644 Outcrossing Hounds

by   David Hancock

 Our rich hunting heritage has left us with an impressive array of native hound breeds, with the Foxhound a leading figure. Less well known outside hunting circles are the even longer established Harrier, the loyally-supported Trail Hound and the relatively recently introduced English Basset. Distinctive types like the Welsh Foxhound, the Fell Hound and the Staghound are little known beyond the hunting fraternity. Sadly we have lost the most distinctive, arguably best bred, pack of Dumfriesshire Foxhounds, with their gleaming black and tan jackets and superlative field performance. Introduced into the show rings here in the last half century are any number of foreign hounds, ranging from the Hamiltonstovare from Sweden, the Pharoah Hound from Malta, the Segugio from Italy and the Grand Bleu de Gascogne from France to the Bavarian Mountain Hound from Germany and the Cirneco dell'Etna from Sicily.

 For some perverse reason the Kennel Club insists that the German boarhound, the Great Dane, is not a hound, but that the Finnish Spitz, a bark-pointer used with the gun, is. We know little of many other hound breeds:the well-established Swiss harehounds like the Lucernois, the many varieties of French, those of the Balkans and the Baltic, as well as those of Eastern Europe. Some of these are very similar to breeds well known here, as function decided type, and they represent a reservoir of untapped genes, increasingly valuable as small gene pools reveal their limitations. Foxhound breeders have long resorted to outcrosses to retain virility and maintain performance. Lurchermen pride themselves on the prowess obtained from the judicious use of mixed blood. For the show ring however the pursuit of breed purity is all, despite the loss of robustness, litter-size and the veterinary costs resulting from such irrational unjustifiable stubbornness.

 Outcrosses have been made in pedigree breeds, and authorised: Greyhound blood in the Deerhound and English Springer blood in the Field Spaniel, for example. The Irish Wolfhound was recreated using Deerhound blood, with an outcross to the Tibetan Mastiff too. The Mastiff has been recast, sadly not in its traditional form, using foreign blood like the Great Dane, the smooth St Bernard and the Tibetan Mastiff. In working terriers the Plummer and the Lucas came from deliberate blends of other terrier breeds. As writers like Idstone and Stonehenge testify, our sporting ancestors often used mixed blood. The KC once recognised crossbred retrievers and registered them as such. French hound breeders prize the blended product, as the very names of their packs demonstrate: Anglo-Francais Tricolore and Grand Gascon-Saintongeois, etc.

 If the coefficient of inbreeding is a source of worry in some imported and native pedigree hound breeds, as it is,  there is ample breeding stock from outside Britain to blend with breeds based on a limited number of original imports. If say the Hamiltonstovare is becoming inbred, then the blood of the Finnish Hound or the Schillerstovare would be an ideal reinforcement. If the show Bloodhound is becoming too closely bred or too exaggerrated for its own comfort, then just as the blood of the Dumfriesshire Foxhound was once utilised in the packs, that of the Gonczy Polski or Polish Hound could be introduced. Why is mixed blood prized in the creation of breeds but scorned when an infusion of unrelated blood would benefit today's hounds? Is it breed-blindness, breeder-ignorance or fear of losing type?

 A geneticist, Bruce Cattanach, crossed the Boxer with the Corgi to obtain a tail-less Boxer; after three generations no one could tell the resultant Boxers from the long-purebred ones. I see Mastiffs at Crufts which are more like Alpine Mastiffs than the Mastiff of England - and no Mastiff fancier seems to care! If you dared to suggest to them that true type has been lost, they would just shrug. So much for the importance of true type! As a boarhound, the Great Dane, more aptly named the German Mastiff, was never as huge as it is now. More hounds died in the boarhunt than boars; to survive they had to be superbly agile, immensely athletic and physically superlatively coordinated. Today's type could not hunt the boar; pedigree breeders prefer the show type to the real thing in any number of breeds. The Plott Hound in America typifies the real big game hound.

Uninformed outcrossing is not the answer; there has to be research as well as vision. Leading geneticist Steve Jones has stated that for pedigree breeds of dog 'a universe of suffering' is ahead with continued inbreeding. Fellow geneticist Bruce Cattanach has written: '...inbreeding has been ingrained in dog breeder psyche from the beginning and is hard to break, even when it is possible to show that it is not the most successful way to breed...'. He went on to state that some pedigree breeds may well become extinct in our lifetimes without intervention, advising outcrossing to other related breeds. But who will listen to him; dogma will prevail and not just lurchermen will wonder at such folly - and such damage to long-established breeds. In the hound world there is so much untapped breeding material - and so many closed minds!