Sally Brown, sisters-in-law in Louisville, Ky., who held shows at their farm and began keeping the stud book and registry in the late 1950s. What made those years so important in the development of the breed in this country? Breeders worked together, sharing information and knowledge to improve the breed over the next 10 years. "Almost everyone in the breed could write out the pedigree of anyone else's dog from memory," Robert notes, because the gene pool was small and people were truly interested in the fine points of breeding.

Because Cavaliers are essentially an English breed, American fanciers commonly attended Crufts and the Club Show, where entries were typically more than 500 (now nearly 800) dogs. This was the work that true breeders did then, and Robert and John visited the major kennels where, as Robert says, "we were actually able to see, in essence, living pedigrees." While in England, they chose several dogs and bitches from three specific lines to incorporate into their own Ravenrush breeding program, and this thoughtful approach to breeding produced two of the breed's top stud dogs and several prepotent dams.

And then politics raised its always ugly head when the club and its members had to choose between becoming a recognized AKC breed or remaining autonomous, keeping its own registry, sponsoring its own shows and regulating its own ethical conduct. Cavaliers had been in the Miscellaneous Class for 20 years, but AKC told the club to either come in or get out. John Gammon attended the meetings and was successful in convincing the AKC to agree to a year's delay in order for the members to discuss the issue and make a decision that would be in the best interest of the breed and the breeders.

The fears were the same fears that many clubs faced when becoming a recognized breed. Because the Cavaliers were easy keepers and free whelpers, lovers of the breed feared they would be attractive to commercial interests. Another concern was that presentation would be compromised by overgrooming, detracting from the breed's totally natural appearance, as had happened in so many other breeds. The club decided to remain independent of the AKC, and so a new AKC parent club was formed by concerned breeders, causing friction among lovers of the breed who had previously worked so cooperatively.

The result of this friction was intense and long-lasting. Lawsuits were filed and sizeable fines were imposed on a handful of expelled club members who chose to form the AKC parent club. (The American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, Inc., was formed in 1993, and the breed was recognized by the AKC in 1996.) Even the stud dogs of this latter group were exiled, as members of the original club were forbidden to use them for breeding. Many of these dogs were top winners and sires, resulting in a diminished gene pool and the loss of unknown possible breedings of quality Cavaliers.

And, making an already tragic story even worse, many of the original fears were justified. As the Cavalier became more and more popular, what the truly dedicated breeders had devoted their lives to faded away. The result, Robert points out, is that "today, a great many are trimmed, muzzles have become shorter and more plush, heads have more dome and ear-set is lowered. We have cookie-cutter show dogs lacking the moderation called for in every aspect of the standard. The gaiety and moderation have been replaced by exaggeration. Many appear to just be large Charlies, not the small sporting dog Mr. Eldredge had searched for. Very few top specials are under or even at the 18-pound top of the standard."

Robert agrees that there are many correct dogs in the ring and in some breeding programs, and some are even better than ever, but, as in so many of our breeds, that quality is being overwhelmed by mediocrity. To correct this slide, he looks to better judges' education, more frequent withholding of ribbons and a return to the strong emphasis on the breed ring — not Group or BIS — as still exists in the UK and other countries, at least for now.


Seeking and Restoring Excellence

The first sentence in Part I was, "All breeders come to realize, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, that mediocrity breeds terribly true, but real excellence slips easily through our fingers." And, once again, it is up to the best breeders, the ones devoted to continued good health and conformation and not to ribbons or money, to seek (and sometimes to restore) excellence in their breeds. What can we do to see that these breeders are able to accomplish this?

The breeders who contributed here had suggestions:

  • Pat Trotter, Vin Melca Norwegian Elkhounds: careful selection procedures to make the most of a dwindling gene pool.
  • Barbara Miller, Max-Well Norfolk Terriers: keeping the standard foremost when breeding.
  • Susan LaCroix Hamil, Quiet Creek Bloodhounds: paying attention to structure when breeding: feet, shoulders, rear angulation.
  • Patti Widick Neale, Sylvan Borzoi: using specialty competition as educational tools for breeders and judges.
  • Dr. Edna Martin, Full Circle Wirehaired Dachshunds and Kaihorn Afghan Hounds: understanding form and function and the original purpose of a breed.
  • Robert Schroll, Ravenrush Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: withholding ribbons, better judges' education and a return of emphasis to the breed, not the Group or higher.

Once again, I am very grateful to all of these breeders for taking the time out of their busy lives to contribute their thoughts to this endeavor. And none of the suggestions they offered are impossible to accomplish. But where do we begin, and where do we find the will?




From the 2014 Annual issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the 2014 Annual digital back issue with the DIR app or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine (print and digital versions).


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