659 Example of the Lurcher

by   David Hancock

 The most popular recognised breed of dog in the United Kingdom is the Labrador Retriever, with over 45,000 registrations with the Kennel Club each year. But it is estimated that around 50,000 lurchers are newly born each year but registered with no body. There are perhaps 100 lurcher shows a year, some featuring lure-chasing and high-jumping. But the lurcher has no breed standard and no breed clubs as such. No need has arisen for health schemes in lurchers. Lurcher owners and breeders don't seek regulation, the whole background for this type of dog is rooted in villager-breeders, poacher-owners and performance-related prowess rather than pedigree-dog posing. But the virility and physical robustness of lurchers brings health and vigour - and low vets' bills, despite the odd injury.

 As a type of dog, the lurcher was recognised over 200 years ago. In the Linnaean catalogue of dogs, published in 1792, the lurcher is identified as 'canis laniarius', one of 35 recognised types, with the Greyhound listed as 'canis cursorius'. In this catalogue the lurcher was described as having a narrow body, long legs and being covered in short thick-set hair. Interestingly, the rough lurcher was listed separately, as 'canis laniarius aprinus', with the boar lurcher also named, as 'canis laniarius fuillus'

 Lurcher and terrier men have long ignored the sanctity of the pedigree and pursued effectiveness i.e. performance in the field. Shooting men by and large seem to copy their show ring counterparts, despite the unprecedented occurrences of inheritable diseases in the gundog breeds, the loss of 'type' in so many Labradors, English Springers looking more like Cockers, the loss of the true colour in Golden Retrievers and yellow Labradors and the deterioration in field performance of the minor breeds. How long ago it seems that very competent cross-bred retrievers competed at field trials! Although, to be fair, the crossbred 'Chocolate Drop' spaniels of Richard Mace and Lindsay Waddell's excellent mix of GWHP, English Springer and wire-haired Vizsla blood, are admirable working gundogs.  

 In their classic 'Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog' (Univ of Chicago Press, 1965), Scott and Fuller report: "...breed intercrosses might be used to produce superior working animals...it should be realised that a breed is a population of individuals showing a limited but still important degree of genetic variability. If selection is confined to one narrowly defined type, the result will almost inevitably be the accidental selection of various undesirable characteristics." They went on to state that breed standards should also cover health, behaviour, vigour, and fertility, as well as stipulating body form. They suggested that obedience and field trials were a valuable step in influencing the selection of breeding stock. My reservation about that would be based on a worry that the dogs which excel at responding to human instructions are not always those able to think for themselves.

  In his 'Dog Breeding' of 1994 (Crowood), Frank Jackson writes: "The vigour of recently recognised breeds provides evidence of the value of the wise use of cross-breeding." He points out that these crosses make it easier for the breeds to retain genetic health after they have been recognised, as recognition immediately puts a severe restriction on the size of the breeding base. One advantage of the recent blending of Parson Russell Terriers with Jack Russell Terriers is that the breeding population in the combined breed gives far greater flexibility in developing future breeding lines. The white working Lakeland Terrier, as Frank Jackson reminds us, did much to infuse new blood, and a better anatomy, to the emergent Jack Russell. This use of outside blood to improve the breed is not possible now that KC recognition has been obtained. This may suit a registry but does not make for the best practice in  breeding sound dogs.

 Pedigree dog breeds are under fire in the daily press, portrayed as in-bred, infertile and inheriting defects from closed gene pools. Outcrossing is being put forward as a solution, not just to instil hybrid vigour but to reduce harmful exaggerations developed over the years from show-ring fads. The Kennel Club plans to achieve such change through a rewording of the breed standard, or word picture, for each breed, by instructing judges to penalise exaggeration and by insisting on health schemes in breed clubs registered with them. But if you go to a KC dog show you will see judges accepting dogs with sunken eyes, sagging eyelids and deformed anatomies. As one distinguished hound judge recently reported in his show critique, 'this entry may have been Bassets but they were not hounds'. There would be a lot to be said for the 'lurcher-answer', the use of carefully selected unrelated outside blood to achieve a certain type of conformation in pursuit of function. 

  Cross-breeding to aid a pure breed, or out-crossing as it is known, is becoming less unthinkable for the more enlightened pedigree dog breeders. It is easy to overlook the fact that all our recognised breeds came to us from cross-breeding. It is often overlooked that the dog insurance companies charge a lower premium for cross-bred dogs than for pure-bred dogs, based on medical cost research. It is nearly always overlooked that covert cross-breeding gave the Rough Collie the Borzoi head and the show Border Collie its more profuse coat from the Rough Collie. It is conveniently forgotten that outcrosses to the Greyhound revitalized the Deerhound and that to the springer helped the Field Spaniel.

 Now further outcrosses are being condoned. Some years ago an outcross from the Boxer to a Spitz breed was tried in order to produce erect ears. More recently Boxers have been crossed with corgis to obtain naturally docked tails. In Finland, pinschers and schnauzers are being crossed to widen the gene pool. They share common ancestors anyway. KC-registered Otterhounds however  are unlikely to be outcrossed to the Welsh Foxhound as they might have been as pack members. In the USA, purpose-bred Assistance Dogs produce a 40% success rate from cross-bred dogs against 33% for pure-breds. One researcher in America found that in dog breeds there is a decline in the average life span of around 7% for every 10% increase in in-breeding. Dwarfism has been found in Pointer litters at in-breeding coefficients of 13 to 37%, whereas unaffected litters rated 0 to 24%. In a Foxhound pack, the conception rate with sperm of in-bred dogs was 73% against 87% with out-bred ones; average litter size was 7 against 9 and 4 against 6 at weaning. The sperm count was 70 against 36. Swedish pedigree dogs of 60 breeds had an average in-breeding coefficient of 14%

 Lurchers are essentially crossbred dogs; this gives them an inbuilt virility, but over-reliance on certain favoured sires can reduce even the lurcher gene-pool. Breeder honesty and eternal vigilance is absolutely essential. But the virility, longevity and low maintenance of the lurcher must have appeal to any sensible dog owner of the future.