by   David Hancock

Breeding Just for Show

 In his valuable two-volume The Dog Book of 1906, the under-rated Scottish writer, James Watson, describes quite scathingly those in the world of purebred dogs who fail to realise that a pedigree is only a piece of paper. He records a conversation with the great Irish Terrier breeder of one hundred years ago, William Graham, who cast his eye over a show entry of his time and declared: 'Some men show pedigrees; I show dogs and take the prizes.' Vero Shaw, the distinguished canine authority of that time, gave the view in a show report that, all too often, the pedigree was worth more than the dog. And to this day, you still hear an indifferent animal excused on the grounds that it 'has a good pedigree'. As James Watson observed: ‘No one with any knowledge of the subject will breed to a dog merely on pedigree...a good dog makes a pedigree good, and not the other way round.  There used to be a saying in dog breeding circles: No animal is well-bred unless it is good in itself. I haven't heard it spoken of as a received wisdom for some years. Much more important than the names on the written pedigree is the ability to 'read' it, translate the names into physical content. As the great Scottish Terrier breeder, WL McCandlish wrote in his book on the breed: 'The names in a pedigree form are merely cyphers, designating certain groupings of features and certain sources of blood, and pedigree is of no value unless the breeder can translate what these cyphers mean.' Yet even some quite experienced dog breeders get dazzled by names on forms, rather than by dogs, supported by blood from distinct ancestors. The eminent canine geneticist Malcolm Willis has written: 'Never does pedigree information become more important than information on the dog itself.'  We must always value dogs that are good in themselves.

Twenty years ago, a dog fancier in the south of England, imported a magnificent example of an overseas breed she admired, as so many Britons have for centuries. She chose well; it was a top-quality dog: imposing, athletic and extremely handsome. It was so physically impressive that a few Mastiff breeders used this import, clandestinely, as a sire. The dog was not just an impressive specimen of his breed, he was an outstanding canine, with wonderful temperament. Then, in 1991, a law was drafted by the Home Office and, on the advice of the Kennel Club, the breed of dog this dog belonged to was banned from our shores. It was a Japanese Tosa. This breed, having been abused by man in his native country, was now to be abused in ours. This blameless dog now had to be castrated and permanently muzzled when in a public place. This is a bizarre way to treat a well-behaved top-quality dog in a civilised dog-loving country. It is a stupid way too of treating valuable genes; it is the genes that have the value, not the breed, and never the pedigree.

A decade ago, the Bullmastiff breeder Claire Ridsdale, produced an outstanding dog, Wyburn Nightcap, a superbly-proportioned extremely handsome brindle canine athlete. She knew I would admire him and arranged for him to be brought to a show where I could see him. He was not entered for the show; he was not the type of Bullmastiff favoured in the show ring. He was a throwback to the old gamekeeper's night-dog, where the breed has its roots. I can understand why this top-quality dog wasn't shown but regret the fact that he would never be bred from, because of this lack of contemporary show type. He would have made a most suitable outcross for Mastiff breeders seeking a reversion to truly typical type in their breed; a strapping Bullmastiff, Tawny Lion, was used to restore the Mastiff after World War II. We really should make full use of outstanding dogs, they produce the blood, not the paper they are registered on; our ancestors bred impressive dogs, not impressive pieces of paper.

Another outstanding Bullmastiff, bred by Antony Buckley (Bogatyr) and now with the Italian Green Dragon kennel, International Champion Bogatyr Rapture of Bunsoro, fortunately has been bred from, possessing great quality and perfect breed type. Such an outstanding dog deserves to feature in the KC publication Illustrated Breed Standards, epitomising the beau-ideal for the breed and exemplifying the words of the written standard. Top quality dogs are a joy to see and deserve wide admiration. I have never seen a better Airedale than those I viewed as a teen-aged 'vet's assistant' in Molly Harbut's (Bengal) kennel over half a century ago. The memory of them however will stay forever in my mind. Top quality dogs are truly memorable. I don't recall written pedigrees.

Loss of Type

 Breeds of dog that cannot consistently produce smooth lines of physical appearance do not breed true to type. The early Bulldog breeders realised this and soon acknowledged its penalties. Breeds like the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Dobermann and the Dogo Argentino, manufactured breeds with more ingredients than the Bullmastiff, now breed more true to type and are rarely coarsely constructed. The Boxer illustrates the fact that a breed can come from a broad-mouthed origin and not be coarse-headed. If you look at the winning Bullmastiffs at successive World Dog Shows – and I have attended 7 - it is becoming apparent that if this trend continues then the breed will have to be renamed 'Pugmastiffs', for that is what these winning dogs were. Over-wrinkled, loose-lipped, massively-boned, heavy-headed, coarse in construction and with no trace of the symmetry required by the breed standard, it is sad to see such wholly undesirable features being rewarded in such a highly visible arena. Veterinary surgeons constantly warn us of the health problems caused by excessively wrinkled skin, too much bone and too wide a jaw. This apart, what is the value of a breed standard if judges ignore it? Just as bad as being coarse in the head is coarseness in the shoulders. Far too many Bullmastiffs display ugly shoulders, lacking symmetry. For a breed to possess these two features so regularly after the best part of a century as a recognized pedigree breed on the Kennel Club's lists is disappointing. So many of the early registrations in the breed lacked this awful coarseness. Where is the logic in extolling the virtues of outstanding dogs of the distant past and then producing dogs in the same breed that look nothing like them?

Mastiff Breed Type

 In a letter to Dogs Monthly in August, 2001, Marguerite Perrenoud, in the Mastiff breed for half a century and whose parents had the breed in the 1930s, wrote: "Different types of Mastiff in the same class is unforgiveable. I must strongly state here there is only one type of Mastiff...In my view the present state of the breed, the incorrect type and poor conformation is serious...If the Mastiff breed clubs fail to act...I feel in less than ten years the Mastiff I have known since childhood will be lost forever!" A year later, the judge at the Blackpool Championship Show concluded: "I have to express concern at the direction in which this fine breed is going. I found many exhibits of incorrect type...Many had weak hindquarters..." In a letter to the Mastiff Association's Newsletter in December 2001, veteran breeder Sylvia Evans wrote, on giving up the breed she loved: "I have been as dismayed as anyone by the inexorable loss of breed type, perhaps more than some, as I was told many times, when I agitated about health problems, that type would suffer if we tried to reduce them. I find it a bitter irony that type has suffered anyway, despite our inertia..." Five years later, the judge at the Old English Mastiff Club's Championship Show, wrote: "I feel very despondent about the quality of the Mastiffs in the country at this time. With only a very few exceptions, there was a definite lack of type and poor movement to be seen."  

Essential Breed Type 

What constitutes true type in any breed of mastiff-type? No breed standard tells you what is essential in each breed; it is for the Breed Council perhaps to set out the breed's stall. Too difficult to obtain agreement, the pessimists would claim. In the Bullmastiff, it varies from kennel to kennel, I was informed by one prominent breeder; so much for breed type! It's all in the breed standard, advised another breed elder; but is it? Why does the standard not state that the nose of a Bullmastiff should be black? The standard tells us that the ears should be 'folded back', but they are not actually desired to be so. What really makes the Bullmastiff the breed that it is? How beneficial it would be, before any all-rounder judged a mastiff breed for that judge to be handed, not just the breed standard, but those essential points which distinguishes the breed of Bullmastiff from say the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Mastiff, the Perro de Presa Canario or the Boerboel. All had a common origin yet have distinct differences, differences that really matter. Is a fawn Boerboel with a full tail not easily confused with a Bullmastiff? Is a brindle Mastiff, 26" at the shoulder, not very very similar to a Bullmastiff? I have seen a Dogue de Bordeaux, with a black nose, looking very much like a Bullmastiff with the same degree of 'wrinkle'. Would a fawn Canary Dog without cropped ears not look like a Bullmastiff?

If the Bullmastiff really is, in that damaging expression, a 'head breed', which of the different heads being presented to show ring judges at the moment, is the one most representative of the breed? If you read 'Exchange and Mart' magazine or attend unofficial bull-breeds' shows or rallies, you will know that Bullmastiffs are being crossed with Dogues de Bordeaux, Neapolitan Mastiffs and American Bulldogs. Bullmastiff devotees may not like it, but it is happening. Unless essential breed type is established for the Bullmastiff, breeders of these hybrids can pass off their pups as purebred Bullmastiffs; plenty of genuine Bullmastiff pups are sold without papers. The breed standard of the Bullmastiff does not mention the word 'mask' and does not stipulate a black nose. It could be argued that a black muzzle brings a black nose with it and that dark markings around the eyes constitute a mask. But why not spell it out and reduce the likelihood of arguments? If the black muzzle is essential, why isn't the black mask too? If the coat should be pure and clear in colour, how can two-tone coated dogs become champions? As they have. If the head typifies the breed, how can dogs win with muzzles far less than one third of the distance from the centre of the occiput to the tip of the nose? The words of the breed standard don't always protect the breed from its own breeders.

The Bullmastiff is expected to have well-boned forelegs but not well-boned hindlegs, yet be symmetrical in general appearance. Show critiques make constant mention of 'great bone' but the standard doesn't. A foreign judge at a 2001 championship show placed a Bullmastiff first in Group 2, stressing its 'outstanding bone'. Was he judging shire horses or a breed designed to be active? Another judge's critique in Feb 2001 stated that: "I found so many which had ultra short muzzles; a number with over-wrinkled skulls and quite a few with loose flews." There are clearly Bullmastiffs being entered for major shows that defy their own breed standard. Do their owners actually know this to be the case?

Favouring a Fault

 One Bullmastiff kennel seems to favour the Boxer-chin and has champions made up carrying this feature. Surely that is untypical? There were several exhibits at the League Spring 2001 show with lurcher tails and brown not fawn coats. No doubt they will be bred from! The breed standard has its faults but is quite specific on coat-colour and tail requirements. The judge at the Manchester 2000 show wrote: "This year marks the 75th anniversary of the KC recognition of the Bullmastiff as a pure-bred dog, yet after all this time there is still such a wide variation in type. In some of the classes I was hard pressed to find two of a kind." At the 2001 World Dog Show, a much younger breed, the American Staffordshire Terrier, attracted an entry which looked as though they had all come out of the same dam, so even was their appearance. Is it just a British inability to breed for type?

One breed council has pioneered a breed survey scheme and tries to grade breeding stock. If amastiff breed like the Bullmastiff is to maintain essential type, perpetuate the classic breed we inherited and not go forward as 'any variety mastiff-type', there is work to be done. The breed council could for example set out the ten essential points which embrace breed-type and persuade clubs to put up prizes for the entrant best encapsulating breed-type. Ah, the destructively-minded will claim: surely the best dogs at the show must encapsulate breed-type. But what if the dogs are judged on 'outstanding bone', have brown coats and lurcher tails? The mastiff breeds can vary, within each breed, more than most; clear information on essential breed type for each mastiff breed is long overdue.           

Breeding for the True Phenotype

  Where are the mastiff breeds heading? At worst they could each be heading for a gene pool in which inheritable defects are being concentrated and in which the short muzzle is being enshrined. The mastiff breeds are relatively short-lived and this needs attention too. If you throw in unacceptably poor movement, then there is an enormous amount to be done within the breed. But by whom? Breed clubs? The Breed Council? By a group of enlightened individuals forming a new breed club? The future of the breed is very much in the hands of present-day breeders, judges and club committees. I do hope that mastiff fanciers of the future will be proud of them.
Finally, whilst my views expressed here are highly individual ones? What are the words of those involved in just one mastiff breed? Take those on the Bullmastiff, for example:

"Each time I judge this breed in the UK, the quality deteriorates...the larger proportion of both dogs and bitches were appalling in movement." Terry Thorn, top UK judge, July 2001.

"Over the years a variety of types and sizes have crept into the breed, which is a pity...Movement overall is not good..." Jean Lanning, leading UK judge, October 1998.

"Decisions on the majority of placings were made difficult by virtue of the enormous variety, in so many aspects of the breed, which have appeared in recent years." Ann Arch, leading UK judge, Breed Show, December 2000.
"I have long been intrigued by the seemingly endless variety of Bullmastiff heads presented to me inside and outside the show-ring." Robert Cole, international expert on conformation, December 1997.
"This year marks the 75th anniversary of the KC recognition of the Bullmastiff as a pure breed.  Yet after all this time there is still such a wide variation in type." Bill Harris, veteran breeder of Bullmastiffs, Manchester Show critique, 2000.

"...I was rather sad to see that there appeared to be as many problems in the breed as there are in Mastiffs. It was quite hard to find anything with all the essentials I was looking for, to find a typical head allied to a good body..." Betty Baxter, top Mastiff judge, February 2001 (judging Bullmastiffs).

Of course, in each and every breed, show ring judges find disturbing flaws; here are some on some other mastiff breeds: Crufts, 2013, Mastiffs – “I saw some pretty awesome movement, a lot of average movement and too much just plain sloppy movement much of which was, in my view, down to lack of exercise…but the worst fault I saw to differing degrees in dog after dog, was narrow, weak and snipey forefaces. This problem seems to have become so pervasive that there is a danger of narrow muzzles becoming the norm and the proper Mastiff head being lost forever.” How do these exhibits actually qualify for Crufts? Poor movement was commented on by the Dogue de Bordeaux judge at the same show: “I was shocked and although a heavy breed with a long low gait, they should still be able to move around the ring more than a couple of times.” Unsoundness is so often revealed when the dog is on the move. The year before at Crufts, the Neapolitan Mastiff judge commented: “I was surprised at how lacking in muscle some dogs were…There were a few with rather deep set eyes and others with haw. The Standard does of course call for a tight eye with no haw and I fear until this is achieved the breed will face problems.” How do dogs that breach the breed standard manage to qualify for the top show? A judge at a championship show that year in this breed gave the view that “One comes across weak hocks in many breeds but the problem in this entry was that the percentage displaying this trait was too high…Head type varied alarmingly…in too many cases the amount of haw was undeniably excessive.” In 2011, at another show, the Mastiff judge reported: “By far the most common faults were lack of rear angulation and weakness in hindquarters with inadequate muscular development…” In 2012, the Great Dane judge stated that: “Soundness in movement continues to be the exception rather than the norm. Long backs combined with poor muscular condition do not help with this seemingly eternal problem.” For a giant breed to exhibit eternally poor muscular condition tells you much about its exhibitors!

Are all these knowledgeable people, quite separately, all wrong? Nearly three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish poet and satirist, wrote: 
"They never would hear, But turn the deaf ear,
As a matter they had no concern in."

Future Needs

 Who is to say that huge hunting dogs will never ever be needed again? When a sizeable meteor hits Mother Earth, with or without warning, man could be reduced to being a primitive hunter once again. Hunters without vehicles, binos and bullets, would quickly become aware of the crucial support big determined hounds could provide in the relentless pursuit of food, in chaotic conditions. Sight-hounds can catch the fleet-footed quarry; scent-hounds can track the hoofed and furred quarry for a hunter to trap but to pull down the bigger sources of food:, stag, boar, wild bull and the fiercer quarry, big brave hounds are needed, as our distant ancestors learned. If such valuable dogs are allowed to drift into being show specimens only, with field performance overlooked, a vital contributor to man's future survival could be lost.
The state of each breed, the condition of the breed, is surely of concern to every genuine lover of the breed. Turning a deaf ear is the coward's way out. The magnificent breeds of mastiff will not improve unless those 'in charge of' each breed take positive steps to safeguard its future. It is no solace for them to hear that other breeds have bigger problems. Each breed is primarily the responsibility of its own fanciers, mainly through its various breed clubs. It should be no chore to look after your own breed. Actions speak louder than words; these are mere words.