615 Fashionable Dogs

by   David Hancock

  "Thou art not for the fashion of these times,

    Where none will sweat but for promotion"

                                      William Shakespeare

 Fashions in dogs are not always good for dogs, whether it is the price of popularity, some fad in presentation or ringcraft, threat of extinction for a breed or the seeking of perfection of form over character. The quick rewards from puppy-farming the latest breed to feature in a TV ad appeal to the wallet-conscious if not to the rescue organisations. Gentler fashions are just about harmless -- the American fashion of tying a coloured neckerchief around a dog's neck may give way next year to tartan waistcoats. The shaved throat of today's English Setter may give way next year to the favouring of tricolour dogs. The fashion for foreign breeds may one day give way to one promoting our native breeds. In 1926, 265 Welsh Terriers were registered with the KC; in 2000, 263 were registered; a tribute to a small band of true fanciers and confirmation of Shakespeare's words: "Though it appear a little out of fashion, There is much care and valour in this Welshman."

 One of the more worrying aspects for me of fashions in the dog world is the increasing preference for style over substance: the exhibit strung up on a tightly held noose, coats given a higher priority than the dog's comfort and the seeking of both stance and movement in the ring designed for flashiness rather than soundness. Some individual dogs seem to respond to the glamour of the show ring. We all love to see a handsome dog simply flowing round the ring, moving with obvious soundness and in the appropriate manner for the breed. But it is becoming slowly but surely all too rare. Fashions are beginning to dictate. These are fashions which suit humans not dogs and need scrutiny.

 The anatomy of a breed should decide the head posture of an exhibit being stacked and moved around the ring, not the handler's personal style or the current fashion. There are reasons why breeds carry their heads in a preferred natural way. Spaniels at work seek ground scent; pointers and setters seek air scent. Scenthounds seek ground scent; sighthounds seek distant movement. Terriers tend to seek movement just before them and par force hounds like Great Danes and Rhodesian Ridgebacks use their eyes ahead of their noses and seem to favour the high head. Holding dogs or catch-dogs like the Bullmastiff however are just not built for high-headed movement.

 Powerful dogs once required to seize and hold big game needed immensely strong heads, most of their weight on the forehand and the ability to 'go in' head down and with great dash and power. Breeds like the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux and the Neapolitan Mastiff should therefore be allowed to stand and move without their quite heavy heads being yanked up on a noose-cord or choke-chain. When judging the Best in Show class at the first national show of the Victorian Bulldog Society, I asked the handlers to slacken their leads so that the entry could stand and move as naturally as possible. I find it difficult to judge the front action of a strong-headed breed when it is being made to carry its head unnaturally and uncomfortably.

 In his valuable book, The Conformation of the Dog (Popular Dogs, 1957), RH Smythe wrote: "One cannot expect the same type of movement to exist in animals as dissimilar as a Greyhound and a Setter, nor can one compare the action of an Alsatian (sic) with that of a Miniature Poodle. Some breeds possess a characteristic lope, some are expected to show a rolling gait, some waddle, while others exhibit a mincing, high-stepping action, some march sedately, others waggle their sterns. Action is therefore a breed characteristic...a judge is expected to know not only if a dog is sound but also if it exhibits the style of gait or action which the standard of the breed or the fashion of the day demands..."

 It is that latter phrase which bothers me: the fashion of the day. Three hundred years ago, Samuel Wesley wrote that 'style is the dress of thought'. I do hope that thought is behind the style in which some breeds are contemporarily being asked to stand and move. A combination of the dog being strung by its noose-cord, the straight front end (in profile) now being desired in so many breeds and the short-stepping style becoming prevalent in the smaller breeds is simply not conducive to the production of sound dogs. The German expert Christopher Habig stated at a seminar a few years ago that American fanciers seem to want every breed to look like an Irish Setter in profile. I am beginning to understand why he said that.

 The seeking of a statuesque dog may not be in the best interests of the production of a sounder dog. Some more knowledgeable championship show judges pick up on this menace: Bernese Mountain Dogs--"For some years now we have experienced straight forequarters and a lack of extension on the move"; Afghan Hounds--"I have never seen so many straight upper arms"; English Setters--"One worrying observation is poor forehands with upright shoulders and short straight upper arms"; Schnauzers--"Some front assembly problems are bringing an incorrect high stepping stiff front action" and Salukis--"...straight upper arms are creeping in..."

 This makes sad reading. These are essentially functional breeds. Any Saluki fancier seeking to discover why straight upper arms are a handicap to a sighthound should view Sir Terence Clark's video 'The Eastern Saluqi'. There you can see hunting dogs with a forward extension to gladden your heart. But so many breed fanciers nowadays seem to be seeking dogs with a straight line from the throat to the toes in the forehand profile. However fashionable, such a feature can only mean a choppy front action, very restricted forward reach and therefore little stride. Short-stepping in front has become very much the fashion in terriers and Toy breeds. Some regard it as stylish; to me it's a disaster.