297 DUMBING DOWN THE DOG BOOK
DUMBING DOWN THE DOG BOOK
We live in times when, in the retail industry, quality is often elusive and quantity usually all-important. The 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' philosophy is often found admirable, perhaps because it suits our pockets if not our selectivity. Sadly, these days, the dog book market appears to reflect this line of thinking. It is a market, which to me, appears saturated with disappointingly lightweight, disturbingly inaccurate and desperately badly-written breed books. Any of us writing about dogs can, of course, make mistakes; some are forgiveable but others are inexcusable, the result of lazy plagiarism, careless uncorroborated research and a worrying lack of knowledge. The general public is not only being misinformed but cheated in any value for money judgement.
When I first started reading, studying and collecting books on dogs, there was plenty of quality to choose from: Clifford Hubbard could be guaranteed to be informative, especially about foreign breeds; the excellent Dog Lover's Library published by Nicholson and Watson contained a whole series of quite admirable books, and the Popular Dogs publishing house produced books which are still treasured. Before the Second World War, Our Dogs produced a range of breed books by distinguished authors which are still coveted. The Our Friend the Dog series of the 1950s and the Foyles slim volumes of the 1960s on each popular breed provided a service for those needing to be introduced to a particular breed at a low cost. Books by authorities like Croxton Smith, Vesey-Fitzgerald and Smythe were still in print.
It is easy to blame American publishers for flooding our bookshelves with slim paperback volumes, written to a simple format and often with the non-breed content common to them all. These books were not expensive and had value for the novice dog owner. Nowadays, extremely expensive, often glossy productions, don't always have comparable value, £ for lb. Ten years ago I bought an expensive new book on dogs at the Euston station bookshop. By the time my train had reached Wolverhampton, I had found 40 quite inexcusable mistakes; the author simply didn't have the knowledge to fault or qualify the Victorian sources he had relied on.
A few years ago, I bought, for £35, the Kennel Club's Illustrated Breed Standards, The Official Guide to Registered Breeds. Here surely would be something authoritative, something worth investing in, a book perhaps actually worth its high price. The foreword by HRH Prince Michael of Kent told me that the book was 'an indispensable reference book'. I opened it at random, at the English Springer Spaniel section. There I was informed that this breed was 'of ancient and pure origins, oldest of sporting gundogs'. What possible justification can there be for such a statement? Gervase Markham, in 1621, recorded, on the truebred Land Spaniel: "...if one could still find one of those." Where is the evidence for this astonishing claim for this breed?
I then opened the book at the Great Dane section, to be told that the breed was introduced to Britain in 1877. But the breed was clearly in Britain in 1732, as The Gentleman Farrier of that year indicates and Sydenham Edwards, in his Cynographia Brittanica of 1800, also indicates. I then found the Basenji section which stated that 'history tells us that this fascinating dog was a palace dog of the Pharoahs.' History actually tells us that bat-eared sighthounds existed from Portugal along the Mediterranean littoral to Egypt and Greece, and from Egypt in the north to central Africa. But where is the evidence that the modern ‘breed’of Basenji was even known north of Sudan?
This book goes on to tell us that the Basset Hound 'is able to hold its nose close to the ground' (whatever that means!), 'there are grounds for thinking the Deerhound may have been taken to Scotland by Phoenician traders' (what an insult to ancient Scots! and what are these 'grounds'?); discipline is apparently, in the Foxhound, 'not their strongpoint' (which will hardly amuse MFHs) and that the Pharoah Hound was taken to Malta in 1000BC, yes, by the Phoenicians. Did HRH Prince Michael of Kent actually read this book before commending it to us? Or does his knowledge of dogs match that of the writers? Perhaps the KC had problems finding someone willing to write a foreword!
This 'indispensable reference book', costing £35, goes on to tell us that the Rhodesian Ridgeback is one of 'only two dogs' in the world to feature the distinctive ridge. Kennel Club! Kennel Club! Ridged hunting dogs have been recorded from Namibia to Mozambique for centuries. The gundog coverage is as bad as that of the hounds. The Kooikerhondje is described in 100 words without the word 'decoy' being used; this breed is a decoy-dog. Kooiker comes from the same root as decoy. On the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, this KC masterpiece states: "There is no doubt whatsoever about the origin of this breed." What certainty! It then repeats the absurd story of the breed being founded on two puppies rescued from a wrecked ship off Maryland.
Later on, the book states that the Beardie descends from Polish Lowland Sheepdogs 'abandoned on the shores of Scotland' and that the Kerry Blue comes from ' a dog which swam ashore from a wrecked ship in the 1700s'. It doesn't state that goat-haired sheepdogs are found all over Europe or that Irish Terriers can throw slate-blue offspring. This expensive book styles itself as 'The Official Guide to Registered Breeds' of the KC. It would be better named or sub-titled as 'The Compendium of Canine Canards'!
But the KC is hardly alone in perpetuating falsehoods and fairy stories on dogs. Pick up a book on the Mastiff and Bullmastiff and it tells you that Gaston de Foix's 15th century masterpiece on hunting was translated into English by Edmund de Langley (actually translated and rewritten by Edward, Second Duke of York) and that Farcroft Fidelity was the first Bullmastiff to enter the lists of the KC Stud Book; he was not. And furthermore he has never actually been entered in the Stud Book. Recent glossy books on the Mastiff, and indeed The Illustrated Breed Standards, still make the wholly false claim that the Romans found Mastiffs here on arrival and that they even had an official to oversee their export to Rome. One expensive publication on the mastiff breeds includes the Tibetan Mastiff entirely because of its incorrect breed title. Thankfully, writers of books on spaniels don't include the Tibetan Spaniel and writers of books on terriers don't include the Tibetan Terrier!
The famous bas-reliefs of Assurbanipal's hunting mastiffs have been featured in recent books on the Rottweiler, the Great Dane, the Mastiff, the Neapolitan Mastiff and even the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Any smooth-coated hunting dog from the Mediterranean with tuck-up and bat-ears is immediately and automatically associated by today's writers with the Pharoahs. One book on the Neapolitan Mastiff falsely identifies statues of big cats as portraying this breed of dog in order to claim ancient origins. Gone are the days it seems when publishing houses used knowledgeable 'readers' to sort the wheat from the chaff. Gone are the days when national sporting magazines, like The Field, had Kennel Editors to reject the inventions, poor research or the sheer ignorance of contributors.
It is easy to forgive writers of even a few years ago whose words on nutrition and health aspects have been overtaken by scientific progress. It is less easy to forgive those who write, publish and charge the paying public sizeable amounts of money for books which are badly researched, full of falsehoods and even unskilfully plagiarised. And for editors of dog magazines to publish glowing reviews of such books is shameful. I have in the past been asked to review new dog books but then had the review unpublished because it was too critical of the book. Whatever happened to honesty? Surely the whole point of a book review is to give the potential purchaser an ‘honest’ opinion.
The sad fact is that the shelves of High Street book sellers are stacked with breed books which are ill-researched, lazily-compiled and never vetted by knowledgeable editorial directors. Far too many contemporary breed books are produced rather like puppies from a puppy farm, i.e. by unqualified people who put quantity ahead of quality, cheat the public and contribute little to the improvement of dogs. Those who care little about historical accuracy will care little about other aspects of advice and information on dogs. Information on the Internet about dogs is quite often wrong but we don't pay £35 to read it.
But does it really matter, getting a breed's history or its original function wrong? I believe it does and that accurate histories can have value for the dogs of today. Is the Chesapeake Bay Retriever descended mainly from two shipwrecked Newfoundland-like dogs or, as I believe, really the old rust-coloured Norfolk Retriever relocated by colonists in Norfolk, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. This would give the breed a much larger gene pool and a better source for an outcross if one were ever needed. Is the Kerry Blue rooted in a Tralee shipwreck survivor or does it descend from the Harlequin Pinschers of the soldiers of the House of Hesse who served in Ireland? Might it therefore possess a semi-lethal merle gene in its make-up?
Was the distinctive breed of Dalmatian once a 'Dama-chien' or deer-dog? If so it should be bred and judged as a hound, ending confusion about its design and function. Is the Newfoundland a water-dog or a mountain dog? I believe that, to be true to its heritage, it should be more retriever-like and not bred with draught-dog bone. The introduction of Pug blood into the Bulldog, very well documented, but not in modern books on the breed, has affected the Bulldog's quality of life. Why not admit it and do something remedial for the sake of the breed? Breed books that conceal facts have little value.
Of course, from time to time, a quite outstanding book will appear, written by someone with knowledge, insight and flair. Some of the most valuable reference books that I have, such as 'A Survey of Early Setters' by Gilbert Leighton-Boyce (1985), 'The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991' by acknowledged experts such as Jo Coulson and Susan Scales (1991) and 'The Golden Retriever Second Book of Champions' compiled by Valerie Foss (1991), were privately published. Perhaps this is the way ahead; if breed councils could invest in the production of truly authoritative, soundly researched and well-edited handbooks for their breeds, the public would be better served.
In the meantime, I will console myself by reading the Coppingers on pastoral dogs, Brian Plummer on terriers, Wilson Stephens on gundogs and Daphne Moore and George Johnston on hounds, and be deeply grateful to their publishers. It is about time however that the dog-owning public was given the opportunity to learn from a really accurate, truly authoritative 'All about, The Complete, The Ultimate Dogs Today' series, written, not by the '30 years in the breed' brigade but those with skill as writers and researchers, some scholarship and years of acquiring knowledge rather than rosettes. Until then you may have to be content with a visit to the Kennel Club's Library, it has a good fiction department.