201 Romancing the Breed

by   David Hancock

 Thirty years ago I was working in Germany with a colleague who was a displaced person from Yugoslavia. He had been an officer in the elite royal guard and was in permanent exile from what was then Tito's communist Yugoslavia. He was born in Dalmatia and loved dogs. A keen researcher, a sound historian and patriot, he had tried, throughout his life, to discover evidence of a credible link between his native Dalmatia and the breed of dog known as the Dalmatian. With commendable honesty, he confessed to me that despite all his endeavours, he could find not a shred of evidence beyond the name. My experience has been the same.

 Yet just about every book covering or referring to breeds of dog links the origin of the Dalmatian with Dalmatia. My own theory, which I am happy to have challenged, is that this breed name comes not from the country but the medieval Old French expression for a deer-hunting dog: dama-chien. A professor at a school of European languages has given me another view: that the French name for the game of draughts could be involved, i.e. jeu de dames chien, shortened to "dames chiens". Perhaps a French Dalmatian fancier will come up with some enlightening research one day. It will have significance; if they were hounds of the chase then they belong in the hound group, being judged as hounds.

 But in far too many so-called breed histories, the breed-historians themselves have either elected to record a romantic however fictitious past for their favoured breed, rather than carry out any personal research or to be careless with the facts. Breed researchers are handicapped, in my experience, by limiting themselves to the research of just their own breed and not spending time studying the movement of man in early recorded history and the development of dogs for a function. Victorian and Edwardian dog writers are a great source of fiction posing as fact.

 Tendentious and highly selective work by breed enthusiasts such as Wynn (on mastiff history) and Macdona (on St. Bernard history), outrageous plagiarism (with Drury a notable example), a distinct lack of knowledge (with Dr. Stables a willing exponent) and absence of original thought (as exemplified by Barton) have together added little to our knowledge. It is absurd, as the above authors repeatedly do, to write of breeds (in today's sense) as existing before the advent of dog shows and pure-breeding from known pedigree stock. Breed type of course did and that has significance; our ancestors never hesitated to use outside blood in the pursuit of excellence. In this way did our revered contemporary breeds evolve.

 But breed researchers seem to miss such important information so easily available to them. Why have Great Dane researchers not recorded the use of the blood of the Suliot dog in their breed? In 1863, the Rev. Charles Williams was observing that Lord Truro had one, brought from Germany, which he described as a boar-hound. He went on to state (using Colonel Hamilton Smith's research) that in the war between the Austrians and the Turks, the Moslem soldiers employed them to guard outposts. Many were captured by the Imperial forces and taken to what is now Germany. Colonel Smith saw them 'marching' in Brussels  as mascots to regiments, describing them as roughly Shetland pony size and resembling " the Danish dog". One giant specimen was presented to the King of Naples.

 The Suliots were the inhabitants of the Suli mountains in Epirus, a people of Greek-Albanian origin. This area of Epirus was occupied by the Molossii whose dogs have long been associated with the short-faced or mastiff-type dogs. It is my view that far too much is made of the Molossian dog or Molossers as ancestors of the mastiff group. The Molossii were famous for their big hounds and huge flock guarding dogs. The Greeks themselves admired the huge tough "Indian" dogs, the type made famous by the Assyrians. I support the perhaps oversimplified summary of "Celts and Cretans for scenthounds, Arabs for sighthounds and mastiffs from Tartary".

 Romancing a breed name can reach absurd lengths too. In the mid 1950s, I went rabbiting in the dry stone walls of the island of Gozo, whilst working in Malta. I admired the lithe, hyper-agile, smooth-coated, bat-eared hounds used by the farmers of Gozo. Some years later I found they were being imported into the UK with the completely unjustified breed name of "Pharoah hound" and a predictably phoney history. Dogs like this are found all along the Mediterranean littoral; the Sicilian equivalent being very much like the rabbit dogs of Gozo. Why invent a breed history and adopt a totally false name for such an admirable type of dog?

 All valuable research is rooted in the search for the truth. If an over-zealous breed enthusiast makes false claims for the origin of his favoured breed then, when the claim is disproved, the stature of that breed can be diminished. Why lessen the distinguished heritage of the Bearded Collie by claiming a descent from long-haired sheepdogs coming off a Polish grain ship in the Middle Ages? Bearded sheepdogs are found all over Europe; I have seen them in Catalonia, Portugal, on both sides of the Pyrenees and in Holland. I have seen them crop up quite naturally in a litter of working sheepdogs. Bearded Collies have earned our respect and admiration by their record of service to man. They don't need glamourising.

 I picked up a lavishly-produced dog book the other day which still claimed that the Newfoundland is descended from Pyrenean Mountain dogs taken to Labrador by Breton fishermen in the 18th century! Apart from questioning the circumstances in which fishermen from the coast would wish to yield valuable space on the tiny fishing boats of those times to huge herding dogs, and, noting the distance to the Pyrenees, why on earth should they? When working in Canada, I researched the ancestry of the Newfoundland and found links with ships' dogs from France, Holland, Portugal and Britain and the dogs of the native Indians, but not mountain dogs. Anyone familiar with Professor Denis Conlon's masterly work in the Zuchtbuchen of the Deutscher Landseer Club, in which just about every portrayal of the early Newfoundland is recorded, would question the contemporary desire in this breed for the heavy lumbering mountain dog type. This admirable breed has been described as "the great retriever" and should be perpetuated as such.

 But another retriever, the one from Chesapeake Bay, has also been given a dubious origin. I agree with the forthright American writer Bede Maxwell when she records: "Every Chesapeake Bay historian inclines to start with Canton and Sailor, the waifs plucked from a sinking vessel off the Eastern Shore. This may be because the story of the rescue gained publicity in the press and became so preserved. It does not establish that these waifs were Adam and Eve of the breed." Canton was black. In 1877, Chesapeake Bay Ducking Dogs' owners came together to clarify what constituted a dog of their breed. A Captain Taylor spoke of:..."black dogs, smooth of hair, fierce, powerful, sagacious, with two skins, one hair, one fur, an india-rubber dog, smooth as glass." His fellow members roared that black dogs would be shot on sight in the Chesapeake as ducks would not come to a blind. Poor old Canton! More likely ancestors for the breed are the "Red Winchesters" imported from Ireland. Retrievers are very much a British creation; I suspect too that the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is a development of our 'red decoy dog' taken there by early colonists. 

 Retrievers have on the whole had rather more than their fair share of being singled out by the fantasists. The golden retriever was alleged (and sometimes still is) to have originated in a troupe of Russian circus dogs in Brighton. This despite the fact that golden pups occurred in black wavy-coated retriever litters with well-recorded regularity. I wonder too if the so-called "Russian retrievers" were not early yellow Labradors "given the treatment" by the romantics of those times. "Russian setters" were also once promoted by some gullible sportsmen. A letter in the "Sporting Review" of 1841 warmly praised them, stating: "Upon these grounds (i.e. shooting grounds) I contend that, for all kinds of shooting, there is nothing equal to the Russian or half-bred Russian setter, in nose, sagacity, and every other necessary qualification that a dog ought to possess." Some praise! The description of them however which followed was remarkably like that of the soft-coated pointing griffon, later stabilised by Boulet.

 It is disappointing to read books on dogs from distinguished publishing houses or by otherwise respected museum professionals with ludicrous mistakes on our contemporary breeds of dog. "The Dogs of the World" by Bengtson and Wintzell, published by David and Charles, is a case in point. Read the descriptions of terriers in this book and you are not sure whether to laugh or cry. Take the words on the Sealyham: "In the mid-nineteenth century an extremely ferocious cat killer was produced in Wales through intensive breeding." But then turn to "Dogs" (Simon and Schuster's guide to) and look up the Skye terrier and you can regale yourself with the following: "In the early 1600s a Spanish ship came to grief against the rocks of the island of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides. Among the survivors were Maltese dogs that mated with local terriers and produced this new extremely pleasing and unique breed." Have you  ever met a Scottish terrier man, even in these civilised times, who would want to mate his hard-bitten ultra-game bitches to a fluffy white lapdog of unknown ancestry?

 But even sadder, because museum professionals have our respect, is "Dogs of the last hundred years at the British Museum (Natural History)" by Kim Dennis-Bryan and Juliet Clutton-Brock. This book describes the Jack Russell terrier as a cross between the foxterrier and the Sealyham terrier, despite the fact that the Jack Russell pre-dates the Sealyham. The Labrador Newfoundland is decribed as " a mastiff breed probably taken to Labrador by Basque fisherman (sic)". The Great Dane is described as "descended from the Mastiff and the Irish Wolfhound but it did not acquire the name Great Dane until 1772 when Buffon first introduced it." Clifford Hubbard rightly refers to Buffon as 'Buffoon', and I can see why.

 If anything, art historians are even more careless than curators. I recently read a newly-published, fulsomely-reviewed and very expensive book on dogs in paintings. On writing to the author listing fifty mistakes, I received a curt note thanking me for my 'thoughtfulness'. How many breed enthusiasts, eager to learn, are being misled by such 'authorities' ? I feel strongly that every breed of dog should be perpetuated in the light of its own heritage. We, the living, have the responsibility in our lifetime to keep faith with those who developed our magnificent breeds of dog and handed them on for our safekeeping. Authentic breed histories tell us what function our breeds had and what physical and mental characteristics are essential to that function. Why favour a breed if you don't care what it was for and what its genetic make-up is? For if we do not honour breed history we might just as well be breeding Euro-spaniels or Uno-hounds. Why not get it right?