by   David Hancock

The first book of mine to be published was entitled Dogs As Companions - it was my attempt to guide puppy-purchasers to the right breed for their circumstances. I included chapters on Town Dogs and Country Dogs and described the instincts of the recommended breeds so that dog-owners could consider the spiritual contentment of their dogs, ideally ahead of their own. I was living in London at the time and wearied of seeing, near my flat, a restless Borzoi kept in a third-floor flat and a hairy Bobtail looking increasingly sad in the tiny park near where its proud owner resided. When I chatted to these two owners, it was abundantly clear that they had simply no idea of the history and function of their chosen breed. But the mutual affection was palpable. I recalled the empathy behind John Steinbeck's splendid man-dog relationship set out in his Travels with Charlie, in which he demonstrated very unostentatiously his regard for his canine companion - and his appreciation of its needs; he respected the latter and so enjoyed his dog so much more. But he didn't once state his 'love for his dog' - so often an empty boast.

 The American essayist Washington Irving, when describing a visit to the great 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 biographer ever could. And I find nothing odd in Sir Walter speaking to his dogs "as if rational companions." There are several telling portrayals of Sir Walter Scott with his loyal Deerhound at his knee. Artists can often capture that almost magical bond between dog and owner, sometimes better depicted when featuring a noblewoman and her dog, but less extravagantly so, but still effectively, when depicting more lowly owners, who often lived closer to their dogs. Ownership isn't just about possession.

My plea to all those concerned with dogs, whether breeders, exhibitors or just owners, for the 21st century, is a simple one: stop saying how much you love your dogs but how much you respect their needs. Dogs have distinct needs and unless we respect those needs we cannot provide a fulfilling, satisfying life for them. We should respect them for what they are and for what they can do. Their needs and the fulfillment of them should concern us. There is a memorial to the horses lost in the Boer War at Port Elizabeth that has the inscription: "The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion."  Compassion comes from respect in the heart. My father used to speak with sadness of the 'sausage boats' that once conveyed our broken-down or no longer-wanted horses to the Belgian abattoirs. But the disposal of racing Greyhounds today leaves much to be desired. It's a breach of common decency. In a 2007 study in Hungary, scientists researched the differences between the relationship with humans of domesticated wolves and, separately, the domestic dog. The principal difference was that dogs replicated the life-long love exhibited in human families, wolves did not. The sadness is that the life-long love of dogs for their owners is not always echoed in the human love for them. Being a dog-lover is so often an idle boast, not a statement withstanding scrutiny.

I find it odd, therefore, for Britain to be described as a nation of dog-lovers. Not easy to define a dog-lover, I know, but easy to give examples of attitudes towards loved dogs. My vet 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. Against that story, I recall one from my own childhood. During the Second World War, after two successive nights of sustained bombing, my father decided that on the third night we should 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 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 mongrel; 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, single-mindedness, the sheer enjoyment of challenging employment. Dogs being used by their owners always look not just more contented but more bonded with their master, whether in the shooting field, being used in a service dog role, on rescue work or as a guide dog for the blind.. 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 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. Working dogs prefer work to idleness - it gives them spiritual release.

When I was a soldier in the Malayan emergency we used Alsatians as anti-ambush dogs and Labradors to track terrorists. Once, in dried-out mangrove swamp, in exhausting circumstances, our Labrador became exhausted and unusually 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 a great deal of discomfort. The dog was part of our team; it could do things we couldn't do and was both respected and valued. Carrying an exhausted, totally-spent Labrador through 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 nearly two centuries ago, respecting dogs and valuing them beats loving them by many a mile.  

BM Levinson, professor of psychology and the director of a child psychiatry unit, wrote half a century ago: "I would like to state that in the year 2000, man will be able through the medium of pets to regain his sensitivity to events occurring in the animal world and to enhance his empathy with all living creatures. He will rediscover the semantic symbols which he used aeons ago to describe his emotions towards nature and towards pets. He will in a sense be a more complete human being." By respecting our dogs, which is more demanding than loving them, we become more rounded people, I am sure. Down the years, my dogs have taught me a lot about dogs and quite a lot about myself. I have long sought mutual respect in my dog-ownership.

But in becoming more respectful towards our dogs and respecting their needs, we need to rattle a few cages. Breeds are important but they are not more important than healthy long-lived pet dogs. A closed gene pool should never instill closed minds. When a closed gene pool is serving a breed and is working, then that is acceptable. But when we breed faulty dogs from faulty genes we need to free our minds and put the interests of dogs, not us, first. We must ask ourselves the key question, do I respect my dog or just my own need for a dog? Dogs have dignity; we need to respect that. Dogs have basic needs of their own, quite distinct from our need of them. The happiest dogs are not the most pampered or the most indulged but those essentially treated as dogs. It is shameful to accept distressing anatomical features in breeds of dog just because those features allegedly constitute breed-type. The quality of life of each individual dog matters more than any breed point. Accepting that is a major way of showing respect - and becoming a genuine dog lover.    

Every survey of homeless dogs tell us that the biggest single cause of dogs ending up in need of a home is temperament, closely followed by bad selection by the new owner. This re-homing isn't always rooted in dodgy temperament but is often created by inadequate socialising when the dog is young and most impressionable. Dogs are nearly always what we make them. But when we breed most pure-bred dogs for looks ahead of anything else, is that the best criterion for an animal destined to be purely a companion? Of course no sane breeder ignores temperament in his litters, but it is definitely not given the top priority it merits. Dogs bred to be ‘game’ or to be hyperactive don’t make the best companion dogs. Uneasy dogs don't make great pets.

We breed exceptionally hairy dogs; ask the staff in welfare kennels to describe the condition of such a dog when it comes into their hands! We breed highly-strung hyper-active dogs, for ever on the qui-vive in the sporting field and in the pastures. Ask kennel staff how difficult it is to find a home for such a dog. We breed dogs with faulty genes, destined to live handicapped lives - or short ones. We will never breed a genetically-perfect dog but there are ways of minimising such a risk. We breed too many dogs; it is just too easy to produce a litter, to sell unsound or poorly-socialised pups and to make money from such a venture. It is easy to condemn a breeder who hands over 160 retrievers to the RSPCA and then retains forty breeding bitches. But just try breaching her 'human rights' by banning such activity!

Our Kennel Club has never been slow to register newly-designed dog breeds, as the Cesky Terrier, the Russian Black Terrier and the Eurasier demonstrate. Kennel club recognition may not be a requirement for dogs not intended to be shown or bred from. But at some stage soon we are going to have to look at the way the domestic dog is bred, the numbers being bred and how the desire to have a companion dog is being met. It is not reasonable to expect animal charities or breed rescue to carry the increasing problem of unwanted dogs; it is not acceptable surely for a nation of dog-lovers to continue to treat dogs so shabbily. The care of dogs in the coming century has to be planned not left entirely to human whim - that is, until such time as direct cruelty can be proved. Such an approach is time-expired.

One day soon, in the world of the purebred dog, kennel clubs will be persuaded to use the power of being the sole body registering progeny, to minimize the breeding of genetically faulty dogs, physically impaired dogs and just too many dogs. One day, not soon enough, we will breed dogs specifically as companions, with the size, coat texture, character and, most important of all, the temperament, to meet owner-needs rather than breeder-needs. Is it fair on dogs for the Dulux paint advertisement to 'sell' so many Old English Sheepdogs to unsuitable homes that 200 a month were once ending up in rescue? Is it fair on dogs for the marketing of toilet rolls to lead to over 40,000 Labradors being bred each year? It is hardly surprising if 160 are handed over to the RSPCA from one breeder alone. We may not be able to control the marketing men. But we could take more steps to prevent reckless breeding. We could also, as marketing men unfailingly do, create a market - for dogs more suitable as pets than so many pure breeds are. 

Not so long ago, I came across, in the morning, a still young heavily-coated likeable Sheltie that was going blind. His owners were finding the heavy coat difficult to manage and the approaching blindness heart-breaking. It wasn't much fun for the dog either. Its litter-mates had the same distressing eye condition too. In the afternoon, I visited the well-known breeder-exhibitor of dogs and horses, Betty Judge, to see her newly-imported dogs. In the yard were a dozen Portuguese Podengos, of the small variety. They were utterly charming, alert, lively but not manic, with weatherproof but easily managed coats, small in stature but not tiny and with quite superb temperament. For many, many people they would make perfect companion dogs, but who can afford to market such a product to the public at large? The pursuit of breeds because some 'celebrity' has one tells you a great deal about human weakness and indifference to the needs of a subject creature. Shame on 'celebrities' for not condemning such thoughtless copying; they clearly don't respect their chosen breed. The favouring of tiny 'tea-cup dogs' is just pure selfishness - and total disrespect for dogs.

I think it is fair to say that we breed far too many sickly dogs; we breed far too few dogs specifically to be companion dogs, despite that market being the greatest. A show breeder, aiming to produce handsome dogs which conform closely to the word-picture set out for the breed, doesn't put character ahead of other assets and all too often gives temperament a lower priority than it deserves. When I mention the importance of a stable predictable equable temperament to breeders of big strapping dogs like Bullmastiffs, Dogues de Bordeaux, Neapolitan Mastiffs and Canary Dogs, both here and abroad, they agree, but then breed from the sharp-tempered champion, rather than the calmer, less aggressive runner-up. But they usually sell most of their pups to pet homes. American Bulldogs are not always given a good press, but when I have judged them, their temperament has been impressive. Matching dog to future home is a vital cog in the future relationship's likelihood of success.

It is worth keeping in mind how the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel came to be re-created. A wealthy American fancier, distraught over the muzzle-less, bulging-eyed specimens of King Charles Spaniel masquerading under that title, offered inducement for the re-creation of a real King Charles Spaniel type. The Cavalier version was developed and has never looked back. It shows that when a breed loses type, one strong-minded committed fancier can change things. Sometimes cross-breeding has to be involved in such change. But the outcome produces a more desired companion dog too; in 2016, over 4,000 Cavaliers were newly registered, against only 84 King Charles Spaniels. Muzzle-less Bulldogs may one day be similarly replaced by the healthier Victorian variety. If you want a Bulldog, why not get one that looks like its real ancestors?

Forty years ago, the distinguished veterinary psychologist, MW Fox was writing: "The breed of dog that a person owns may be a projection of deeper needs and identifications. An insecure or paranoid person may want a powerful guard dog. Another person who is attempting to live up to an ego image of grace and agility may keep an Afghan Hound or a Saluki." The choice should surely rely not on the owner's personality but that of the breed. At the same time Cheshire vet Joan Joshua was writing: "People choose breeds without any thought of their natural working tendencies. Working sheepdogs are popular pets, yet how many appear in veterinary surgeries as pathetic and incurable neurotics because their owners have failed to meet their need to be disciplined, submissive working dogs?"

MW Fox went on to write: "It is important that a potential owner be advised as to the suitability of a certain breed that he feels that he would like. Such 'adoption counselling' would be a great service to the owner."  I believe it would be a far greater service to the dog; it would surely reduce the numbers of unwanted dogs in rescue and welfare kennels at this time. But if someone seeking a companion dog contacts a breed club, I doubt if their needs and circumstances are analysed. The Kennel Club too only supplies a list of breeders in a stated breed. Who is truly going to provide prospective dog-owners with the most valuable advice of all - the best breed for the need? How many puppies are bought because the breed and its needs make it suitable?

All over the country, in rescue kennels and canine welfare centres, there are thousands of dogs longing to be given a real home. Whenever I visit the admirable Blue Cross kennels near me, it is full of lurchers. Lurchers don't always make good house dogs; they are not always cat-friendly. I know of one breeder producing a thousand lurchers a year. He is not breeding companion dogs. One of my neighbours, elderly and quite infirm, who walks with a stick and is physically tiny, was allocated a hyper-active highly-strung Border Collie by a local animal sanctuary. To her great distress the match was, not surprisingly, not a success. The wretched dog was once again returned to the sanctuary to await their next re-homing decision. Such a dog is not an ideal companion dog and is entirely unsuitable for an immobile old lady. All over the country too, in breed-rescue kennels as well as those run by national charities, there are far too many dogs seeking a permanent home, far too many pedigree dogs without a home. We are mistreating dogs simply by breeding too many. We are boasting of our immense love for our dogs without being able to prove it. We are disregarding our duty of care to dogs bred for a specific purpose and frustrated when denied a spiritual outlet. As Steinbeck and Scott demonstrated, mutual respect is vital; companionability is a two-way trip!