663 Pricing or Valuing Dogs

by   David Hancock

  Oscar Wilde, in 'Lady Windermere's Fan', defined a cynic as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. This phrase came back to me recently when in the morning I visited a local Blue Cross rescue kennels, and, in the afternoon was told of over £1,000 per dog being paid for Neapolitan Mastiffs and American Bulldogs, just out of quarantine. The staff at the rescue kennels told me of quite young pedigree dogs, some 'with papers', being brought in for rehoming. These dogs must have cost several hundred pounds and, in some cases, not that long previously. The rescue kennels' staff stated that, apart from crafty customers trying to buy a pedigree dog 'on the cheap', it was just as difficult to rehome a pure-bred dog as a mongrel. The general public seemed to value a dog on its individual appeal; that's encouraging.   

 The American essayist Washington Irving, when describing a visit to the renowned Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1817, wrote: "...we were joined by a superannuated greyhound...cheered by Scott as an old friend and comrade. In our walks, he would frequently pause in conversation, to notice his dogs, and speak to them as if rational companions...His domestic animals were his friends..." Those words tell me more about Sir Walter, the man, than any talented biographer ever could. He knew the value of dogs. And I find nothing weird in Sir Walter speaking to his dogs "as if rational companions."

 I do find it weird, however, for Britain to be described as a nation of dog-lovers. It's not easy to define a dog-lover, but easy to give examples of attitudes towards loved dogs. A vet of mine once described to me how one of his lady clients brought in an aged but perfectly sound Golden Retriever dog for destruction because "she'd fallen in love with that Bearded Collie in the TV commercial and couldn't wait to have one". The vet was obliged to carry out his client's instructions; his client had long boasted of her love for dogs. There's a difference between loving a dog and valuing one.

 During the Second World War, after two successive nights of sustained bombing, my father decided that on the third night we would take refuge in a nearby public air raid shelter, rather than under the stairs in our own home. So, clutching our gas masks and accompanied by the family dog, my parents, my youngest sister and I approached the public shelter. We were met by an officious air raid warden, in steel helmet and navy blue uniform, who greeted us with just two words: "No dogs!" My father didn't hesitate: "Then none of us will come in" he said quietly, "the dog is part of the family". We went home, to take our chance under the stairs. This was not a light-hearted decision by my father; he knew about war, from the Somme. The family dog was a small black Schipperke cross; I never once heard my father describe himself as a dog-lover.

 Dog-lovers claim to admire working sheepdogs, dogs whose every fibre indicate commitment, total concentration, the sheer enjoyment of challenging employment. The joy of watching sheepdog trials for me lies in every eager movement of spiritually happy dogs. Sadly, all over the country, whilst people admire such canine contentment through TV programmes like 'One Man and His Dog', their own dogs lie bored and unexercised at their feet: gundogs never allowed to scent game or encouraged to retrieve, terriers denied a hedgerow alive with rabbit smells, sighthounds not given the chance of an extended gallop and lively mongrels never provided with the long regular walks they crave.

 A neighbour of mine once expressed her regret to me over taking her dog for the same walk each day. She felt better when I explained that for her the walk was a visual experience, for her dog it was a scenting exercise. Every day her walk was used by other dogs, farm animals, wild animals and walkers from distant places. Every walk, for her dog, was a totally new experience. Dogs experience life through their noses not their eyes. That alone explains much of their value to man, whether in the hunting and shooting fields or in the detection of drugs, explosives, buried bodies, dry rot, the onset of epilepsy or even melanomas.

 When I was a soldier in the Malayan emergency we used Labradors to track terrorists. Once, in dried out mangrove swamp, in exhausting circumstances, our Labrador gave up, utterly spent, simply unable to go on. We had choices; we could have shot it, abandoned it or just hit it over the head. We chose to take it in turns to carry the exhausted dog, no mean feat at any time, doubly daunting there. But we silently acknowledged that the dog had, like us, endured the heat, the humidity, the flies, the thorns, little water and even less sleep. The dog was part of our team; it could do things we couldn't and was respected and valued. Carrying an exhausted Labrador in the jungle may not be a rational act, but, as my father showed me many years before, reason isn't always the main criterion when dealing with dogs. As Sir Walter Scott demonstrated to Washington Irving two centuries ago, respecting dogs and valuing them beats loving them by many a mile.

 The Victorians had confused attitudes towards dogs, building up the feats of hero-breeds like the St Bernard and the Newfoundland whilst creating the need for animal welfare societies through widespread mistreatment of dogs. Dog-carts were eventually banned, not just because of traffic congestion but because of the appalling way in which traders treated their draught dogs. Writers and artists over-romanticised dogs whilst dog-fighting and illegal baiting flourished. Both the artist and the barbaric 'sports' participants valued the dogs which brought them a financial reward, albeit in a very different way. No doubt those owners who make money from the use of their dogs in paint and toilet paper advertisements put a high value on their own dogs, but little on their breed which soon becomes a 'rescue nightmare'.

 Fashion can of course affect the financial value of a breed, especially a recently-introduced one. Sadly today's £1,000 Neapolitan Mastiff can soon become tomorrow's fading asset or worse, rescue problem. There is nothing new in this. Breeders of St Bernards at the end of the 19th century made a fortune out of the public excitement following exaggerated stories of their prowess in snow rescue. Seeing the fate of some temporarily popular breeds, it is tempting to avoid singing the praises of foreign breeds for fear of attracting interest from capricious would-be owners. Twenty years ago I rarely praised in print Continental gundogs like the Small Munsterlander and  the Stabyhoun in case it aroused the wrong sort of interest here. But they were breeds deserving to be praised and valued.

 Big dogs have long been valued, for their protectiveness, their magnanimity and their comforting size. Big dogs often went with big houses, with noble patronage sometimes dictating whether a breed became fashionable or not. In Mastiffs we can read of the Earl of Oxford's 'Lion', the Marquis of Hertford's 'Pluto', Lord Waldegrave's 'Turk' and 'Couchez' and Lord   Altamont's Mastiff 'wolfdogs'. From Lyme Hall in Cheshire, Bold Hall in Lancashire, Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire and Nostell Priory in Yorkshire to Trentham Park in Staffordshire and Hadzor Hall near Worcester, Mastiffs were valued. A comparable story could be told of Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds. The value of companionable smaller dogs may be felt more in smaller houses but spreads much much further.

 Fifty years ago I used to chat to an elderly man who had been a shepherd on Salisbury Plain for most of his working life. He didn't talk about the harshness of the weather, the loneliness of spending whole summers out on the plain or of the eternal difficulties of sheep farming. He talked of his greatly valued and much missed 'Bobtails', his herding dogs. He could recall the names of a score of dogs, especially the one that saved him in a snowdrift and the one that warned him of an unexploded shell. Less dramatically, I once spent three years or so living in a sizeable house with just two sheepdogs as companions. It taught me an enormous amount about dogs. In time, I simply didn't need to instruct them, they read my body language and knew my next move almost before I did!

 For me, that's the greatest value of dogs; they provide something that no other source can; they share their philosophy of life with you and accept yours; they are only interested in external matters and never indulge in self-pity, vanity or the human obsession with appearance. They do suffer from the latter however -- especially the long-coated breeds! This leads me to one of the paradoxes of dog ownership and dog-fancying, to use a Victorian term. Why don't breed clubs value their particular breed? Very few breed clubs have a breed health scheme; not many more have a breed rescue scheme. Surely you 'go into a breed' because you value it more than any other breed. Why then desert that breed on the most important two issues?  

 Valuing a breed surely means knowing what provides it with spiritual contentment and striving to provide at least an element of that need. People who buy a gundog and then expect it to lie in front of the television all day end up with an extremely discontented dog and wonder why. People buy a dog from a guarding breed and then complain that it resents the dustman taking their rubbish away. People buy a small assertive terrier and then express surprise when it resents next door's cat coming into its garden. When their dogs misbehave, they, and sadly so often on their vet's advice, have a male dog castrated, mutilated, in other words. Where is the conclusive definitive scientific evidence to support such drastic action?

 Vets know a great deal about a dog's anatomy, its metabolism and how to treat its wounds and ailments. Sick dogs are of more value to them than healthy dogs, exactly the opposite of us, the dog-owning public. It should be entirely against their code of ethics to wound, intentionally, a perfectly healthy male dog in pursuit of some empirically-unproven theory. I have spent a great deal of my life talking to highly knowledgeable dogmen about dogs, from shepherds to huntsmen, from professional terriermen to service dog handlers and from racing Greyhound trainers to gamekeepers. Not one of them has ever advised castration as a treatment. Now, castration is an automatic precursor to rehoming in most rescue organisations. That is no way to teach a future owner how to respect their dog.

 I know of no primitive people who mutilate their dogs in this way. Educated people should keep in mind Dean Inge's wise words of eighty years ago: "The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values." Neither knowledge of facts nor of values seems to affect attitudes towards the castration of male dogs. Valuing dogs is not some maudlin mawkish over- sentimental act of anthropomorphism. It is a combination of genuine affection, empathetic respect and compassionate care. I have no time for apologists for elderly dog-owners or breeders who indulge themselves with far too many dogs and end up neglecting them when their purely selfish ambition can no longer be supported by appropriate care. The dogs suffer, are not respected and are not valued. Only the misguided owners seem to get sympathy in such cases however, with high profile vets speaking up for them.

 One of the reasons why I do not breed dogs is because I know I could not find homes for the pups where they would be valued. I know of prominent breeders who will happily export dogs to Asian countries where dog is and never has been valued. I was recently offered a Mastiff pup from a breeder, and when I explained I didn't have the facilities for such a breed, he replied "Oh, go on, I've just sold one to someone who lives in a flat."  The Metropolitan Police will tell you of endless n the smallest of flats. The last thought it seems of such owners is the needs of the dog. They can usually tell you the price of the dog!

 Human beings with a hobby can quite often let it get out of hand and lose their way. But it is always a conscious activity. Similarly, some writers on dogs, lose their way and choose to  rubbish well-intentioned campaigners against dogs being bred without regard to their genetic health or physical well-being. The 400 inheritable conditions identified in dogs are perversely compared by them to the 1,000 identified in humans, as though that excuses man, who alone decides dog's fate. Some writers even defend breeds with gross exaggerations, ones that actually inflict discomfort. Dogs bred to a harmful design are clearly not greatly valued, but they are usually highly priced!