636 Survival of Sp Dog
CAN OUR SPORTING DOGS SURVIVE?
Much is made quite rightly of conserving precious old buildings; far less is made of the similar need to conserve our living heritage. The sporting dog is part of Britain's living heritage; in the next decade we could not only lose some of our hounds of the pack, but betray our sporting forefathers by breeding gormless gundogs, timid terriers and supine sighthounds. The threats are manifold: animal welfare activists, financial pressures, demands on land and perhaps often understated, the ignorance of a mainly urban dwelling population on the spiritual needs of sporting breeds. These dogs were not fashioned as companion dogs, however good they may be in that role. They had a use.
As our various breeds of dog were developing, function fashioned form. Breed type often reflected local preferences or breeders' whims, but the phenotype of each breed was decided by function, not by preference or whim. Terrain or country usually decided, in pack hounds, the size of the hound, just as the grouse moor shaped the setter breeds. Colour and coat texture apart, most terrier breeds used as earth-dogs resemble each other. The need for retrievers in the shooting field gave us our highly popular retriever breeds, which were proficient enough to find wide-ranging employment away from the sporting world. A change in the needs of shooting men brought a whole range of HPR breeds to us, as versatility triumphed over specialisation. But whatever their place of origin, every sporting breed developed from use not cosmetic appeal.
My worry is that if country sports were to decline and as fewer dog-owners witness the sporting breeds in action, the threat of spiritual starvation, anatomical flaws and diminishing instincts looms larger. I believe that ideally every dog owner should, firstly be aware of his breed's natural function, secondly go out of his way to allow the exercise of that function in some way and, thirdly, be aware of the anatomy which permits his dog to carry out its original function.
I have the greatest admiration for those who race their Afghans, take their Irish Wolfhounds lure-chasing or start their gundogs on working tests despite their own lack of expertise in this field. When I have judged the latter, it has always struck me how nice these owners were and how contented their dogs were too. It is so good to hear of tracking trials for Bloodhounds, water tests for Newfoundlands and Dalmatians being used with carriages again. Both these two last-named breeds have a sporting background. In America, Airedales have their own specific hunting trials; can we really not do so here? We really should plan substitute activities for our sporting dogs.
I would rather see hunting the 'clean boot' than no hunting at all. I'd rather see Deerhound racing than no Deerhound activity, however unsatisfactory as a fall-back. Whippet racing and hound trailing are established sports but comparable outlets could surely be found for other hound breeds. Some countries run underground, ie subterranean, tests for their terriers, which the dogs hugely enjoy. Bark-pointers, like the attractive Finnish Spitz, need an outlet too, although I'm not too sure we want many puffin nests located by Lundehunds. But naturalists and conservationists have realised how dogs can help them in their work, their scenting skills and remarkable detection of animal movement proving of value.
If sporting breeds are to survive there has to be a planned renaissance, not an abrogation of responsibility for breeds we specifically bred and developed over several centuries to assist us in the sporting field. It would be a major step forward if breed clubs took up this challenge, although I suspect that challenge certificates have more appeal for them. Just as the UKC in the United States fathers a wide range of field activity for dogs, so too could our own KC, extending their field trial and agility interest. Sporting organisations too could cut their losses and diversify their sporting agenda, in the interests of the hounds alone, if only to have the canine ingredients of a rebirth one day, should field sports regain favour. To neglect the best interests of the dogs would be shameful. Positive thinking is called for, not intellectual collapse.
Throughout our social history as a nation, changing attitudes have influenced our use of dogs in the name of sport. Barbaric activities like badger, bear and bull-baiting, rat-killing competitions and dog fighting contests have rightly been outlawed. Nevertheless, we still prize and perpetuate that former canine gladiator, the Bull Terrier, even if some legislators retain the view that once a fighter always a fighter. The spirit behind the trail-hound and Whippet racing, the Bloodhound packs which hunt a human trail, lure-chasing with Irish Wolfhounds and even nocturnal rat-catching in a maggot-factory, as the late Brian Plummer recommended, provides such encouragement for the future of sporting dogs. Perhaps, sadly, the single-issue lobbyists have them too in their sights.
Just over a hundred years ago, the great Bloodhound breeder, Edwin Brough, recorded: "The greatest benefactor to the ancient race (ie the Bloodhound) is the man who breeds intelligently, and supports both trials and shows, but there will always be people who are unable to devote time to both, and the trialer should remember that he will always be greatly indebted to the showman, and the showman should bear in mind that he owes the excuse for his existence to the trialer...
Many sporting breeds have translated to the show ring, as scenthounds of all shapes and sizes, nine sighthound breeds, as many terrier breeds and all the gundog breeds testify. But distinct breeds like the Harrier, the Welsh Hound and the English Basset have not. Already the superbly-bred Dumfriesshire pack has been dispersed and sold, mainly overseas, a very sad loss of world-renowned blood. It is ironic that so many simply outstanding dogs will be lost to us for ever in the name of animal welfare. It is for the democratic process to decide such things eventually, but every sporting dog admirer must realise that this is just a beginning, gundog breeders beware!
For a nation which has given the world a score of distinguished sporting breeds, many of them preferred to the local breeds on sheer merit, we must now work to ensure that all the dedicated work of our forefathers is not thrown away.