by   David Hancock

Depictions of dogs, especially in art, can provide us with important information. By studying historic paintings or prints we can often get a good impression of what ancestor breeds looked like at the various stages of their development as a breed, as well as the activities they engaged in that shaped them through function. Artists' licence needs to be taken into consideration - and their limitations! I find it hard to understand why certain sporting artists are admired when they so often, say, get the size of the rider totally out of proportion to the size of the horse they are riding or when they depict a pack of hounds in full cry with every hound in the same position! The likelihood of every single hound, running at full tilt, having the same forward and rear extension at the same time as its fellows, is unlikely! Why depict them as a marching army keeping step? It may be a good way to convey haste, eagerness and intent but for me it just spoils the whole scene. It comes across to me, not as artistic licence, but individual laziness or a craftsman's limitations.

The invention and remarkable progress in photography has brought a new dimension into dog-portraiture and depiction generally. Photographs can of course be faked but whilst I have never seen a physical flaw captured on canvas, there are sadly more than enough of them on film showing faults, flaws and defects in their subject. If you look at photographic depictions of say Pekingese dogs then the weeping eyes can be wiped but not concealed. I have never seen a painting of this breed revealing weeping eyes, the artist elected to omit them, perhaps to please the painting's commissioner! Similarly with often sunken, sometimes haw-struck, eyes of the Chow, the Basset Hound, the Bloodhound and the St Bernard as well as the excessive wrinkling in these breeds. Paintings of Bulldogs and Mastiffs flatter them, photographs condemn them!

There are absurd depictions too of sporting scenes, plenty of hunting scenes in which the fox is quite visible and close but the hounds, famous for their scenting prowess, going off excitedly in different directions. Fox scent is strong; Foxhounds are specially bred for their ability to detect and then follow this particular scent; once a fox is visible, hounds hunt by sight. It is inconceivable for a fox and a pack to be close to each other, in open ground, and for the hounds to be unaware of the fox's whereabouts. Sighthounds are nearly always depicted in sporting paintings at full stretch, which is understandable, but not when both hounds in the brace are forever in identical physical postures - at full extension. Are these artists just obeying the commissioner's instructions or preferences - or displaying a lack of the skill to convey movement and its variations? Great artists, like Rubens, Desportes and Snyders, manage this, as many old paintings of big game hunting in medieval times show, but hunting in Britain has often been poorly captured by our sporting artists, with some of these depictions proudly displayed as if showing an artist's talents, not limitations, as they do. Not even a North Korean military parade could provide rows of dogs all in step!

Of course, paintings were often done in times when breeds of dog were not as exaggerated in shape as they are in today's show rings. Some early photographs seemed to want to continue the flattery of dogs in their portrayals, but the old adage that the camera does not lie, soon overtakes such a desire. A head shot of a Basset Hound or a Bloodhound cannot hide the excessive leathers and abundance of wrinkling. A head shot of a Bulldog reveals the degree of undershot and the absence of muzzle length. A head shot of a Mastiff or St Bernard reveals the degree of haw and dribble-soaked dewlaps and loose lippiness of the subject. The flat face and wet-eyed heads of Pekes, Griffon Bruxellois  and King Charles Spaniels is soon spotted in photographic coverage, but rarely, if ever, was in commissioned paintings. This is a form of dishonesty. It misleads and it misinforms. I have discussed the exaggerations caught on camera by fanciers of some malformed breeds but been rebuffed by remarks such as 'There are plenty of our dogs not like that!' A silence usually follows when I point out that the photographs being shown are of winners at Championship Shows! Dishonesty can be compounded.  

Sadly, exaggerations in a dog's anatomy become a public concept of their true form, with depictions in TV advertisements persuading the viewer that the image of the breed being projected is epitomises a breed. In this way, a cartoon Bulldog, with no muzzle and protruding canine teeth, is relentlessly used in one campaign, to attract trade but do the breed no favours. Real dogs, used to sell paint and toilet paper, can bring unwanted publicity to a breed, leading to a temporary surge in popularity, and, later, huge problems for breed-rescue as unwanted pets flood back into the 'used-goods' market. Breeds like the Old English Sheepdog and the Golden Retriever have been penalised, in the longer term, by such national exposure. Another cartoon dog, Fred Basset, led the general public to see the Basset Hound as a lovable but legless, long-eared creature with bent legs and loose skin as 'standard'. Even the otherwise loyal hunting fraternity have abandoned this model, with their type, the English or Hunting Basset, healthy, soundly-built with no exaggerations, now surely the future model for this appealing breed.

How a breed of dog is presented to the public, whether on canvas, film or in newspapers as a cartoon, does affect its well-being and indeed its immediate future. Sporting artists of long ago started something when they strove to capture not just a type of dog but its function too. Idealised images convey false impressions; exaggerations can become seen as typifying a breed and the exploitation of attractive puppies to sell a product may sound perfectly reasonable. But in the end, it's the dogs at the receiving end, whether it's harmful exaggerations made acceptable or sudden popularity leading the fickle public to want the latest and soon-to-be-discarded fad-breed. Depicting the dog is never to be taken lightly - whether by artists, advertisers, cartoonists or picture-editors; this 'product' is a living, sentient creature and so vulnerable to man's whims.