649 Annual Audit

by   David Hancock

  How we take for granted the magnificent breeds of dog handed down to us by our ancestors, pioneer breeders par excellence. If we are to respect the breeds and honour their heritage it is vital to continue all the painstaking dedicated work done selflessly by these admirable people. So often we mention their names in semi-hushed respectful tones only to undo their devoted efforts by disrespectful breeding. Breeders like Lady Swinburne and Mrs Chapman in Bloodhounds, Laverack and Llewellin in setters, Whitehouse in Pointers, Proctor in Bassets, Shirley in Flatcoats, Dr Sidney Turner in Mastiffs, Stewart in Great Danes and the Martinez brothers in Dogos Argentinos, strove mightily to produce outstanding dogs. Each one bred to produce a functional animal. How often nowadays function is relegated or, even worse, overlooked altogether. But how, nowadays, do you assess the 'state of a breed'? Are breed councils obliged to submit an annual 'state of the breed' report to the Kennel Club, as would happen in many other walks of life. Shouldn't the supreme body take a close interest in the state our precious breeds of dog are in?

 In the late 19th century, the Kennel Club's own newspaper The Kennel Gazette, regularly published what might be termed annual accounts of the state of a breed at that time. They must have been extremely valuable to breeders and exhibitors and still have value, as many faults seem sealed in a particular breed, like straight stifles in Mastiffs. What made them especially valuable was their honesty, sometimes pulling no punches in their quite painful frankness. But which contributes more to a breed, a thoroughly dishonest critique or a painfully honest one? In contemporary critiques, judges often apologise for being critical - in a critique! Late Victorian judges were far more straightforward, assisting the development of a breed. If any breed has flaws surely it is preferable to confront the challenge rather than wish them away.

 The editorial in The Kennel Gazette of January 1889 is a most valuable survey of the breeds being exhibited then. It mentions light eyes, badly-carried sterns and wretchedly-poor bitches in Pointers, laments great size at the expense of type in Clumbers, comments that the golden liver colour in the Sussex Spaniel as becoming almost extinct and complains that Bulldogs of that time 'fail below the eye'. In this issue, a Mastiff judge writes: 'I notice a growing inclination to straight hind legs and general weakness in the hindquarters, which, to my mind, is the greatest possible disfigurement to a mastiff, and will ultimately, if not checked, tend to a sad degeneracy of the breed.' The man was a prophet! Can you imagine The Kennel Gazette of today being as forthcoming. I wrote for this magazine for over four years in the 1980s, some 50 articles, then dared to criticise them and had my submitted (and accepted) material returned. Sycophancy achieves nothing; if anything it creates complacency, confirms static thinking and condones poor breeding.

 If every breed council had to produce an annual audit of their breed, listing the strengths and weaknesses in the breed, would that not contribute to the breed they claim to love? If every show judge was obliged to submit, as the first paragraph of their mandatory critique, a summary of the state of the breed as they found it at that show, would that not contribute to a breed's future? When a breed is degenerating, are we all expected to just watch and keep quiet? Our ancestors thought honesty was the best policy, shaming the contemporary culture of shouting down any and every dissident voice. Read again the reaction of the KC to honestly-intentioned constructive criticism of the dog-game at Crufts time; their whole response is one of denial, never let's look at this, for the good of dogs. That conflicts with their self-imposed mandate of being there principally for 'the general improvement of dogs'.

 The Kennel Gazette of February 1889 covered the need in Gordon Setters to 'get back to the real hunting qualities of this breed'; in the June issue, a Great Dane judge wrote 'I would suggest that as these are German dogs they be judged as German dogs and not by any new fangled English idea as to what the breed ought to look like in Englishmen's opinions'. In the same issue a retriever judge, William Arkwright no less, wrote that 'it is quite extraordinary to me how judges can award prizes to so-called retrievers, which are manifestly unfit for their work...' In the July issue, one judge described the Irish Terrier entry in champion dogs as 'they are both awful, worst feet I ever saw'. Honesty and tactfulness don't always go together but, when selecting future breeding stock, give me honesty every time. Are we aiming to breed better dogs or striving to avoid hurting people's feelings?

 In this same issue, the great Bloodhound breeder, Edwin Brough, wrote: 'I fear that dog shows and their attendant changes of fashion have done an immense amount of harm to some of our most useful breeds'. When I wrote, in similar vein, for the same magazine one hundred years later, my words were no longer welcome! We need a kennel club, but we need an honest one, a robust one, not one in a state of denial or eternally defensive or one so self-regarding. The work of a kennel club affects canine welfare; it affects the well-being of breeds too. When the discredited Dangerous Dogs Act was being drawn up, the Home Office regarded the Kennel Club as the national organisation concerned with breeds of dog and consulted them as such. But you cannot claim authority without the exercise of responsibility: responsibility for the future of our breeds of dog. You cannot carry out such a task without information and without taking action when this is needed.