543 Gundogs in Show Ring

by   David Hancock

 If you prize our native gundog breeds and have an interest in seeing them perpetuated in their classic mould, then, even if you don't show dogs, it pays to visit a conformation dog show for them from time to time. I would recommend an outdoor show; the dogs enjoy it more and the setting is far more appropriate. For as long as sixty years, I have been visiting the Bath Dog Show, now held at a marvellously rural setting at Bannerdown, between Bath and the M4 motorway. I believe that this location, thanks to the vision of Labrador breeder Geoff Waring and his wife, is now owned by the Bath Canine Society. I first attended as an early-teens kennelboy to a Bath vet, who was also the show vet, in the late 1940s.  I have long been appreciative of the instruction I received on breed-points and the conformation of the dog whilst touring such a show with my employer vet and his fellow Bath vet, Manson Baird, the Deerhound breeder. They would not have been pleased with the 2007 gundog entry at their old show.

 Sadly the foreign gundog breeds were more impressive than ours, although the Weimaraners ranged from oversized specimens to distinct weeds. The Brittanys I admired; the German pointers looked the fittest, especially the wire-hairs; the Spinoni lacked muscular development, which gives any sizeable dog very ugly movement. The Vizslas varied undesirably, some over-boned, some too fragile, with wide variations too in the movement, perhaps because many were stiff-hocked, some were loose in the shoulder and a few were lacking coordination on the move. This can come from a mis-match between the fore and hindquarters, with weakness at the back making the dog pull itself along. It should always be a joy to see a sporting breed moving, without effort, using that appealing slingy action, with real spring in the step, feet hardly leaving the ground, shoulders moving freely and genuine power coming through from the rear. The absence of this in some of our native gundog breeds on display made dismal viewing.

 I don't think I've ever seen so many poor setters in one place, Irish Setters especially. This is such a handsome breed, and when soundly constructed and in top condition, is a joy to observe. The distinctive coat saved some of them from being Salukis! But then some of the Pointers on display resembled dish-faced Greyhounds. The clear lack of muscular development made me wonder if these dogs ever got exercised. The slab-sidedness made me wonder if their breeders themselves had ever strode out across a moor and experienced the lung-power needed for sustained field work. Today's Pointers are Whippets compared to their ancestors, which were much more houndlike and strongly-made. But an even more worrying feature in the Pointers and setter breeds was the presence of upright shoulders. What was truly depressing was to witness dogs being awarded cards with such a handicap. A front action like a carriage horse is not a pretty sight in bird-dog breeds once revered the world over for their stamina.

The spaniels however cheered me up! There were some excellent Cockers, English Springers and a couple of high-class Welsh Springers. It was so good to see minor spaniel breeds, like the admirable Field, the bustling Sussex, the distinctive Irish Water and the handsome Clumber, although I'll never get used to seeing a sporting spaniel at the weight of the show Clumber. The only gundog I saw struggling with the heat was a heavily-skirted American Cocker Spaniel; I really would not wish to take one home after a long day in the mud! I wonder too about the wisdom of breeding a dog with such a deep and abrupt 'stop'; it has never been anything other than a man-imposed feature and I know of no vet who favours it. Does a gundog actually need such a feature? Is it a benefit or a disadvantage? If it is desirable, why does no other gundog breed gain from it?

 The retrievers have long been my favourite gundogs, their popularity is richly deserved but that has its downside. There are some top-class retriever breeders in Britain but the widespread appeal of Labs and Goldies has diluted the quality. A modest retriever breed like the Curly-coat and a workmanlike one like the Chessy always seem undervalued by the public. Such under-rated breeds need our support and would benefit from greater field use. At this show there were some disappointing Flatcoats, a whole ring full of over-coated Goldens and several rings full of overweight Labs. Sportsmen may not be surprised by this but many country dwelling gundog fanciers unacquainted with working stock buy their pet gundogs from kennels willing, it seems, to show off their flawed dogs to the world in this way; what ever happened to 'show condition', or, for that matter, owner-pride?

 Thinking I might have been over-critical, a day or so after the show I went into my archives and consulted the critiques of the gundog judges at Crufts in recent years. The Kennel Club boasts that here you find the best of the very best; what did their appointed judges report? Here are some judgements: Crufts 2004, Weimaraners - "...so many of the dogs were in soft condition and lacked muscle tone...short steep upper arms were the norm". Flat-coats - "We still have too many upright shoulders, short straight steep upper arms...Mouths are another big problem..." IWS - "I found too many short necks, upright shoulders..." Sussex Spaniels - "How do some exhibits get past judges?" American Cockers - "I was dismayed to find so many poor fronts..."

 These are the dogs which would have been the parents of the exhibits I saw in 2007; their faults are being perpetuated. If Crufts is reckoned to be the place to find excellence, the judges seem to have difficulty in doing so. Crufts 2005, Flatcoats - "...bad mouths and poor construction were only too evident..."  Welsh Springers - "Movement varied from being correct and positive to downright unsound. This is due almost entirely to bad construction. Short upper arms, no depth of chest..."  Crufts 2006, Clumbers - "Truly I was disappointed by the number of unsound exhibits..."  Labrador dogs - "I was appalled at what some people had qualified..."  In other words, there were dogs at Crufts without quality. After the 2007 show, judges in five gundog breeds reported poor movement. No doubt such exhibits are to be bred from and their faults passed on.

 It is lazy thinking to argue that sportsmen know where to get a good gundog, so what's the problem. Our famous gundog breeds deserve the loyal support of knowledgeable dogmen and should not be abandoned to show ring incompetents. Of course there are really good British gundog breeders, quite capable of producing outstanding dogs. But what about the mainstream system for perpetuating the gundog breeds, our native gundog breeds especially? I saw better Flatcoats in Finland a few years ago than those at the Bath show. But their breeding system and judging method is so superior to ours; it clearly produces better dogs. And so we muddle on, with the Kennel Club boasting about 'the best of the very best' being on parade at Crufts, despite what their own judges are saying. Perhaps every gundog breed needs to mirror the work of the Working Clumber people, the satisfaction of seeing a working anatomy restored in so many breeds would surely delight the heart of any true gundog devotee.